When thousands of American K-12 students wrote essay answers to their exams last spring, they almost certainly could not imagine these essays would be sent across continents to Kenya. Normally, teachers read and rate these responses, labor that's time-consuming and expensive. But this year, DDD Kenya and a recent client-partner, Open Education Solutions (Open Ed), collaborated on a project that paired innovations in software development with the skills of our Kenyan operators. The result? A potential shift in the way essays and themes are assessed.
Here’s how it worked: Open Ed, a blended learning systems provider, staged a competition for software developers to devise a fair and dependable automated program that grades written answers penned by students. The $100,000-prize competition, with the support of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, sought to solve the problem of time-consuming and expensive hand grading of essay answers. At present, many states have settled for multiple choice-type tests citing time and cost savings. However, these exams have limitations in their ability to properly evaluate students' reasoning and writing skills. Software that can grade essays would allow teachers to spend less time on arduous hand-grading and free up more time to focus on nurturing their students’ skills.
OpenEd needed a data pool of essay answers to be able to judge the reliability of the competing applications. Their partners in the project were a team of young men and women working at DDD Kenya. The scope of the task was daunting: 18,000 handwritten essays (ranging in length from 75 to 250 words) had to be transcribed for the data pool. As a control, the essays had been hand-graded by teachers. The team had to preserve all the errors, keeping misspellings and grammatical mistakes so that scores generated by the software could match the hand-graded ones. DDD Project Manager, Stephen Muchami, was conscious of how complex the task was. “Some of the handwriting was particularly hard to read. But the whole project was a great exercise for the team. They sharpened their talents in many areas that will only positively impact their work at DDD: their English, reading and writing skills all improved considerably.”
In short, the competition was a success. Tom Vander Ark, CEO of OpenEd said, “DDD was a sound business choice among the providers we considered to undertake the massive task of transcribing the handwritten essays. But what sealed the deal for us was the belief we share with DDD – that education is the silver bullet that makes real, effective change wherever you are. At OpenEd, we cultivate innovations in education, while DDD does innovative work in the developing world, providing youth with jobs and an education. It just made the choice that much easier.”