Investors Write $3.2 Million Check for Writing Startup That’s All About...

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Investors Write $3.2 Million Check for Writing Startup That’s All About Peer Feedback

By Tony Wan     Aug 22, 2018

Investors Write $3.2 Million Check for Writing Startup That’s All About Peer Feedback

If I were to use Writable to create a rubric for writing and grading funding announcements of the type you typically see on EdSurge, it might look something like this:

Screenshot of assignment rubric in Writable

The K-12 writing-support tool is not (currently) designed for publications covering startups and venture capital. Yet many of the tool’s pre-set rubrics—citing credible sources, grouping related ideas and clearly stating a thesis, for instance—cover best practices that apply across disciplines and professions.

Founded in 2016, Writable offers tools and templates that scaffold the writing and feedback process to help students become stronger writers. “It’s hard enough for us adults to start from a blank Google Doc,” says Heidi Perry, co-founder of Writable. “Students especially need that scaffolding support as they move through the writing process.”

It’s a problem thesis that has convinced others to write (a check, that is), including Omidyar Technology Ventures, which is leading a $3.2 million seed round for the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company.

For teachers, Writable’s web-based tool offers customizable templates for common writing assignments (such as an argumentative or cause-and-effect essay, or a personal narrative). Each template comes with pre-set grading rubrics that can be edited and modified; teachers can choose from a rubric bank of more than 1,000 items or import their own.

Teachers can select how the feedback process will unfold. Students can do a self-reflection upon finishing the draft, and also engage in anonymous peer-reviews of each other’s work. The system guides pupils through how to offer constructive feedback to their peers.

Screenshot of peer feedback on Writable

Supporting peer review is a critical component of the tool, according to Perry, because “when you have to pick apart someone else’s writing and give productive feedback, it can help you become a better writer.” Writable can be most effective, she adds, when teachers and students incorporate feedback as a regular part of writing workflow. “Getting feedback early on can help build the mindset that revisions are not the enemy.”

As the writing and feedback process unfolds, teachers can see a dashboard that shows how the class is progressing overall, and see how students are evaluating each other based on the assignment rubric. It will also flag situations that warrant closer attention, such as instances where a draft receives starkly contrasting feedback from different students.

As much as Writable aims to make the feedback process more efficient, learning to become a strong writer ultimately involves dialogue and debate with peers, says Troy Hicks, an English professor at Central Michigan University who advises the company. “Writing is a conversation, and that’s why it matters for students to give feedback to one another, and use that feedback to improve their own writing.”

Where Writable has focused on facilitating interactions between people, other writing tools are taking a more tech-driven approach. Today, tools like Grammarly are tapping artificial-intelligence technology to spot-check a piece and offer suggestions related largely to grammar, syntax and diction. Other companies like Turnitin and WriteLab have turned to machine-learning technology to automate writing feedback.

There’s certainly a need for spelling and plagiarism checkers, says Perry, especially to support instructors who have to grade stacks of papers in a short period of time. But when it comes to substantive questions like “how you set up a thesis or frame an essential question, so far no one but a human can say whether you have a strong point, or ‘here’s how you can do it better.’” She says Writable does not currently use machine-learning technology.

Writable has been used in more than 1,000 schools. For now, the startup doesn’t have a full-fledged sales team (there are 9 employees), and it is courting others to help distribute and sell the product. It’s notched one notable partner: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which is also investing in this seed round. The education publisher will integrate Writable as the writing platform for its digital English & Language Arts curriculum for grades 6-8. Writable is also available for standalone purchase for $5 to $7 per student per year.

Writable’s approach to supporting writing instruction is not entirely new. Providing scaffolds for writing assignments and helping teachers and students through the feedback process was also what Citelighter, a startup based in Baltimore, attempted to do. That company was acquired by Sylvan Learning, the tutoring franchise, last year.

The core team behind Writable has been together since 2011, when they founded another startup, Subtext, that offered tools that let teachers embed quizzes and other content into digital texts. That company was sold to Renaissance Learning in 2013, and only a few years passed before the team felt the itch to start this next edtech venture.

(So, how did I do against my own rubric?)

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