Donna Eychner and Eric Hamby

Above: Donna Eychner and Eric Hamby

Grading papers is a big chore for teachers. But Xerox’s Ignite service aims to reduce that time so teachers can concentrate on understanding learning patterns and providing focused help where it’s needed.

The service automates the process of grading hand-marked papers, as long as the teachers use a format that is friendly to Xerox’s digital document process. Teachers use forms that can be scanned into a multifunction printer and then uploaded to Xerox. Then Xerox uses an automated process to grade the paper and send the results back to the teacher. The service is smart enough to be able to recognize hand marks such as coloring in a section of an image, so it is more versatile than typical multiple-choice test scanners. It can grade a stack of tests in minutes.

“We want to support teachers with the right information at the right time to address individual students,” said Eric Hamby, principal scientist and program manager at the Xerox Research Center Webster in New York, speaking at a presentation at the Xerox-owned Palo Alto Research Center in Palo Alto, Calif., last week.

Ignite is in its pilot stage now in kindergarten through sixth grade classrooms. It can manage data and provide real-time feedback that helps educators and parents understand what to do with the data. It can, for instance, reveal that most of the students in the class are getting stuck on a particular concept. That means the teacher might want to go over it again in class, Hamby said.

This kind of technology could help the U.S. public education system, and it’s a lot better than the old systems (like Scantron) that simply scored multiple-choice tests.

“What Ignite does is take that to a whole new level,” Hamby said in a follow-up phone interview with VentureBeat. “We capture more of the natural marks that students make, and it’s part of the natural work flow that teachers create in their own assessments.”

Teachers can use Ignite to create their own image-friendly assessment documents. The image character recognition software looks for “hot spots” within the document where students are expected to write answers.

U.S. teens are 25th among their peers from 34 countries in math, and they’re in the middle of the pack in science and reading. Xerox recognizes that paper is still the primary medium that educators use, and this technology helps provide a bridge to the digital realm, said Donna Eychner, vice president of operations and school support at Xerox Business Services.

“We get the data off the page and harness it with the power of analytics,” Hamby said.

The scanners aren’t too big a cost for schools. Most schools typically have one multifunction copying device in the office. Such devices have scanners and are typically connected to the web. The teacher feeds the papers into the machine. It scores them and tells the teacher when the work is done. The teacher can doublecheck the scores and override them on a computer if necessary, by logging into the Ignite web portal. The automatic grading saves time, but so does the creation of analytics information, which allows for more personalized instruction, Hamby said.

“They can then differentiate the instruction, based on results,” Hamby said. “We think it is simple, easy to use.”

A number of school districts are using it, including the Penfield Central School District in New York, the Webster Central School District in New York, and the DeWitt Elementary School in Webster, N.Y. Hamby said some teachers are saying that Ignite’s analytics actually save them more time and allow them to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t have time for.

If the beta goes as planned, Xerox can formally launch Ignite for the 2013-2014 school year. Xerox hopes to work with the creators of school assessments so that Ignite can accurately capture handwritten marks on a wide variety of tests. The fee is not nailed down yet, but it is expected to be about $15 per student per year, plus a set-up fee — in the range of $10,000 to $20,000– that is dependent on complexity. For that fee, Xerox will include set-up of 100 unique assessments, access to the database of 1,000 existing assessments, and customer service.