University spin-out secures investment for AI-based teacher marking system

6 Bit Education, a company spun out of the University of Birmingham, has received investment to pilot an AI-based marking system that learns how maths, physics and statistics teachers give feedback, so they never have to mark the same answer twice.

This Seed Investment, from a fund that was introduced to 6 Bit by University of Birmingham Enterprise, will enable the company to fast-track its ambitions and get the system ready for adoption by universities and secondary schools, where it is expected to reduce the workload of time-pressured teachers.

The system is the brainchild of staff and post-graduate students from the university’s theoretical physics department, where PhD programmes include opportunities to teach first year students and mark their work.

They realised that homework is a chore for both students and the teachers who have to mark answers and provide feedback to the same questions for each student.

Post-graduates Manjinder Kainth, Robert Stanyon, and George Bartlett set out to solve this problem and worked alongside university teaching staff Dr Austin Tomlinson, Dr Jon Watkins, and director of education, for the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, Prof Nicola Wilkin to develop the 6 Bit solution.

Stanyon’s thesis includes designs for the algorithm that identifies where the student’s workings deviate from the correct method, and provides step-by-step feedback showing the right way to reach the answer.

The 6 Bit platform accepts both hand-writing and digital submissions, and provides step by step colour-coded feedback, that shows where the mistake is, and the next steps in the calculation, as well as where marks have been deducted for incorrect method.   This annotated version is checked over by the teacher before sending back to the student.

Kainth, who is now the CEO of 6 Bit Education, said:  “One of the most important parts of learning is getting feedback, and reacting to that to grow over time.  Providing that feedback is extremely expensive.  Universities spend £2.3bn a year paying post-graduates to give feedback, and school teachers spend 8 hours/week of their personal time grading and giving feedback.  Grading takes away from other, more valuable teaching activities such as face to face contact, and is the leading cause of teacher exit.”

6 Bit also produces a summary that shows where students commonly make mistakes, so teachers can adjust their lesson plans and concentrate on these areas in the future.

The 6 Bit team tested the system in their own teaching at the University of Birmingham, and found it reduced marking workload by up to 84% in the first year of use.  They now plan to run pilots at Universities where 6 Bit marking will be compared with traditional marking.

6 Bit’s long term plans are to enter the secondary education market, where the impact of teacher workload is keenly felt.

Kainth added: “40% of teachers quit within 5 years of starting in the profession – and workload is the most commonly cited reason.  We are currently looking for schools who want to partner with us as we roll out our offer into secondary education.”

Dr James Wilkie, CEO of University of Birmingham Enterprise, said “We’ve spent many years building up an expert team to help people create new business opportunities.  We’re very pleased that this has helped 6 Bit secure their first investment.”

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