David is founder and CEO of Peergrade, a Danish edtech startup which facilitates peer assessment. He tells us how the product is inspired by his teaching experience at Technical University of Denmark.
How would you describe Peergrade?
It’s a peer assessment solution. Instead of having one teacher having to distribute their time between the students, you have students teaching each other. The teacher becomes a facilitator and moderator of a student-to-student teaching process.
There are two versions of Peergrade. There’s a free-to-use version for teachers and a paid-for version for institutions. The institution version features integrations with learning management systems and extra support.
Where did the idea come from?
I’m studying a PhD in Machine Learning at the Technical University of Denmark. A few years ago, I was teaching a class of 20 students. It was very manageable. Everybody was happy and knew each other.
At the start of a new year, I put ‘big data’ in the title of the course – never do that, it’s too much of a buzzword. Suddenly, 150 students signed up to the class.
With the increase in size, I had to change that way I lectured. I also had to change the way I assessed the students because you can't give feedback in the same way when the numbers increase by so much.
I had taken some online courses on Coursera and liked how it lets students provide each other with grades and feedback. I wanted to do this in my class, but I had no tool to allow me to do so.
I decided to build something for myself. Once I had a working version, my PhD supervisor started to use it. More and more people steadily came on board. Today we have lots of people around the world using Peergrade.
What are the educational benefits of peer assessment?
On an average university or high school course, the amount of feedback provided to students is very low. In many cases, students just get a grade with no feedback at all.
Whereas with Peergrade the average student gets 1,000 words feedback. They usually receive it a couple of days after they've handed in their assignment. So that’s much more feedback and much faster.
The best way to learn is to teach. If you want to teach someone something you really have to understand it. Peer assessment is a learning-intensive process that encourages critical thinking. It’s something students find challenging but very motivating.
Where is Peergrade being used?
We initially focused on Denmark, where we know the market, and we now have all of the universities in the country using the institutional version. We have other universities in the Nordic countries using it as well.
The free version for teachers is used all over the world, from Mexico to New Zealand to Taiwan. Most of our customers are universities and university tutors, although we plan to apply more focus to high schools this year.
Is it a challenge to get teachers to use Peergrade?
It can be. Universities tend to overcomplicate processes and overestimate the problems that might arise by using another software product. That means we have to integrate with everything.
What’s also challenging is that before teachers can use Peergrade they will often have to change their course structure and the way they teach. They have to give up some of the responsibility to students, which is a bit scary at first.
What have been the other main challenges so far?
Timing is a bigger problem for us than it is for many other edtech startups. If a teacher wants to use a chat system, for instance, they could introduce it on the first day of the course. They can just plug it into the course and it doesn't have to synchronise with anything.
Whereas if you want to use Peergrade, you have to know well in advance so you can plan your teaching materials. That’s particularly true in higher education, where courses and lectures are pre-planned well before the course starts.
Sometimes we'll have teachers who say “I love Peergrade and I can't wait to use it for my course next year”. They're planning to use it in one-and-a-half year’s time: the company itself has only existed for one-and-a-half years!
In high schools, timing is not such a problem. Teachers can start using Peergrade immediately because they haven’t had to tell students how the course is going to look months in advance.
How was Peergrade involved in the Nordic Edtech Conference?
I travelled around the Nordic countries in 2016 and I met with the Swedish and Norwegian edtech clusters. This made me realise that there's no Danish edtech cluster, and no organisation to lobby on the behalf of Danish edtech. This led us to decide to put a conference together in Copenhagen, with Peergrade as the main organiser.
We hope there’ll be another one this year. We’re talking to the Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish edtech clusters to see if we can work together and expand the conference. We’d like it to move from country to country if possible.
How do you hope to develop Peergrade in the future?
I hope our future is big and bright. Our main goal at the moment is to get Peergrade into the hands of as many teachers as possible. We want to become the best peer assessment solution out there.
Our goal isn’t to build a learning management system. That's written on the wall here. We want to do one thing and do it perfectly. I think having a narrow focus will be a trend you’ll see lots of companies adopt. I think it will be popular not only across edtech but in lots of other industries as well.
Read our full series of edtech interviews here.
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