This startup pushes technology into schools with paper and pen

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The website home screen for Bakpax is displayed on a laptop computer in an arranged photograph on Sept. 16, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Gabby Jones.

Millions of kids in the U.S. headed back to school this month and most of them will be spending at least part of their class time remotely, relying on computers, tablets and fast broadband to connect with teachers.

In thousands of schools across the U.S., though, teachers are using a small technology startup to preserve some of the more analog aspects of classwork during the pandemic. Bakpax Inc. makes a mobile app that kids can use to take a picture of homework completed using pencil and paper then upload to get instant grades and feedback. Some 50,000 teachers are using the tool, including in Europe and South Korea.

“Paper is still the universal platform for learning,” said founder and Chief Executive Officer Jose Ferreira. “Until devices can cost a few dollars, that’s not going to change — even in rich countries like the United States.”

Bakpax, which also has an online interface, teaches itself to score, based on the various ways students arrive at the same answer. It also gives teachers a broad view of how the class is doing, what it’s struggling with and where students need more help.

The startup is part of a wave of companies that are using technology to try to ease the burden on instructors, harness data to improve teaching methods and even make learning more fun for students. But many educators — and parents — are wary of too much technology, arguing that it can’t replace face-to-face instruction. The covid-19 pandemic has forced technology into the classroom, however, and there are signs it won’t go away once kids are back in the building.

In the first half of 2020, investors poured $4.5 billion into education-technology startups globally, the second-largest amount over a six-month period in the past decade. Investment is poised to exceed the full-year record of $8.2 billion in 2018, according to research firm HolonIQ. The forced shift to remote learning has catapulted small ed-tech companies from obscurity to the front of the class, positioning them to benefit from a more digital learning environment that many teachers believe is here to stay.

Tools from startups like ClassDojo, EdPuzzle, Seesaw Learning, and Classkick made the remote learning shift easier, teachers said.

“People who haven’t been focused on ed-tech don’t understand how much enterprise value is being built behind the curtain,” said Tory Patterson, managing director at Owl Ventures, one of Bakpax’s backers. “That’s going to rapidly change as companies start going public or getting acquired for very big numbers– there’s a big wave coming.”

Bakpax, which Ferreira runs from his home in New Jersey while his 28 employees work remotely, has raised more than $6 million from education-technology fund Owl Ventures, Tribeca Ventures and Obvious Ventures. Ferreira, a former executive at Kaplan Inc., also founded an adaptive-learning company in 2008, called Knewton. The company built software into online classes to track how students learn, from what they clicked on to how long they sat idle.

Bakpax was started in 2017 and spent more than two years in testing mode. The app launched officially in March, just when thousands of schools sent their kids home to shelter in place and finish the academic year online. Many schools across the U.S. are continuing with either remote learning or a hybrid model. Bakpax, which normally would make money by charging a subscription fees — from $8.99 to $12.99 — decided to waive them for the rest of this year. Word of mouth among teachers helped spread appreciation for the app.

Carla Corbin, a math teacher at New Richmond High in Ohio said providing quick feedback to students is a challenge because of the grading burden. “When you have to grade seven problems for 100 students, it’s just not practical.” She’s been using Bakpax since July and says her students like the program too. They find the app less intimidating than Pearson Education’s MathXL platform which she used in the past. Though initially intended for math and science teachers, Bakpax can be used in other subjects including social studies, English, and foreign languages too.

For now Bakpax is working individually with teachers rather than through entire school districts, though it says about 10% of teachers refer it to principals or department heads that inquire about school-wide accounts. Bakpax’s software is compatible with the ubiquitous Google Classroom, which has seen users double during the pandemic to 100 million. With Google Classroom, kids can access their Bakpax account directly with their Google login. The software is also integrated with Microsoft Teams and will be compatible with other education platforms like Canvas and Schoology over time, Ferreira said.

Bakpax isn’t without its flaws and teachers say it can incorrectly grade problems, not recognize certain letters or numbers, or have difficulty with multiple choice questions. But the instantaneous grading and data on students’ performance overrides the “kinks and quirks,” said Kelsey O’Toole, another math teacher at New Richmond High.

While the school has re-opened with in-person instruction, O’Toole said she is adamant about keeping her classroom running with online tools so they can be prepared if they suddenly have to revert to remote learning again.

“It’s not our decision anymore, it’s happening,” O’Toole said. “Teachers are going get steamrolled if they can’t take a minute to learn something new.”

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