Catching Up With Quick Key, The App That Helps Teachers Grade Faster And Better

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Back in February, we wrote about a smartphone app for school teachers called Quick Key, the low-fi demo video that had just gone viral. The app’s optical scanner quickly grades SAT-style bubble answer sheets, uploads the results to teachers’ electronic grade books, and runs analytics on the data. We caught up with co-founders Walter O. Duncan IV and Isaac V. Van Wesep to see how things have been going in the new school year.

John Biggs: You recently launched. How has the app been doing?

Walter O. Duncan IV: We officially launched on August 27th, 2013, which is one year and 27 days after we formed the company. We are now in what we are calling the ‘public beta’ phase: a chance to put the app through its paces with professional teachers and real students around the world.

We have been adding around 800 students per day since we launched. I don’t know if that’s a lot or not, but the main thing we look at is whether teachers and kids are getting the most from the app. If Quick Key is helping them do their jobs, then I am doing mine, I guess.

JB: What inspired you to do this?

WD: The only surefire way I have found to improve student performance is by using formative assessment to measure how much of the day’s lesson my students have mastered. When I do this I can track student performance without teaching to the test and without making my class a worksheet factory. Students hate worksheets! Worksheets lack creativity, and they are artless. I needed a tool to help me track data from my lessons and apply the results to my practice in real time to benefit my students.

Additionally, I have been known to do some outside-of-the-box lessons with my students, having data to back up my practice gives me more leeway with administrators who are more and more concerned with student performance on high stakes exams. I needed data (proof) to support my argument for more freedom to practice project based learning as well as other non-traditional methods of teaching in a high stakes test obsessed culture.

JB: Are you still an educator? A programmer? And entrepreneur?

WD: Quick Key started with a conversation. I was talking to my good friend (and co-founder) Isaac D. Van Wesep about technology in the classroom, and I was ranting, and I said something like, “…I just wish my iPhone could scan my daily exit tickets” and Isaac (who is an entrepreneur) stopped me and said “Really? And how would that change things for you as a teacher?” At the time, I was just starting my 15th year in the classroom.

A year later, Isaac and I have assembled a slightly bigger team: a former student of mine, who is now a junior at UC Berkeley and a software developer, built the web app for us, and a friend of his (also a student at Berkeley) has been helping out too. These guys are young and sharp, and I love it that one of my former students is on the team.

JB: Why are they still using those stupid Scantron sheets? Isn’t there a better way?

Isaac D. Van Wesep: Scantron has a place in the world of high stakes standardized testing and big data, which is a growing force in education, globally. We are trying to give teachers the tools and the power to survive in this environment. We believe the best teaching is creative and engaging, and ensures student mastery. Some people look at how Quick Key works and, especially if they’re not teachers, they think, “Oh no, that’s just more multiple-choice testing.”

But focusing on the kind of assessment misses the point of what Quick Key assessments are meant to do. Professional teachers know that Quick Key’s raison d’être — frequent formative assessment — is the No. 1 tool creative teachers have for making sure every student has mastered the material…before it’s too late. Quick Key tells you who or what needs attention now, and allows agile, personalized instruction.

At Quick Key we started using the term Micro-Data: the data from short, frequent assessments that tell you whether a student has mastered the material. Quick Key lets you get and analyze your lesson’s Micro-Data in minutes. Micro-Data gives teachers the power to stay creative, to leverage their experience and passion, and engage their students, even as standardized testing exerts increasing pressure to “teach to the test.” Quick Key is all about giving educators the power to teach great, personalized lessons in a world of standardization.

JB: How many downloads did you get?

IVW: We launched right before September 1st. Now it’s almost October. As of September 29th we are serving 24,138 students and 1,542 teachers in more than 30 countries around the world. That’s around 800 students per day. We have seen some benchmarks from other ed-tech startups in Boston, and I am definitely pleased with these numbers. But as much pressure as there is to get downloads, that’s not where we are spending our energy and money right now.

We are in public beta, talking with users, and updating the software on both platforms (web and iOS). In 30 days we went from 30 solid beta testers using Quick Key in summer school to 1,500 teachers using it in real classrooms worldwide. That was a huge shift. So this month it’s been all about updates. We just added a feature that lets you set up all your student and class information straight from your school’s existing electronic grade book. It takes about two minutes to do the whole process. That was a big improvement.

We are basically working under the philosophy that if the app is good, and we are always making it better, and we are actively, thoughtfully engaging with our users, then the rest will take care of itself. Of course, this philosophy works very well when your services are free! We won’t start asking users to help pay for Quick Key until we know they are getting what they need from the software.

JB: Who is downloading it?

WD: In our last financing round, some of our investors wanted to see user testimonials. We made a video montage of clips from our beta testers. The video shows the diversity: college professors, K-12 teachers, learning coaches, administrators, curriculum directors. Twenty-five percent of our users live and work outside the United States, across more than 30 countries including Mainland China, India, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, South Africa, Australia, Thailand, and most of Europe and the Americas.

JB: How has this app helped teachers?

WD: Our users have been telling us on a regular basis how they are implementing Quick Key. The majority have said it helps them save time and improve their instruction. Additionally, there have been some surprises! Teachers are reporting that as they go around the room scanning student assessments, students are excited by the process and upon seeing their errors, immediately inquiring as to what they misunderstood. Quick Key is helping teachers teach and helping students engage in the learning process.