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USF Business, English Researchers Team Up to Create Educational App

Interdisciplinary project is awarded $50,000 NSF Innovation Corps Grant

TAMPA, Fla. (Mar. 10, 2016) – Researchers and students at the University of South Florida have developed an online learning tool that some people think may change the way English courses are taught. And now the National Science Foundation grant has rewarded USF with a $50,000 grant from its Innovation Corps program, which aims to help universities turn research discoveries into viable products.

The grant will be used to help the USF team – which includes an English professor, a business researcher, and a student – as they identify and test the commercial appeal of My Reviewers, an e-learning tool with a full suite of teaching and assessment tools. Using cloud-based storage, users can quickly and easily review student work and provide feedback. As students revise and edit their writing, faculty can link to videos that provide details about a particular topic, or, when addressing common problem areas, provide consistent feedback by dropping and dragging advice from a custom frequent-comment library.

Joe Moxley, a professor in the USF College of Arts & Sciences, came up with the idea, inspired by his desire to better understand what causes some students to struggle in writing composition courses. Moxley aspired to help USF writing students improve their skills while making it easier for instructors to provide feedback or uncover common problem areas. Now, at USF, nearly 15,000 students use My Reviewers each year.

A secondary need, he said, was that USF wanted a better way to gather real-time data for accreditation, program assessment, or research. With My Reviewers, administrators can compare student performance in a specific semester to prior semesters using data from every instructor who teaches a class. They can then look for patterns that may indicate areas where changes in curriculum could help students learn better.

But the app does more than just collect after-the-fact data. It can identify students who aren't doing well early, particularly those who have recurring problems. That, Moxley said, can help instructors in real-time.

"It helps us identify students who need extra help and helps us determine what kind of resources may be needed to help them succeed," Moxley said.

Eric Eisenberg, dean of the USF College of Arts & Sciences, said the program is one of the most comprehensive and innovative learning platforms for writing in the world. It has fundamentally changed the way writing is taught and assessed, he said.

"We're using data to help English and composition students improve their writing," Moxley said. "This is the future of education."

USF's business school is building a national reputation for excellence when it comes to data analytics and creative ways to use data to solve problems. This project combined those "left-brain" skills of business researchers with the "right-brain" skills necessary in English composition or writing courses.

"This is a great example of the power of 'big data'," said USF Muma College of Business Dean Moez Limayem, an expert in business intelligence and data analytics. He points out that by thinking creatively, this team has figured out how to aggregate information related to common writing issues.

"Data is powerful but it takes creative thinking like this to extract meaningful information from it," said Limayem, adding that he is proud of the interdisciplinary aspect of the project.

"An English professor saw the need, had an idea, and reached out to his colleagues in the information systems area to help solve it," Limayem said. Equally important, he added, they involved students in the process.

Moxley says student involvement has been key. Management information systems students wrote all of the coding that transformed his idea into reality.

"We wouldn't be anywhere without the MIS students," he said. "We are really indebted to that group. ISDS Professor Manish Agrawal helped us find some of the best student coders out there, and they are the ones who helped us build this robust program," he added.

The Innovation Corps program is a public-private partnership that requires grantees to form teams that include the idea generator (the principal investigator), a student entrepreneurial lead, and a faculty mentor. Together, they identify valuable product opportunities and conduct research to see what it might take to bring the product to market. Muma College of Business DBA Program Director Matt Mullarkey is the mentor and English M.A. student Natalie Kass is the entrepreneurial lead.

Mullarkey was drawn to the program because he views it as an example of research with impact, a strategic priority for the business school. With his guidance, Kass will conduct market research and complete an industry analysis to determine what it what it might take to bring the product to market. She plans to interview leaders in 100 companies.

Because My Reviewers has gained attention from other universities – the group is partnering with groups of students at the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to test the app – she will start with the higher education and online learning industries. But Kass says her research will go beyond higher education.

"Because this tool includes document mark-up, peer review, and a community comments section, I think it has the potential to go beyond one marketplace," said Kass. She envisions architectural firms, law firms, or any business that has significant technical writing elements using the tool.

The team will complete testing and market analysis over the next seven weeks and will report their findings to both USF and the National Science Foundation. Kass said that if all goes well, that could be a career-changing moment.

"I came to USF to learn how to become a technical writer, but I might end up following this should it become a viable start-up," she said.