Ed Tech #4: Packback

What is it?

This week, I chose to review Packback. Packback started off as an e-textbook rental company, and was awarded an investment by Mark Cuban on Shark Tank in 2014. (This article is an interesting read). As the article discusses, Packback recently switched gears to something entirely different: its new mission is to encourage curiosity in college students; it uses AI to “grade” curiosity.

How does it work?

Professors create a professor account, and then invite students to join their online community by providing them with an access code. Students have to pay $18 a semester. This is a screenshot of a sample community:

Screenshot of packback community


Students post and respond to questions. Students get a certain number of “sparks” to use – sparks are similar to “likes,” but they are designed to be used to indicate what questions “sparked” your curiosity.

Packback’s algorithm grades student posts and assigns them a curiosity score. Students’ curiosity scores are displayed in a learner leaderboard. The curiosity scoring system is based on three criteria: presentation, credibility, and effort. For presentation, the algorithm looks for formatting, legibility, and supplemental materials (like videos or images). For credibility, the algorithm looks to see if the post contains reliable sources, and also checks for “behaviors” that often go hand-in-hand with credibility, like the time of the post and the depth of the post. Lastly, for effort, the algorithm looks to see if the user added new insight to the post or just provided a straightforward answer. Packback claims their algorithm was derived by identifying what high-quality posts had in common, and that the algorithm performs quite similarly to how a human grader would score/rank posts.

Strengths, Limitations, and Applications

Packback claims it can create high-quality discussions by: (1) “scaling personalized feedback,” (2) “analysis of posts,” and (3) “managing a large number of students.” Packback also claims that, “While the Learning Management System forum serves the purpose for in-class logistics (ex: Where do I find the case study? What’s on the exam?”), it’s not possible to conduct a high quality academic discussion (or grade for it) due to a lack of quality control, lack of feedback delivery, and lack of a technological capability of assessing quality.”

I disagree with this statement (except maybe in the case of a very large class). In smaller or average-sized college classes, I do think it is entirely possible to design and conduct high quality academic discussions via an LMS. Instructors are very capable of performing quality control, giving feedback/guidance to student responses, and assessing quality (without an algorithm) in the context of an LMS discussion board. I also think instructors can achieve the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy using well-designed traditional assessment methods, and even large classes can potentially use TAs or group work to encourage high-quality discussion.

That being said, I do think Packback could be useful in a very large class (at least 50+). Class discussion is virtually impossible in such large classes without a tool like Packback, so in that regards, Packback fills an important gap.

Many of the other educational technologies we’ve talked about in this class are virtual “aids” – they help us do what we’ve always done, just more efficiently (hopefully). I think Packback is a little different in that it has a unique starting point, which is: get students asking questions. And not just asking any questions, but guide students into asking good questions. This represents a shift in the conversation. Instead of being focused on what students can answer or retain, we focus on teaching them how to question their world, and how to be curious, critical thinkers.

I’ll leave you with this TedX video by the founder of Packback:

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  1. I love this idea! A big focus in my education courses in college was inquiry learning, and this seems like an excellent tool to develop that. I think it’s fascinating how it uses an algorithm to assess curiosity— not a trait I would assume to be measured in such a way. But I would love to try something like this with my middle schoolers, who LOVE to ask questions, especially since you said it guides them to ask good questions ( a skill they’re still developing…). The only drawback I suppose to doing that is the cost per student.

    1. Yes, honestly I am not sure that it would be worth the $18/student except in the cases of very large college classes. In smaller classes, I think the teacher/faculty member is just as capable as the Packback algorithm in terms of grading and facilitating quality class discussion. But – one benefit – Packback does a few articles about how to get students to ask better questions, so that is free and definitely worth taking advantage of!

  2. I LOVED watching the TEDx video! It actually tied into my post a little bit, the fact that students really do have everything they could ever want to know right in their hands. A constant topic of discussion at my school is how to help students value their learning. After several years of trial and error, we have come up with a time in our daily schedule called “Rock Your Brain” and this is where kids split up and work on tasks of their interest. We have offered groups like Dreamer’s Cafe where they try to invent things or figure out how things work, Coding, Construction, and Finance- just to name a few. It has really seemed to spark interest in our students. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I am going to check this out carefully. I tend to try to avoid sites that charge $ but it might be worht the cost if it can do what it implies. I also teach online classes and sometimes the class discussion falls flat. this might be just what the classes need.

  4. In terms of ideas this is great. I am constantly working on trying to switch from rote memorization to critical thinking. So while I am not getting how this actually works yet – I am listening to the video while typing. I did open the website. I love the idea of asking questions. I do wonder if their would work in a high school class? I am thinking of questions I would like my English class students to be asking…I don’t know if the site would be enough to encourage that. It sounds like it gives anonymity to the asker? In that case it makes it safe if people are anonymous. Do the participants have to identify themselves? Really cool site – this is my favorite so far in terms of the philosophy behind it! Tracy

    1. Hi Tracy, having students ask questions instead of always just answering them would definitely be a great way to encourage critical thinking! With Packback, the instructor sets up their own “classroom” space (so to speak), so the students would be identified within that classroom, but it wouldn’t be publicly on the web. (So I think it would be ok FERPA-wise). As I mentioned to Samantha in the comments above, I’m not sure that Packback is worth the $18/student except for really large college classes.. I bet you could come up with alternative ways to get students asking good questions, without the $18/student cost. Maybe in the future there will be something like Packback that doesn’t charge per student!

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