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Case Study

How Merion Mercy provided students with trustworthy AI writing feedback through Flint

Lulu Gao Headshot
Lulu Gao Headshot
Philip Vinogradov headshot
Philip Vinogradov headshot

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Philip Vinogradov | LinkedIn

May 8, 2024

Merion Mercy Academy logo plus Flint logo on Merion Mercy building with blue overlay
Merion Mercy Academy logo plus Flint logo on Merion Mercy building with blue overlay
Merion Mercy Academy logo plus Flint logo on Merion Mercy building with blue overlay

Case Study Summary

Merion Mercy Academy partnered with Flint in December 2023 and is one of few schools that has seen essay tutor far outpace chat tutor creation. During these first 4 months of using Flint, 61.6% of Merion Mercy’s tutors have been essay tutors, whereas the overall subset of essay tutors across all schools has been only 13.6%. While many schools have been wary of writing plagiarism, Merion Mercy’s English, History, and Theology departments have embraced AI as a valuable part of students’ writing process, enabling students to get high-quality, immediate, and actionable feedback on their essays.

Two pie charts showing how Flint's essay use was only 13.6% while Merion Mercy's was 61.6%.

About Merion Mercy 

Merion Mercy Academy is an all-girls Catholic, college preparatory school for grades 9-12th located near Philadelphia in Merion, Pennsylvania. Merion Mercy’s mission is to provide personalized, holistic education to each of its 400 students (2021-2022), with a focus on furthering emotional, creative, and physical growth.

Philip Vinogradov has been the Director of Innovation, Teaching, and Learning at Merion Mercy for the past four years. He has been Flint’s main point of contact throughout the partnership, and we interviewed him to get the bulk of the information provided in this case study.

Challenges Merion Mercy sought to solve

When ChatGPT came out, many educators expressed concern that it might signal the end of students learning to write, but Vinogradov was thinking about how to flip that thought on its head. He wondered how AI could help students write better. For him, his goal for AI included:

  • Preparing students for a future where AI will only get more and more sophisticated and it will be imperative to know how to work with it

  • Opening the conversation about teaching with AI so that both students and teachers can benefit from its use

Solutions Flint provided

Though Vinogradov recounts Flint’s language chatting feature being what first caught his eye, what really took off at Merion Mercy was the essay tutor feature. With Flint, teachers enjoyed being able to:

  • Provide timely and specific AI feedback based on their specific learning objectives

  • Give students an AI that the teachers could trust—both in terms of feedback quality and oversight of student use

  • Enable shorter feedback loops to accelerate learning and create more time for 1:1 engagement with the teacher

Impact of Flint so far

As Vinogradov recounts it, the reaction of one of the first English teachers who tried Flint went something like this: “The AI did in 20 seconds what would have taken me two weeks. And, the kids immediately got specific, personal feedback that they could act on right away. Wow.” Teachers have loved the ability to provide extra feedback to students and having Flint work with students 1:1 has enabled teachers “to circulate among kids” and have more personal review time with each student.

Vinogradov also emphasizes the value of the trust he can put in Flint’s ability to guide students. He can transparently see how they’re using AI and he can shape the AI itself. “I know that students using the tools will receive specific, constructive feedback based on a teacher’s guidelines ... It helps students elevate their work without stealing their struggle,” he says.

As a result of their openness in letting students use AI, Vinogradov said only a couple times this year have teachers come to him with AI plagiarism concerns. He says their policy coupled with their access to Flint has helped students learn to “view AI as a learning aid without the temptation to take shortcuts.”

Merion Mercy Academy partnered with Flint in December 2023 and is one of few schools that has seen essay tutor far outpace chat tutor creation. During these first 4 months of using Flint, 61.6% of Merion Mercy’s tutors have been essay tutors, whereas the overall subset of essay tutors across all schools has been only 13.6%. While many schools have been wary of writing plagiarism, Merion Mercy’s English, History, and Theology departments have embraced AI as a valuable part of students’ writing process, enabling students to get high-quality, immediate, and actionable feedback on their essays.

Two pie charts showing how Flint's essay use was only 13.6% while Merion Mercy's was 61.6%.

About Merion Mercy 

Merion Mercy Academy is an all-girls Catholic, college preparatory school for grades 9-12th located near Philadelphia in Merion, Pennsylvania. Merion Mercy’s mission is to provide personalized, holistic education to each of its 400 students (2021-2022), with a focus on furthering emotional, creative, and physical growth.

Philip Vinogradov has been the Director of Innovation, Teaching, and Learning at Merion Mercy for the past four years. He has been Flint’s main point of contact throughout the partnership, and we interviewed him to get the bulk of the information provided in this case study.

Challenges Merion Mercy sought to solve

When ChatGPT came out, many educators expressed concern that it might signal the end of students learning to write, but Vinogradov was thinking about how to flip that thought on its head. He wondered how AI could help students write better. For him, his goal for AI included:

  • Preparing students for a future where AI will only get more and more sophisticated and it will be imperative to know how to work with it

  • Opening the conversation about teaching with AI so that both students and teachers can benefit from its use

Solutions Flint provided

Though Vinogradov recounts Flint’s language chatting feature being what first caught his eye, what really took off at Merion Mercy was the essay tutor feature. With Flint, teachers enjoyed being able to:

  • Provide timely and specific AI feedback based on their specific learning objectives

  • Give students an AI that the teachers could trust—both in terms of feedback quality and oversight of student use

  • Enable shorter feedback loops to accelerate learning and create more time for 1:1 engagement with the teacher

Impact of Flint so far

As Vinogradov recounts it, the reaction of one of the first English teachers who tried Flint went something like this: “The AI did in 20 seconds what would have taken me two weeks. And, the kids immediately got specific, personal feedback that they could act on right away. Wow.” Teachers have loved the ability to provide extra feedback to students and having Flint work with students 1:1 has enabled teachers “to circulate among kids” and have more personal review time with each student.

Vinogradov also emphasizes the value of the trust he can put in Flint’s ability to guide students. He can transparently see how they’re using AI and he can shape the AI itself. “I know that students using the tools will receive specific, constructive feedback based on a teacher’s guidelines ... It helps students elevate their work without stealing their struggle,” he says.

As a result of their openness in letting students use AI, Vinogradov said only a couple times this year have teachers come to him with AI plagiarism concerns. He says their policy coupled with their access to Flint has helped students learn to “view AI as a learning aid without the temptation to take shortcuts.”

Merion Mercy Academy partnered with Flint in December 2023 and is one of few schools that has seen essay tutor far outpace chat tutor creation. During these first 4 months of using Flint, 61.6% of Merion Mercy’s tutors have been essay tutors, whereas the overall subset of essay tutors across all schools has been only 13.6%. While many schools have been wary of writing plagiarism, Merion Mercy’s English, History, and Theology departments have embraced AI as a valuable part of students’ writing process, enabling students to get high-quality, immediate, and actionable feedback on their essays.

Two pie charts showing how Flint's essay use was only 13.6% while Merion Mercy's was 61.6%.

About Merion Mercy 

Merion Mercy Academy is an all-girls Catholic, college preparatory school for grades 9-12th located near Philadelphia in Merion, Pennsylvania. Merion Mercy’s mission is to provide personalized, holistic education to each of its 400 students (2021-2022), with a focus on furthering emotional, creative, and physical growth.

Philip Vinogradov has been the Director of Innovation, Teaching, and Learning at Merion Mercy for the past four years. He has been Flint’s main point of contact throughout the partnership, and we interviewed him to get the bulk of the information provided in this case study.

Challenges Merion Mercy sought to solve

When ChatGPT came out, many educators expressed concern that it might signal the end of students learning to write, but Vinogradov was thinking about how to flip that thought on its head. He wondered how AI could help students write better. For him, his goal for AI included:

  • Preparing students for a future where AI will only get more and more sophisticated and it will be imperative to know how to work with it

  • Opening the conversation about teaching with AI so that both students and teachers can benefit from its use

Solutions Flint provided

Though Vinogradov recounts Flint’s language chatting feature being what first caught his eye, what really took off at Merion Mercy was the essay tutor feature. With Flint, teachers enjoyed being able to:

  • Provide timely and specific AI feedback based on their specific learning objectives

  • Give students an AI that the teachers could trust—both in terms of feedback quality and oversight of student use

  • Enable shorter feedback loops to accelerate learning and create more time for 1:1 engagement with the teacher

Impact of Flint so far

As Vinogradov recounts it, the reaction of one of the first English teachers who tried Flint went something like this: “The AI did in 20 seconds what would have taken me two weeks. And, the kids immediately got specific, personal feedback that they could act on right away. Wow.” Teachers have loved the ability to provide extra feedback to students and having Flint work with students 1:1 has enabled teachers “to circulate among kids” and have more personal review time with each student.

Vinogradov also emphasizes the value of the trust he can put in Flint’s ability to guide students. He can transparently see how they’re using AI and he can shape the AI itself. “I know that students using the tools will receive specific, constructive feedback based on a teacher’s guidelines ... It helps students elevate their work without stealing their struggle,” he says.

As a result of their openness in letting students use AI, Vinogradov said only a couple times this year have teachers come to him with AI plagiarism concerns. He says their policy coupled with their access to Flint has helped students learn to “view AI as a learning aid without the temptation to take shortcuts.”

An introduction of Philip Vinogradov

Could you start by introducing yourself, what your role is, and how long you've been at Merion Mercy?

This is my fourth year at Merion Mercy as Director of Innovation, Teaching, and Learning. Recently, my title changed to Director of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives as more of my work is focused on unlocking opportunities and preparing our community for the future. The AI disruption is an example of how schools need to be prepared to rapidly innovate. The schools that are nimble and curious are going to thrive in the new landscape that's coming. It's important we do this in partnership with students and families, cultivating the uniquely human skills students need to thrive in a brave new ambiguous future. We can't respond by putting our heads in the sand, taking a wait-and-see approach, and then playing catch-up later. Wouldn’t we rather meet the moment in partnership with kids?

My main job is to support teaching and learning by asking: What do teachers need to thrive, how can we support the student-teacher partnership, and how can we create opportunities while removing obstacles?

Graphic with picture of Philip Vinogradov, Director of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives

I especially like the “in partnership with kids” part you mentioned because sometimes students feel like they are just told what to do rather than being a part of the change.

Yeah. They're in the driver's seat as learners right now with so many tools and resources at their fingertips. But, all students benefit from being taught to use tools effectively. Consider CliffNotes. As a neurodivergent learner, with ADHD and dyslexia, I often used CliffNotes as a shortcut when I was overwhelmed, especially if I was not invested in the novel or the class. CliffNotes were taboo, and using them was considered “cheating”. Imagine instead if a teacher had worked with me and said “We are going to use CliffNotes as a tool to support deep engagement with a challenging novel. We will pre-read our chapters with the CliffNotes, reviewing the outline, the theme, and character and plot development. With that foundation, we will read the text, stretching ourselves, so we can engage in a deeper analysis, using these tools together.

Today as a learner, absent any guidance, I would be tempted to use generative AI as a shortcut, especially for tasks I was not invested in. If I cared about the learning task I would be more inclined to not use it as a shortcut, because I would not want the AI to steal my struggle. With guidance, I could be taught to use generative AI responsibly, to brainstorm and get feedback, elevating all of my work.

With guidance, students will be much more prepared to enter a world where they will never be without these powerful tools, using them to elevate their work without stealing their learning and skill development. That’s why we are excited about Flint, because it lets teachers shape the AI and makes the interaction between students and the AI transparent. It empowers the learning partnership between student and teacher.

Pulll quote saying: “That’s why we are excited about Flint, because it lets teachers shape the AI and makes the interaction between students and the AI transparent. It empowers the learning partnership between student and teacher.”

Merion Mercy’s initial considerations about AI

When your school got started with Flint back in December, or even before that, what were you all thinking about AI, and what led you to search for a platform to support that?

In November 2022, with ChatGPT’s release, there was a global freakout in the educational community: “Oh no, this is the end of students learning to write.”

I just flipped that in my mind and said, “How could this be a tool to help kids write?” Playing with it in that wintertime through that lens, I was always testing the waters and using it as a parent and a caregiver. I've been a career educator, but I have a daughter who was working on a project on the Renaissance—something I knew nothing about. It was a very quick way and tool to, through natural conversation, learn about the things that we wanted to uncover. We still verified the information, but it was a much more efficient way to learn about something than going to the web and any number of websites. The conversation informed the rest of our research. 

For years, I've been working with faculty on using Google Classroom to give feedback as work unfolds, instead of waiting until the student’s final submission. But generative AI empowers the student to request specific feedback in real-time, which is exciting.

As a Google certified Innovator, I’m also part of a larger community where we were having that conversation in groups and sharing practices that we were uncovering. In the spring of 2023, as school came to an end, I brought faculty together, putting together a workshop for them with a whole host of ways that they could use AI in partnership with kids, taking readings and adjusting reading levels, creating outlines, creating classroom resources and workflows where kids could work with ChatGPT or Bard or Claude, and getting feedback on student writing. This fall, one teacher developed a beautiful way where the student would submit their writing to generative AI, get feedback on the writing, and then highlight the feedback in different colors. In green, they would highlight what they absolutely have to keep of their original writing. In yellow, what they like that the AI recommended. In red, what they reject that the AI recommended. This level of metacognition is very impactful and when I shared it with Sohan, he remarked, “Oh, that would be really cool if Flint could somehow work that in.

As our work continued this fall, we also were exploring the potential of emerging teacher-facing platforms like MagicSchool and Almanack. These platforms were very similar, but I was looking for platforms that empowered the partnership between students and teachers. When Flint popped up on one of my feeds, it seemed to be ready to facilitate that partnership with respect to feedback on student writing, etc.—but it was the language chat assignment that intrigued me. My wife is a Spanish teacher and I thought, if I’m going to go down the rabbit hole of exploring a platform, this had a value-add that the others didn't really have. It was enough for me to want to explore and uncover more.

It was actually the essay feature that took off here. Our language teachers like the language chat, but it's hard to do in a classroom because everyone's talking over everybody else. It’s okay for homework, but the essay tutor is impactful both in school and at home. One of our veteran English teachers tried it first, and she said this AI—for her to put in her rubric what she was looking for, and the kids got feedback—she said the AI did in 20 seconds what would have taken her two weeks. The kids immediately got specific, personal feedback that they could act on right away. Wow. That success was the catalyst for broader adoption. Throughout the semester, Flint has continued to evolve, so that the tutor does not compose for students but rather guides and suggests.

Pull quote saying: “One of our veteran English teachers ...  said the AI did in 20 seconds what would have taken her two weeks. The kids immediately got specific, personal feedback that they could act on right away. Wow.”

Use of and rollout of Flint essays

Looking at the analytics for Merion Mercy, I thought it was really interesting that there were a lot of essay-style tutors. That's more unusual at a school because English departments are typically very wary of AI. I'm wondering how this came about.

We worked together to create a workflow that would add value. In the early days, I partnered with teachers to refine an assignment with parameters for the AI. A typical workflow looked like this:

  1. Post an essay topic in Google Classroom.

  2. Students start their draft in Google Classroom.

  3. The teacher would then add the Flint tutor link in Classroom. 

  4. Students would access the link, and paste their Google classroom work, prompting Flint: “Can you give me feedback on the strengths and areas for improvement based on the teacher rubric?” Flint would then give them actionable feedback. 

  5. The student would either make their revisions in Flint or they would do it in Classroom based on the feedback. 

We also created a generic Research and Writing Tutor based on shared expectations for the writing process. Ideally, we see the potential to do this for informational writing, expository writing, persuasive writing, etc, so that we can amplify our efforts. In that way, Flint could serve as a virtual writing resource lab.

Pull quote saying: “We also created a generic Research and Writing Tutor based on shared expectations for the writing process ... so that we can amplify our efforts. In that way, Flint could serve as a virtual writing resource lab.”

In its early days, it was easy to prompt Flint to do the work for you. Often the AI, in providing suggestions, would provide examples of how something could be rewritten. Teachers would have to reinforce the importance of paraphrasing instead of simply copying and pasting. As a result, we used Flint in class with students to model asking for and acting on feedback responsibly.

As Flint improved and our students have become more comfortable with it, teachers have started to assign using Flint in the homework space. Kids are invited to get feedback via Flint before final submission, and the conversation is transparent to teachers. I think that's why you're seeing essay tutor usage so much. Our English teachers are really seeing this space where we want kids to be submitting their very best work. Flint helps students engage in reflection and revision. Peer editing and peer feedback is a useful level of exposure, but the feedback is not always as sophisticated or specific. AI is now also teaching the student what constructive feedback looks like as it is modeled for them in real time. And, they're not waiting two weeks before they get it back with edits and comments from the teacher.

Pull quote saying: “Peer editing and peer feedback is a useful level of exposure, but the feedback is not always as sophisticated or specific. AI is now also teaching the student what constructive feedback looks like as it is modeled for them in real time.”

What did the rollout at Merion Mercy look like?

Initially I shared some demo videos from Flint with an invitation: “If you are interested in piloting it with me, please let me know.” We had some great success initially across a few departments with teachers and at subsequent faculty meetings, I asked those teachers to share their experience. From there more teachers asked to partner either with me or with their colleagues to implement the tool in a variety of contexts.

Continuing the conversation around AI use

Did you run into any issues around teacher sentiment about AI?

You know, I don't think so. Last spring, we said that AI is a tool that students will never be without for the rest of their lives. They're only going to be surrounded by more and more powerful versions. The new digital divide will not be about access—it's going to be about who knows how to use these tools effectively and responsibly and who doesn't. We can put up all the firewalls we want, and water will always find a way. So, our best approach is a holistic and constructive approach based in ethics and citizenship. And so we developed this policy. It leads with a simple set of principles. When you're uncertain if it's okay to use AI, ask the teacher. And then, your responsibility is to share with the teacher how you used AI, and Flint makes sharing that chat very easy. 

We have teachers who have not started using AI yet, and many of us harbor skepticism and concerns. It is easy to see the tremendous power of these tools to help and to harm and disrupt society. We also have a shared responsibility to meet the moment and navigate using AI together. No one is going to wait and ask educators what an appropriate timeline would be before releasing these tools, so we have to work in communities to figure it out.

To piggyback off of that, how has your school structured the continuing conversation around using AI at school?

That's an interesting question. I don't know that we have formally created spaces for talking about it and revisiting it yet. We have our professional development days and professional learning communities and definitely within those communities, teachers are sharing how they're using it. We are going to have a parent evening in the fall that will be about our program and our intentionality in how we are using AI, so preparing for that night will also allow us to come together and review specifically how we're using it. 

Why Merion Mercy has continued to partner with Flint

What has usage been like and what has made Merion Mercy continue to partner with Flint?

I think right now, like any edtech tool, we have a number of teachers who use it: some every day, some use it once a week, some a couple times a month, and some never. And that is the norm for any school. Before making an investment in a subscription service, it is important to discern the value added and understand the competition. 

What I love about a tool like Flint, and what provides value, is the capacity to trust the tool. I know that students using the tools will receive specific, constructive feedback based on a teacher’s guidelines. The conversations are transparent to teachers. It helps students elevate their work without stealing their struggle. Teachers will use a tool that is efficient, reliable, and impactful. 

Pull quote saying: "What I love about a tool like Flint, and what provides value, is the capacity to trust the tool ... It helps students elevate their work without stealing their struggle. Teachers will use a tool that is efficient, reliable, and impactful."

We've had this whole year just a couple of times where teachers approached me saying, “Hey, I think this was written by AI.” AI detectors are not really reliable, so we often resolve those issues in conversation with the student. I think part of why we haven't experienced a lot of AI misuse this year is because we hit the ground running with students reviewing responsible use. We were very explicit. We were constructive. We have tools like Flint. It is a great way for them to use AI as a learning aid without the temptation to take shortcuts.

Final thoughts and future expectations of AI

What is your future vision for AI at Merion Mercy? What’s top of mind for you, and how do you think AI in education will develop?

Yeah, I don't know if this is specific to Merion Mercy, but, I would imagine the tools are only going to become much more sophisticated. One of the great things about AI is it can look at really, really large datasets and pull out patterns and titrate that for you. I see a time when our learning management systems have AI integration such that skills and evidence of mastery are well articulated, and the AI is able to customize resources, learning activities, and interventions to support the learner-teacher partnership. 

AI will never be a teacher replacement. I just see it as a way for teachers to focus more on the human dimension of what they're doing, cultivating relationships as coaches, guides, and designers of learning experiences. AI will provide suggestions based on data in real-time, not after a key assessment or the close of a semester.

Is there anything else you want to add about Flint or your thoughts on AI or your journey up until this point?

No, it's just super exciting. I think you guys are really doing a wonderful job of focusing on a few tools and making them really powerful and effective. You're not trying to be a Swiss army knife of tools. Flint’s really focusing on some transformative practices. You're iterating, you're taking the feedback. That's great.

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