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Do the maths: algorithms and tech work

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South African edtech start-up Siyavula uses algorithms and interleaved learning to get maths and science learning and practice to stick, writes RUSSEL SOUTHWARD.

Most African edtech start-ups use technology as a delivery and distribution channel. South African start-up Siyavula is different because it uses a combination of technology and best education practice to improve what students remember when doing maths and science.

CEO Mark Horner and Megan Beckett, Learning Research, Design and Analytics, at the company, provided some great insights during a discussion.

At Siyavula’s core there are textbooks for maths and physical and life sciences for grades 10-12 in South Africa. It operates a hybrid of text and print and the metrics are impressive. On the physical side, it prints 10 million textbooks that go to 25,000 schools and are used by 4.5 million learners. On the digital side, its site has 6.3 million users who have had 11.2 million sessions. This is clearly no pilot project.

Although Horner is perfectly happy with this hybrid delivery approach, he still thinks there is a tantalizing prospect for change: ”If all books were not distributed in print format, we could finance a device and give each pupil one,” he says.

“We have a catalogue of openly licensed textbooks and make both print and e-textbooks available. These are all available as PDFs on our hub. Two versions are available: one is adaptable and the other under a Creative Commons ND licence. Everything available in three versions: print, PDF and HTML. In English and Afrikaans with teachers guides in all formats.

“The core content is the same but only the production and distribution costs vary. Access to textbooks is a basic requirement, but the format in which you read that book makes no difference to your learning.

“We wanted to address learning efficiency for maths and science. What makes the difference in Maths and Science is mastery-based skills. We need interleaved practice to rewire the neural pathways. If you do this, your score goes up versus blocked practice. So we built a tool to do this”.

For those not in the education field, the significance of all this may not be immediately apparent.

Mastery-based learning consists of three elements: acquiring the component skills, practicing the skills acquired and integrating them and knowing when to apply them. The latter is particularly important because where the learner has just memorized things in a narrow example, they may not have completely understood the concept or concepts that might be used in several different ways.

The starting point, as Megan Beckett says, is to ask what is the most effective form of learning: ”How do we best learn? Traditionally in the classroom, you listen to the teacher or at University you’re given a lecture or asked to read something. You don’t absorb much information through that. Active learning is where you practice by doing something and this and peer-to-peer learning are both very effective”.

According to Beckett, the fault of the education system is that it’s very content-focused and teachers are often rushing through the content in the curriculum to complete things: ”You need revisit things to solidify them in (the students’) long-term memories”.

Siyavula’s online offer allows both teachers and students to revisit what they’ve learned in a structured way and address the gaps in their understanding:”We are using algorithms to determine the level of mastery through what the student got right or wrong”. Through this process they create the “optimal cognitive load”.

So what does that mean?

”You want the work to be not too difficult but not too easy,” says Beckett. “You need to maintain learners getting things right 70% of the time. If the mark was less, weak learners might be completely overwhelmed. You need to be able to give time to develop component skills. This can also be applied to the teaching domain. They are challenged to the level that meets their prior knowledge. When the learner gets things wrong, how frequently have they seen it? How long ago? Do we need to show it to them again?”

This is where the ideas of blocked and interleaved learning comes in. In traditional education practice, the teacher designs work to “drill and kill”: the students get to memorise and sometimes understand a particular aspect of a subject. You have the students practice until they’ve mastered that particular piece of learning.

This is called blocked practice and, by contrast, interleaved learning practice goes back over several different aspects of what has been taught previously in a connected way to bring out underlying concepts.

”Doing blocked pactice in this way you do well at the time but when you have to recall for a test much later, you do much less well. We teach several concepts at once and test different things. The students don’t perform well in the practice sessions but they retain what they have learnt for longer. After each time it doesn’t rely on same thing, it’s strengthening your neural pathways because you have to recall new things.”

The tech tricks in the online offer are two-fold. Firstly, there is an adaptive engine that gauges the learner’s level of skills and sequences their learning and secondly there are generative question items that can be used in many different forms over and over again, says Beckett.

“It’s the way we design our questions. We don’t design each question as a one-off. Each question is a template from which you can generate many versions of the same question. The learner has access to an unlimited number of questions. The model solution adapts to the questions shown. You can do the same question again and you will get a different context and different numbers.

“The generative question items can build out a massive bank of questions to revise or practice on. It’s not just multiple choice and learners get feedback immediately with advice on how to improve”.

The online offer can be used in a variety of settings – the classroom, with a tutor and for home schooling – and you can say go practice. The students are expected to work on paper but type in their answers to the device they’re using.

Horner says: ”It’s about creating a growth mindset, filling in bars to show progress. We try to get agency from the learners. Teachers can use it in the classroom but you can also use it as an individual.” 25% of students are sufficiently self-motivated to start practicing on their own.

Some teachers in rural areas in South Africa only teach 100 days a year, a problem that is widely found in other parts of Africa, says Horner: ”Schools are not the ideal drivers in a rural context. Getting to learners and parents directly is key.”

Delivery is designed to work across a range of devices including a basic feature phone, a tablet, a laptop or a computer. Vodacom and MTN in South Africa have zero rated the service to encourage take-up: “You create greater impact if you cater for existing devices. The app we want to target is the web browser.”

So what’s the business model? There are two types of customers, institutional (the schools) and individual (learners and parents). For learners and parents, it costs R599 ($44.20) for one subject and R999 (US$73.72) for both subjects. For schools, it varies between R120-R300 (US$8.85-US$22.13) per learner per subject per year for 200 individual subscriptions or more. You can pay using m-money or a credit card. For individual subscriptions, it is looking for retail partnerships with banks and mobile operators.

This compares to professional tutoring companies charging over R1000 per month per subject; ad­hoc tutoring which costs around R200 per hour; and international online services and locally ­licensed versions which are are all over R1000 per year.

“Lower income households have no effective options,” says Horner.

25 000 students at more than 60 schools have signed up for this practice service and there are 75 000 sponsored learners at 285 schools. Sponsorship comes from organisations like the Vodacom Foundation.

“On the sponsored schools, you can sign up for a trial and if you meet the learning targets, you can get sponsorship,” says Horner. “We’re looking towards (getting funding) from something like a social impact fund.”

What else do they know about their users? 70% live with their biological mothers; 95% can access a cellphone at home and 68% have family monthly expenditure of less than R5 000.

What about expansion into the rest of Africa? It emerges that 40 000 to 50 000 Kenyans are already using the site.

”We would like to do this through the banks and mobile community. There is a huge interest from some banks for something that is more than just a banking product.”

Siyavula’s shareholders are Omidyar, the Shuttleworth Foundation and PSG Group, a local equity fund.

* Russell Southwood is editor of Smart Monkey TV.  To subscribe to its web TV channel, visit http://www.youtube.com/user/SmartMonkeyTV/videos

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Acer gaming beast escapes

Acer this week unveiled two notebooks that take portable gaming to new extremes.

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Acer  unveiled two new Predator Helios gaming notebooks this week at the next@acer global press conference in New York. They include the powerful Predator Helios 500, featuring up to 8th Gen Intel Core i9+ processors, and the Predator Helios 300 Special Edition that includes upgraded specs from its predecessor and a distinctive white chassis. Both feature VR-Ready performance, advanced thermal technologies, and blazing-fast connectivity.

“We’ve expanded our Predator Helios gaming notebook line in response to popular demand from gamers seeking extreme performance on the go,” said Jerry Kao, President of IT Products Business, Acer. “The Predator Helios 500 and Helios 300 gaming notebooks feature Acer’s proprietary thermal technologies and powerful components that, coupled with our award-winning software, deliver unparalleled gaming experiences.”

“The 8th Gen Intel Core i9+ processor for gaming and creation laptops is the highest performance Intel has ever delivered for this class of devices; purpose built for enthusiasts who demand premium gaming experiences whether at home or on the go,” said Steve Long, Vice President and General Manager, Client Computing Group Sales and Marketing, Intel. “Intel and Acer’s long relationship has produced amazing products over the years, and the new Acer Predator Helios gaming notebooks are powerful examples of what’s possible with this unprecedented level of performance.”

Predator Helios 500 is a gaming beast featuring overclocking, 4K 144 Hz panels

Designed for extreme gamers, the Predator Helios 500 is a gaming beast. It features up to overclockable 8th Gen Intel Core i9+ processors and overclockable GeForce GTX 1070 graphics. Intel Optane memory increases responsiveness and load times, while ultra-fast NVMePCIe SSDs, Killer DoubleShot Pro networking, and up to 64GB of memory keep the action going, making the Helios 500 the ideal gaming notebook for graphic-intensive AAA titles and live streaming.

Top-notch visuals are delivered on bright, vibrant 4K UHD or FHD IPS 17.3-inch displays with 144Hz refresh rates for blur- and tear-free gameplay. NVIDIA G-SYNC technology is supported on both the built-in display and external monitors, allowing for buttery-smooth imagery without tearing or stuttering. For those looking for maximum gaming immersion, dual Thunderbolt 3 ports, and display and HDMI 2.0 ports support up to three external monitors. Two speakers, a subwoofer, and Acer TrueHarmony and Waves MAXXAudio technology deliver incredible sound and hyper-realistic 3D audio using Waves Nx.

The Helios 500 stays cool with two of Acer’s proprietary AeroBlade 3D metal fans, and five heat pipes that distribute cool air to the machine’s key components while simultaneously releasing hot air. Fan speed can be controlled and customized through the PredatorSense app.

A backlit RGB keyboard offers four lighting zones with support for up to 16.8 million colors. Anti-ghosting technology provides the ultimate control for executing complex commands and combos, which can be set up via five dedicated programmable keys.

Acer’s PredatorSense app can be used to control and monitor the notebook’s vitals from one central interface, including overclocking, lighting, hotkeys, temperature, and fan control.

Predator Helios 300 Special Edition brings a sophisticated design twist to gaming notebooks

Acer’s budget-friendly Helios 300 gaming line sees the addition of a Special Edition model featuring an all-white aluminum chassis accented with gold trim, an unusually chic design for gaming notebooks.

The Helios 300 Special Edition (PH315-51) allows for ultra-smooth gameplay via its 15.6-inch FHD IPS display with an upgraded 144Hz refresh rate. The rapid refresh rate shortens frame rendering time and lowers input lag to give gamers an excellent in-game experience. It’s powered by up to an 8th Gen Intel Core i7+ processor, overclockable GeForce GTX 1060 graphics, up to a 512 GB PCIe Gen 3 NVMe solid state drive, and up to a 2 TB hard disk drive.

The Helios 300 Special Edition also comes equipped with up to 16 GB of DDR4 memory, and is upgradable to 32GB. Intel Optane memory speeds up load times of games and applications, access to information and improves overall system responsiveness. In addition, Gigabit Ethernet provides fast wired connections, while Gigabit Wi-Fi is provided by the latest Intel Wireless-AC 9560 that delivers up to 1.73Gbps throughput when using 160 MHz channels (2×2 802.11ac, dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz).

The Helios 300 Special Edition also includes two of Acer’s ultrathin (0.1 mm) all-metal AeroBlade 3D fans designed with advanced aerodynamics and superior airflow to keep the system cool. They can be controlled with Acer’s PredatorSense app, which offers three usage modes:

1. Coolboost mode:

For heavy loading games, rendering, streaming, and extended video consumption

2. Normal mode:

For productivity tools like Microsoft Office

3. Silent mode:

For web browsing and online chatting

Price and Availability

Predator Helios 500 will be available in South Africa in June starting at R34 999.00

Helios 300 Special Edition will be available in South Africa in August 2018. Exact Price will be communicated closer to the time.

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LG G7 arrives in SA

LG this week introduced South Africa to its latest premium smartphone, the LG G7 ThinQ, focused on bringing useful and convenient AI features to the smartphone experience.

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Powered by the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 Mobile Platform, the LG G7 ThinQ offers 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage to run demanding tasks and apps with. It is equipped with a 6.1-inch Super Bright Display, but the LG G7 ThinQ remains compact enough to use with one hand.

Sporting a new design aesthetic for the G series, the polished metal rim gives the LG G7 ThinQ a sleeker, more refined look, complemented by Gorilla Glass 5 on both the front and the back for enhanced durability. Rated IP68 for dust and water resistance, the LG G7 ThinQ is also awarded MIL-STD 810 c certification, having been subjected to a range of extreme temperature and environment tests designed by the United States military.

The LG G7 ThinQ has an 8MP camera up front, rendering clear and natural selfies, with two 16MP cameras at the back that deliver higher resolution photos with more detail, as well as a Super Wide Angle configuration.

As with other leading brands, LG has evolved its signature camera by including AI functionality. The AI CAM offers 19 shooting modes for intelligence-optimised shots. Users can also improve their photos by choosing from an additional three effect options should the AI CAM recommendation not suit their taste.

The new Super Bright Camera captures images that are up to four times brighter than typical photos shot in dim light. Through the combination of pixel binning and software processing, the AI algorithm adjusts the camera settings automatically when shooting in low light.

Live Photo Mode records one second before and after the shutter is pressed for snippets of unexpected moments or expressions that would normally be missed. Stickers uses face recognition to generate fun 2D and 3D overlays, such as sunglasses and headbands, that can be viewed directly on the display.

New to the G series is Portrait Mode, which generates professional-looking shots with out-of-focus backgrounds. This effect can be generated using both front and rear standard lenses as well as the rear Super Wide Angle lens.

LG G7 ThinQ offers further AI functionality with the inclusion of Google Lens features. Google Lens is a new way to search using the AI and computer vision. Google Assistant and Google Photos allow users to access more information on objects such as landmarks, plants, animals, and books. It can identify text or visit websites, add business cards to contacts, events to the calendar or look up an item on a restaurant menu.

A button just below the volume keys launches the AI functionality. A single tap of this button launches the Google Assistant, while two quick taps launches Google Lens. Users can also hold down the button to start talking to the Google Assistant without the repetition of the OK Google command.

With Super Far Field Voice Recognition (SFFVR) and the highly-sensitive G7ThinQ microphone, the Google Assistant can recognise voice commands from up to five meters away. SFFVR is able to separate commands from background noise, making the LG G7 ThinQ an alternative to a home AI speaker, even when the TV is on. Commands for the Google Assistant have been increased in the LG G7 ThinQ so users can get more done with their voice alone.

“The LG G7 ThinQ is strongly focused on the fundamentals and its launch marks a new chapter for our company,” said Deon Prinsloo, General Manager for Mobile Communication, LG Electronics S.A Pty Ltd. “Through the combination of personalised and useful AI functionalities with meaningful smartphone features, this is LG’s most convenient and in the moment smartphone yet.”

Key Specifications

  • Mobile Platform: Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 Mobile Platform
  • Display: 6.1-inch QHD+ 19.5:9 FullVision Super Bright Display (3120 x 1440 / 564ppi)
  • Memory:
    • LG G7 ThinQ: 4GB LPDDR4x RAM / 64GB UFS 2.1 ROM / MicroSD (up to 2TB)
  • Camera:
    • Rear Dual: 16MP Super Wide Angle (F1.9 / 107°) / 16MP Standard Angle (F1.6 / 71°)
    • Front: 8MP Wide Angle (F1.9 / 80°)
  • Battery: 3000mAh
  • OS: Android 8.0 Oreo
  • Size: 153.2 x 71.9 x 7.9mm
  • Weight: 162g
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11 a, b, g, n, ac / Bluetooth 5.0 BLE / NFC / USB Type-C 2.0 (3.1 compatible)
  • Colours: New Aurora Black
  • Others: Super Bright Display / New Second Screen / AI CAM / Super Bright Camera / Super Far Field Voice Recognition / Boombox Speaker / Google Lens / AI Haptic / Hi-Fi Quad DAC / DTS:X 3D Surround Sound / IP68 Water and Dust Resistance / HDR10 / Google Assistant Key / Face Recognition / Fingerprint Sensor / Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 Technology / Wireless Charging / MIL-STD 810G Compliant / FM Radio
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