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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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Android Go puts reliable smartphones in budget pockets

Nokia, Vodacom and Huawei have all launched entry-level smartphones running the Android Go edition, and all deliver a smooth experience, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Three new and notable Android Go smartphones have recently hit the market, namely the Nokia 1, the Vodafone Smart Kicka 4 and the Huawei Y3 (2018). These phones run one of the most basic versions of Android while still delivering a fairly smooth user experience.

Historically, consumers purchasing smartphones in the budget bracket would have a hit-and-miss experience with processing speed, smoothness of user interface, and app stability. The Google-supported Android Go edition operating system optimises the user experience by stripping out non-important visual effects to speed up the phone. Thish allows for more memory to be used by apps. 

Google also ensures that all smartphones running Android Go will receive feature and security updates as they are released by Google. This is a major selling point for these smartphones, as users of this smartphone will always be running the latest software, with virtually no manufacturer bloatware.

Vodafone Smart Kicka 4

At the lowest entry-level, the Vodafone Smart Kicka 4 performs well as a communicator for emails and WhatsApp messages. The 4” screen represents a step up for entry-level Android phones, which were previously standardised at 3.5”.

The display is bright and very responsive, while the limited screen real estate leaves the navigation keys off the screen as touch buttons. It uses 3G connectivity, which might seem like an outdated technology, but is good enough to stream SD videos and music. Vodacom has also thrown in some data gifts if the smartphone is activated before the end of September 2018. 

Its camera functionalities might be a slight let down for the aspirant Instagrammer, with a 2MP rear flash camera and a 0.3MP selfie snapper. Speed wise, the keyboard pops up quickly, which is a huge improvement from the Smart Kicka 3. However, this phone will not play well with graphics-intensive games. 

Nokia 1

Next up is the Nokia 1, which adds a much better 5MP camera, improved battery life and a bigger 4.5” screen. It supports LTE, which allows this smartphone to download and upload at the speed of flagships. It also sports the Nokia brand name, which many consumers trust.

Although the front camera is 2MP, the quality is extremely grainy, even with good lighting. This disqualifies this smartphone for the social media selfie snapper, but the 5MP rear camera will work for the landscape and portrait photographer. 

The screen also redeems this smartphone, providing a display which represents colours truly and has great viewing angles. Xpress-on back covers allows the use of interchangeable, multi-coloured back covers, which has proven to be a successful sales point for mid-range smartphones in the past. 

Huawei Y3 (2018)

The most capable of the Android Go edition competitors, the Huawei Y3 (2018) packs an even bigger screen at 5”, as well as an improved 8MP rear camera and HD video recording. The screen is the brightest and most vibrant of the three smartphones, but seems to be calibrated to show colours a little more saturated than they actually are. 

Nevertheless, the camera outperforms the other smartphones with good colour replication and great selfie capabilities via the 2MP front camera – far superior to the Nokia 1 despite the same spec. LTE also comes standard with this smartphone and Vodacom throws in 4G/LTE data goodies until the end of September 2018. The battery, however, is not removable and may only be replaced by a warranty technician.

Comparing the 3

All three smartphones have removable back covers, which provide access to the battery, SIM card and SD card slots. The smartphones have Micro USB ports on the bottom with headphone jacks on the top. The built-in speakers all performed well, with the Y3 (2018) housing an exceptionally loud built-in speaker. 

Although all at different price points, all three phones remain similar in performance and speed. The differentiators are apparent in the components, like camera quality and screen quality. It would be fair to rank the quality of the camera and battery life by respective market prices. The Vodafone Smart Kicka 4 performed well, for its R399 retail price. The Nokia 1, on the other hand, lags quite a bit in features when compared to the Huawei Y3 (2018), bwith oth retailing at R999.

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SA gets digital archive

As the world entered the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth on Mandela Day, 18 July 2018, South Africa celebrated the launch of a digital living archive. 

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The southafrica.co.za  site carries content about the country’s collective heritage in South Africa’s eleven official languages.

Designed as a nation building,  educational and brand promotion web based tool, the free-to-view platform features award-winning photographic and written content by leading South African photographers, authors, academics and photojournalists.

The emphasis is on quality, credible, factual content that celebrates a collective heritage in terms of the following: Cultural Heritage; Natural Heritage; Education; History; Agriculture; Industry; Mining; and Travel.

At the same time as reflecting on the nation’s history, southafrica.co.za celebrates South Africa’s natural, cultural and economic assets so that the youth can learn about their nation in their home language.

Southafrica.co.za Founder and CEO Hans Gerrizen conceptualised southafrica.co.za as a means for youth and communities from outlying areas to benefit from the digital age in terms of the web tool’s empowering educational component.

“We can only stand to deepen our collective experience of democracy and become a more forward planning nation if we know facts about our nation’s past and present in everyone’s home language,” he says.

Southafrica.co.za, with sister company Siyabona Africa, is the organiser and sponsor of the Mandela: 100 Moments photographic exhibition that runs until 30 September at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront-based Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island.  The 3-month exhibition, which runs daily from 08h00 until 15h00, is showcasing one hundred iconic Nelson Mandela images taken by veteran South African photojournalist and self-taught lensman Peter Magubane.

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