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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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Now download a bank account

Absa has introduced an end-to-end account opening for new customers, through the Absa Banking App, which can be downloaded from the Android and Apple app stores. This follows the launch of the world first ChatBanking on WhatsApp service.

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This “download your account” feature enables new customers to Absa, to open a Cheque account, order their card and start transacting on the Absa Banking App, all within minutes, from anywhere and at any time, by downloading it from the App stores.

“Overall, this new capability is not only expected to enhance the customer’s digital experience, but we expect to leverage this in our branches, bringing digital experiences to the branch environment and making it easier for our customers to join and bank with us regardless of where they may be,” says Aupa Monyatsi, Managing Executive for Virtual Channels at Absa Retail & Business Banking.

“With this innovation comes the need to ensure that the security of our customers is at the heart of our digital experience, this is why the digital onboarding experience for this feature includes a high-quality facial matching check with the Department of Home Affairs to verify the customer’s identity, ensuring that we have the most up to date information of our clients. Security is supremely important for us.”

The new version of the Absa Banking App is now available in the Apple and Android App stores, and anyone with a South African ID can become an Absa customer, by following these simple steps:

  1. Download the Absa App
  2. Choose the account you would like to open
  3. Tell us who you are
  4. To keep you safe, we will verify your cell phone number
  5. Take a selfie, and we will do facial matching with the Department of Home Affairs to confirm you are who you say you are
  6. Tell us where you live
  7. Let us know what you do for a living and your income
  8. Click Apply.

 

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How we use phones to avoid human contact

A recent study by Kaspersky Lab has found that 75% of people pick up their connected device to avoid conversing with another human being.

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Connected devices are becoming essential to keeping people in contact with each other, but for many they are also a much-needed comfort blanket in a variety of social situations when they do not want to interact with others. A recent survey from Kaspersky Lab has confirmed this trend in behaviour after three-quarters of people (75%) admitted they use a device to pretend to be busy when they don’t want to talk to someone else, showing the importance of keeping connected devices protected under all circumstances. 

Imagine you’ve arrived at a bar and you’re waiting for your date. The bar is busy, and people are chatting all around you. What do you do now? Strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know? Grab your phone from your pocket or handbag until your date arrives to keep yourself busy? Why talk to humans or even make eye-contact with someone else when you can stare at your connected device instead?

The truth is, our use of devices is making it much easier to avoid small talk or even be polite to those around us, and new Kaspersky Lab research has found that 72% of people use one when they do not know what to do in a social situation. They are also the ‘go-to’ distraction for people even when they aren’t trying to look busy or avoid someone’s eye. 46% of people admit to using a device just to kill time every day and 44% use it as a daily distraction.

In addition to just being a distraction, devices are also a lifeline to those who would rather not talk directly to another person in day-to-day situations, to complete essential tasks. In fact, nearly a third (31%) of people would prefer to carry out tasks such as ordering a taxi or finding directions to where they need to go via a website and an app, because they find it an easier experience than speaking with another person.

Whether they are helping us avoid direct contact or filling a void in our daily lives, our constant reliance on devices has become a cause for panic when they become unusable. A third (34%) of people worry that they will not be able to entertain themselves if they cannot access a connected device. 12% are even concerned that they won’t be able to pretend to be busy if their device is out of action.

Dmitry Aleshin, VP for Product Marketing, Kaspersky Lab said, “The reliance on connected devices is impacting us in more ways than we could have ever expected. There is no doubt that being connected gives us the freedom to make modern life easier, but devices are also vital to help people get through different and difficult social situations. No matter what your ‘connection crutch’ is, it is essential to make sure your device is online and available when you need it most.”

To ensure your device lifeline is always there and in top health – no matter what the reason or situation – Kaspersky Security Cloud keeps your connection safe and secure:

·         I want to use my device while waiting for a friend – is it secure to access the bar’s Wi-Fi?

With Kaspersky Security Cloud, devices are protected against network threats, even if the user needs to use insecure public Wi-Fi hotspots. This is done through transferring data via an encrypted channel to ensure personal data safety, so users’ devices are protected on any connection.

·         Oh no! I’m bored but my phone’s battery is getting low – what am I going to do?

Users can track their battery level thanks to a countdown of how many minutes are left until their device shuts down in the Kaspersky Security Cloud interface. There is also a wide-range of portable power supplies available to keep device batteries charged while on-the-go.

·         I’ve lost my phone! How will I keep myself entertained now?

Should the unthinkable happen and you lose or have your phone stolen, Kaspersky Security Cloud can track and protect your device from data breaches, for complete peace of mind. Remote lock and locate features ensure your device remains secure until you are reunited.

 

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