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Do the maths: algorithms and tech work

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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Veeam passes $1bn, prepares for cloud’s ‘Act II’

Leader in cloud-data management reveals how it will harness the next growth phase of the data revolution, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

Veeam Software, the quiet leader in backup solutions for cloud data management,has announced that it has passed $1-billion in revenues, and is preparing for the next phase of sustained growth in the sector.

Now, it is unveiling what it calls Act II, following five years of rapid growth through modernisation of the data centre. At the VeeamON 2019conferencein Miami this week, company co-founder Ratmir Timashev declared that the opportunities in this new era, focused on managing data for the hybrid cloud, would drive the next phase of growth.

“Veeam created the VMware backup market and has dominated it as the leader for the last decade,” said Timashev, who is also executive vice president for sales and marketing at the organisation. “This was Veeam’s Act I and I am delighted that we have surpassed the $1 billion mark; in 2013 I predicted we’d achieve this in less than six years. 

“However, the market is now changing. Backup is still critical, but customers are now building hybrid clouds with AWS, Azure, IBM and Google, and they need more than just backup. To succeed in this changing environment, Veeam has had to adapt. Veeam, with its 60,000-plus channel and service provider partners and the broadest ecosystem of technology partners, including Cisco, HPE, NetApp, Nutanix and Pure Storage, is best positioned to dominate the new cloud data management in our Act II.”

In South Africa, Veeam expects similar growth. Speaking at the Cisco Connect conference in Sun City this week, country manager Kate Mollett told Gadget’s BRYAN TURNER that the company was doing exceptionally well in this market.

“In financial year 2018, we saw double-digit growth, which was really very encouraging if you consider the state of the economy, and not so much customer sentiment, but customers have been more cautious with how they spend their money. We’ve seen a fluctuation in the currency, so we see customers pausing with big decisions and hoping for a recovery in the Rand-Dollar. But despite all of the negatives, we have double digit growth which is really good. We continue to grow our team and hire.

“From a Veeam perspective, last year we were responsible for Veeam Africa South, which consisted of South Africa, SADC countries, and the Indian Ocean Islands. We’ve now been given the responsibility for the whole of Africa. This is really fantastic because we are now able to drive a single strategy for Africa from South Africa.”

Veeam has been the leading provider of backup, recovery and replication solutions for more than a decade, and is growing rapidly at a time when other players in the backup market are struggling to innovate on demand.

“Backup is not sexy and they made a pretty successful company out of something that others seem to be screwing up,” said Roy Illsley, Distinguished Analyst at Ovum, speaking in Miami after the VeeamOn conference. “Others have not invested much in new products and they don’t solve key challenges that most organisations want solved. Theyre resting on their laurels and are stuck in the physical world of backup instead of embracing the cloud.”

Illsley readily buys into the Veeam tagline. “It just works”. 

“They are very good at marketing but are also a good engineering comany that does produce the goods. Their big strength, that it just works, is a reliable feature they have built into their product portfolio.”

Veeam said in statement from the event that, while it had initially focused on server virtualisation for VMware environments, in recent years it had expanded this core offering. It was now delivering integration with multiple hypervisors, physical servers and endpoints, along with public and software-as-a-service workloads, while partnering with leading cloud, storage, server, hyperconverged (HCI) and application vendors.

This week, it  announced a new “with Veeam”program, which brings in enterprise storage and hyperconverged (HCI) vendors to provide customers with comprehensive secondary storage solutions that combine Veeam software with industry-leading infrastructure systems. Companies like ExaGrid and Nutanix have already announced partnerships.

Timashev said: “From day one, we have focused on partnerships to deliver customer value. Working with our storage and cloud partners, we are delivering choice, flexibility and value to customers of all sizes.”

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‘Energy scavenging’ funded

As the drive towards a 5G future gathers momentum, the University of Surrey’s research into technology that could power countless internet enabled devices – including those needed for autonomous cars – has won over £1M from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and industry partners.

Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute (ATI) has been working on triboelectric nanogenerators (TENG), an energy harvesting technology capable of ‘scavenging’ energy from movements such as human motion, machine vibration, wind and vehicle movements to power small electronic components. 

TENG energy harvesting is based on a combination of electrostatic charging and electrostatic induction, providing high output, peak efficiency and low-cost solutions for small scale electronic devices. It’s thought such devices will be vital for the smart sensors needed to enable driverless cars to work safely, wearable electronics, health sensors in ‘smart hospitals’ and robotics in ‘smart factories.’ 

The ATI will be partnered on this development project with the Georgia Institute of Technology, QinetiQ, MAS Holdings, National Physical Laboratory, Soochow University and Jaguar Land Rover. 

Professor Ravi Silva, Director of the ATI and the principal investigator of the TENG project, said: “TENG technology is ideal to power the next generation of electronic devices due to its small footprint and capacity to integrate into systems we use every day. Here at the ATI, we are constantly looking to develop such advanced technologies leading towards our quest to realise worldwide “free energy”.

“TENGs are an ideal candidate to power the autonomous electronic systems for Internet of Things applications and wearable electronic devices. We believe this research grant will allow us to further the design of optimized energy harvesters.”

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