“Effective ed-tech requires a strong pedagogical foundation”
Evgeny Milyutin, CEO of Happy Numbers, explains how instructional ed-tech with a strong pedagogical foundation enables teachers to provide personalized instruction.
Aisha Schnellmann: You point out that ed-tech needs a strong pedagogical foundation. Why is that important?
Evgeny Milyutin: Ed-tech is a fairly broad term. More specifically, I would say that a strong pedagogical foundation is especially critical for instructional ed-tech. As we developed our artificial intelligence-enabled math education platform, Happy Numbers, one of our first steps was to talk to teachers about the challenges of teaching math to young children.
We found that pedagogy is among the biggest challenges for teachers. Since mathematics is a highly conceptual subject, conveying the underlying meaning effectively to children requires the incorporation of various pedagogical techniques and best practices. Happy Numbers does that, based on extensive research, discussions with educators, and tests of our products with children.
As the role of instructional ed-tech is to support teachers, it is important for it to be driven by pedagogy and supported by technology, and not the reverse.
AS: Creating ed-tech for young children requires a keen understanding of what they need to learn and how learning takes place. What did you discover?
EM: We found that video lessons are not as effective with elementary-aged children as with older students and adults. Younger children quickly lose attention and focus, so they benefit less from such passive forms of learning. In contrast, the hands-on approach works very well. When young students are actively engaged in discovering the meaning behind math by building models and connecting ideas, they learn more. They never forget what they have built themselves.
“As the role of instructional ed-tech is to support teachers, it is important for it to be driven by pedagogy and supported by technology, and not the reverse.”
When it comes to using gamification to keep children engaged in learning, there is a thin line between games that are beneficial to learning and those that are not. For example, when math is incorporated into a video game as a way of introducing mathematical concepts, but only as an afterthought, children will focus on the game and not on learning the relevant concepts. They then perceive the math content merely as an obstacle to be overcome before they can return to the game.
If done right, math itself is already gamified. When students take a hands-on approach to solving a problem, or when they build a model, that in itself is an engaging game. So there is no need to add something “cool” like a typical video game to add interest and keep children engaged. The focus should be on engaging students with the subject, and less on playing a game.
AS: Will ed-tech eventually replace teachers?
It is not an issue of technology replacing teachers and taking their jobs. In fact, the teaching profession will be one of the least affected by artificial intelligence and automation. Over the next 10 to 15 years, the number of teaching jobs in the United States will grow as demand for good teachers increases. Demand for workers with college and advanced degrees is also expected to increase substantially in the digital economy. The challenge facing teachers and education systems will be to meet this demand. Concern that technology might replace teachers in the digital economy is unfounded.
Teachers often tell us that they are asked to provide the same quality of instruction for a class of 20 to 30 kids as they would for one. Now that years of research have demonstrated the benefits of personalized learning, we are increasingly expecting teachers to provide high-quality individualized instruction. This is where ed-tech can be of value.
“If done right, math itself is already gamified.”
Instructional ed-tech programs such as Happy Numbers, which is an adaptive math teaching assistant, have begun to pave the way for personalized learning in the classroom. Instead of using a one-lesson-fits-all model, teachers we’ve been working with in the United States are splitting their classroom into smaller groups of 5 children, each group taught in rotation. The teacher focuses on the first group – which is small enough to approximate one-to-one interaction – while the rest of the groups work independently with Happy Numbers, waiting for their turn with the teacher.
Moreover, while ed-tech is capable of a great deal, it remains extraordinarily difficult for technology to replicate human interaction and create the meaningful relationships that good teachers have with their students. Human interaction and instruction are extremely important and cannot be entirely replaced.
Ed-tech will not replace teachers, but it will support them in their efforts to provide high-quality, personalized instruction to prepare their students for the jobs of the future.
AS: How important is data protection in the ed-tech industry?
I think it is a very important issue. Tech companies must store and handle personally identifiable information properly to ensure that students’ data are not sold for marketing purposes.
Policymakers are addressing these concerns. In the U.S., for instance, among the policies that have been put in place are the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act in the United States, as well as California’s Student Online Personal Information Protection Act and the AB1584.
“Ed-tech will not replace teachers, but it will support them in their efforts to provide high-quality, personalized instruction to prepare their students for the jobs of the future.”
Evgeny Milyutin is the co-founder of Happy Numbers. After completing his schooling in his native Siberia, Russia, he moved to Moscow, where he earned a university degree in Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics. He subsequently received a PhD from Ecole Polytechnique Fèdèrale de Lausanne, Switzerland, and completed a program in entrepreneurship at Babson College in Babson Park, Massachusetts.
Happy Numbers helps PreK-5 teachers provide differentiated instruction and assist students in gaining a more profound understanding of mathematical concepts. Driven by pedagogy and supported by technology, it teaches students to “think math” – students explore the meaning behind the math, building on simple concepts to create connections and develop a deeper understanding. Happy Numbers has offices in Switzerland and the United States. In Switzerland, Happy Numbers is located in the EdTech Collider.
The Swiss EdTech Collider is Switzerland’s first collaborative space dedicated to ambitious entrepreneurs transforming education and learning through technology. It is co-founded by the Jacobs Foundation.
Located in the EPFL Innovation Park just a few steps away from EPFL’s Center for Digital Education, the EdTech Collider provides a modern coworking space to its members ranging from early-stage to established startups. Unlike a classical startup incubator or accelerator program, the EdTech Collider offers ongoing support and access to ed-tech experts, industry leaders, and investors.