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A discussion into starting a business in the education realm and the hurdles that were faced
It really doesn't need to be stated, but technology is changing everything. It has obviously changed schooling for the better with the internet and being able to connect to schools around the world and giving students access to a wealth of information. The 90's were a great time for this, as the Clinton administration was pushing for connectivity in schools, but beyond better computers and connectivity, advancement has been somewhat stagnant.
There are companies out there that are still focused on improving the education of our youth however, by introducing innovative teaching methods and services that not only benefit the students, but the educators, as well.
One example of this is the company, Happy Numbers. With a focus on math (obviously) the company is looking to improve the teaching and learning process for Pre-K students through 2nd grade by introducing what is essentially a virtual assistant for teachers. They are working on blending tech with traditional teaching methods, known as pedagogy. I had the chance to speak with Evgeny Milyutin of Happy Numbers to discuss the company, as well as the hurdles they had to overcome during the creation process.
Check out the interview below!
Care to introduce yourself and your role with Happy Numbers?
I am Evgeny Milyutin, the co-founder and CEO of Happy Numbers
What inspired the creation of Happy Numbers?
200,000 teachers leave the profession each year, due to a number of frustrations that are largely out of their control. We were inspired by how technologies like artificial intelligence, when combined with pedagogical best practices, can help teachers take back their profession and help students own their learning. We were inspired by how ownership over learning, for any student - not just the gifted ones - helps them believe that they can, and will, succeed.
We were inspired by how bringing AI-driven personal assistants into the classroom can change what it means to be a teacher. Meaning, it can free up a teacher to spend more time forming relationships with students, motivating them, pinpointing their interests and interacting with them on an emotional level. We were inspired to help educators get back to teaching for the reasons why they got into education to begin with - to follow their calling of changing lives.
What problems are you trying to solve?
Personalized learning, at scale, remains costly for schools. At the same time, personalized learning is extremely powerful - all teachers know this. 86 percent of teachers are constantly looking for ways to engage students based on who they are. Happy Numbers is equivalent to having a personalized teacher assistant for each student in the class. The problem to solve is finding the balance between "boring math exercises with no fun" versus "fun video games with no math.”
Gamification can often lag behind on the actual educational part, where math problems become just an irritating distraction of the game. These applications also aren’t personalized, and give the same tasks to each student, regardless of their unique abilities or preferred method of education. There is a need for applications to help students “think math,” explore the meaning behind the math and create a deep conceptual understanding of math.
When looking at Happy Numbers as a virtual assistant, it’s not a far stretch to discuss AI - do you see AI ever replacing the traditional, human teacher?
No. Oppositely, we believe that AI will help make teaching human again. The reality is that high-stakes standardized testing is one of the main reasons why up to 50% of teachers have considered quitting their job altogether. AI is not going to replace teachers - in contrast, it is going to make it easier for them to achieve their original goal of inspiring students and impacting their futures. They can spend more time focusing on things like critical thinking, and developing soft skills (such as confidence, creativity and intuition) - that are sure to increase in demand in the modern workplace - and difficult to learn in today’s world.
Deep, meaningful relationships is not one of the things that AI does well - for example, knowing what a child values and what they are motivated by may actually be the key to if they will be able to use critical thinking skills in the first place, while research has shown that a student’s expectation that they can and will succeed is one of the most important conditions for true learning. These pieces of the puzzle, which have little to do with test scores, are integral for student success. We do not believe that AI will replace teachers. In contrast, bringing in AI-driven personal assistants can help teachers find more meaning in their job than they have in a long time.
Are you in any classrooms now? What is the process for getting government approval?
Yes - Happy Numbers is used in many classrooms - more than 30 million math problems have been solved on the platform, and it is already widely used on a school district level. We have earned COPPA SafeHarbor, FERPA, and California Student Data Privacy Certifications.
What kind of hurdles did you have to overcome while starting out?
When we started out, we had some money to build a prototype and start selling it. We were enthusiastic and self-assured that it would work; we spent half of our money building it, but at a certain point we realized that the product was not working - many entrepreneurs make this mistake. For us, it was unexpected; when entrepreneurs build software, an expense reporting app for example, they build it for themselves, because they know first-hand how people use something like that. Here, we were building for users without really seeing them, realizing that they were just six years old - the children have habits you cannot model from your own.
We thought we knew everything about what our product should do, and how it should look, but when we gave it to the hands of these students it was a pretty big shock , We went back to fix it by working with the kids, and learning about the kids and their habits. As a result, each next version of the app was better. In the beginning, we struggled, made mistakes and tried to correct them. I use this story to encourage students to be of the growth mindset - that if something doesn’t work, you need to work harder and keep trying, and at a certain point you will make it.
Anything exciting coming to Happy Numbers in 2018?
We just announced a partnership with MetaMetrics to integrate their popular Quantile measurement framework for mathematics into Happy Numbers. This will connect students with the right resources that match their unique ability level, at the right times, which is key. Quantile measures are an increasingly common standard for math assessment and instruction across the United States.
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