Innovative approaches to learning are creating new business opportunities.
When they were first introduced, Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), instructional materials offered by universities over the Internet for free or for a [usually] low price, were simply low-tech and unidirectional videos of professors giving lectures. Today, with the help of MOOC startups such as U.S. firm Coursera, MOOCs have become sophisticated interactive experiences featuring high production values, charismatic professors, and lots of multimedia resources. Certificates issued upon completion of the courses have gained respectability.
The growing sophistication and acceptability of MOOCs is indicative of the increasing integration of technology into education. Dubbed Technology Enabled Learning (TEL), what was formerly known as EdTech broadly encompasses everything from MOOCs to educational websites to learning APPs and personal tutor platforms. TEL has aroused the interest of educators as a way to extend educational resources more broadly throughout the culture while enabling more personalized learning. Companies see opportunities in supplying the technology and the business models.
Taiwan is famous for its Information Technology (IT) industry and its education resources, positioning it well for the TEL sector. IT manufacturing generates half of economic growth, and the nation of 23 million is home to nearly 130 universities and has one of the highest proportions of university and advanced degree holders in the world. But with Taiwan’s economy still dependent on outdated technology-industry models and its educational system continuing to follow traditional modes of rote-learning and test taking, Taiwan was slow to take the lead in TEL.
That has changed in recent years, however, as both startups and more venerable technology firms have been entering the TEL segment with great success. Benson Ping-cheng Yeh, a professor of electrical engineering at National Taiwan University (NTU), gained considerable recognition in the TEL space for his invention of the PaGamO MMOG (Massive Multiplayer Online Game). Yeh’s innovative game is gaining traction around the world, and Yeh is currently working with public schools in Taiwan and abroad to feature the game in schools.
Language learning is a particular focus for Taiwan, where huge numbers of people study a second language, particularly English, while thousands of foreign students come to learn Chinese. The language-learning sector has been an early adopter of TEL and continues to be an innovator. TutorMing, for example, the Chinese-language-learning subsidiary of TutorABC, the online English-learning platform popular in both Taiwan and China (and itself part of the large iTutorGroup), features one-on-one instruction with a live teacher.
Woodpecker Learning is the latest addition to this growing field. Founded by Taipei-based New Zealander Peter Sutton, formerly an economist with CLSA, Woodpecker draws on Sutton’s own experiences learning Chinese to generate volumes of useful and usable materials for intermediate language learners around the world struggling to find appropriate content.
Based on a personal philosophy that good teaching must be clear and fun, Benson Yeh was one of NTU’s rising stars. In 2010, just five years after joining the university faculty, he won the prestigious Outstanding Teacher Award, given to only the top 1% of NTU professors.
But this early success actually led to a crisis of confidence, when only two days after winning the NTU award, he discovered students sleeping through his class. “Before I won the award, if people fell asleep in my class, I could take it,” he recalls. “But after I got the award, I asked myself ‘If I’m such a good teacher, how come students are still sleeping in my class?’”
That crisis led to an epiphany. “I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night and realized that good teaching is about more than being clear and fun,” he recalls. “It’s about how to get students motivated and engaged. Otherwise, no matter how clear or fun the lecture is, it’s not going to work. So since 2010, I’ve been working on how to get our students motivated and engaged.”
“Students nowadays are very different from my generation,” Yeh concluded after observing his students closely. “Forcing them no longer works.” Instead, he notes, students are motivated by the chance to participate in competitive play, and they crave the approval of their peers. Based on these observations, Yeh began introducing social gaming elements to his classes, to great success. From these early attempts was born PaGamO, his award-winning MMOG which in 2014 won the prestigious Reimagining Education Award offered by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and referred to as the “Oscars” for innovation in education.
PaGamO combines world-building reminiscent of Minecraft and other online and board games with academic exercises and problem solving. In PaGamO, students work in teams to solve problems and answer questions to conquer territory. They can colonize open land, or conquer another team’s territory, both by solving problems. But territory can be protected from conquest by developing it, with improvements earned, again, by solving problems. To conquer an improved territory requires answering more and tougher questions. The format engages millennials brought up on a steady diet of online gaming and social media.
Yeh was invited to develop an MOOC by Coursera CEO and former president of Yale University Rick Levin. His course on Probability featured PaGamO, and was not only the first on Coursera to employ an MMOG, but also the first in Chinese. Research studies have shown that success in conquering territory on PaGamO is positively correlated with higher grades.
PaGamO is now being used at several Fortune 500 companies as part of their training course and the University of Pennsylvania signed a three-year contract to use PaGamO in its dental school.
Recently Yeh took a leave of absence from NTU to focus on developing PaGamO, as rules in Taiwan bar faculty members from teaching while serving on the board or executive team of a company. He will continue to take charge of NTU’s Coursera offerings, however, and from his new position as CEO of his startup, he is developing plans to introduce PaGamO into K-12 public schools throughout Taiwan, the United States, and elsewhere.
Learning a second language is hard, and students will find any number of excuses to stop taking classes and defer their dreams of attaining fluency. That’s why TutorMing employs a number of tricks to help students overcome such challenges.
As lack of time is students’ favorite pretext for discontinuing their studies, TutorMing’s tutoring sessions last no longer than 45 minutes. It provides online private tutors 24 hours a day to accommodate even the busiest schedules.
Founded by educator Yang Ming, the online programs of the iTutorGroup are based on proprietary technology, including its patented Dynamic Course Generation System (DCGS) designed to match students with the most appropriate course depending on their skills and interests.
TutorMing uses the same technological platform and methods as TutorABC to meet the growing need for Chinese language learning. China’s rise has elicited strong interest in learning Chinese from people around the world, with an estimated 35 million language learners currently struggling with characters and tones. TutorMing is aimed at those who are interested in learning Chinese but are unable to access a qualified teacher in their home country, as well as foreigners living and working in Taiwan or China who are just too busy to enroll in a formal class.
During tutoring sessions, the teacher is visible to the student on a small screen via a web-camera, the student is not visible to the teacher. That arrangement is another means of depriving students of an excuse – such as “my home is a mess” – to avoid a lesson. “We use a one-way camera so they can be very relaxed,” says Christine Wang, PR rep for TutorMing. “They can be on the couch, they can be in the middle of a lot of junk, they can be wearing pajamas or even naked and not have to worry about being judged.”
The student is not visible to the teacher for issues of security as well. In the TutorABC experience, lots of celebrities in Taiwan and China want to improve their English, but wish to avoid publicity.
The right side of the screen acts as a white board for the teacher to provide learning resources, while a chat box below the camera allows for written clarification of sentence patterns.
TutorMing discourages students from taking notes, as the entire lesson is recorded and can be reviewed by the student at will.
Christine Wang emphasizes that TutorMing differs from similar online tutorials offered over Skype in the flexibility and durability of its platform and in its attention to tech support in case of problems. Even more importantly, teachers are certified Chinese-language teachers from Taiwan and China. In fact, many of them are teaching in the foreign language departments of universities in the United States and Europe, allowing TutorMing to offer instructions hours in any time zone.
Entrepreneur Peter Sutton says the inspiration for Woodpecker Learning emerged from his own struggles to achieve fluency in Chinese. After several years of intense study, he had reached the point where he could read at a fairly high level, but his listening and speaking skills were less advanced. Advised to watch Chinese-language TV to improve his listening comprehension, he was frustrated by the speed at which the subtitles passed along the screen, and wished for a way to somehow pause the broadcast and find the definition and context for any given word that he didn’t understand. It occurred to him that if he faced this frustration, others probably did as well.
That inspiration led him to join forces with Gijs Slijpen, a Dutch native studying engineering and Chinese in Taiwan, who had experienced those same frustrations while learning Chinese. The two brought their business and engineering acumen to bear to develop an app that would allow students access to thousands of subtitled YouTube videos. By itself, this idea was not new. The difference is that Woodpecker features built-in dictionaries to provide instant clarity.
If a language learner watching a video on Woodpecker hears or reads an unfamiliar word, placing the cursor over the word in the subtitles brings up the word’s definition and context. A simple click enables the viewer to rewind as needed.
The name Woodpecker Learning refers to the woodpecker’s persistence in tapping at the tree trunk. So far the company has some 410 channels and 67,000 videos already on its site aimed at English-language learners, which remains by far the largest market for language learning around the world. For Chinese-language learning, Woodpecker provides 27 channels with over 4,800 videos with Chinese audio and subtitles, and 950 videos with English subtitles as well.
Woodpecker is aimed at high intermediate to advanced language learners who, for the sake of immersion training, need content originally generated for native speakers. Besides English and Chinese, it has plans to launch Spanish, Japanese, German, and French services, which will allow students to translate not just into English but directly between those languages as well.
Woodpecker provides these open-source dictionaries free of charge to learners and vows to never charge for content that is otherwise offered freely over the Web. It is preparing to offer deluxe service packages for a charge in the future.