How This AI-Powered Edtech is Contending with Growth

In this new series, Stream explores how smart, innovative edtech companies are rethinking their product strategies and adding key features and functionality to better serve their customers. Here, we virtually sit down with Rob Percival, founder of the newly launched edtech platform, Blutick, to learn what capabilities students and teachers value most in their edtech. This Q&A is a sneak peek of Stream’s upcoming edtech-focused ebook, “Edtech Today: 8 Startups on Managing Exponential Growth.”

There are thousands of apps and online tools designed to help students learn mathematics, but for math teacher and software developer Rob Percival, they all failed in one critical way: While most tools grade students after they complete a problem, few have the ability to indicate where they made a mistake in their work.

Recognizing the potential of a math tool that provides targeted and instant feedback to students, Percival developed an AI-enhanced edtech program with line-by-line analysis and easy-to-follow expert videos. As students work through math problems, a smart grading feature detects where they make mistakes, instead of just telling them their answer is incorrect. In partnership with master educators from the prestigious Perse School Cambridge, Blutick launched late 2019.

With over 80,000 (and counting!) users — a number Percival directly attributes to more students learning at home due to the coronavirus — Blutick is primed to become the next big thing in mathematics learning programs.

We caught up with Percival to explore how real-time feedback drastically improves learning retention, why motivation is key to keeping students engaged, and AI’s role in edtech now and in the future.

Can you explain your journey from teacher to entrepreneur?

I was a math teacher for ten years, and in 2014, I started teaching coding and app-building courses on Udemy. I was frustrated with online teaching’s video courses and basic multiple choice-type quizzes because there wasn’t a more profound way for me to interact with my students.

Inevitably, I returned to classroom teaching and found that edtech tools were outdated — it was still just videos and multiple-choice questions. My students who used traditional edtech tools struggled with their confidence because they received binary answers with no feedback — they just told students their answers were right or wrong. As a teacher, this was incredibly frustrating.

I sat down with educators from The Perse School Cambridge, and they were excited to help me build a new tool. The Perse School provided videos and educational content; I built the platform that became Blutick. And we started getting feedback from kids and teachers from day one.

Why is real-time feedback integral to student learning and motivation?

Kids using Blutick work through problems gradually, and when they make mistakes, the system tells them exactly where they went wrong. When they submit their answer, they don’t think, ‘I’m an awful mathematician.’ Instead, they think, ‘I just made a mistake, and now I know what to do next time.’ This method both identifies what the student doesn’t understand and builds their confidence.

How should teachers and AI tools optimally work together?

We are trying to create the experience of having a personal tutor sitting next to you. I’m keen on getting computers to do what they are good at, and enabling humans to do what humans are good at.

Computers are very good at grading work, and AI is good at providing feedback. This can give back a lot of extra time for teachers, who are excellent at encouragement, emotional support, creativity, providing specialized attention, and investigating more complex maths theories.

What are some of edtech’s most significant challenges?

Edtech is extremely challenging because it has to meet the needs of a range of different user types.

Onboarding teachers is challenging because they don’t necessarily all want to do the same thing on our platform: Some teachers want to try out questions and learn what topics Blutick supports; others want to see how classroom organization and student tracking work. This is why watching people use your product is essential because it helps the creators of edtech tools understand their users’ needs.

How has the global pandemic affected Blutick and the edtech industry as a whole?

The overall usage of edtech products has massively exploded. We saw a 100-fold increase in Blutick usage from February to April.

Now, teachers are trying to balance teaching in-person and teaching remotely. They are trying to use edtech as a supplement. Inevitably, I believe we will come out of [this pandemic] with the realization that a hybrid model of learning, including online and in-person classes, is optimal.

On that note, what do you think the future of edtech will look like?

It’s all about training computers to act like teachers, and I anticipate AI-enhanced learning will gradually move up the levels of more subjective coursework, such as science, the humanities, and even literature and art. Imagine that AI could give meaningful feedback on an essay, a poem, or even music. Once kids and adults get this level of feedback, they will progress that much faster. And teaching can then be less about repetition and marking, and more about support, encouragement, and investigating complex or abstract topics.

Takeaway: Real-time feedback is a vital component of smart, effective edtech tools.