SME Tech

Tuition centre harnesses technology and data to help students

Tuition centre's software tracks students' work and produces customised worksheets

Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes. Just ask students who are plugging away at past year's papers and 10-year series in preparation for their exams.

Technology can enhance the process by, for instance, tracking the questions that students have trouble with and generating practice papers that target their weak areas.

This use of data analytics was one of the scenarios sketched out by the 10-year Infocomm Media 2025 masterplan revealed by the Ministry of Communications and Information last week, which charts how technology will help citizens live, play, learn and work in the future.

But the future has already arrived at Beautyful Minds. The tuition centre has been using an in-house software called Geniebook since 2012 to record its students' progress and generate customised worksheets for them.

The marriage of technology and pedagogy was foremost on the mind of Mr Neo Zhizhong, 32, the centre's co-founder, a self-professed tech geek who was coding his own website when he was 14.

FREEING TUTORS TO TEACH

What we do is we use technology to manage the complexity of data that teachers cannot manage, which leaves them to focus on teaching.

MR NEO ZHIZHONG, 32, on the role that technology can play in pedagogy

"What we do is we use technology to manage the complexity of data that teachers cannot manage, which leaves them to focus on teaching," said the National University of Singapore business graduate, who started the tuition centre with Ms Alicia Cheong in 2007.

Students practise their given assignments on Geniebook, which is available as a website and an app on Android and iOS devices.

Tutors will then be able to see all the submitted answers on a single page. They will then mark them right or wrong, which the software will log for each student.

The system also handles multiple-choice or simple open-ended structured questions.

As Geniebook collects more information about each student, it can pinpoint which concepts a student is weak at. "The way for students to improve is for them to practise more in the areas that they are weak," said Mr Neo.

He said the idea of Geniebook came about when he realised technology can free up tutors' time from selecting questions and allow them to focus on teaching instead.

"It takes maybe five minutes per student to find other practice questions. If you multiply that by a class of 10, it's 50 minutes of the teacher's time wasted," he explained.

Over a period of six months in 2012, Mr Neo and his team of tutors and coders scoured textbooks and past exam papers for questions they could adapt.

They also wrote their own assignment questions.

They tagged the questions with keywords for the relevant concepts.

Take, for instance, a mathematics question such as: "It is noon. In 45 minutes' time, how many right angles would the minute hand have turned?"

That question would be tagged with #clock, #minutehand, #angle and #degree.

The result: a database of 50,000 questions which the Geniebook software draws from every time a student or teacher generates a worksheet.

Mr Neo estimates that the company has invested about $500,000 to develop the software.

Geniebook is free for all of the centre's tuition students, and is also available to the public for a monthly fee starting from $9.90.

More than 5,500 accounts have been created since the earliest version of the software was launched in 2012.

There are currently about 1,800 active users of Geniebook, comprising 1,000 tuition students and 800 public users.

Mr Neo is not stopping there and has his eye on developments in natural language processing. This is the field where computers learn human language.

He hopes to some day use it in Geniebook so that the software can generate its own natural-sounding and original questions.

He is also in the midst of rebranding the centre's name to Smart Plus, which emphasises the role that technology will play in its teaching. However, he added that even as data analytics technology improves, it will not supplant tutors.

"For sure, personalised learning will be a big thing.

"But technology and humans are complementary. No matter how good technology becomes, we will still need human teachers to act as supervisors," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2015, with the headline 'Harnessing technology to help students'. Print Edition | Subscribe