This post is part of our new Future of Education series which interviews the leading founders and executives who are on the front lines of the industry to get a better understanding of what problems the industry is facing, what trends are taking place, and what the future looks like.
The following is an interview we recently had with John Paul Benini, Co-Founder and CTO of Elemental Path.
1. What’s the history of Elemental Path? Where and how did you begin?
JPB: Elemental Path began back in August of 2014 with the concept of using bleeding edge technology to engage, entertain, and more importantly educate children. Initially, the core team had won the grand prize of the 2014 IBM Watson Mobile Developer Challenge with a proof-of-concept of a toy that could answer any child's question. Question and answer was a neat trick, but it wasn't enough, it was quite frankly boring and it didn't foster any educational play patterns, so we began to build out our own core technology: a dialog engine that was a hybrid e-Learning platform so it was capable of content leveling and generating completely unique responses based on previous interactions. We launched our initial product, the CogniToys Dino on KickStarter, meeting our goal in 18 hours, closing with 550% of our ask. With some fuel in the tank, we kicked into development high gear, month by month, rounding out the technology and the content, creating new interactions and stories every week, building out our own speech and speaker recognition models to increase recognition amongst children 5 and up, building our own knowledge base of child friendly answers (eventually moving off of IBM Watson and moving it internal), and of course, regularly testing and securing the platform. End result is an educational toy that within a year and a half has had over 6 million children led interactions, thousands of hours of interactive exercises, and mountains of data on what children do when information is presented to them. The growth and excitement continues to this day with our new products such as STEMosaur (a toy that a child builds themselves, then creates their own dialog patterns with a children's coding panel online) and Scout (To be released in the Fall of 2018, Scout is an inquisitive intergalactic traveler, doing research on human, with a child playing ambassador to human's weird ways). We look forward to creating more smart devices for children that bring the best technology out here but made safe and secure for the educational benefit of children.
2. What specific problem does Elemental Path solve? How do you solve it?
JPB: We are fighting the battle for children's attention and trying to bring informational, educational experiences back to technology. A big thing about our “solution” is that all of our toys are speech-driven, meaning out right there is no screen. At a time when many parents give their child a phone or tablet as the ever-present, always available babysitter early on, when these children are introduced to a classroom setting, teachers practically have to juggle chainsaws to maintain a child's attention. Baked into the interaction with the toys, there are mindfulness exercises: listening, awareness, and immersion. The child must stop and wait their turn before speaking to the toy – no interrupting. In conversation, the toy cares and responds to the child's thoughts about various topics and their day in general, building out soft skills in a way that no other apps or toys really can.
3. What’s the future of education?
Prediction #1: The future as far as I see it? It centers around the student: instantaneous access to specialized education, personalization of curriculum, and the application of big data in testing. Online academies seem to be all the rage right now, but what I see particularly valuable about them is how easy they are to get to. Want to learn a new language? Want to pick up a new skill or reinforce an old one? There are apps, courses, and communities that are always available and broken down to a multitude of different skill levels and a self-driven learner could literally help themselves.
Prediction #2: Bringing up the second point, standardization kills clever and learning for a test isn't learning at all. We are at a point with technology that we can gather massive amounts of information on almost any topic and allow students to dive into their heart's content. If we can harness this interest, coupled with testing for understanding and retention, we can give anyone with internet access the tools to meaningfully learn about almost any field.
Prediction #3: Which brings me to the last bit, better test taking. Humans do not all learn the same way or retain the same way, but for ease of assessment, we are all tested the same way. With enough data, we could specialize these tests, classify and categorize test takers to better test their understanding of materials rather than just their regurgitation. Think of it as using technologies such as natural language understanding and contextual analysis to be able to ask and “show your work” for all manner of questions, but more importantly, assess why things are answered wrong, giving feedback, and tailoring a method for correcting specifics. The future of virtual assistants for education should be virtual one-on-one tutors.
4. What are the top 3 technology trends you’re seeing in education?
Trend #1: Distance learning has given way to online courses, which have now blossomed into massively open online courses and academies. I don't see this trend slowing down anytime soon, and if anything gaining more momentum with more skills, courses, and topics being covered and the associated people interested in those areas building online communities around them.
Trend #2: Another big trend I'm seeing is the gamification of education. At younger ages, I can see the benefit of this, but the merits of this can be argued at higher levels. As a mechanism to keep students engaged and entertained while learning to cook, code, or speak another language, I can see the benefit, as long as the lessons are being split for the benefit of profit rather than the benefit of the student.
Trend #3: And of course the biggest trend: STEM. Working with computers is no longer a choice but a necessity of the modern workplace and building those skills early can make a huge difference in a student's career trajectory but more importantly how they approach critical thinking and problem solving.
5. Why is the education industry ripe for disruption?
JPB: The latest trends in STEM, coding, and skill-based education are a step in the right direction, but they are till using methods that are centuries old. We live in a time in unprecedented technological ubiquity – every facet of our lives now involves or is effected by technology, yet most educational systems have yet to embrace advancement, instead relying on electronic analogs to existing things (e-testing that offer no benefit to paper texting, bulletin boards for students that do not foster information exchange, eBooks that are expensive as their textbook counterparts). The education industry is absolutely ripe for disruption.
About John Paul Benini
John Paul Benini (JP) is the Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Elemental Path — the company making smart toys smarter through its CogniToys product line and Friendgine technology. He also holds a roll as CTO of Majestyk Apps, a premier software engineering agency specializing in scalable mobile applications, award winning design, with clients ranging from small startups to major brands.
He is a self-taught server and network infrastructure specialist, having worked with Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan Chase and NASDAQ OMX, where he accrued a deep understanding of trading system design and high volume systems architecture. JP first turned his attention to the more entrepreneurial side of technology, leaving finance tech to work in AI and cognitive computing, making waves by winning the IBM Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, beating out more than 400 business concepts, submitted by teams spanning 18 industries from 43 countries. He is also very active in the NYC LGBT Finance and Technology spaces and has presented developing trends at the inaugural White House LGBT Innovation Summit, as well as shaping the cognitive computing space, leading discussions on AI and cognitive computing in various technology panels.