Shoulders of Giants: "Democratizing Learning"

Known for the best education system, Finland does not seem to stop surprising us with innovations and new ideas in Ed field. The heroes of our today’s article are Elja-Ilari Suhonen, the CEO and Ari Kaukiainen, the head of Sales and Partnerships of an EdTech startup called Shoulders of Giants (SoG). Founded through a collaboration with teachers and students, SoG has made Artificial Intelligence (AI) - based education management platform Co-Teacher that offers scalable learning management and allows students to get easier access to study counseling. Elja and Ari agreed to talk to Her Campus about their company and the big input they are providing for the future education.       

Is there any story behind the startup name?

Elja & Ari: We were inspired by the metaphor once used by Isaac Newton in his familiar expression “If I have seen further it is by standing on the Shoulders of Giants”, which originally would mean “discovering truth by building on previous discoveries”. However, in our case, we want to give students the Giants' support to their learning and help them become empowered in their studies and work.

How did you come up with an idea for the startup?

Elja: Two and a half years ago I had a discussion with my teacher friends both from Finland and Puerto Rico and we found out that there are common global problems among teachers: the government is cutting the education funding, teachers' workload comprised of routine tasks is growing, there is lack of time to develop teachers' pedagogy and provide individual support for students as well as class sizes are growing. By analyzing the problems, we came up with the platform that can provide scalable and personalized tutoring and learning management for teachers and students with the help of AI. 

How does Co-Teacher function and what are the benefits to students and teachers?

Elja: By using AI platform, students may check their weekly schedules and have the whole picture of what is coming up as e.g. events, lectures, deadlines etc. Apart from study schedules, students can integrate their work schedules and hobbies to ensure they have enough time to take care of all tasks they have set. In addition, the platform allows students to integrate Outlook and Gmail. We have found out that teachers spend a lot of time on evaluating assignments. Currently, we offer an AI-assisted text evaluation tool based on keywords that allows teachers to do pre-evaluation through comparative and quantitative analyses and make the final evaluation faster and more thorough. The tool works both in English and in Finnish.      

Ari: Another feature of Co-Teacher is a chatbot that helps teachers answering routine questions and gives students immediate access to study counseling. The chatbot can be trained through machine learning to be able to answer students' questions about courses and their content as well as studies in general. This allows students to get help immediately 24/7 when they need it. Also, the chatbot allows teachers and study counselors to have more time for students with more complex and personal problems. In addition to the chatbot, we have supported social learning through chatting functions for groups and individuals on our platform. Co-Teacher can pair students that can help each other if they struggle with similar problems. One important feature of AI behind the platform is that both teachers and students can participate in developing its understanding, which improves AI's ability to give better answers. Students are able to report answers given by the chatbot and teachers can make changes in the way chatbot answers certain questions. We call this method Teachers as Developers.         

What are the biggest achievements of the startup so far?

Elja: lt is worth mentioning that we were chosen to Menorca Millennials 2018 accelerator program, which picks Top 30 of socially impactful startups from nearly 400 global startup applicants. Also, we are super proud to be the winner of the Startup Garage competition hosted by Nebula and Bassoradio in December 2017. After the victory, we joined Aalto University accelerator program in January 2018.

Ari: We have conducted pilot tests of Co-Teacher with the biggest universities of Applied Sciences in Finland. In piloting it is our mission to understand the challenges of our partners and to produce services that the schools really need. Additionally, we have done a 2-year research as well as multiple academic qualitative interviews with teachers to check if the problems were identified correctly. In the research, we found out that teachers were overwhelmed by growing classroom sizes, an increasing portion of routine work, as well as concerned with the number of dropouts. Just to illustrate, depending on a students’ level (Bachelor and Master), schools lose from 10 000 to 100 000 Euros per student if they drop out. Our mission is to help schools tackle the student retention rate.

Elja: After succeeding in Finland we are aiming for international growth so that we can offer benefits of our AI tutoring for teachers and students globally. We are first expanding in Nordics, Latin America and MENA (the Middle East and North Africa region). The SoG's input into the education was also noticed by the UNESCO. In the future, we are certainly looking forward to working more and more with NGOs as well as public organizations. There are a lot of aspects on the public administration side where Co-Teacher could be utilized to bring co-efficiency and better flow of information.  

Do you have any competitors?

Elja: At this point, we do not have any direct competitors. We are looking for synergies with EdTech companies instead of seeing them as competitors. Our philosophy is not to compete but to collaborate.  

Ari: However, in comparison to other EdTech companies, we are tackling problems of management and counseling instead of offering intelligent learning content management. Because of this, we can collaborate with content providers in giving the better study management framework around the intelligent learning content. Our approach enables the management of studies around the content and mass customization of the administration around learning, where the content can be changed but the frame is always the same.

Elja: The fact that the content inside our management framework can be easily changed means that different departments in a school can use the platform with their own content and teach the AI in the way they see it. What makes our startup strong is that we have identified genuine needs of schools and have a broad picture of students' and teachers’ problems. Our mission connects with people on the emotional level too.

What is the potential of AI and digitalization in learning?

Elja: What we can see now is that work trends are changing rapidly and unfortunately, both higher education and the business sector cannot meet the needs of working life. Since we cannot hire an endless number of the educators, there should be an effective platform to deliver learning outside institutions. Co-Teacher coordinates millions of students between universities in different countries and continents and offers them the best learning paths.

Ari: If we look at the education from the philosophical or ethical point, we want to enable students globally to have access not only to high quality but also to economical education. The key point of automation is to move from manual work to more creative work, and it is not about people losing their jobs, it is about changing the nature of work. With AI tutoring platform teachers will have more time to develop the pedagogy and give attention to other teachers instead of doing manual work.  

Elja: We are delivering our message regarding the learning management to different schools abroad, and at the same time we are looking for Student Ambassadors internationally, who would want to be our early adopters and spread the word of Co-Teacher in their schools. If someone of the readers is interested in being an ambassador, you can get in touch with us through our website or Facebook.

Thank you very much for the interview and we wish you all the best with the development of SoG!