Exploring EdTech Episode 3
10/12/2023 Hosted by Tim Lavery
December 10 2023
In this episode I get an opportunity to see behind the scenes of a game development studio, Edralon is an early-stage edtech start-up that aims to offer a unique approach to education, using video games as a tool for learning, through the development of in-game, engaging and exciting learning experiences that are uniquely tailored for each user.
We meet Nicole Bonamici, the young powerhouse behind this game development startup to discuss her background, aims and ambitions for Edralon and the development of its first educational game, Oneiros.
With Computer Science on the Irish Leaving Certificate examination, I talk to Dr Keith Quille of the Technological University of Dublin about his journey in Computer Science from a Commodore 64 gamer in the 90's to senior lecturer in Computing.
But let’s kick off with some valuable insights from a fast-moving edtech startup, as we explore the ZickLearn micro-learning delivery platform and its CEO, Matteo Penzo.
Exploring EdTech: Episode 3
Welcome to Episode 3 of Exploring EdTech Podcast, as we delve into the dynamic world of education technology. Brought to you by Exploring EdTech magazine in partnership with EdTech Ireland. I am your host, Tim Lavery and I am delighted to take you on an inspiring journey through the ever-evolving landscape that is EdTech.
Tim: [00:00:00] Matteo Penzo, Welcome to Exploring EdTech
Matteo: Thank you, Tim. I love being here and Hi to all our listeners today.
Tim: Matteo you are the founder and CEO of the startup ZickLearn. Can you tell us what inspired you to start ZickLearn, and what exactly is it?
Matteo: I always say I'm a recovering consultant, spent the past 10 years leading the technology teams at one of the largest product design and strategy firms globally.
And I became famous for being the one employee that for 10 years never completed a single corporate training course. And I did that because I thought they were too lengthy, and they were defocusing me from my main tasks, which, simply put, were my clients and my teams, and I don't think they really added anything to my job.
So I never did any of those, but once I left Frog, I wanted to focus on the opportunity of transforming corporate learning for good for the time being. And that's why we created ZickLearn.
Tim: Super! ZickLearn's offering is based on micro learning and spaced learning. Can you tell us a little bit more about the unique features of ZickLearn?
Matteo: If you look at the corporate eLearning market today, depending on the research institute you decide to trust, standard eLearning fails, anything between 80 percent and 95 percent of the cases, for varied reasons.
If you remember what I just told about my story; reasons are different, I don't have time or, I'm not interested in the training, and it transforms into what we call a skip factory.
Everybody knows, right? You press next, next, to get to the very end in the quickest possible time and then you're back at your work.
In ZickLearn we are completely changing the paradigm. Instead of the learners having to adopt their own lifestyle to the training moment, we have the training perfectly adaptable to everybody's lifestyle. So, we distribute text-based micro-lessons to basically any chat client on the market, ranging from WhatsApp to Microsoft Teams, Slack, Webex, you name it.
You don't need to install or learn a new application, you don't need to create a new log in, it's already in your pocket, completely frictionless.
And every lesson takes an average of a minute and a half to be completed, including exercises. And that's why I'm saying it's the learning moment that adapts to your lifestyle because everyone of us has several moments in their day where they have these mere minutes of free time.
So, we have learners that do their lessons while they're still in bed very early in the morning, some others that do the training while they are waiting for their coffee to brew or while waiting for the bus, while commuting, in between meetings, the possibilities are endless.
Tim: Learning providers use your platform to leverage their existing training materials, to deliver to their learners and in a format and a mode, which is, as you put it, adapted to the learner's lifestyle. Very neat. Essentially, ZickLearn is the engine behind the learning platform. As such, it enhances the quality and success of training for its clients.
Matteo: Absolutely. We are a technology company. Obviously, the content we understand, it's on the critical path of our clients, so we help them in either producing or transforming the content they need.
We have partnered even before writing the first line of code. We partner with the learning science department of UC Berkeley in California, throughout this research, we produced a series of learning rules and approaches that we then embedded in the platform. And we help our client to leverage these rules to produce their content for ZickLearn.
Tim: As you mention UC Berkeley, has ZickLearn launched in the U S market yet, as part of a global expansion?
Matteo: Eventually, Yes. At the end of the day, you cannot define yourself as a global company if your market does not include the US, but not necessarily in the near future.
In every venture I create, I always want to think globally. I don't think you can build a scale up fast enough if you think locally. Yes, we definitely will be having a global footprint, for now our key markets are Ireland, UK and South Africa. So, let's say the English-speaking countries within our own time zone.
Tim: The whole concept of the creation of microlearning modules is very interesting in itself, but the analytics, the fact that your clients can, get immediate feedback on whether or not their training is being delivered, read, responded to, is really very clever. Your tagline of learning is just one text away is quite apt.
What are the future plans for ZickLearn and are there major changes, developments coming to the platform in the near future?
Matteo: Yeah, we will be opening the German and French markets in a couple of months, so we started our European expansion and following that we will be opening the next funding round, which for us will be Seed.
We just closed a pretty interesting Pre-Seed round that we used to build the product and start accelerating growth, obviously with the Seed money we have a lot of magnificent plans in terms of how the product should behave and how it should help both learning designers and learning.
Tim: As you've been through the funding hoops for Pre-Seed, and having established your startup in Ireland, have you any advice for aspiring European EdTech entrepreneurs?
Matteo: I would mention three. Number one, be open. Don't rely just on what you have close, but as I was saying before, I think globally, both in terms of team and market, me and my co-founders are Italian and we decided to establish the company in Ireland.
Our headquarter is in Dublin and the company is an Irish company because we believe that at this moment, Ireland is the best place in Europe to build a new venture, especially for the funding opportunities that the country provides and the incredible amount of talent, which is already sitting on the ground.
If you think about all the major tech giants, they have their European headquarters in Ireland, and our hiring strategy, for example, is when they fire, we hire. So that's how we get the best available talent on the market pretty quickly.
Second thing, which is, a segue to what I just said, our product team is based in Ukraine and it's a post war decision that we made. So, all of our engineers, all of our quality assurance analysts, the entire technical team, literally lives in a war zone, and this at the beginning, was a bit of a risk from our perspective. Two years later, I can tell you that it was definitely one of the best strategic decisions I took in my life.
Tim: And your third recommendation
Matteo: My third recommendation is, do what you love, especially when it's a venture, markets come and go, but passion is what remains and what will help you get ahead when things get muddy.
Tim: Matteo Penza CEO and founder of the Irish based, edtech startup ZickLearn, thank you for taking the time to tell us about your platform. Best of luck with your European expansion. And I hope to touch base with you again in the near future.
Matteo: Thank you, Tim. Thanks, everybody. Goodbye.
DR. KEITH QUILLE
Tim: [00:10:00] I'm joined by Dr. Keith Quill, a senior lecturer of computing at the Technological University of Dublin, TUD. Tell me a little bit about yourself and your current position.
Keith: Hi, my name is Keith Quill, I am a Senior Lecturer in TU Dublin in the School of Enterprise Computing and Digital Transformation. I'm the Programme Coordinator for our TU862 degree programme, which is AI and Machine Learning.
Tim: Keith, has computer science always been something you've been interested in? Did you start out as one of those computer Wizkid's back in the nineties?
Keith: I've always liked computers. From an early age, I've always liked computers. Programming more so actually, I just found that it really worked for me. Not everybody likes programming. I like everything to do with computers, of course, but I really enjoyed programming and I didn't really think I was going to be teaching.
In fact, I wanted to be an airline pilot originally, but in college I was doing a double degree at the time, physics and computer science and software engineering, and a lot of students came to me for help with the programming side of things, I really enjoyed that.
And I suppose it was that third and fourth year in university that I decided I really like teaching and how you teach computing. So, I guess that's how I ended up here in some strange, long roundabout way.
Tim: What was the very first computer you used and your first adventures in programming?
Keith: Oh, wow. The first computer was a Commodore 64 and I guess if you call that programming, I could do a little bit of that. Even when I was very young, it was probably around 1990 to 94, I think. And then after that, it was just anything to do with computers.
Tim: Fabulous. The Commodore 64, one of the very first home computers as they were styled. You basically get a keyboard, which also contains a motherboard, CPU, RAM, all built into it and you connect it to your TV, probably sounds a bit prehistoric now for today's generation Z.
Keith: So cool. Yep.
Tim: And with the era of home computing came the limitations of memory, resources, and programming which had to be very short and precise. It was an uphill struggle, almost a pioneering time. But at the end of the day, it was a great way to learn to code and develop a passion for computer science.
Keith: I was talking about this to fourth years the other day. We all have our difficulties. When we were programming very early on, it was all about memory. And then later on, my undergraduate final year capstone project was to develop a wireless Bluetooth heart rate monitor for a PhD yoga experiment.
And that took me months, like it really nearly didn't work for me. And now we can do these things so much quicker. But the problems exist now, where students have to talk to cloud and APIs and run big servers to train neural networks. I guess what I'm trying to say is that while they may not have had our woes, there's woes for every generation.
Tim: For each generation, of course, they are getting bigger and more complex. I'm just going back to your PhD project. The research project, which used AI to predict student success in third level computer science courses. I see that it has been cited a lot, and has developed hugely since you completed your PhD. Can you give us an overview of the study and the results, or maybe any takeaways from the research?
Keith: I was a pilot student for my supervisor's PhD. So, she started developing this, Susan Bergen, Dr. Susan Bergen is her name. And she was incredible. She developed this AI model over several years.
And I suppose when I came along to take up the work, we wanted to build it more, go larger. Susan ran it in three institutions in Ireland, I ran it on 11, and developed it. It is pretty good, it can predict for about 7 or 8 out of 10 students, their final year grade, or at least if they'll pass, fail, or drop out of first year computer science.
And then, since I finished my PhD, I now have an MPhil student who's just after completing work with neural networks on the same project. And I have master's student who is studying on our Human-centred AI Master's Programme. They're looking at how the model is trustworthy and how fair it is. It has been run on every continent, every inhabitable continent, in the world at the minute.
And she is just putting together some of her results for her final year thesis. So, I suppose the model has started in 2003, 2004. And it's 20 years old at this stage and it's getting good and we're hoping to put it into production.
Tim: So let's jump back a little, you mentioned you were doing physics and computer science for your undergraduate degree. What did you do after this, and before you decided to do a PhD?
Keith: I didn't think I was good enough to be a lecturer, as one does with imposter syndrome, I didn't think I was probably good enough to be a full developer either. As you leave college, you still think you don't know enough, so I ended up thinking that maybe I could be a secondary school teacher mostly to teach computer science, even though it didn't exist at that stage, which is ironic.
I tried my best. I ended up being a secondary school teacher, working in St. Conleth’s Community College in Newbridge. They were amazing. And they let me do some introductory computing when it didn't exist as a subject, and then I also was able to develop my own post-leaving cert course in computer science and started teaching it there.
That gave me confidence to go back to college, essentially. What originally started as a Master's ended up as a Ph.D., and my wife was instrumental, she was the one who said, it'd be good to go back to college, “Do a master's, you're ready for it,” and it went on from there.
Tim: Keith, you were also instrumental in the development and rollout of the new Leaving Certificate Computer Science subject. Which is now available in Ireland in several hundred schools. How did that come about?
Keith: I'm really lucky, being a secondary school teacher for many years, you understand the landscape pretty well, I think, or at least I'd like to think I do. So, basically I got involved at the end, but I was commissioned to develop some resources for it.
We were really lucky, a colleague from UCD and I, Brett Becker, we developed the book for the Leaving Cert. And then we've a research group in TU Dublin, CSInc, we started developing supports to support teachers, that was in continual professional learning. We developed an online MOOC for helping teachers and students in TY get a fundamental understanding of computing.
That was funded by SFI, the Department of Education. And we have 10,000 TY students using our system every year now, hundreds of teachers, and we're hoping that supports the rollout. To be fair, I just think I'm really lucky, the right place at the right time.
Tim: I think it was a smart move to bring it into Transition Year first so that you can develop the teaching and learning methodologies before getting it into the more prescribed Leaving Certificate
Keith: Oh, for sure. You have to bring it in easy. A lot of, nearly all the teachers are what we call out-of-field teachers. They have, they might have some local or personal computer science, interest or practice, maybe completed a couple of small courses, but the Leaving Cert is a Leaving Cert higher level subject and a lot of teachers are nervous to take it on, so the best way is incremental, building confidence.
Tim: And obviously you have to have a very solid CPD program to develop the skills of teachers to give them that confidence to be able to teach computer science at Leaving Certificate level
Keith: Yeah, we have, so the online system has something like 24 CPD sessions. And then also we have a higher diploma in our university for formally training teachers to get qualifications in computer science education as well as normal software development. So yeah, a lot of different options for teachers to use.
Tim: Keith, for a school that hasn't signed up to deliver Computer Science for Leaving Certificate yet, what resources are needed, is there a requirement for a full high-spec computer lab?
You're really talking not that much investment. Every time I talk to management or teachers, it's their biggest sort of take-home at the end of it. I know teachers need support to build their confidence and pedagogical skills and pedagogical content knowledge, but at the same time, it's not as big of an investment as most people think.
If I was to give any advice, I would save your money on the actual computers and tech and put a couple of monitors around the room so students can see, if you're doing some live coding or interactive coding sessions or something like that. Everything is open source, so it's free, usually, Leaving Cert Computer Science is quite cost effective if you're implementing it, if that helps.
Tim: Yeah, I think it's the perfect way to introduce a new subject so that it isn't resource heavy, and doesn't require schools to make a massive investment. And we both know with regards to computer science, most of this can actually be done, almost offline, you can do a lot of coding on paper or whiteboards. And as you mentioned with a set of micro-Bits or similar kit.
Tim: Over the past year, Keith, it has been just a year since ChatGPT broke onto the education scene with a bang. And educators had a year of a combination of excitement and terror, where do you think education is going in terms of AI and machine learning?
Keith: The word terror is the most worrying part of your question. There's so many misconceptions about this generative AI. It's really good at what it does but to be fair, it's no harm in it coming out. I'm a balanced opinion, if this helps. I liked it, but I also realise it's just a tool.
And it's very easy to get caught up in, let's not use it, or let's overuse it for every single thing we're ever going to do. It's still just a tool that generates text. Sometimes it is wrong, or the text may not match what you're asking to do. It's quite effective at what it does, but it's not infallible, it'll settle is what I think.
I'm more interested in the effect of what we look for in assessment, or how learning pedagogical approaches change. So, for example, a lot of the literature at the minute will say that we should avoid getting products at the end of a piece of learning, for assessment. What I mean by product is a document or a single piece because you never work like that.
You're never going to work as a software developer at the very end, they go, just show me the program, right? You have code reviews, you have meetings, you have design briefs. So I think in general, the consensus is to move to examining the process rather than the product. So for me, it's not as big a change or an influence. It's going to affect things for sure, but so did the internet. So did digital technologies. So did the calculator, in 1986, New York, teachers went out on strike because calculators came into schools. It's a quicker change than calculators. It's a quicker change than the internet.
But it's just a change.
Tim: Yeah, totally agree. I can remember back in the late 90’s, I think it was 1998, shortly after Google Search being launched, I introduced it to teachers in a CPD session. And there was that wow moment. The clever search engine for the huge behemoths that was the internet.
And there has been a similar moment since the arrival of chatGPT, a moment when teachers reassess what these tools can do for teaching and learning.
Keith: My worry is actually the interim. My worry is people becoming overly enthusiastic about it and forgetting that we're here to teach. So my answer to everybody is what do you really want the students to learn? And then see if the tools can support this or what assessment might look like.
I would hate for the tools to drive what assessment looks like, or I would hate for people to outright ban the tools because it's here. It's going to be built into everything that we're ever going to use. At the end of the day, I want people to be familiar with it if it assists them and supports them.
I don't want them, even in third level, I don't want students leaving without being a bit proficient with these tools, because it's going to help them in their career. It's going to mean they're going to be a bit quicker and more productive. And I hate that word, productive. But you get the idea. I just don't want people saying, we now have to build assessment around or on chatGPT when we're forgetting about the bigger pictures of learning outcomes development or what we really want them to understand. I think like I said, there's a place, I'm just nervous about the two far ends of the spectrum.
Tim: Yes. And it's definitely the case that education technology should be seen as part of the teaching and learning toolkit for teachers and learners. It should not be the case of the tail wagging the dog.
Keith: For sure.
Tim: Keith, your work in CSInc, can you tell us a little bit more about that and how CSInc works?
Keith: If I can talk about the team first, because that's the most impressive thing about it. There's about six or seven of us in TU Dublin that do this essentially in our spare time to support teachers and it's that team, it's that energy. Yes, we develop resources and we go out to schools and we develop online MOOCs and we do great research, but the team are phenomenal.
We have several members, half of them are doing PhDs because of it. Everybody buys into the ethos, and everybody supports each other. It is probably the most amazing group I've ever been involved with. And then I can talk about all the stuff they do, but it's those people who are changing computing education in Ireland, if that makes sense.
It's like the other stuff are byproducts of their enthusiasm and how much work they put in. I would say the hours that team put in, each member puts in at least as much as their regular job per week, we build amazing resources, it's just phenomenal at the minute.
Tim: This is, as you said on top of their day job as lecturers or whatever.
Keith: This is all volunteer, on top of hours. Yeah.
Tim: Before we wrap up Keith, a quick question for teachers and learners out there who are getting into coding what is your favourite programming language?
Keith: I don't have one if that helps. And the reason being is they don't matter. Today, for example, so already today I've been programming in Python, C sharp, and a little bit of, if you count it, SQL. We're working on a project getting a server up and running for CSInc, before you called, we were panicking heavily about it, but for me, it doesn't matter, languages will change over time.
Tim: Yeah, of course. For a teacher interested in developing their programming skills. Is there a one place or one resource that they should begin with?
Keith: No, but definitely try to be selective with resources or talk to people who know. What my biggest problem is, I nearly never did Computer Science, when I was in first or second year of secondary school, I asked my mum and dad to buy me a “C for Beginners” book, and it nearly turned me off computer science for life, it got so hard so quickly.
So, I guess my point is that, talk to someone who will point you towards resources that are suitable for your development, because if you get the wrong resources, it's nearly worse than no resources, if that helps.
Any support that will at least point you in the right direction, for sure.
Tim: Super stuff. Thank you, Keith Quille, for your insights into computer science, chatGPT and coding.
Keith: Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about this stuff.
Tim: [00:24:25] So I'm joined today by Nicole Bonamici. Welcome to Exploring EdTech,
Nicole. How does a Perrugia business student end up working on a game development startup in Ireland?
Nicole: First of all, thanks for inviting me. It's such a pleasure to be here. As you said, coming from a little city in the middle of Italy, halfway between Rome and Florence, so beautiful and especially for food and wine, really recommend it. Moved here during the summer, was based in the Netherlands before, and we started a project, my co-founder and I, a year ago or less, which is about creating a video game studio that is educational.
So, we bring knowledge and educational content inside a real video game. The company name is Edralon, and the name of the video game is Oneiros, which is an ancient Greek term for dream.
Tim: Nicole, you did a stint in Silicon Valley, I bet that was an interesting experience. Did it impact on your career progression?
Nicole: Wow, such great memories are passing into my mind right now. When I went to Silicon Valley, I was completely agnostic about the entrepreneurship world. And then coming there first time, it was like in the movies, right?
So, starting my project from scratch at the university with, international students, pitching out there to investors, real investors, it was amazing.
And I think the very big lesson I had from that experience was failure. So, coming from Italy, we have a really traditional culture and any time you fail is not seen such in a good way. But then in the US, it's different, if you fail, it means that you learn something from that failure. And obviously, if you're willing to restart and stand up again it's something seen in a beautiful way.
So failure is not something terrible, it's something you have to pass through to learn and grow and then become better. So, learning that, it changed completely my mind, especially when I came back to Italy.
Tim: Your game development startup Edralon is working on its first computer game. This is typically quite a slow process. What is the timeline around this? I presume we're looking at a two or three-year development.
Nicole: Yeah, definitely. At least two years are required to have a great game, three even better. So we are actually expecting to launch the early stage around September 2025 and have the final version in October, 2026.
Tim: So, the finished game will be made available on your own website and the Steam platform I'd imagine?
Nicole: Of course, and also on the Epic game store. We are developing the game in Unreal 5, which is an engine made by Epic games itself, the guys that made Fortnite and they actually are requiring you to upload the game also on their store as well.
Tim: As a game developer I presume you've explored the competition that's out there. As a gamer, what are you playing at the moment?
Nicole: So, the recent one I've been playing, actually I finished last weekend, is called Baldur's Gate 3. It's made by an indie game studio based in Europe and they started small like us and they made such good games.
This last one is amazing; it's a role play game like Dungeons and Dragons more or less but moved into a video game. So, you basically make your own experience. You learn from the game a lot in terms of decision-making strategical things because it's also tactical based and turn based. So, it's really an amazing one.
Tim: Baldur's Gate 3, created by the Belgian indie developer Larian, took home six awards, including best game at the recent World Games Awards, 2023. Can we hope to see Edralon and Oneiros at the awards in the future.
Nicole: Why not? Why not? Looking forward.
Tim: Nicole Bonamici, CEO of Edralon, thank you for spending some time with us today on Exploring EdTech.
Nicole: Thank you very much. See you.
Tim: Before I sign off this Episode, I would like to thank my guests Matteo Penzo, Dr Keith Quille and Nicole Bonamici, and our regular shout out to the team at the RDI Hub Killorglin for the ongoing use of their state-of the art media studio. Thanks to the EdTech Ireland Network and the World Explorers Bureau for their support and partnership. Last but not least, the essential ingredient in any podcast, you, our listeners, the edtech community, your support and encouragement is essential to making this podcast series a reality. Until next time, keep Exploring EdTech..