Irish start-up CCKF uses algorithms to drive future of the classroom

13 Aug 2013

David Collery, founder of CCKF

In days of yore, it would have been a familiar sight to see a teacher standing tall at the top of a classroom, teaching schoolchildren, teens and indeed collegians from textbooks and using the blackboard. For the past few years, the drive of the digital era has been empowering teachers even further when teaching the next generation of workers in Ireland.

New technologies such as whiteboards, tablets, laptops and chromebooks are being gradually blended into the curriculum to change the face of education. The idea, it seems, is to give teachers more to work with when nurturing students from primary school all the way up to fourth level, and even students in lifelong learning courses.

Such digital technologies are impacting how students interact with teachers and fellow students, and indeed their own brains, to absorb information and learn new things.

Future Human

One Irish company is on a mission to capitalise on the digital space, fusing science with technology, with the goal of disrupting the classroom by using what it calls “intelligent algorithms”. It’s also aiming to create jobs for graduates and to keep its head office in Dublin. The ultimate goal, however, is to bring its new technology platform to new markets, starting with the US and then spreading globally.

The technology is called Realizeit and the company is CCKF.

Set up in 2007, the Irish science-tech start-up has spent the past six years working on its R&D from its Tallaght, Co Dublin, headquarters. The company also has a New York office.

Just last week, CCKF, which is receiving Enterprise Ireland backing, announced it is planning to grow its headcount to 25 skilled positions by 2014. That’s because the company has recently forged deals in the US with Colorado Technical University and American InterContinental University through its partner Career Education Corporation.

Students in more than 11,000 course areas have already used the company’s technology – think English composition, mathematics, accounting and business management.

In Dublin, CCKF already employs 18 people – a mixture of scientists, salespeople, academics and its founder, David Collery.

A mathematics teacher by trade, Collery, who hails from Co Sligo, has worked all over Dublin since the 1960s. Then, in the early Eighties, he migrated from the teaching business to start his own company. That venture, CCM, was sold in 2007. That’s when he decided to tackle a new area – using algorithms and data from the internet to create a new platform that could be used by partners in the academic space to help create more individualised learning maps for students. He couldn’t do it on his own, however, so Collery has built up a team comprising academics, salespeople, people with master’s degrees and PhDs to help create these algorithms.

It is an extremely labour-intensive and complex business to build these algorithms, he said. That’s why the company has been keeping under the radar for the past six years. Now Collery is ready to tell CCKF’s story.

Realizeit technology

He said the goal of CCKF’s Realizeit technology is to change the face of pedagogical partnerships (theory of how to teach and instruct students correctly) and to individualise student learning, right from primary level up to lifelong learning and continuing professional development.

He said the technology is not to disrupt the future of teaching, but rather to disrupt the future of the classroom.

One of the buzzwords of the moment in technology circles is ‘big data’, a term used to define huge volumes of both structured and unstructured data. Big data, or linked data and the semantic web, is really coming into play in the Realizeit platform pioneered by CCKF, according to Collery.

The onslaught of data analytics in recent times and big data is starting to be introduced in areas such as the medical sector, to improve patient healthcare and outcomes from illnesses. It’s also being used to map the future of smarter cities and to predict everything from water levels and crime levels in urban areas, as well as introducing sensor technology to monitor traffic flow and improve the transport fabric of a metropolitan area.

Now, from Dublin, Collery and his team are aiming to harness the internet to improve how people absorb and retain information suited to their individual strengths and creative leanings – be they dyslexic, have a high IQ, be they more suited to areas such as science, art, economics, carpentry or mechanics, or whether they have an intellectual disability or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It’s all about tapping into people’s unique capabilities and helping the teacher adapt his or her teaching style to suit the student.

“Up to now, learning systems in general have largely been content-driven,” said Collery. “Now there is textbook content with some sort of computer system.”

He said he decided to pursue CCKF in 2007 as he was pondering a way – based on his own insights as an academic and teacher – to create “intelligent” algorithms in order to pioneer an “enabling system” that could be used in the education space in order to suit the individual needs of students.

Individual learning styles

Realizeit is about tapping into a student’s unique learning style, pinpointing his or her individual capabilities, learning gaps, inherent talents, and helping nurture his or her skills right from the junior educational cycle and into adulthood.

“We want to create a longer learning map for students that will give a detailed profile of that individual’s knowledge and knowledge gaps right from primary level to university level and lifelong learning, even continuing professional development (CPD),” Collery said.

“It’s about using the algorithms to detect precise gaps in the individual’s knowledge and to align in with their learning styles.” It helps empower the teacher with more information in order to serve up appropriate content to students.

Realizeit is for people of all capabilities, said Collery. The algorithms pioneered by CCKF cover all subject areas.

“It’s to detect precise gaps in students’ knowledge and to intervene appropriately.”

The platform may also prove to be beneficial for parents one day. A spin-off could provide parents with a visual learning map so they can see in real-time their children’s progression through the education system and in what direction their talents and skill sets are heading – be it toward a career as a chef, an administrator, an editor or a caregiver.

Collery also said CCKF is feeding into Ireland’s “high quality” STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education system – spawning new jobs for those spinning out of third and fourth level with master’s degrees, PhDs and post-doctorate degrees.

The company is also upping its sales and marketing drive now that it is aggressively targeting the US education sector. The alliance with Career Education Corporation could be about to open new doors for CCKF, not only in the Chicago area, but also other areas of the US. There it will start with the K12 student cohort.

Eyes on the world

Ultimately, however, Collery wants the technology to go global to disrupt the future of individualised learning all over the planet. “We will be targeting applicable education markets.”

It’s all about pedagogical partnerships, he said. Having gleaned some “serious support” from Enterprise Ireland as a high-potential start-up, he said the company’s Realizeit platform creates the content that can be used by academia and industry.

Another benefit of the technology, Collery said, is that Realizeit carries the scope to create some 6m variable-type questions for teachers to utilise and to steer and produce their own curriculum.

“Realizeit is about creating a student profile on a learning map.” Collery said it is an interconnected map, with various colours depending on a student’s capabilities.

“The sophisticated R&D we have been working on for the past six years is underpinning an interconnected set of algorithms to create a learning engine. Can we nurture students in their personal learning?”

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 11 August

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic