Education

They Are Subtracting Tricky Maths Sums From Our Lives - Just Take A Photo For A Free Answer

In 1992, 33% of Primary to Pre-U students were taking tuition, and parents were paying $150 every month.

Fast forward to 2016, and monthly fees for a child can now cost over $2,000.

What began as help for weaker students has now become a necessity. It’s not about who needs it but rather, who can afford it – an veritable arms race.

Seeing this, innovators have also started devising ways of tapping onto this demand with EdTech, and one of them is Miao Academy.

Miao For Math

Founded by Betty and Ze Xuan, this startup has created a solution to DIY Math help.

Their app can help you solve questions and suggest similar questions for reinforcement learning. Students don’t have to type questions in either – simply snap a photo and the app will do the rest.

The app supports the K7-12 Mathematics syllabus (Primary 6 to JC year 1), as well as materials from MOOCs (online courses).

The entire platform is also free to use as “it doesn’t make sense for them to charge for content MOOCs have uploaded for free”.

Image credit: Miao Academy Team

3 months since their October 2016 launch, Miao Academy was downloaded over 4,500 times and their success isn’t limited to Singapore.

“We have over 22,000 sign-ups globally today and only 33% is from Singapore.”

Miao Academy is popular in US and UK, Betty says.

Although the Singapore curriculum is used as the base, it also cover elements from international curricula like the IGCSE.

Head Cats Betty And Ze Xuan

Image credit: Miao Academy Team

Betty has always been involved in education, with past stints at the Australian Academy of Science and private tuition. He was the same, Ze Xuan says, with previous non-profit startup OpenLectures for A-Level students.

While in NS, he met his now co-founder, who shared the idea for a platform where students could “search and access education”. 

“As the more technical person, I was convinced by its potential and immediately joined the bandwagon.”

“Machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) is widely used [but] the EdTech market remains untouched. We think it’s because K-12 education contains too much specialised information and requires a lot of contextual understanding.”

“It was a problem we were keen on challenging,” Betty says.

Nowadays, students turn to Google with academic problems.

But it’s very difficult to navigate the flood of information, and things like equations and long texts are not easily available.

“We sought to fill the gap with a tool that connects content providers and student.”

Teaching: Never Easy

“We had a chicken-and-egg problem right at the start,” she says.

Without question data from users, they couldn’t train the machine to recommend content. But without a machine, neither were they able to obtain user data.

“So we improvised a rudimentary model that worked only 60% of the time.”

Image credit: Miao Academy Team

They searched online forums and pored over past notes and worksheets.

This helped them discover what questions students found tricky, and allowed them to build a model capable of understanding questions and recommending similar ones.

“Accuracy in recommendation is key,” she emphasises. “In e-commerce, recommendations expose you to a huge variety. But if we apply the same approach, we might scare students away with too much content!”

“Students use Miao to get help, not learn the history of geometry,” she exclaims.

An Idea In Incubation

Miao Academy is currently incubated in National University of Singapore (NUS)’s Furnace program. In addition, they are part of Microsoft’s Bizspark and SGInnovate’s TAG.PASS programs.

And for all the support they’ve received, the pair feels extremely fortunate.

“Microsoft has helped us in so many ways, not just in cloud services and a co-working space,” Ze Xuan says. “With them, we were able to organise an exclusive business marketing talk, and connect with key stakeholders in education and technology.”

Furthermore, they also received prescient advice in business and technical development, he adds gratefully.

The Cat’s Meow In EdTech

Image credit: Miao Academy Team

Although the app only supports Mathematics now, the team is en route to adding Physics, Chemistry and Biology – subjects universally in demand.

Others like literature however, are unlikely.

“We don’t think that is a task machines can or should do,” Betty explains. “If humans cannot agree on how we should interpret a piece of text, what makes us think a machine can do it better?”

They don’t intend to replace teachers either, she says.

“A machine is good at repetitive activities like recommending content and grading, but a human is able to adapt lessons to suit students’.

The machine might be able to do that as well after a few hundred questions, but by then the exam would be over.

Miao Academy is now in beta on the Apple Store but the Android version will be up by September as well.

Seeing how the exams are approaching, why not try it out for yourself?

Featured Image Credit: Miao Academy Team

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