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Advanced training

Online platform uses game techniques to motivate students to study the content of high school courses

VISCAAn online platform called Meu Tutor (My Tutor), created by researchers at the University of São Paulo (USP) and the Federal University of Alagoas (UFAL), focusing on the preparation and training of students who will take the National High School Exit Exam (Enem), has expanded rapidly and received a substantial flow of students. From just April to June 2014 the number of active users of the platform, which can be accessed via the Internet or Facebook, jumped from 5,000 to 10,000. Meu Tutor offers the contents of all subjects covered on the Enem through reward mechanisms such as scores, levels to be reached, rankings and missions to be accomplished by the participants. It also provides simulated Enems. To motivate the student, he is challenged, and when he wins he gains bonuses in the form of virtual prizes.

The researchers worked with three concepts when developing the tool. One of them is personalized learning, in which the pace is dictated by the student’s difficulty in assimilating the material. “The content is adapted to the needs of each student,” says Professor Seiji Isotani of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences and Computation (USP) in São Carlos, one of the designers of the tool. Motivation is another element used in the process. “A student who is not engaged and committed to his own education doesn’t learn. To change this situation, we use game techniques intelligently to motivate online learning,” says the researcher. “This is one of the innovative features that differentiate the project.” The educational platform also focuses on social learning by forming collaborative groups, where knowledge and experiences are shared. In addition,   personalized learning is provided, tailoring content to the specific needs of each student. In Isotani’s opinion, technological innovation could improve the teaching and learning process by increasing student motivation and performance, which would result in better scholastic indices in national and international assessments.

One start-up, based at UFAL, was founded in 2012 to work on the tool and carry out new projects using the platform for educational work. It won an award at the USP Innovation Olympics in the New Company category in 2014 and also received this year’s Alagoas Innovative Entrepreneur Award. Currently each registered student is charged a monthly fee of R$9.90. “After registering, students can undergo training in all of the courses taught in high school and take simulated Enems,” says Isotani. If the student only wants to study math, he can use the tool without paying any fees.

University partnership
The idea of founding a company to produce educational platforms emerged in 2007, during a conference. On that occasion, Isotani, who was finishing his PhD in the field of computing applied to education at the University of Osaka, Japan, met the researcher Ig Ilbert Bittencourt, currently a professor at UFAL. “We saw that there was almost nothing developed in Brazil,” he states. “So we then decided to open a company to fill this gap.”

The two universities work together on the project, currently involving 10 graduate students. At the company, another 10 people work in software development. “The platform we have built can be used in different domains,” says Isotani. The research group is now working on Meu Tutor Prova Brasil (My Brazilian Exam Tutor), with large-scale assessments given to students in 5th through 9th grades in the municipal, state and federal school systems. Other possibilities are also being studied, such as training personnel in companies.

According to Isotani, the educational software and application market has grown in Brazil. He cites data presented in a study conducted in partnership with the companies Inspirare and Potencia Ventures, entitled “Opportunities in education for businesses focusing on the low-income population in Brazil,” that show a potential market of R$60 billion for education, with courses, games and software representing 78% of this potential market.

One of the main fields of research at the Laboratory for Computer Science Applied to Education at ICMC, co-coordinated by Isotani, is the formation of groups of learners and the use of mobile devices in teaching. In his opinion, to ensure that students learn collaboratively, group selection cannot be based on affinities between the participants, nor must the learning environment be restricted to a classroom. “In these cases conflicts, which contribute to new ideas and learning, are almost always avoided.” Among the criteria to be taken into account when forming successful groups are the inclusion of students with varying levels of knowledge, to ensure that the group is as heterogeneous as possible, as well as the cultural, socioeconomic and motivational characteristics of the participants. After identifying these characteristics, the researchers create algorithms—sequences of commands sent to a computer—so that these groups are formed in the best way possible in environments supported by mobile devices like tablets and mobile phones.