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SNU alumni couple wins Elon Musk’s Global Learning XPRIZE

Jun 25, 2020

Founders of Enuma, Sooinn Lee (Department of Sculpture, Class of ‘95), Gunho Lee (Department of Computer Engineering, Class of ’95)
Founders of Enuma, Sooinn Lee (Department of Sculpture, Class of ‘95), Gunho Lee (Department of Computer Engineering, Class of ’95)

Enuma, an EduTech company in Silicon Valley founded by an SNU alumni couple, won last year’s Global Learning XPRIZE, sponsored by Elon Musk. The Global Learning XPRIZE is the world’s largest non-profit venture foundation, established in 2014 with the mission of “using software development to solve the problem of illiteracy around the world.” Five teams of finalists were selected, of which Enuma’s program took home the grand prize after field tests were conducted in Africa. This awards Enuma’s ‘Kitkit School’ learning application with the title of Most Effective Program, and one that will help 250 million illiterate children around the world.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: Congratulations on winning last year’s Global Learning XPRIZE, a process which has spanned over 5 years. Please briefly introduce XPRIZE and tell us how you feel about winning.

A: XPRIZE is a competition designed to unleash innovation by rewarding technical solutions to issues paramount for human development. The first XPRIZE, which began in 1996, opened the era of private sector involvement in the space industry by holding a $10 million prize competition for a spacecraft that can reach the stratosphere. Since then, there have been XPRIZEs held in a number of areas, including large-scale solar exploration, development of new materials for carbon reduction, and rapid disease diagnosis technologies. The Global Learning XPRIZE we participated in was launched in 2014 with a total of $15 million in prize money, rewarding tablet software applications that can teach children in developing countries to read, write and calculate to solve illiteracy problems around the world.

The first two years were designated as a product development period, and the completed software of the five teams were field tested in 170 villages in Tanzania, in partnership with UNESCO and the United Nations World Food Program. After handing out tablets with the software installed to children in rural villages that have no access to formal education, the children’s learning performance was measured and compared through testing after 15 months. On the basis of these results, Enuma won the top prize jointly with British education NGO onebillion, winning some $6 million in prize money.

Of course, we are excited to have won this five-year-long competition, but the greatest pleasure comes from having conclusively proved that children can learn at high levels using tablets in environments where they have no access to formal education. The process has demonstrated that technology can provide quality education for children in places without educators, or where student needs and teacher qualifications do not match.

Q: Prior to joining the Global Learning XPRIZE, Enuma was a young company in its second year, with a sole platform of your Todo Mathematics application. Why did you choose to enter a long-term competition that you had no guarantee to win?

A: Our company was founded to create software that empowers children who face difficulties in learning. If we could develop software that would make it easy and fun for kids who needed a lot of time and special attention to learn, and on an intuitive interface like a tablet at that, we thought that even kids who couldn’t get enough help from adults could learn what they needed at their own pace. But we realized while we were making the product that there were a lot more kids who needed this type of help than we originally thought. The Global Learning XPRIZE was announced as we were learning about the severity of this situation, in which kids enter school systems underprepared and, unable to keep up, end up getting left behind.

We knew immediately that we had to join the competition. It was directly related to our company principles, and the opportunity to objectively demonstrate the effectiveness of our products through a large field test conducted by UNESCO was a strong pull. However, the risks for a small startup jumping into a five-year, long-term competition were apparent, as our finances were not yet stable and our company was not in a position to make the application available to the public as open-source software. We were able to push through with the support from our colleagues, our board of directors and other investors who never lost sight of our mission.

Q: As far as I know, Kitkit School experienced a number of trials and errors in adapting to the local circumstances of Tanzania’s children. What was the most important principle you maintained while stabilizing the platform and what did you find most difficult?

A: We think it is important to build experiences of success for these children. It’s about giving them a sense of achievement when they get something right, building up their confidence enough so that they don’t give up on new challenges, and making it fun so that they are encouraged to keep coming back. To do this though, you have to be very mindful of what kids can and can’t do.

We thought we had seen a lot of children in various countries who had difficulty in learning, but we found numerous cultural differences in Tanzania which we had to familiarize ourselves with to cater the program to local children. For example, animals like lions and gorillas, which are commonly associated with Africa by outsiders, are in reality largely unfamiliar to children in rural villages with no access to a television or picture books. Similarly, fruits common to us, such as apples, are extremely rare in some communities. Most importantly, since many of these children have never interacted with a device like a computer or tablet before, we had unforeseen circumstances such as children breaking the screen by hitting it too hard with a tree branch, or trying to open the back of the device to see what’s inside.

It soon became clear that we needed someone who knew the local situation to participate in the production of the software, or at least give us regular feedback. It was important to look at how the local children were actually using the device and improve the product based on this information. To this end, we were able to procure the help of the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) to run the program in various test sites in Africa and our development team was able to visit and observe them on multiple occasions. We were willing to accept that there was so much we didn’t know, and we tried to implement what we had learned during the tests in our development process as soon as possible.

Q: I heard Kitkit School is available to the public as an open source software. How is it being used to combat illiteracy beyond Tanzania?

A: Kitkit School was released on Github as an open source software alongside the other XPRIZE finalists in 2019. There are several teams that are using this to develop solutions tailored to their own localities.

At the same time, we are developing Kitkit School functions and providing them to various countries. The version submitted to XPRIZE is optimized for environments where children in remote areas have one tablet per person, but the reality is that in most environments which could use the help of Kitkit School, such as in village schools and refugee centers, children share tablets and are also taught by an in-person educator. Currently, various projects are underway in East Africa, and pilot tests are being conducted with the International Relief Commission (IRC) in Bangladesh by creating a version for Rohingya refugees. An English version for Rwandan children and a Spanish version for use in South America are also under development.

Q: Enuma was not the first to combine games and education for children. What do you think sets your products apart from the rest?

A: Todo Math currently has about 8 million downloads and is available in eight languages worldwide. Kitkit School is still in the pilot stage, so although there are not as many users, we are discussing distribution with various local NGO partners in East Africa, Asia and South America. What makes us different is that our focus in program development is on achieving the feeling of fun associated with playing a game, rather than on the application ‘looking’ like a game. This is why the format is much more like an educational textbook than other services, and yet it’s more fun for children to play. According to XPRIZE’s field test results, children who were assigned the Kitkit School app used the tablets three to four times more than those who used competing programs.

Q: You started Enuma when your two children were born while working for NCSOFT. Could you tell us a little bit about that process and how you felt?

A: To be exact, it was after Gunho started his PhD program at UC Berkeley, and I took a leave of absence from work to move to the US with him. Our jobs as a game developer and game designer felt so useless and meaningless when we learned that our child was born with disabilities. A doctor in the ward where our child was hospitalized however, passed by and said “You made a game? The kids here could really use that.” That gave us a lot to think about. What was important to us was to provide meaningful learning experiences to children who face various difficulties in learning in the hope that our expertise in game development can be put to good use in achieving this. Our realization that day led to our journey in founding our own company to change the scope of education in the world.

Q: You two are both SNU alumni. How do you recall your college experience? We would love to hear what you envisioned for your future back then.

A: We met at a university club. Appropriate to our areas of expertise, Gunho would fix the club computer and I would draw cartoons for club posters. We became close friends, dated throughout our college years and got married not long after graduation. At that time, there was a game research group within the club called SNURPG, a small gathering of less than ten people. Each of us ended up getting jobs at various game companies after graduation, but many of them work with us at Enuma now. We all often joked about starting a company together, but I never thought that we would be the ones founding it. I used to say to our friends, “If you build a company, I’ll be the head of your general affairs team!”

Q: What is Enuma’s next goal and what are your long-term plans?

A: According to UNESCO’s 2017 report, 60% of children around the world are not meeting basic learning achievements. In other words, 60% of our world’s children cannot read and calculate at the level of second grade elementary students even after they graduate from school. In sub-Saharan Africa, this number jumps to 90%. What might be surprising to many people is that this is not because these kids aren’t attending school. There are 250 million illiterate children, 190 million of whom are enrolled in schools.

You can build schools and curriculums around the world, but if you don’t have qualified teachers, or if children aren’t ready to learn, you won’t get results. Children learning in a second language and disabled children fall victim to this even more. By using digital technology to lower the price of education in developing countries and create a way to learn effectively without teachers, we can fundamentally change the form of education. In a time where access to the internet is being discussed as a fundamental human right, our goal is to create an era in which all humans have access to public basic education.

When we started Enuma and defined ourselves as a ‘mission-driven company’, many people said that we would be better off focusing first on generating profit, then using the money to make donations to NGOs. Or, if we were hellbent on educating underprivileged kids, we should start as a non-profit organization. We didn’t listen because this is not what we wanted to do. We didn’t want to make money for social contribution, we wanted to make the best products that could bring about fundamental changes in society. Only when the best teams can simultaneously contribute to the growth of the company and the realization of a larger mission can we create sustainable organizations and successful outcomes. A healthy corporate culture that hires and consumes consciously has the power to better the lives of its employees and their families, uplift communities, and create tools for a better world. We truly hope that Enuma as a whole – our products, our process and our customers – can have this effect.

Source: https://www.snu.ac.kr/snunow/snu_story?md=v&bbsidx=127090

Written by: Chae Hyun Kim, SNU English Editor, michelle25@snu.ac.kr
Reviewed by: Professor Travis Smith, Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations, tlsmith@snu.ac.kr