U of T alumni design AI platform to gauge student understanding in virtual classrooms

A new software platform, created by two University of Toronto alumni, aims to make virtual classrooms more functional by providing real-time feedback and specific insights into how student understanding of mathematics is changing.

Last March, Nived Kollanthara, an alumnus of the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, was living in New York City, where he volunteered part-time at a shelter, helping kids with their math homework. When the pandemic hit, he realized right away the impact it would have.

“The kids I work with need extra, individual attention to help them succeed in the classroom,” Kollanthara says. “I was worried about how they would be getting that in a remote environment.”

Kollanthara spoke with teachers and learned that one of the first things that gets lost in virtual learning is real-time feedback, which provides a window into student understanding.

“Assessments and tests can tell you a bit about how a student is doing, but they’re not the whole picture,” he says. “A lot of it comes from seeing how kids are engaging with the content – who’s putting up their hand first, who’s slowing down when certain topics are coming up, things like that.”

Kollanthara wondered if it would be possible to build a piece of software that could leverage artificial intelligence and data mining to provide such insights. He contacted his former U of T Engineering classmate, Aiden Carnegie, to see if he could help.

“During my time at U of T, I worked with two startups to build a product from scratch,” says Carnegie. “This idea caught my interest because of the opportunity to help students learn, and to provide teachers with tools that can help not only during this pandemic, but afterward as well.”

Within a couple of months, the platform, called Kanak, was up and running. The team is currently testing it with a small group of teachers and their students in Canada and the U.S.

Students log on to Kanak to see a list of assignments provided by their teacher. The multiple choice questions are “gamified” – a correct answer generates fireworks and adds another notch to a student’s “winning streak.”