The PIE: You studied zoology at university, but moved into the international education space. How did that happen?
Niamh Kelly: I have a bit of a mixed background. I’m a scientist with a master’s in zoology, wildlife conservation, and I spent many years working in Africa, Indonesia, and different locations.
“I developed Tigim to bring vital analytics into the education sector”
While we were there, we would teach the locals English. And then when I came back from doing that, I qualified as an English language teacher with a CELTA, then DELTA, so I split my time between teaching and doing conservation work.
The PIE: Where did you go from there?
NK: I was offered a job in a private school in Cambridge as their science teacher for the foundation year program, so I was able to combine science with the English language.
I designed the foundation year program for three years in that school, then worked in universities. I also designed the Science Without Borders program for Trinity College Dublin, a partnership with Brazil.
So I gained experience in linking the English language with the more discipline-specific areas of science, engineering and technology. I’ve been doing that for 10 years.
The PIE: There can’t have been many English teachers teaching discipline-specific pathways with a background in that pathway?
NK: Not many. A lot of people were English teachers, and they probably didn’t have a background in science or business.
So five years ago, I started my own online business developing resources and students’ skills in more discipline-specific vocabulary and pathways.
I was teaching online for over four years with my online foundation year program, and I had around 50,000 students enrolled in the school, engaging and learning every day.
The PIE: What led you to develop your company, Tigim?
“For example, students from Saudi Arabia and China have different language difficulties”
NK: I developed Tigim to bring vital analytics into the education sector, so we can understand the specific challenges students have with the language of their own discipline, and inform teachers and the school about it, so students aren’t struggling in silence. The data we collect can give a voice to the students and their needs before they fall behind.
For example, within the science cohort, students from Saudi Arabia and China have different language difficulties that might be holding them back. We can understand that quickly and help differentiate learning tasks to help them overcome it.
Our analytics looks at students’ linguistic challenges, but we also look at their strategic abilities as they are influenced by different educational and cultural backgrounds as well.
The PIE: Can you explain how Tigim works?
NK: It’s a platform for students and teachers to improve academic English by adding text files, news articles, academic journals, transforming it into an interactive text and creating automatic learning tasks.
By automating learning tasks, we can save teachers hours of prep work and students can engage with it for self-assessment and improve self-directed learning.
“By automating learning tasks, we can save teachers hours of prep work”
As we learn from the students about what topics and language they’re interacting with, we can really differentiate learning groups based on the challenges specific to them. And in conjunction with our own language assessments, we generate data for our Learner Recommendation System to further drive student engagement and save teachers even more time by providing supportive learning materials.
Language is only one element and we use vocabulary as our baseline metric, but we’re also looking at a student’s attitude to learning and their behaviour. So we try to bring students into the process to enhance engagement and motivation to learn.
All of these interactions and touch points give us vital real-time feedback on the students’ language and learning capabilities so the school can understand quickly which students may be at risk of falling behind.
The PIE: It seems like a massive undertaking – do you have a team behind you?
NK: Yes. So I developed the first company, Hippo Educational Technologies, which was the online foundation year program. And so with Tigim, it’s always been something I’ve been thinking about.
We have received investments already, and the tech team formed in June. We’ve already partnered with some private foundation year programs in Ireland, and we’re onboarding universities at the moment in the UK to start the pilot.
The PIE: You launched Tigim in June. Has it been difficult getting students on board and reaching out to universities during the Covid-19 pandemic, when all communication and market outreach is taking place online?
NK: I’ve been working online for over four years now, and personally I’d never go back to the classroom.
What I have learnt is that with technology, there are so many more touch points that allow us to learn more about students’ learning behaviour. These data points can tell us when they open an assignment or how long it takes to complete it. And that can be critical to understanding their approach to learning. It gives everyone a chance to be understood.
“We’re also looking at a student’s attitude to learning and their behaviour”
Since Covid, the response from the universities has been really strong. We started in June and we’ve already got partners, which for the education sector can often take a long time.
The PIE: Is there a different attitude towards technology now that you’ve noticed when speaking with potential partner institutions?
NK: Yes, I think there’s a difference in attitude because I’ve been talking about the power of analytics for so many years. But nobody was really listening a year ago. Now when I say it, I see a strong change in attitudes and a change in mindset from a lot of the organisations.
They’re starting to see that they do need to understand students a little bit more because almost every other sector in the world is already using analytics and that it is massive for them to understand their users, their customers.
So the speed of people’s reactions now is that they’re looking for something to improve engagement. They know that there are way more challenges.
Obviously, for a lot of the foundation year program anyway, it’s up to the teachers to understand body language, understand and develop a rapport with the students, and be able to assess whether they need more interaction and more engagement.
Now that there’s the barrier of the screen, there’s a wider gap between the teaching staff and the students. But there doesn’t have to be really.
The PIE: And I would imagine the analytics are useful for student recruitment efforts, too?
NK: Yes. One of the other elements of it is that there’s data from the students on their language challenges. We can help turn that into online assessments for the universities to use as a marketing tool for future potential students. So it can add to the recruitment drive and create a pipeline development for potential students in the future.
The PIE: In terms of the pricing model, it’s based on the number of students?
NK: Yes. It’s a SaaS product that we licence to universities and schools. The pricing model is per head of student: as the volume of students increases, like any enterprise software, with greater volume are more significant discounts.
“They’re starting to see that they do need to understand students a little bit more”
Then also any of the universities that are signing up with us now before the end of this year receive a 20% discount on their licence for next year – we still have some openings for new partners this year.
The PIE: Are there other markets in your sights for the future?
NK: We’re already talking to people in Australia. I see Australia as quite a big market. So Ireland, the UK and then hopefully by the end of the year we’ll also have partners in Australia.