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Image: Introduction to Learn Leap Fly (YouTube)

An Ottawa startup’s audacious business of teaching the world

By Andrew Monro on January 28, 2019


Andrew Monro is Apt613’s correspondent at Impact Hub Ottawa, writing about the many innovators that call Hub home. Hub is a co-working space at 123 Slater Street for projects with a positive local and global impact.

Learn Leap Fly is a learning company on a mission to enhance the lives of families by empowering parents to teach their kids to learn.

Screenshots of the beta app. Images courtesy of Learn Leap Fly.

Learn Leap Fly’s flagship product is a software app, called Kasuku Stories. Currently in beta, the platform is designed to empower children aged 3-6 to learn anytime and anywhere, helping them master basic literacy and mathematics. Underpinned by adaptive algorithms that tailor the learning experience to the user, and guided by an animated parrot named Kasuku (Kasuku is the Swahili word for parrot), Kasuku Stories uses a story-based learning format that enables students to simply pick up any Apple or Android device and learn, supporting and helping parents and teachers deliver a quality educational experience.

Amy and Kjell Wooding, Learn Leap Fly’s founders, first birthed the idea for their company in 2014 by entering a team into Global Learning XPRIZE, a $15M grand challenge competition to develop open-source, scalable software to enable children in the developing countries to self-teach basic language and math literacy.

They developed the software that would become Kasuku Stories, writing their software in both English and Swahili. In 2016, they travelled to Kenya with the alpha version of the app, testing it amongst children and educators. The platform showed early success, and were named semi-finalists in 2017. They also proceeded with another team in for the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE that same year, which sets the challenge to develop and demonstrate the use of an AI technology to tackle a grand challenge of humanity. The platform entered its first public beta test toward the end of 2018. Although they were not named finalists for the prize, they have succeeded in making it to the third round, one of only 30 teams to do so.

“Never underestimate the power of trying, no matter how improbable the result might seem.”

The platform is remarkable in a couple of ways: The first being that it was largely developed in the competitive environment of two XPRIZE competitions, which for many would make success seem like a long shot. However, the Woodings, and those that offered their support in helping them, are a testament to what happens when you take bold risks to help the world:

“Never underestimate the power of trying, no matter how improbable the result might seem,” says Kjell, as he talks about the platform at Impact Hub Ottawa, the coworking space where they worked developing the platform.

The other aspect that sets Kasuku Stories apart is the way they have developed the software. “The IBM Watson AI XPRIZE focuses on testability, and as part of our submission we built a agent-based testing framework that essentially plays our software like a game. We use this to ensure that Kasuku Stories can learn children’s preferences and adapt to their learning patterns. We built almost every aspect of Kasuku Stories to be tweakable and explicitly testable. We can modify the program behaviours and many of the UX elements without changing a line of code.”

Screenshots of the beta app. Images courtesy of Learn Leap Fly.

Amy and Kjell noted though that they couldn’t have done this by themselves. They had a myriad of people help them develop and test. They are particularly grateful to Steve Astels, their Lead Developer, and Mei Lin Cheung, their Lead Creative (who is the voice of Kasuku within the software). They would also like to thank Mercy and Caring Children’s Home, in Kitale, Kenya, who hosted their alpha test, and whose manager, Moses Arusa, voices the Swahili version of Kasuku.

Amy and Kjell’s next steps, as they move through rounds of the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE, which wraps up in 2020, is building Learn Leap Fly into a sustainable social enterprise. Says Kjell: “we’ve developed exciting technology and combined it in novel ways with learning best practices, and we think it can make a big difference to improving literacy not just in the developing world, but also here at home. We focused our original development on creating a learning experience that children love, and while that always remains a priority, our next big step is supporting and integrating parents and families as a whole more directly into the learning process.”

For anyone interested in helping develop or use the platform, Learn Leap Fly is always looking for partners, especially parents who want to teach their young children to read, as well as teachers, schools and other educators to act as testers.