Ladderworks is a publishing platform of diverse picture books and online curriculum with the mission to empower over a million kids to become social entrepreneurs. Our current series features interviews by our interplanetary journalist Spiffy with inspiring Social Entrepreneurs and Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Builders, who are advancing the UN SDGs.
Spiffy here! I’m back with the scoop on the entrepreneurial leaders of Planet Earth. As the only interplanetary journalist stationed on this blue planet, I’m thrilled to present this galactic exclusive with Matt Miller, the CEO and co-founder of Oko Labs. Let’s see what he is doing to make a positive impact in the world.
Spiffy: Thanks for joining me, Matt! Tell me, what challenge are you addressing through Oko Labs?
Matt: Glad to be with you, Spiffy! At Oko, we believe that artificial intelligence (AI) has the power to make learning more fair, more effective, and more fun! We're using AI to power small group learning activities, with an initial focus on collaborative math games and puzzles for grades three to five. Our vision is that teachers and tutors can use Oko as part of small group rotations with their existing lessons and curricula. In the future, we see Oko being used for small group activities across many different subject areas and ages.
Spiffy: That’s wonderful! What motivated you to tackle this challenge?
Matt: I started by asking lots and lots of teachers one question: If someone magically showed up one day to help you in the classroom, what would you have them do? And almost every answer was some form of "I'd have them work with a small group...." And it's no wonder: small group work is such an important technique for teachers to get each student exactly the right support they need, something called differentiation. And small group work is also more collaborative, social, and fun! So I set out to see if we could use a combination of tools in the artificial intelligence toolbox, such as computer vision and natural language processing, to actually lead a small group activity, much as a tutor or assistant or aide would do. And thus Oko was born!
Spiffy: How would you say Oko is working towards a more equitable world?
Matt: Too many classrooms, especially in underserved communities, don't have the extra teaching assistants to make small group work happen effectively. This was a problem before the pandemic and has only gotten worse, with historic challenges regarding the hiring of teachers and teaching assistants in most large urban school systems. Meanwhile, the effects of the pandemic on learning hit students of color and low-income students much harder than in higher-income and predominantly white school systems. Oko aims to level the playing field, making targeted small group instruction available to all students.
Spiffy: Tell me about a recent organizational milestone. What impact does that make on your community?
Matt: Having built Oko during the pandemic to work with remote groups of students who were in different locations, similar to Zoom, we recently started testing Oko with in-person groups. And it worked! We were concerned that it would be harder to keep in-person groups of students engaged and keep the activity moving along, but, on the contrary, we've had groups of students want to keep playing and learning with Oko for upwards of half an hour at a time! Our previous goal had been to get Oko to a point where it could keep a group active and engaged for 20 minutes so that teachers could use it as part of small group station rotation, and it felt really great and motivating to beat that goal.
Spiffy: Please share an experience when you faced failure and didn't give up. What did you learn from it?
Matt: We've been play-testing Oko with kids for a while now, as well as involving them in our design processes. We had one session not too long ago, where some really annoying bugs popped up that made it hard for the kids to join a session. Even worse, Oko's turn-taking wasn't recognizing some participants, making it seem like Oko was being unfair. We've put a tremendous amount of attention into making sure that group work is fair and equitable. So, it was really discouraging to hear students say "Oko doesn't like me!" and "I hate Oko!" But we quickly fixed those bugs, and our next play-testing session was a huge success! We learned an important lesson, which is that even the smallest issues can have a really big impact on students' experiences.
Spiffy: Thanks for speaking with me today, Matt—it’s been an honor!
Matt Miller is the CEO and co-founder of Oko Labs. He was previously chief technology officer and VP of labs at Amplify Education; VP of product at Flatiron School; and is an active consultant, mentor, and advisor in the education technology space. Matt lives in Rhinebeck, NY with his wife, two sons, two cats, and a corgi. (Nominated by Kelly King of EDTECH WEEK. First published on the Ladderworks website on October 31, 2022.)
© 2022 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by George Romar. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy's Launchpad: Creative Entrepreneurship Workshops for K-3 Kids and their caregivers here.