Benjamin Vodanovic, CEO, Aula Digital

Vodanovic graduated from Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile with a business degree and a Master´s in Finance. He later continued his studies in the United States getting an MBA degree at the University of Chicago. For the past 10 years, Benjamin has been working either directly or indirectly in the educational world. He started as the founder of an educational nonprofit organization that was focused on tutoring low-income kids to enter into college. Benjamin has also experience working in investment banking and venture capital, both in Chile and the US. AulaDigital is nothing but a project aiming to democratize access to education in Chile and the rest of Latin America.

AulaDigital is a technological platform aiming to modernize how mathematic tutoring is conducted nowadays. This platform consists of an adaptative learning tool to prepare students in the learning of mathematics. Adaptative learning systems can be described as those that go beyond the simplistic decision trees algorithms. The difference with old-school´s software is that adaptative learning is dynamic and therefore able to adapt in real-time (it changes based on every interaction it has with the student). Adaptative learning not only considers whether your answer was right or wrong but also ponders the optimal patterns of the other classmates, the weight and complexity of the question, the time and engagement of the student, and his overall learning pattern. Adaptative learning goes hand in hand with what education is: trying to teach something to a pool of students with a very asymmetrical set of skills and learning paces.

What is the problem AulaDigital tries to solve?
According to an OECD study, 49.4% of Chilean students do not possess the minimum mathematical skills to conduct themselves in a civilized society. Also, OECD studies show that Chile leads one of the higher students to teacher ratio and
alarmingly overcrowded classrooms. Local studies on the average college entrance scores also show that students comprehend less than 60% of the demanded curricula needed for rendering standardized testing. AulaDigital is conceived in a context in which the existent alternatives (such as private tutors and old-school software) have not dealt with these problems. Classrooms are still overcrowded, teachers overwhelmed and students not learning enough. Not to even mention that most of the existent alternatives are either too expensive or geographically unavailable for most of the Chilean students. This is why we urgently need products such as AulaDigital.

Has the pandemic accelerated the process?
Yes, most definitely. The COVID pandemic ended up accelerating a process that we already saw coming. It accentuated the lack of technologization of both schools and teachers. But the main problem we are identifying is that the solutions that are being offered (basically online teaching) still lack the key element of education: personalization. Currently, students are still being taught content but are not being attended the way they should be. Teachers barely have time to give one on one assistance to their students. Maybe it is the moment we start investing in alternatives to get that personalized teaching back. Let’s not forget. One size doesn’t fit all! And AulaDigital is definitely a way forward that path.

How is the Chilean EdTech environment?
According to studies conducted by the OECD Chile is one of the leaders in the region in terms of a) the number of computers available per student, b) the internet connectivity of its schools, and c) the number of teachers trained on how to use technologies. This is not random, but the culmination of a project started in 1995 (Proyecto Enlaces) which was aimed at positioning Chile in terms of connectivity and ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies). Also, Chile has increased its public expenditure on education (public expenditure has grown from 16% to 23% or the past 15 years). On the other hand, the government has encouraged Startups based on technology through programs such as Start-Up Chile and Corfo. We do not expect this dynamic to change any time soon considering the exponential efforts and infrastructure investments that have been made in Chile for the past decades. This is, of course, a fertile ground for forefront EdTech entrepreneurship, all Made in Chile.

What does AulaDigital do for teachers?
This is a great question. There is this myth that educational technologies are trying to somehow replace teachers. But it is completely the opposite. What platforms as AulaDigital are trying to do is to ease and compliment the irreplaceable work that teachers do. This is why our platform was developed under a three-pronged structure. One, to have students interacting with this adaptative learning platform. Second, to get teachers the metrics related to said platform-student interaction. And third, to provide teachers with materials aimed at continuing to emphasize a student´s weak spots. And this is no coincidence. The reason why we did this was mainly because all of the founders of AulaDigital have former teaching experience. And due to this former experience, we were able to identify and narrow down what teachers needed. Two of our team members are alumni of Enseña Chile (the Chilean chapter of Teach for America) and I was a teacher at the NGO I founded. And believe it or not, it is working. The information we have gathered so far shows that our platform saves teachers an average of 3 hours weekly in the preparation and correction of student testing.

How has the project grown in time?
We started mid-2018 developing the prototype of AulaDigital. I was studying at UChicago back then and the Polsky Center (the university´s entrepreneurship incubator) gave me the ideal environment to focus on this project. In September 2018 we started testing our pilot in three schools. The testing was a challenging process but also a very fulfilling one as it proved that both students and teachers were willing to give EdTech a try. The results were showing. We started 2019 with our first milestone: 1,000 users. And since then we have escalated to what we have today, more than 17,000 students using our software. We have grown exponentially in time and we hope to continue to do so. What are the main obstacles AulaDigital has faced? The main obstacle we have faced is definitely this overwhelming sense of not trusting in technology. People tend to identify technology with this kind of grim, obscure and cold creature. Technology seems like something too distant and
abstract to trust it with the development of future generations. So definitely the main resistance has come from the fear to face change. This is why we have fought hard to give this Frankenstein a heart. To infuse soul and purpose into our platform. Some of the ways we have been trying to do this are by having a user-friendly platform. We have invested not only in creating a neat looking interface but also in having little details such as avatars and encouragement messages for its ease of use. And we are not stopping there. We are currently working in an amazing project aimed to equip AulaDigital with mindfulness content. We are strong believers in the need to imbue education with other skills. And mindfulness is one of our top listed skills. We hope to continue with initiatives as this is time and to hopefully convince people that technology can also be friendly and approachable.

Where do you see AulaDigital in 5 years?

Our main goal is to expand through Latin America. We have identified Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Peru as countries in which we would like to have a presence. And one of the reasons why expanding is incredibly exciting is because of the impact we could have. Imagine having a clear image of what education is lacking not only in Chile but in Latin America as a whole. We are firm believers that public policymaking is much more effective once you have information available. And we are not going to lie. We would love for this Latam technological revolution to be: Made in Chile.

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