Jaap Koelewijn and his team develop smart chatbots that save teachers, lecturers and business tutors a lot of work. The Helprs emerge from Jaap’s study counseling institute and are itching to start working in today’s classrooms. “We’ve had the chance to play around and practice, now it’s time for the real work.”
What is Helpr?
“Helpr builds chatbots for secondary education, because we want to help solve the teacher shortage problem. Helpr’s chatbots are ‘smart’, we have given them instructional capabilities, just like a real teacher. For example, if a pupil says they do not know what gravity is, the chatbot first checks whether he understands what force is and what mass has to do with it. Starting with the basics, just like a real teacher would do.”
Are you also deploying chatbots in a wider range?
“Yes, and this is quite coincidental as we are more and more often approached by parties looking to enrich their content with our chatbots. Learning is something that takes place in every organization, but memorizing content – old-fashioned studying – is a bitter pill to swallow for some employees. We can bring the study materials to life, by surprising them with specific questions, testing their knowledge and deepening it.”
Could you name an example?
“Recently, we have built a first version of Helpr for VAViA, a specialist in improvement projects. They provide their current and former clients with content for ‘continuous improvement’. With the help of our chatbots, we make this content interactive and appealing, and we directly test whether knowledge is acquired and more depth is needed.”
Why did you start with Helpr? And how did the idea come into being?
“I am the owner of Fides Studiebegeleiding, an institute with locations in Baarn and Bunschoten. With a team of 25 employees, we help around 120 pupils daily. Together with Erik Methorst and Remy Reurling I was looking to broaden our services, without opening new branches. Initially, we developed and tested a chat application but found that this was not as innovative. At the same time, the service remains dependent on qualified personnel, which is currently scarce.”
What did you decide do then?
“We were already playing around with the idea of storing the created content – and use it for the chatbots. We further worked on this idea and last summer, I put it into practice. We skipped the first step of one-on-one chatting. We dived headfirst into chatbot development.”
When did you know Helpr was viable?
“From the moment we started, we were approached by parties that heard about us by word of mouth and wanted to collaborate with us. For example, the Hogeschool Utrecht immediately wanted to do research and development with us. Now, innovative schools are literally lined up to test the prototype of the Helpr-bot. This is what we will be doing the coming academic year, at five different secondary schools.”
What do you expect from your participation in the AIA18? Why did you decide to register?
“Accenture approached us last year, and we felt that we were not yet ready to join. We are regularly invited to education conferences but this limits us to one sector, while our technology is applicable on a broader scale. I hope that the AIA18 program will expand my network and that I can draw inspiration from other participants and partners.”
What are the challenges you are currently facing?
“I admit that it is quite ambitious: solving the teacher shortage through instructive chatbots. But I’ve noticed that Helpr is in a more mature stage; we’ve had the time to play around and practice, now it’s time for the real work. For example, we are testing a topic with more than 30,000 questions. The challenge is to structure the data and apply curriculum strands in the dialogue. Luckily, we are well on the way. With confirmed success it is only a matter of scaling up.”
What trends do you see in Helpr’s market in the coming years?
“Chatbots are still at an early stage of development. There is still quite a way to go before the public will embrace chatbots. However, it is clear that we are on the verge of a complete new online dialogue that enables the performance of repetitive services for people. We certainly do not want to replace teachers with chatbots, but we want to give them the time to give pupils more personal attention.”
What is your golden tip for entrepreneurs?
“A good friend of mine gave me the following advice years ago: dream it, plan it, do it. And this counts for almost everything in life, also, and maybe especially, if you are an entrepreneur.”
*) Helpr participates in the Accenture Innovation Awards 2018 in the theme Education.