Intelligent learning platforms such as Seneca and Tassomai provide schools, teachers and students with the tools they need to boost student confidence and improve results

Male student barefoot walking from one blue block to another, with six more in front of him, on a concrete floor against a blue sky. Representing moving from stage to stage in an intelligent learning platform

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Machine learning (ML) – the use of statistics and databases to enable computer systems to learn for themselves – is at the forefront of educational technology (edtech) development. The evolution of intelligent learning platforms has opened up a whole new world of possibilities in edtech for both students and teachers. One of the earliest systems in the UK, the BBC’s Bitesize service, began life simply as an online textbook in 1998 to support GCSE revision in seven core subjects. Yet today, this free, interactive service now covers 35 subjects to support students from key stage 1 (KS1) to post-16 study.

Typically, online learning platforms test a student’s knowledge and understanding through a series of defined multiple-choice questions, written by qualified teachers and examiners. ML techniques then evaluate student responses; a correct answer initiates other topics or more in-depth questions, whereas an incorrect answer is revisited.

Choosing a system

There are myriad learning platforms to choose from. The Seneca platform, launched in March 2018, covers most of the UK curriculum from KS2 through to A-level. Free to use, Seneca has already attracted over a million students and 43,000 teachers. Seneca uses topics from exam board specifications and works with partner schools to optimise learning through research. In 2017, a randomised controlled trial tested the impact of the Seneca system on the exam performance of more than 1000 year 9 students. Flávia Schechtman Belham, chief scientist at Seneca, who was involved with the study, says, ‘pupils using Seneca performed two times better than the ones using a regular revision guide.’

There are myriad learning platforms to choose from. The Seneca platform, launched in March 2018, covers most of the UK curriculum from KS2 through to A-level. Free to use, Seneca has already attracted over 350,000 students and 13,000 teachers. Seneca uses topics from exam board specifications and works with partner schools to optimise learning through research. In 2017, a randomised controlled trial tested the impact of the Seneca system on the exam performance of more than 1000 year 9 students. Flávia Schechtman Belham, chief scientist at Seneca, who was involved with the study says, ‘pupils using Seneca performed two times better than the ones using a regular revision guide.’

Tassomai is a subscription platform used mainly by GCSE science students and works similarly to Seneca. Launched four years ago, Tassomai is used in 20% of UK state secondary schools and was recently awarded Best Education Support Resource for Parents or Home Learning by Bett.

Jenny Walker, lead practitioner for KS4 science at Impington Village College (IVC), Cambridgeshire, says that the increased content requirements for science GCSE exams was a factor in IVC’s decision to adopt Tassomai to support student learning. The school has trialled Tassomai in two ways: by providing access to questions on a certain topic for revision towards the end of a teaching module, and by providing access in advance of teaching a topic, allowing teachers to focus on the theory in class.

Practice makes perfect

Eloïse Culshaw, a year 11 student at IVC, uses Tassomai for chemistry, physics and biology, and Seneca for geography, English and maths. Eloïse is studying for a combined science GCSE and likes the multiple-choice question format. ‘If you get a question wrong then the system will repeat it so you learn the facts over time,’ she explains. Students need to work independently to score 40 correct questions, four days a week. If a student fails to meet their target, they must attend catch-up sessions.

Online platforms incorporate strong design and interactive elements to help maintain student engagement

The teachers at IVC keep a close eye on each student’s progress, regularly providing feedback. Eloïse believes that using online platforms will help her achieve better grades in her exams. ‘For science, Tassomai really helps me to understand definitions and remember facts,’ she adds.

Student motivation

Online platforms incorporate strong design and interactive elements to help maintain student engagement. Harry Boteler, content editor and marketing coordinator at Tassomai, says that online learning platforms are more effective in closing the attainment gap than conventional learning methods. ‘The portable nature of edtech also helps to remove barriers to entry,’ says Harry. Students can access systems from their computers and mobile phones, so they can log on at any time to complete homework.

However, Jenny stresses that online platforms form just one part of the student experience, and that robust schemes of work, well-planned interventions and revision sessions to support students during school hours are also necessary.

Sophisticated edtech might also be the answer to the current teacher retention and recruitment crisis in the UK

Harry Boteler, Tassomai

Online learning platforms don’t currently include long-answer questions, so many services are developing additional resources to support extended-question practice. ‘Research in cognitive science demonstrates that complex skills require a solid knowledge foundation,’ explains Flávia. ‘By using Seneca, students acquire this foundation and are more apt to complete complex tasks.’

Well-designed online learning systems tie in with a number of the principles of best practice for student learning and revision, such as spaced practice (revisiting content periodically), retrieval practice (bringing information to mind) and interleaving (switching between ideas).

 System Pricing Target group
Intelligent learning platforms and target groups

 Seneca

 Free

 KS3, GCSE, A-level

 Tassomai

 Subscription

 GCSE

 Up Learn

 Subscription

 A-level 

 gcsepod

 Subscription

 GCSE

 Bitesize

 Free

 3–19

 Educake

 Subscription

 KS3, GCSE

 Gojimo

 Free

 14–19

Keep teachers teaching

Edtech development for online systems is focused on the use of ML techniques to deliver increasingly personalised systems. These systems can help students realise their full potential by delivering student-specific content to improve their understanding of topics they are comfortable with and provide specific support for topics they find harder.

Teacher interfaces are also expected to become more sophisticated to enable more precise tracking of students’ progress. ‘By reducing the time needed for tasks such as differentiated setting, marking and analysis of assessments, teachers will have more time to focus on their students,’ Harry explains.

‘Sophisticated edtech might also be the answer to the current teacher retention and recruitment crisis in the UK,’ says Harry. ‘Edtech should make teaching more rewarding, allowing teachers to focus on key aspects of teaching, while lessening their workload.’

Vikki Cantrill is a freelance writer and editor based in Cambridge and tweets @Vikki_Cantrill

Useful websites

  • BBC Bitesize: bbc.com/bitesize
  • Seneca: senecalearning.com
  • Tassomai: tassomai.com
  • Principles of best practice for student learning and revision: bit.ly/2Iru0nZ