Who We Are
We are Fireline Science and Tuneni (pronounced: toon-nee) is our new app designed to support academic recovery solutions by enabling authentic student support workflows regardless of whether students have home internet access. The difference between students who have access to the Internet at home and those who do not is known in the education sector as the “homework gap”. The idea for Tuneni started during the global COVID-19 pandemic when our CEO's father was the principal of an elementary boarding school on the Navajo Nation in northern New Mexico. When his school was forced to move to virtual learning, 75% of his students did not have home internet access. While other, better-connected schools were trying to reduce "Zoom fatigue", his school and students were struggling with how to distribute and collect printed worksheets. Now with students back in the classroom, schools like his are working to close the learning gaps the pandemic caused. Unfortunately, the challenges of the homework gap have persisted. Based on the challenges of that school, our CEO and CTO dedicated themselves to building a new, innovative solution which can bridge the digital homework gap for students who lack internet and provide equity in education for digital academic recovery programs. The National Science Foundation's Seedfund provided our initial funding and support.
“NSF is proud to support the technology of the future by thinking beyond incremental developments and funding the most creative, impactful ideas across all markets and areas of science and engineering,” said Andrea Belz, Division Director of the Division of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships at NSF. “With the support of our research funds, any deep technology startup or small business can guide basic science into meaningful solutions that address tremendous needs.”
The Homework Gap Slows Academic Recovery for At-risk Students
Tufts University and the FCC estimate that there are 12 to 17 million school aged children in the United States without access to the Internet at home.
The FCC’s Broadband Task Force reports 70 percent of teachers in the United States regularly assign homework that requires access to the Internet. Recent research also shows that post-pandemic academic recovery programs rely on a mix of online and offline solutions for tutoring and after school programs. Beyond just impacting homework, the digital divide is now impacting schools' abilities to recover from the learning losses the pandemic created.
McKinsey & Company report that low-income students have seen significantly lower levels of support to recover from the pandemic learning losses when compared to their high-income peers. Specifically, low-income parents reported 12% less participation in tutoring, homework, and test prep and 15% less participation in academic after school programs. All these programs had a significant online component. So, the inequity that existed before the pandemic unsurprisingly continues to impact students with the most need as we seek to put the pandemic behind us. The achievement gap between low and high-income students is trending to increase compared to pre-pandemic levels. While the homework gap is only one component of this inequity, it is critical given so many educational programs and interventions use solutions which rely on internet access in and out of the classroom.
The homework gap has been called “the cruelest part of the digital divide” given the at-risk students who could benefit the most from digital solutions for homework and academic recovery are also those who are more likely to live in unconnected households.
Our own research shows that over 17,000 U.S. schools are located in census tracks where 25% or more of households report not having internet access. While the new $65 billon Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal will help to close the digital divide for some, it is estimated that over $250 billion would be required to completely address the problem. The causes of the homework divide are also more complex than just infrastructure given approximately 18 million homes have options for home internet, but can not afford it.
The homework gap results in lower student achievement beyond just limiting access to educational programs and interventions. A 2020 study found the lack of home internet can have significant negative impacts on academic success, college admissions, and career opportunities even when controlling for socioeconomic status.
“We were surprised with how powerful the findings were,” said Keith Hampton, associate director for research at the Quello Center and a professor in Michigan State University’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences. “Students without Internet access and those who depend on a cell phone for their only access are half a grade point below those with fast access. This gap has ripple effects that may last an entire life.”
Offline Operating System Enables Our New Learning Application
Our new homework app was enabled by recent advances in Progressive Web Applications (PWAs) like Chromium's Project Fugu. To build an intelligent, interactive offline learning application, we first built a web-based Offline Operating System (OOS). Our OOS provides a common interface for managing digital content states, user workflows, data collection, machine learning modules, identity, and applications. It can function in extended offline, degraded online, or broadband-connected environments. For overall management and app communication, we use a hybrid, cloud-edge architecture that allows for centralized management of students and learning activities (the cloud) even when students are working offline at home (the apps using the OOS at the edges). We manage all the complexity of a distributed system including versioning and conflict resolution. Our homework app can run on any device given the common web runtime.
Tuneni is a purpose-built offline operating system and intelligent learning app that allows students to work anywhere while also enabling an authentic feedback and tutoring workflow for teachers or tutors via periodic internet syncs.
Combining Existing Devices and Curricula with Emerging New Digital Technologies
Tuneni works on any modern, web-enabled device including Chromebooks, phones, and tablets. The lessons in Tuneni support current digital curricula including digital documents like Adobe PDFs and videos. Teachers can use Tuneni's innovative interfaces to create engaging digital homework assignments via a complete multi-submission workflow. This workflow enables teachers or tutors to help students progress through their learning using a variety of digital support mechanisms. Interactions between students and teachers are highly engaging and include teacher and student video responses, interactive annotations, and most recently, context specific video annotations.
We have also used the platform to create the next generation of computer science lessons for CTE and STEM education. We used emerging web technologies to build interactive Python lessons in Tuneni that teachers can use to create engaging STEM lessons that require no local installations and work on or offline. Our roadmap has even more exciting options for digital learning on the way!
Artificial Intelligence to Help Students and Teachers
Our edge intelligence engine is an innovative new approach to using AI to enable prompts and recommendations to assist students even when they are not connected to the internet. Our first intelligence model was based on academic research related to the "growth mindset". This research used a large scale, national experiment to demonstrate the positive impact digital growth mindset interventions can have on student achievement and engagement. We are now building more sophisticated models to help both students and teachers with intelligent prompts, recommendations, grading, and automated actions.
We ♥ Rural and Native American Schools
We are still actively developing Tuneni and working with a select number of schools and partners to test and refine our first production version. Our initial focus is on rural schools given they have the greatest need and have unique requirements compared to their urban peers.