To briefly introduce myself, my name is Ben Naismith, and I am a fourth-year PhD student in the Department of Linguistics at Pitt. I am somewhat atypical for my program in that I am a mature student returning to school after nearly 20 years as a professional in the field of teaching English as a foreign language. Over this time, I have seen the industry change dramatically, and this change has only accelerated since the pandemic hit. With so much uncertainty, it is critical now more than ever to consider all possible prospects for employment after graduation, both inside and outside of academia.
Like many opportunities, my chance to work with Clearspace came about completely unexpectedly. In September 2020, I had a conversation with an old friend whose tech company was pivoting towards Educational Technology by developing an app called Leto. He was interested in my thoughts from a teacher’s perspective, as his own expertise lay in software engineering. Coincidentally, that same week, I received an email about the Humanities Engage Immersive Fellowship. I was not sure whether his company would be interested in working more formally with a teacher/linguist, but I jumped at the chance to potentially be involved in what I felt was an exciting project. Thankfully, both Clearspace and the Humanities Engage project saw value in the collaboration, and in November 2020, I began to work with the Leto team.
To give a little background on the project, Clearspace is a venture-backed startup in San Francisco, focusing on developing education tools for online, continuous learning. To do so, Clearspace is developing a study tool, Leto (aka Learning Together), based on the principles of spaced repetition and collaborative learning to increase long-term knowledge retention. In brief, Leto is a social website and mobile app that makes it easy to create, edit, and share questions and answers on a range subjects from math to history and entrepreneurship. Users on Leto can ask questions and collaborate on short answers. Pairs of questions and answers are called ‘Cards’, and users can save them in collections called ‘Decks’. Users can then test their knowledge by reviewing their decks: Leto picks a card and shows its question to the user. The user thinks of the answer and tells Leto if they knew it or not. This process facilitates self-assessment of knowledge and improves information retention. Leto's goal is to create a community of students, researchers, and lifelong learners that can collaborate to create open-access, high-quality study materials, in the same way that Wikipedia has created the go-to reference materials for any subject.
In the month since I started working on Leto, I have been blown away by the extent to which my contributions have been valued and taken on board by the development team. My primary duties are to create content, to provide feedback from the vantage point of an expert user, and to investigate the extent to which Leto adheres to educational research findings. In weekly meetings, we review this feedback and discuss design options and potential developments. It is clear that the humanistic/educational perspective that I bring to the group adds an element that could possibly be otherwise overlooked, and the synergy between the different domains of expertise is a pleasure to be a part of. More specifically, as a humanities doctoral student, I am able to refer to and synthesize relevant research findings about many topics – such as maintaining learner motivation, the pedagogical merits of different task types, and ways of providing appropriate scaffolding and optimal challenge – which might not otherwise have been considered. These contributions have both informed Leto’s design process and enhanced my own graduate studies as I seek to apply research to real-world problems. Overall, my experience to date has been overwhelmingly positive, reaffirming my conviction that bridging the gap between academic research and practical applications has been a worthwhile endeavor for my professional career and can be for humanists in general.