Leveraging educational technology, TestPlay founder Enzo Smith talks through how his language learning app uses interactive gaming to make the experience fun.
An English teacher of ten years, Enzo Smith initially stumbled upon teaching by chance. Having discovered a major pain point in language acquisition, he believes that the future of education lies in educational technology or EdTech. “My job as a teacher is to think of creative ways to teach students,” he explains, and that involved understanding the core elements behind making learning fun. Now committed to challenging the formula of traditional learning, Enzo has created TestPlay, an app that turns language learning into an interactive gaming experience, helping students in Vietnam pick up English, Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I started teaching English right after college in California. After that, I went to South Korea for about 3 years, China for 2 years and I’ve been in Vietnam for just under 3 years. My undergraduate degree was in anthropology, so I always knew that I wanted to work abroad with people from other cultures; English was just the easiest way to get that started. It was kind of lucky though – once I started teaching, I found that I was pretty good at it and that I really enjoyed it.
What was the inspiration behind TestPlay?
As I’ve been travelling around the world, I’ve been learning languages too. I speak some Korean, a decent amount of Chinese and now I’m learning Vietnamese. I’ve been using language learning apps to study these languages, and I found that the problem with these apps is that they work, but they’re all very boring. The people making these apps are software developers, so they make great software, but they’re not teachers. They don’t understand how to make learning fun. They’re just doing the same thing again and again and in the end, it’s the same product. And I realised that my job as a teacher is to think of creative ways to teach students and that I can make something better than what’s out there.
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How does the app work?
Essentially, the app is a cross between flashcards and Pokémon. I wanted to make language learning apps more entertaining, to turn them into something that people would actually choose to use in their free time. One of the realisations I had is that when I was younger, I liked Pokémon a lot, and now, 10 years later, I can still list the names of every Pokémon. I realised that when you play these video games, you get invested in that world, and I wanted to try to simulate that. This game is my attempt to do that – you become invested in your character and your progress through the world.
The actual mechanic of battling is that you need to learn vocabulary words. Otherwise, you can’t progress. You have to be able to pair the English word to the Vietnamese word – if you get it right, you attack the enemy and if you don’t, he will attack you, which gives you an incentive to learn these words in order to advance your character through the game.
Right now it’s coded for English, Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese because those are the languages that I know, but I’m planning on initially launching only to Vietnamese language learners because I think it’s an underprovided market.
What kind of impact do you want TestPlay to have?
In my mind, Testplay is just one step along the path. I want to bring education into the future. I think a teacher’s job is to make something boring more interesting, and I think EdTech has the ability to bring that to the next level. There are so many students and so many things they want to learn, and I think EdTech allows for a custom-tailored curriculum to each of those students. A large part of what I hope to bring into the education realm is to provide a purpose and an incentive – I think the education system is broken, and I can’t think of anyone better suited to fix it. That’s my driving force and my ultimate goal.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far?
Right now, the problem is that I don’t have enough time – I spend about 50% of my time teaching at RMIT University and 50% of my time working on TestPlay at home. If I have the funds, I’ll definitely build a team. Hopefully, that will come in the future – it really depends on how the game goes. My larger goal is to start an EdTech development studio, so the next logical step would be to develop another game. I would still be doing 80% of it myself, but I would hopefully have more funds to outsource art and sound design to people that are better skilled at those things.
What is the future of technology in education?
I think there will be a turning point when EdTech will become something that’s so easy, so available, that the classroom experience can’t compete anymore. In my opinion, it’s inevitable that, eventually, there’s going to be some sort of platform or software that’s just better than what a teacher can provide. The biggest obstacle is that people are stuck in their ways – everything we’re using is just copying the past. People have designed software systems that try their best to mimic the classroom experience because that’s what people are comfortable with. But why are we doing this when you can never duplicate that experience? What we should be doing is trying to improve the system: instead of just trying to copy the classroom experience, I want to see something that’s completely different, but better.
That’s not to say that teachers won’t play a role. I think that human touch and personal interaction are very important. The best analogy I can think of is a gym: a person could go to a gym, use the exercise machines, never talk to anyone and get fit. But the reality is that that doesn’t happen – people need a trainer. That’s the way I look at the future of education: the future role of the teacher is more like a personal trainer, where they’re pushing students through different educational exercises and motivating them while developing a custom plan for them to follow.
The Testplay Learning app is now available on Google Play.