Dean Mikan is the co-founder and CEO of Canopy Study, an AI-powered tool that transforms the education experience. Dean and the team are on a mission to empower the world to learn. Their product enables students and teachers to maximise learning potential by generating adaptive resources like tests, quizzes and flashcards in minutes. In addition to saving time for busy teachers, student performance is being tracked and data used to tailor coursework and curriculum. Keep reading to hear about Dean's journey from student to founder, why he’s bullish on the future of AI and Canopy Study’s vision to scale world-class education around the globe.
Building a startup isn’t something that crosses everyone’s mind when they encounter a problem. How did you go from identifying a problem to creating a product that solves it?
I have always liked the idea of being a part of a team that builds what we want, when we want – and that has a really profound impact on people's lives.
I met Andre in high school and Ethan in kindergarten. We were all close friends growing up and used to do a lot of coding together, so we have fantastic chemistry. Canopy Study is a solution to the problems that were arising at university for all of us. We didn’t receive sufficient learning resources – so for instance, a lecturer would hand us 140-page lectures. I would be writing down notes, kidding myself that I could actually remember the content if I read it over enough times.
The problem is that this is not how humans learn. We build a much deeper knowledge of topics when we're required to actively recall and comprehend information. However, creating those resources is very time-consuming for both students and teachers. Canopy Study is our shot at bridging this gap.
I was at university studying for a computer science degree, so I already had a huge interest in AI. And I was uniquely positioned because, from the outset, I was surrounded by people with the right skill set to solve a problem that we had all faced. It didn’t seem like anyone else was doing anything about it, so Ethan, Andre and I wanted to fix this for other students that were facing the exact same issue. We want to save time across all facets of learning, from creating material to marking it, delivering it to students, and then having students run through the material. Essentially we are working to simulate a one on one tutoring experience at scale.
Why should every classroom be using Canopy Study?
Teachers are at a disadvantage at all times within our current education system. They’re working long hours, with very high expectations. And students are at a disadvantage due to such high student to teacher ratios. This doesn’t support good learning practices, AT ALL. We aim to support and empower teachers and students by alleviating some of these pressures that fall upon them given the current schooling environment. This includes saving teachers time by helping create and mark assessments, and helping students learn effectively and efficiently using research-backed cognitive science.
Canopy Study is built to put teachers and students in a position where they can reach their maximum potential. We supply tools that make asynchronous learning highly effective and extremely easy to achieve, especially in a climate of hybrid learning. With Canopy Study, teachers can give students equity in a more personalised and unique learning journey.
Why are you excited about AI in the education space?
It has huge potential to help create more personalised and adaptive learning experiences, giving equity back to students in their learning pathways. It can help identify students’ strengths and weaknesses and make recommendations on how they can improve. It creates instantaneous feedback loops where previously students waited days for feedback from a teacher. Additionally, AI can help automate some of the more tedious tasks that teachers have to do on a daily basis, like creating learning material, marking assessments, or asynchronous discussions.
By using AI, you’re also able to scale a one on one teaching experience to all learners everywhere, regardless of their circumstances. So whether you study at Harvard or a student in a developing country, you can access a world-class education. When everyone has access to incredible education, there are no boundaries to what we can achieve.
What a vision. Where are you guys on this journey, and where would you like to end up?
At the moment we’re finding product-market fit by working alongside teachers and trying to make sure that Canopy Study is easy to use and understand because it’s a completely new technology. It’s like taking an iPhone and giving it to someone who has used a brick phone for their entire life! Once we figure out how to best bring Canopy Study into the classroom, it will look like us transitioning to the growth phase and scaling it to as many teachers and students as we can in Australia, New Zealand and the US.
Once we’ve built international foundations, we want to go from helping teachers and students learn, to helping anyone of any age learn anything, regardless of demographic, geographic or psychographic barriers. Like a personal teacher. That's where we eventually want to go.
Are there any other similar products that teachers are currently using or will this likely be their first encounter with AI?
Over the next decade, AI is going to completely change how teachers teach, and how students (and we all) learn. It will transform education. At the moment, there's no one generating material using AI like we are. There’s use cases of AI spouted around apps like Duolingo to predict user behaviour, but nothing within the classroom or lecture halls. We're trying to take advantage of this first-mover advantage and push the momentum as much as we can. Eventually, we won't be the only ones doing it. I hope that we won’t because there’s a lot of work to be done transforming this industry!
Do you have any tips for aspiring or first-time founders?
Most importantly, do work that you care about – and that's going to help you wake up in the morning.
Secondly, believe in yourself and in your team, and make sure to put aside time to talk. We do one on ones every week and discuss where we can improve, anywhere we are clashing, and anything that we would like to continue, or stop doing. Having those really honest conversations with each other makes a big difference. If we didn't do one on ones, there'd be so many things that just would never arise out of regular conversations.
And lastly, take risks. Being risk-averse is not going to help you innovate or create incredible things. So be open to trying things that might not have been done before. Huge risk can lead to huge reward.
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