Making It Work: Language chatbot ‘Nuala’ joins the edtech conversation

DIT graduate Stephen Kelly has developed an edtech tool to help replicate natural conversation online

2nd January, 2022
Making It Work: Language chatbot ‘Nuala’ joins the edtech conversation
Greg Cawley, chief executive of Fathom: Nualang is now targeting the US market. Picture: Andrew Downes

Stephen Kelly was just an intern when he joined Fathom, the Dublin technology consultancy, back in 2018.

But the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) graduate brought with him an idea that has since grown into Nualang, an educational application founded by Fathom which has attracted more than 3,000 users and 300 teachers in the US market since its establishment just months ago.

Kelly was always proficient in technology but had a memory of struggling in school while studying French for the Leaving Certificate. He found preparing for his oral exam particularly difficult, according to Greg Cawley, the chief executive of Fathom who is now Kelly’s boss.

“Stephen went in for his French oral exam and had this very uncomfortable experience,” Cawley said. “He realised: ‘Okay, I’m meeting someone for the first time and I’ve now got to converse with them.’ Even though he’d prepared, it made him anxious and he felt he hadn’t performed as well as he could have.”

The feeling of leaving something behind stuck with Kelly, and while at college he began designing Nualang for his final year project. At Fathom, they saw the potential of the software he had developed, Cawley said.

“Stephen was coming on board with us anyway, and we said to him: ‘We like this project so much, let’s try and do something with it’.”

Three years later, Kelly is now the lead engineer of Nualang within Fathom. The firm has assigned two people to work full-time on marketing the product. “The most satisfying thing of all about this is that Stephen is in charge of the product,” said Cawley.

Edtech is an increasingly crowded market, with apps like Duolingo and Memrise already popular among those seeking to learn a language. But Nualang believes it can capture another, significant segment of the market because it is specifically designed for teachers and students.

Nualang allows teachers to create classrooms on the app, and design tailored classes and courses for their students. It currently supports six languages: German, Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese and English.

Nualang’s most groundbreaking feature, though, is the chatbots it has developed. This army of virtual helpers (called ‘Nualas’) can converse in open-ended conversations with students. They can be programmed by teachers for specific courses, but the software also comes with existing conversations that can help a student with their oral learning.

Nualas can listen to a student as they speak aloud into a recorder, and can help with the nuances of conversing in a different language. They’re also able to conduct written role play conversations with responses that vary in the fashion of a real chat.

“The Nualas are there to help the student in the privacy of their own home, on the bus, on their way into school, to be able to practise the art of conversation,” Cawley said. “The teacher, additionally, is able to create the content and material for the student to practise in the classroom.”

Nualang, which has backing from Enterprise Ireland, is targeting the US market and aims to grow next year with a funding round in the pipeline.

“I think this can be a big solution,” Cawley said. “Particularly with the pandemic, speaking in the classroom is really restricted and students are finding it a struggle. Our technology can help, so we really have an opportunity to scale this.”

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