October 29, 2013

Man on a Mission

With DimensionU, Ntiedo Etuk ’02 is using video games — and a healthy dose of competition — to get millions of kids excited about learning.

Chris Narozny

Etuk

When Ntiedo (“NT”) Etuk ’02 was a tutor with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, his “little brother,” though about to start the ninth grade, struggled with third-grade math. Etuk drilled his student relentlessly, and while the young man made progress, he also grew frustrated, ultimately asking his mother to “fire” Etuk on the grounds that their sessions were no fun. “I made the same mistake a lot of teachers make along the way,” Etuk says. “I hadn’t realized that he was getting less and less engaged, to the point where he just turned off.”

The experience alerted Etuk, then fresh out of college, to the shortcomings of an educational system that paid little attention to its true customer: the student. Legislation such as No Child Left Behind, he observed, placed a high premium on test scores but made no attempt to measure student engagement. Etuk concluded that “the best way to engage students is to take the things they already know and love — social networking, e-mail, instant messenger, video games — and turn them into something that serves a greater purpose.”

That revelation led Etuk to found DimensionU, a company that embeds math and literacy lessons into multiplayer, three-dimensional online video games. In a typical game, students compete individually or collaborate with one another in teams. “Kids think they’re playing a game together,” says Etuk, “but really it’s a study group.” To date, more than three million students have played DimensionU games. The software has been implemented in many of the nation’s largest school districts, including those in Dallas, Chicago, and Miami.

The games are not only popular; they’re effective. According to an independent study by the University of Central Florida in 2008, more than 80 percent of DimensionU players increased their test scores by as much as two letter grades. Seventy-five percent of DimensionU players passed Florida’s state assessment, a standardized exam used to measure adequate yearly progress for all public schools — compared to just 35 percent of nonplayers. Since then additional studies have demonstrated even more promising results. For instance, students in Hillsborough County, FL — the ninth largest school district in the country — who used DimensionU software during summer school showed an average pre- to posttest gain of 18 percent.

“He is helping to bring new and better ways to engage kids, which is critical to improving learning outcomes.” -Joel Klein

In 2006, DimensionU held one of its first educational gaming tournaments in Manhattan with participants from approximately 30 New York City public schools. The games were projected onto movie-sized screens and an audience of more than 900 students cheered on their classmates as though they were watching a football game. The New York City Department of Education was so impressed that it has encouraged more than 200 schools throughout the five boroughs to implement the games.

Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City public schools, was struck by Etuk’s entrepreneurial approach and the scope of his vision. “He is helping to bring new and better ways to engage kids, which is critical to improving learning outcomes,” says Klein.

Win, Lose, Learn

DimensionU’s mission is not only to make learning fun; it’s to transform learning into “a lifestyle for children.” “We want to get students to talk about their education the same way they talk about games or dating or sports,” says Etuk.

The company’s focus on video games reflects technology trends that educators would be remiss to ignore: According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 99 percent of teenage boys and 94 percent of teenage girls play video games on a regular basis. PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that video games will be the fastest-growing form of media over the next few years.

With names like Meltdown, Towerstorm, and Swarm, DimensionU games were created with input from both game developers and education experts.

DimensionU game screen

DimensionU's Velocity, pictured here, covers math content for grades 3–8 and high school algebra that is aligned with new national standards. Watch a demo.

One typical game, Velocity, features a highspeed obstacle course where players must answer multiple-choice math questions correctly to get “travel power” to navigate a jump-ramp-studded course.

Etuk sees the video game environment as a boon to learning. Students can see their progress in real time. And when a student doesn’t know an answer, she need not raise her hand in front of peers. “You may fail 100 times before you beat a video game,” says Etuk, “but you are doing so in a risk-free environment that encourages experimentation.”

Students can also earn virtual currency that allows for the purchase of in-game items like tokens and badges. “Most children, at one point or another, question the relevance of learning to their lives,” says Etuk. “With in-game rewards that offer status, recognition, and power, we tap into kids’ psychological motivations and make that question irrelevant.”

A Path Forward

While a tutoring mishap sparked the idea for DimensionU, the company’s roots reach far back into Etuk’s past. The son of a Bahamian doctor and a Nigerian architect, Etuk lived in Nigeria until he was four. His roots in Nigeria, where poverty and political instability were rampant, left him with “an awareness that you have to give back.” He recalls asking himself what made the people begging at the side of the road different from the people who drove past them in fancy cars. Some people were born into privilege, he determined, while others weren’t. The real question was how the underprivileged could rise above the hand they’d been dealt.

The answer seemed obvious: education. Etuk’s family had always seen education as a path forward — both an individual path and a national path for a country moving into independence. Etuk’s paternal grandfather graduated from Columbia Teachers College in the 1930s, then returned to Nigeria to begin his career. His aunt followed suit in the 1970s. Etuk’s parents instilled in him the conviction that, with hard work and a strong education, he could do anything. “My parents both expected the most that I could give, and at the same time helped me believe that if I expected the same of myself, I could achieve it,” says Etuk. One of the goals of DimensionU is to show children that it is possible to excel in areas where they too frequently expect to fail.

Passion and Perseverance

After graduating from Columbia in 2002, Etuk worked for Citigroup by day as an analyst; in the evenings, he honed his business plan for DimensionU (initially called Tabula Digita), often staying up until three or four in the morning. He was on an enviable career path &mash; Citigroup recruited him to work with the company’s chief of staff to the president — but knew that he wouldn’t be satisfied until he started his own business. Seven months later, Etuk left Citigroup to focus full time on his new venture.

By then he’d partnered with his cofounder and next-door neighbor, Robert Clegg, who had experience both designing games and teaching in the New York City public school system. As Clegg developed the product, Etuk raised capital and got the company off the ground.

It was not an overnight success. At first, nobody wanted to lend Etuk money. “You have no education background,” potential backers told him. “You’ve never programmed games for a living.” Negotiations dragged on, and by the time Etuk received his first $100,000 of funding, he was down to $27 in his personal account and $300 in his business account. Since then, he has raised more than $20 million from investors like Intel Capital.

Seeking Impact

Etuk’s social conscience extends beyond his personal business endeavors. Perhaps most notably, he was selected with 19 other entrepreneurs from around the world to join the 2010 class of Henry Crown Fellows at the Aspen Institute. The program, themed “from success to significance,” examined the broader role entrepreneurs might play in their communities or globally.

In 2011, DimensionU’s success earned Etuk an invitation to meet President Obama at the White House, and he currently sits on Mayor Bloomberg’s Council on Technology and Innovation, a committee dedicated to helping technological companies succeed in New York City.

Although Etuk has named a new CEO and has launched his next entrepreneurial venture, a tech start-up in the health and fitness space, he remains deeply connected to the company he founded: as executive chairman, he plays an active role in product development and retains strategic oversight of key operations, including plans to make DimensionU’s games available on mobile devices early next year.

Last May, DimensionU produced DU the MATH, a five-week video-game math tournament in which tens of thousands of third- to ninth-grade students from across the country competed for $60,000 in college scholarships, the chance to win a piano lesson with teen pop star Greyson Chance, or the opportunity to spend a day as the fifth member of the hip hop and R&B group Mindless Behavior. More than 900 schools competed to host the competition’s final round. The tournament represents Etuk’s commitment to using creative and unconventional tools to address a fundamental question: “How do we get students to care about X + Y = 5?”

“Millions of public school students around the country struggle to succeed in school and pass exams,” says Etuk. “Many become demoralized and simply disengage. To connect with these children and set them up for a lifetime of success, we have to take risks, think creatively, and act decisively about how we teach.”

Photography by Laura Barisonzi

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