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Bringing machine learning to education: Ronan’s EF journey

Ronan was 10 years old when he first learned how to code.

The Macintosh computer had just been introduced to the mainstream market and Ronan’s mother, a teacher, had access to a computer program called Logo at her school.

“It was a very primitive language,” he explains. “I could draw a perfect rectangle or circle on the screen with just five lines of code. That was the moment I knew I wanted to do this for a living.”

Fast forward three decades and Ronan has realized his career dreams and then some. As the Senior Engineering Director for EF Learning Labs in China, Ronan is in charge of all software engineering for the Kids and Teens division. His 15-plus years of experience in the industry cover everything from 3D modeling to backend programming. Ronan has worked for a variety of companies, including Fuji Xerox and Microsoft, but it’s his current role at EF Education First that he says challenges him in unexpected ways.

“I decided to join EF because machine learning—which is the kind of computer science I’m most interested in—has been widely adopted in a lot of industries, but in the world of education it’s still in the infant stage,” he says. “That really excited me.”

Ronan goes on to explain that when he first interviewed with EF he was in awe of the amount of student learning history his team had collected to make the highest quality product for their customers. It meant the potential for machine learning, the science of which involves computers relying on patterns and inferences to perform specific tasks, was vast.

“We collect student behavior to understand how our customers learn English,” he explains. “We can then leverage this data to create better algorithms to help the students learn and make the most of our software.”

Algorithms, for example, that assess students’ pronunciation.

“In the past, students would need to talk to a teacher in order for their pronunciation to be assessed,” he continues. “Our team wrote code that can identify proper manners of speaking. So now, the student only needs to read a script into a microphone and, through machine learning, the program can identify exactly how they need to improve.”

With a daughter who is learning English through the very programs he builds, Ronan’s passion for the product stretches beyond the walls of EF’s Shanghai office.

“I use my daughter to understand, from a customer perspective, what is working and what can be improved,” he says. “This is my own child I’m talking about. I want to give her the best education and the language skills to be successful. Her success as an English speaker, which in many ways translates to my success in my job, ultimately informs our customers’ success down the line.”

Ronan also recognizes the importance of cultural immersion—a core aspect of all of EF’s programs—in the language learning process.

“I travel with my family at least two or three times a year,” he says. “It’s not enough to just learn English online or in the classroom. You need to be immersed with native speakers. You need to be exposed to the culture of the countries of the language that you’re learning. In fact, it is one of the many ways how, at my age, I also continue to learn.”

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