In this conversation, we talk to Alexander Degenhardt and Noah Liebherr who are in their final year of the IB Diploma at Zurich International School. Seeing how complicated it could be for teachers and students to manage all the different digital platforms used within their school, they saw an opportunity to design an easy-to-use platform that could integrate all of them. With the support of parents, teachers and ZIS, Cikumas was born – allowing teachers to be free to choose which software they like best, and everyone only needing to remember one password!
Can you tell us a bit about yourselves and your interests?
Noah: When I’m not in school or working on Cikumas, I like to spend time with my friends, and enjoy sports like American Football or the gym. Currently, I am very interested in cryptocurrency and am also trying my hand at that as well.
Alexander: I’ve always loved business. I’d take my interests and make a business out of it. Previously, I worked for my own gaming start-up and collaborated to organise Switzerland’s biggest entertainment and games expo. I enjoy playing Football, Table Football and Sailing.
I also enjoy Geography, Video Games and Model Rocketry.
What is Cikumas (pronounced Chikumas)?
Cikumas is a state of the art Learning Management System (LMS) and assignment distribution system, which totally digitalises the classroom and takes it to the next level. Our aim is to simplify teachers’ work by providing them with tools to efficiently manage their classroom and enhance the student learning experience. The platform was created based on our own experiences as students at Zurich International School.
What experiences inspired the idea?
We felt frustrated with current technological solutions at school. Although grateful to have many options to use in our different classes, we felt that our learning was hindered by having to switch from different softwares all the time to accomplish different tasks. Based on this, we wanted to create a comprehensive platform so students and teachers would only require one login in the classroom. So, we started to save up our monthly allowances to develop a trial platform. When one of our teachers and our parents decided to invest in us and our vision, we knew that we were on to something bigger than we ever imagined.
Is there an aspect of Cikumas that you find particularly valuable?
Obviously, as the product is our “baby”, we find all of the features exciting and look forward to continuing to develop our vision for the perfect classroom. However, if there is one stand-out feature that we find most useful, it would be the student note taking tools. We don’t only provide the classic note-taking functionality, but students can actually highlight text and get it instantly translated to their native language. This is an incredible tool for multilingual students, like a lot of other students at international schools. Naturally, the fact that we as students can play a part in reshaping the way the modern classroom functions is extremely exciting and especially rewarding.
How is Cikumas innovative?
Innovation forms one of the core values at Cikumas. We know firsthand what works for our competitors and what doesn’t, at times even better than our competitors themselves because of our experiences as end users of their products. Therefore, we can take all the good parts of today’s EdTech world and mix them with inspirations taken from our own ideas or feedback that we have gathered from our teachers.
Take the “Who’s viewed what” feature for the Class Wall. We know firsthand that students are always coming up with new excuses to not hand in their work, saying that they didn’t see the post or that they didn’t receive a notification. We show teachers and students, like in WhatsApp, exactly who saw what, essentially eliminating that excuse.
Other innovative features include ideas like the Global Library, the new search bar, the note-taking tools, or the automatic grading interface. We know a search bar doesn’t sound particularly innovative, but you would not believe that one of the main LMS’s that schools use actually do not even have this basic functionality. Our aim is really to address pain points that teachers and students experience in the platforms that they are using today.
What are some of the ways that existing Learning Management Systems fail teachers, students and parents?
Current EdTech solutions are either outsourcing the teacher – by being too high tech, automated and hard to understand therefore making the teacher’s presence in the class redundant – or they are too simple and don’t comply with teachers’ and students’ vision of a modern classroom.
Other solutions often don’t offer the flexibility teachers need to enhance their teaching experience. The main pain point we have discovered is that a lot of platforms don’t listen to user feedback, something that’s crucial in a changing industry, which is why we have made it one of our main priorities in Cikumas.
Furthermore, currently, parents don’t use LMS’s at all, and therefore can at most just follow the grades of their child.
Where do some schools go wrong in choosing Learning Management Systems?
Often times, decision makers implement tech from a top-down approach. School leaders or IT administrators choose which solutions should be used at their institutions and teachers are expected to use it in their classes. Research has shown that it is important to include both teachers and students in the decision-making process of what is needed in the classroom, to support a successful learning experience. We’ve also realised that schools spend a lot of their IT budget on hardware, which is what is tangible and what parents and other stakeholders see. However, the hardware is just a part of the solution and the choice of software is just as important.
What do students, teachers and parents have to gain from an integrated system such as Cikumas?
Since Cikumas was created based on our experiences, we recognize how important it is to listen to feedback and needs of all our users. This allows our user base to have a direct impact in shaping the platform and its functionalities. Buying an integrated system is also cost effective for schools, as they forego the need to buy other systems. Our solution starts from 800 CHF per year, a drop in the ocean for most international school budgets.
Furthermore, technology has the potential to completely transform how schools operate. Our goal is, therefore, to be the complete solution for all stakeholders in a school, eliminating problems such as incompatible software, non-transparent communication between schools and parents, information getting lost between systems, forgetting logins and having to learn multiple systems, etc.
Parents also have a great deal to gain from using Cikumas. Apart from just seeing their children’s grades, they can follow closely what’s happening in their child’s school life. They can see their classwork and homework, and how much time their children spent working. Additionally, they will also be able to see teachers’ comments and have a direct and easy link to their child and the teacher in the classroom. The result is a transparent and easy-to-use system for parents to gain more insight into their child’s school life and abilities than just their grades. We know that that is definitely something our parents would have liked to have.
How did the international school environment contribute to or support the creation of Cikumas?
As IB students, we have been taught to take an active role in our learning and to be critical thinkers. This way of thinking helped spur us to start Cikumas and gave us the confidence to be student entrepreneurs. Our school is already quite technologically advanced with its 1-1 device policy and use of various EdTech products. We are aware that not all students have this opportunity in their schools but we truly believe that public policies will change to support this in local schools soon as well. In addition to this, our teachers have been extremely helpful by taking time out of their busy schedules to sit down with us and help us better understand their needs. We also had the help of other staff members who have put us in contact with their international network of educators and influencers. All of this has helped us to dream big, not to just focus on Switzerland but that we can reach educators and be featured in classrooms all over the world, in different national curriculums.
We also believe that the perspectives and connections that an International School environment brings are a great resource in the early stages of a company. For example, one of the schools that use Cikumas the most is in Kuala Lumpur, which we would never have gotten into contact with had we not had a personal connection to an international school friend who moved from Zürich to Kuala Lumpur.
What advice would you give other students your age with a big idea as to how to make it a reality?
If you have an idea or see an opportunity, just start to engage with it and come up with concepts of how you could execute it. Chances are very high that you will end up with something completely different, but you have to start from somewhere. Find a competent partner that complements your strengths and skills who is also a friend. Down the line, you will appreciate having a sparring partner and trusted companion. We also recommend people to plan their projects carefully since student projects often don’t have big budgets and every Swiss franc spent matters.
In what areas do you hope to continue your studies? Or is Cikumas going to take all your time?!
Alex: We have decided to take time off after graduation to fully focus on developing Cikumas. It’s amazing to see how far we were able to go with this while working in a part-time capacity, juggling work, school and our social life. It is exciting to see how much farther we can take it, having our full attention and dedication. It’s challenging to be taken seriously as a student and we want to show that this is not just an “after school project” but a legitimate solution for schools. After that, I will most likely be attending university in Switzerland, perhaps business to help take Cikumas (and my future ventures) all the way.
Noah: Our company is our first priority for our time after high school. However, I will definitely go to university at one point. A good family friend of mine and a very successful businessman in his early 70s once told me that university made up around 7% of his time after high school and that 7 % paid off later in life. I’d like to attend a university with similar forward-thinking people, such as Alex and myself, one that will support me in my future endeavours. I still haven’t decided as to where but I know that I want to go in the direction of computer science, art or business.
What are your plans for the future of Cikumas?
Our goal is to reach as many teachers and schools globally including those with limited resources, which is why the current version of the platform will remain free of charge for users. As of this summer, we will be focusing on delivering whole school solutions to also cover the pain points that IT administrators, school administrators and directors face making us a one-stop shop for schools.
You can find out more about Cikumas at https://cikumas.com/