A Gift Born From Peril

Yvonne Abraham
May 5, 2011

Quick summary:

ASSISTments founder Neil Heffernan enrolled in a doctoral program to develop an intelligent tutoring program. He sought to create a program that could offer a series of friendly hints, then assign other problems in the same vein to reinforce the lessons.

But he put that pursuit on hold to join his brother-in-law in a Web startup. Two weeks later, in May of 1998, Heffernan had a seizure. A scan found a tumor the size of a ping-pong ball. Several doctors told him it was inoperable, and that he had two or three years to live.

“Making money didn’t seem particularly important to me any more,’’ he recalled. “I didn’t think I had long to live. I thought, ‘What do I want to leave here? Maybe I should go back to this tutoring system.’ ’’ 

The cancer went away. Heffernan finished his doctorate, and his tutoring system, ASSISTments, was born: It’s currently used in middle schools across the country.

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