Adaptive Learning and Other Educational Challenges

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I subscribe to Dan Meyers’ blog because he thinks and writes with great clarity about the teaching of mathematics. I’m no mathematician, but good teaching techniques are cross-disciplinary, permitting me to apply many to the teaching of history. One of Dan’s recent posts has a title that would catch anybody’s attention: “Adaptive Learning Is An Infinite iPod That Only Plays Neil Diamond.” In the post, Dan laments his encounters with futurists, who are promoting an adaptive learning solution to solve a problem that is part of a teacher-centric classroom. For Meyers, who practices a student-centered approach, the adaptive learning solution, in its current incarnation, does not apply. Rather than elaborating, Dan sends the reader to a series of excellent Education Week blog posts by Justin Reich, where the topic is explored in more detail. I recommend that you read Justin’s work because he lends some additional perspective to the Meyers lamentations.

While we have watched technology tools blossom for consumption and content creation, enhancements to online assessment or any related automated learning program such as adaptive learning have fallen woefully short of what good teachers require. Reich elaborates on the reasons why, and offers a few suggestions for future software development. The operative questions are whether the lack of good adaptive assessment tools is a show-stopper for blended and online learning (clearly not), and if the real question is not so much about assessment, but who is at the center of the classroom. The answer to the latter question might shape the direction of the development of educational technology tools.

The point of adaptive learning is to focus individual student effort on types of questions that were difficult or impossible to answer while minimizing questions for which the student showed mastery. Computers can certainly “learn” or adapt to a student based on prior results, but Reich argues that computers are only effective with specific kinds of quantitative or objective questions. Meyers says, in a student-centered classroom, computer-based adaptive learning provides a shadow of what good peer and teacher interaction would provide to help clear up conceptual and procedural misunderstandings for students learning at different rates. Those different rates fall under the umbrella of personalized learning services, driven by the assumption that children’s brains understand things quickly or slowly for a variety of reasons, ranging from emotional and physical states to specific learning challenges.

Returning to the arguments of  Meyers and Reich, one can infer that a student-centered classroom permits the teacher and student peers to provide effective personalized learning as necessary without adaptive learning software. The software applications of the future might then be used to provide a more specific diagnosis subject to the constraints of the data collected. Without a student-centered classroom, we are compelled to design and build curricula and pedagogy that expects students to learn at the same pace. Our current philosophy of assessment is that students move forward together and are assessed on at critical junctures. Once we have the results of those assessments, we move into reactive mode for students who have fallen short of mastery. Some of our greatest teachers are those who come to the rescue of “fallen students” and effectively erase the gaps in student understanding. In that type of classroom where all students are expected to end up in the same place with respect to skills and content, good teachers must rescue students. However, there seems to be a flaw in this strategy. Instead of building on prior successes, we are repairing failure. This is not the best method of improving student performance unless one is working with an incredibly resilient child.

How about a more proactive approach to student learning? We already see signs of that in Dan Meyers’ classroom, and others. When students work with their peers under the right circumstances, they level the playing field by trying to achieve some form of common understanding. It can work with teacher-student interaction as well, but the process is not as natural and intuitive. Better for the teacher to intervene when the peer dynamic breaks down or gets stuck. How is a student-centered scenario more proactive? All of this interaction reveals problems with understanding and potentially corrective action prior to the major assessment, and therefore avoids the need for damage control after the assessment is graded. It also maximizes student learning prior to the assessment, which is what we seek in our students.

Is there a downside to this proactive and student-centered approach to learning? Well, students won’t move at the same pace (that will be a reflection of how their brains actually operate), and that has implications in our current factory model of testing and evaluation. Perhaps there is an alternative that will thrive in both the traditional culture and a more innovative environment. In a typical scenario, if a student scores 90% on a first test, we view that performance as good and move forward. If the course material is cumulative and there has been no intervention, however, then a 90% on the second test means the student understands 90% of the 90% they previously understood, or 81%. You can see where this exercise is going. Furthermore, checking the declining cumulative result of successive tests requires regular intervention with most students, and in a reactive mode since the intervention is triggered by the test result. This process does have an appropriate role in diagnostic testing such as tests that determine a student’s reading level. But in a summative setting, the teacher is always chasing the tails of the students and practicing damage control.

Try this on for size. Is it better to complete 100% of the learning expectations at a rapid pace and understand 70% or is it better to complete 70% of the learning expectations at a comfortable pace and understand 100% of those expectations? If the summative assessment covers all of the material equitably, then one would, in theory, score 70% either way. In the former case, the student lives with some misunderstanding throughout the course and brings that misunderstanding to each subsequent assessment. In the latter case, the student has experienced mastery for 70% of the material going into the final assessment, and has the confidence to apply that mastery to what will be new material for the last 30% of the learning requirement. I like those odds better.

Yes, we need enhanced assessments, and computers may be able to help. While we are waiting for them to be developed, we might rethink how we structure our classrooms and existing assessments so we can be more proactive addressing gaps in student understanding.

“Over the High-Tech Rainbow”

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The title of this post is borrowed from Sue Halpern‘s article in the November 24, 2011 issue of The New York Review of Books (ironically, the article is behind a paid gateway). It is by far one of the most fascinating and concise articles I have read in some time because Ms. Halpern raises questions that are fundamental to our future. Beginning with a tribute to the genius of Steve Jobs for developing Siri in the iPhone 4S, Halpern reminds us of Jobs’ frequent tribute to hockey great Wayne Gretzky, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going.”

In a society that has many broken institutions, Halpern is remarkably hopeful, describing efforts to improve “clean-tech” energy production, viewing the world’s most pressing problems as opportunities, and the kind of innovative biotech that Steve Jobs used to manage his cancer. He was unsuccessful, according to Halpern, because he was playing where the puck was going to be, not where it was.

A statue of Wayne Gretzky raising the Stanley ...

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The implications of Halpern’s ideas are profound, particularly in our current society that has lost sight of planing for the future, and is understandably interested in recovering the status quo. When your car doesn’t run, you have it repaired so it will run as it did before. But all of us experience that moment when we decide it is not worth fixing the car; it is time to buy a new one. Society today has not yet crossed that threshold, and until we do, we will be stuck on the near side of the rainbow, forgetting there is a far side that contains the proverbial pot of gold.

The kinds of innovation Halpern discusses will require both heavy financial commitments and big-time brainpower. Those are the two characteristics of our society that are sitting in the garage rather than on the open road. As a democrat who always believed in the value of public goods and social programs, I am humbled to say that the Republican emphasis on protecting the “5%,” who are the captains of our economy, may be well-placed. Yes, we need to get the rest of our society back to work, but that will only happen if the 5% get excited about funding technology research that will create jobs. President Reagan’s “trickle-down economics” may have been ahead of its time.

More importantly, the 5% will not live forever, and their offspring represent a very small slice of our workforce. The challenges for education are enormous, teaching all kids to think about where the puck will be rather than where it is. Imagine an educational philosophy that promotes the charge, “Question everything.” We need to cultivate a Steve Jobs type of mind in almost every child, and we need teachers who buy into the notion that preparing our kids for a very challenging future is in their best interest, and bureaucrats who understand that higher order thinking skills cannot be cultivated in the realm of the multiple choice question.

Finally, there are those who favor progress, but worry about the ethical issues that result from “messing with the essence of humanity” in laboratories. Recall that dinosaurs became extinct because they were unable to adapt to environmental changes. That is perhaps the best reason for “rewriting the life code,” to adapt to a changing environment. Halpern speaks eloquently of the ethical issue in the article: “It’s not clear where, in the process of innovation, questions of ethics arise, or if the process is so solipsistic and self-referential that the answers are largely beside the point.” The Open Source movement grew out of a desire to democratize knowledge and expertise, and it has provided numerous benefits to individuals and the marketplace, but over the long haul, knowledge will become the premier unit of economic value, and if it does not command a handsome return, what will provide the incentive to develop new ideas and technologies (Daniel Pink should weigh in here)?

Halpern has posed all the right questions, and now we need the appropriate answers. The purpose of this post is to begin the conversation, not to end it.

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Online Learning and Quality Education

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I recently completed an online course entitled “Teaching Online Courses.” I suppose that makes it a meta-course. The Online School for Girls (OSG) was the course provider, and my instructor was a science teacher at the Westover School. Of course, in the online world, it wouldn’t matter where she taught. Suffice it to say she was very good online instructor. While I learned a great deal about constructing online courses, I also reflected about whether one could create an online course that would approach or exceed the quality of the best face to face (F2F) courses.

Online Learning

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Several observations and  lessons come to mind:

  1. In the online world, the teacher cannot be the center of the classroom. That structural modification, although it has been endorsed for years, is transformed from a suggestion to a requirement. Students are self-directed based on the instructions and requirements of the course. That means the content and activities have to be designed for student-directed learning.
  2. The notion of time is completely redefined: a) Course content and activities must be divided between what would have been class time and homework time. Both are now merged into one online setting. b) Concrete goals and activities are no longer defined by days or numbers of classes. The online course provides a roadmap of activities, and can impose due dates on those activities, but the parameters of task completion must be explicitly spelled out because there are no bells ringing or class attendance requirements. The course is goal-oriented rather than time slice-oriented. c) Length of online courses is also variable. Courses with specific objectives are completed when those objectives are met (novel idea?). Those timeframes may be 4 weeks, 8 weeks, or 12 weeks, and may not fall neatly into the boundaries of terms or semesters.
  3. The notion of interaction is also redefined. Some interaction between teacher and students can occur as it does in the F2F world; technologists call that synchronous communication — all parties are interacting in the same time slot. More commonly, however, the interaction is asynchronous, meaning that teacher and students communicate at their leisure during a loosely defined timeframe. Knowing which method is appropriate for a given lesson component is critical to ensuring student success, and both techniques are important to simulating a F2F classroom.
  4. Clarity and feedback have a higher standard in the online world. We always strive to be clear with our students, but if we are in a F2F classroom, we will know there is confusion by observing either questions from students or looks of confusion on their faces. In the online world, there will not be immediate feedback, often requiring student initiative to clear up the confusion. Frequency of assessment, both formative and summative, would be more important in the online world so students receive more rapid feedback in the absence of the F2F teacher.
  5. There are web tools available to help teacher and students get to know each other and communicate better. Threaded discussion boards, video lessons, screen casts, VoiceThreads, online chat or video chat, and Skype bring people closer together when online. I felt like I knew several of my classmates reasonably well through these tools, but am not sure whether I would have known them even better if we had enrolled in a F2F class.
My initial conclusion, having completed my test drive of an online course, is that we might approach the quality of a F2F class, and that would mean quality online learning has a future. The questions of whether online learning is a good substitute for F2F classrooms, and under what circumstances, still stand, however. I’d like to hear feedback.
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Engagement and Learning

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I’m currently taking an online course from the Online School for Girls (OSG) entitled “Teaching Online Courses.” I’ll talk more about the experience when I complete the course in two weeks, but I do want to talk today about one of the challenges of online course design that I have encountered.

Online Learning

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Posting content to an online course doesn’t seem very different than posting that same content in Blackboard for my face-to-face (F2F) classes. The greater challenge is what to do online to replace the 200 minutes of class time that will no longer exist, at least as we know it in the traditional sense.

If I am to keep a high school student’s attention for 200 minutes over the course of a week without any F2F contact, then I will have to provide individual and collaborative lessons that are high on the engagement meter. What do I mean by engagement? I love Carol Ann Tomlinson‘s explanation from her 1999 book, Differentiation in Practice: A Resource Guide for Differentiating Curriculum:

Engagement happens when a lesson captures students’ imaginations,
 snares their curiosity, ignites their opinions, or taps into their souls.
Engagement is the magnet that attracts learners’ meandering attention
and holds it so that enduring learning can occur. Understanding means
more than recalling. It means the learner has “wrapped around” an important
idea, has incorporated it accurately into his or her inventory of how things
work. The learner owns the idea (p. 38). 

After pondering the passage, I think of either highly collaborative activities that require students to work with their peers, engage in problem solving, and resolve differences in point of view, or individual activities that emphasize good communication skills, initiative and entrepreneurship, and a good deal of imagination (Wow! These are among Tony Wagner’s seven skills students need for their future). I’ve addressed a few of these in the F2F classroom, but that was my option, or so I thought. In the online classroom, I must develop these skills if I wish to truly engage my students.

The last sentence in Tomlinson’s quote, however, is the most telling. How do we, as teachers, help guide our students to ownership of ideas? This is not a legal question about intellectual property, but a pedagogical question about the role of the teacher. When you design an online course, many of the traditional structures of teaching and learning are collapsed because the classroom is no longer fixed in time and space. Therefore, I cannot be a “sage on the stage,” and must morph into a “guide by the side.” Isn’t it interesting that those elements that are essential to online courses are also critical to student engagement and mastery of skills for the future? If one accepts the premise of the question, then one would also want to transform or at least modify the traditional F2F classroom in the same manner, even though it may not be a requirement.

That may be why current research from the U.S. Department of Education (Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning) concludes the following (with qualifications): Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction (p.xv). Thus, my conclusion is that every teacher learn to teach an online course; not because many of those teachers will likely teach an online course in the K12 world or because K12 education will become primarily online in delivery, but because it will help to instruct us in making our traditional or blended curriculum more engaging for our students. That is the primary reason I need to take the online course I am taking very seriously. It will make me a better teacher regardless of the delivery model.

In future posts, I’ll talk about the experience of taking an online course and how integrating some online or blended courses into the curricula of bricks and mortar schools can create a more acceptable cost model for the school.

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