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+ By David Zax

Getting Personal

Electronic learning geared to the individual can enhance — but not replace — teacher-student contact.

Once upon a time — in the 1990s — a futurist vision floated through some math, science, and engineering departments. There were suddenly all these computers around, offering what seemed to be limitless educational possibilities. “The sense was we could design software,” recalls Margret Hjalmarson, a math educator at George Mason University. “Students would move to modules — and you wouldn’t need instructors necessarily.”

Things haven’t worked out quite that way. Instructors are still with us, and many educators agree that the full educational power of computers has yet to be unleashed. Electronic personalized learning, using technology to tailor instruction to individual students’ skills and pace, has not gone mainstream. Yet in ways both simple and complex, technology is changing the teaching and learning experience.

For instance, Hjalmarson has a colleague who holds office hours at a time convenient for students but formerly impracticable for professors: 9 p.m. Only she redefines the meaning of “office” to make herself available from home, via instant messaging. Such redefinition of educational spaces and hours may become common. “There’s no reason why learning needs to be confined to school hours or… to the classroom,” says Maria Langworthy, program director of Microsoft-funded ITL Research. “Technology makes it so you can learn anywhere, anytime.”

Other instructors use a technique Hjalmarson calls “flipping the lecture.” She explains: “The stuff that would traditionally appear in a class lecture now appears online in video format,” enabling students to absorb the basics whenever they like and to re-watch tricky sections. The actual class is used to interact with the professor and ask questions — a more valuable and dynamic way to spend limited face-to-face time.

Content management systems like Blackboard can be a boon to personalized learning, Hjalmarson says. One of the central findings of recent learning research is that not only do different students learn at different paces but that different means of instruction suit them. Aural learners are helped along by recorded lectures, visual learners by graphs and charts, and some even prefer the old-fashioned text. Web hosting, though, presents a virtual smorgasbord of education from which each student can pick and choose.

The Florida Institute of Technology offers distance-learning courses to students in 29 countries and 49 states. How do you prevent cheating in a closed-book exam when your students are all over the world? Daunted by the prospect, Cynthia Schmitt, director of FIT’s Behavioral Science and Technology Program, reached out to the company Software Secure for a service called Secureexam Remote Proctor. Students received and connected a device to their personal computers that made audio and video recordings during test taking. Software Secure flagged any suspicious activity and sent it to FIT for review.

The friendly Big Brother approach seems to have had a deterrent effect. “We normally get five or 10 videos out of those 1,000 students we need to watch,” says Schmitt. The most common violation? “Mainly, they let a pet in the room,” she says.

Personalized e-learning must be driven by data on different ways students learn, many educators agree. “Schools aren’t lacking for data. They’re often swimming in it,” says Keith Krueger of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), an association of school district technology leaders. There are data on demographics, economic status, attendance, grades, test scores, course history, enrollment, behavior, and discipline. “The challenge is how we tap into that data we have and get it down into instruction,” says Krueger.

“If it doesn’t get in the hands of teachers,” agrees Katie Lovett, an Atlanta-based education consultant, “you don’t have a data-use culture.” Enabling such a culture is more work than it might seem. The educational institutions that most effectively marshal data devote considerable time and resources to the project, and even bring in specially trained staff members called “data coaches.”

Glimpsing the Future

Pulling together personal technologies, innovative teaching, and student data is “fairly complicated,” says Thomas Lasley of the University of Dayton, a co-author of the 2010 study “Effective Urban Teaching Environments for the 21st Century.” “You’d have to have fairly savvy and sophisticated teachers to do this well.” But technology itself can share the burden, as a pilot program in New York City middle schools shows.

School of One, created by Teach for America veteran Joel Rose, has three main components, each computer assisted. First, teachers compile a full and vivid data profile of every student. Second, the school assembles a lesson bank. Traditional lectures, small-group exercises, one-on-one instruction, online lessons, and virtual tutoring software are tagged with different attributes — whether they involve games, for instance, or require a student to read.

The crucial third component is a “learning algorithm” that takes the student profiles and the lesson bank, analyzes them, and spits out a lesson plan individually tailored to each student, and a schedule for each teacher. These “playlists,” in School of One’s zeitgeisty lingo, are projected on screens in the classroom. With 30 percent funding from New York City’s Department of Education and the rest from philanthropy, School of One debuted in the summer of 2009 at Chinatown’s M.S. 131, with 90 sixth-grade students. It has since expanded to several more schools in the area.

At the university level, one of the trailblazers is Paul Steif, a mechanical engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Online course materials already enable students to engage in distance learning and to supplement their coursework. But Steif takes them an ambitious step further, driven in part by research in cognitive science, to “enact instruction” in an entire subject. As part of the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon, Steif and colleague Anna Dollár made online course material that interacts dynamically with the traditional lecture.

The traditional engineering course, Steif explains, follows a certain model: Each lecture presents new material, and the student goes home and refers to a textbook to review the material and work on problem sets. Two weaknesses are student disorientation in lectures and dull textbooks. Steif and Dollầtackle both those problems.

In place of chapters are carefully designed modules, each comprising several Web pages. The pages are interactive and use multimedia. Each has a specific learning objective. Some contain simulations, others video. If students get stuck on a certain problem, they can click a button for a hint, and are thereby nudged along a learning curve that they might otherwise have abandoned.

The materials, Steif believes, generally improve the “out-of-classroom experience” but have the potential to improve the in-classroom experience, as well. Contrary to the traditional model, Steif introduces his students to new material before the lecture, through the online modules. The students needn’t understand everything; at the very least, “they’re primed…they’re sensitized,” he says. Furthermore, the online modules can compile data on how well students processed the material during their priming sessions. “Every little click in principle can be tracked,” says Steif. “It’s possible to aggregate all the data and make it meaningful for the instructor,” who can in turn tailor his or her lecture to fit the students’ needs.

Software, multimedia, the connectivity and interactivity of the Web — these are all tools that can be used to make learning more effective. Still, “the idea of this utopia with no instructors, I don’t think this was realistic,” says Steif. For all his confidence in electronic learning, “we can add so much through human interaction.”


David Zax is a freelance writer based in New York.




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