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Some thoughts (like, a million or so) on instructional technologies July 10, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, family, gifted, grad school, homeschooling, math, older son, research, science, societal commentary, teaching, younger son.
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I’ve been having a discussion with Massimo about his post on instructional technology.  Despite what I’ve already said, I have a lot more thoughts, so it’s just easier to write it out as a blog post (or maybe more than one).

I think I’m going to start by defining some things about how classrooms operate online.  First, you have what I would call the Udacity (or maybe Khan Academy) model.  This is a model where you basically watch a lecture online, complete and submit homework assignments online, and discuss things via discussion boards (or Blackboard or Moodle).  The second model is completely computerized – all the lessons are presented via a reading or lecture, and the bulk of the course is completing problems.  Both my sons have used the former method to learn math.  One uses EPGY and the other uses Aleks.  On top of these choices for online education, there are in-class courses, mixed (some components online and others in a classroom or lab), and earning credit by exam, such as AP, CLEP, or DANTE exams.

If you look at these options from the point of view of a university, some of these options for educating students are going to be more appealing than others.  Credit by exam, of course, is going to be the least appealing.  The university gets a fee for administering the exam but pretty much nothing else.  Many universities simply will not accept them, but there are a lot of them (mostly non-elite schools) that will.

The other one that is bad from a university POV is the completely computerized model.  It works incredibly well for things like math and some sciences because it basically moves working from a textbook to working on the computer.  Also, most of the programs are adaptive in that, if you’re having difficulty with a concept, it will first give you additional problems.  If this doesn’t seem to be helping, it will pull you off that topic and put you on to another, waiting a while before it allows you to revisit the difficult topic.  (I believe K12 uses a completely computerized model for all courses, but I have no experience with it and can’t say how well it works for language or social science-type courses.)  In a classroom where one person is a facilitator supervising several students working on the course, this is a very cost effective method, and a lot of elementary and secondary schools are beginning to utilize it.  When doing it for online education, however, it represents an expense that is more, generally speaking, than hiring an individual to teach a class.  The majority of tuition money would be spent on licensing (as there are already several good ones out there) or development of a program (which may not compete well with pre-existing products) and not going into university coffers.  Also, why offer something that everyone else can offer, too?  That’s certainly not going to set you apart in terms of attracting students.  Therefore, universities are more likely to want to have in-class courses, mixed, or online courses that utilize the Udacity model.

In the discussion Massimo’s final comment was this:

I was not aware that there is now solid research showing that online education is superior to classroom teaching for the vast majority of students (I assume that at Stanford they no longer offer classroom-based math courses — it would make no sense to have continued, given that online courses work better). I am surprised that classroom-based education still exists at all, and that so many of us still believe that it is better — but I am sure society will soon abandon this useless relic of a time past, and embrace the more effective online education.

Here’s the problem: there are decades of research showing that online education is, at the very least, equally effective for most students and significantly better for other students.  So why aren’t we using it more?  I could also state that lectures have been been shown to be one of the poorest forms of teaching known to man, so why do we continue to use it so much?  Turns out, there’s an answer.  In this journal called Science (you may have heard of it), they ask exactly this question about interactive teaching and inquiry-based classrooms:

Given the widespread agreement, it may seem surprising that change has not progressed rapidly nor been driven by the research universities as a collective force. Instead, reform has been initiated by a few pioneers, while many other scientists have actively resisted changing their teaching. So why do outstanding scientists who demand rigorous proof for scientific assertions in their research continue to use and, indeed defend on the basis of intuition alone, teaching methods that are not the most effective? Many scientists are still unaware of the data and analyses that demonstrate the effiectiveness of active learning techniques. Others may distrust the data because they see scientists who have flourished in the current educational system. Still others feel intimidated by the challenge of learning new teaching methods or may fear that identification as teachers will reduce their credibility as researchers.

I’d like to note that this was published in 2004, almost a decade ago.  Here we are, 8 years later, and from my observation, active teaching strategies are seldom used in most classrooms.

I think it’s safe to say that this is the same set of problems faced with online education.  I would also add that people who learn well in the classroom have a hard time understanding that others may learn as well or better using a different medium.  Or there’s just simply the problem that they’re afraid they’re going to lose their jobs.  (I only see this as likely in the scenario colleges would somehow try to implement completely computerized online classes…but you can see my comments on that above.)

One major issue that I see is how few college instructors really understand how people learn.  They learned well through a lecture style course, and so they assume that it is obviously the best way to learn.  I personally think that every instructor ought to have at least one course in educational neuroscience so that they understand how lousy lectures really are as well as so that they may communicate to their students how they ought to try to approach learning and studying.  (This was a significant part of the class I taught to incoming engineering students last year, but not all places have a course where you can cover topics like that.)  I do realize that such a course is not available at most universities, but I don’t think that should prevent one from accessing this knowledge.  I would suggest that one who has never taken such a course invest some time in the course materials available online (are you feeling the irony?) at Harvard.  Those opposed to online education can read the book Brain Rules, which was used as the text for the course.  (Of course, if you are opposed to online education, I hope you’re reading an actual paperback rather than downloading it onto your iPad.)

Massimo also says:

I am not disputing that online education may be the only/best option for some — but, from it being a valid option for some, to it replacing classroom teaching foreveryone, there is a bit of a leap, don’t you think ?

No, I don’t think so.  There are two reasons why I think this.  First, teachers who embrace online learning are more likely to embrace other technology that is likely to enhance learning.  Generally, this will enhance learning beyond anything that is likely to occur in a lecture-based class that occurs in a classroom.  Despite what some people may say, research shows (read Brain Rules) that learning which is multisensory (like watching YouTube clips) is better for you than sitting in a lecture.  Images will convey more information than talking, and video (or seeing something in action) conveys more information than straight images.  Sitting in a lab is likely the best environment of all.  Online learning also is likely to be able to keep people’s attention.  (If you read Brain Rules, you’ll come to find that most people can only focus for about ten minutes, and then they need something to restimulate their attention.)

Second, I think accessibility is a huge issue in education.  I have one parent who found it incredibly difficult to finish a degree (and she never did) because she had a choice between quitting her job to take classes at the local university, which were only offered during the day, and taking night classes at an expensive private college.  I have a sibling who is currently finishing a degree in accounting online because she lives two hours from a university and works 4-10s.  How is she supposed to finish a degree at a school in those circumstances?  There are a lot of people in similar situations who would otherwise be unable to earn a degree.  In fact, my husband earned his MS through Penn State through a Navy program where he took some classes at the university and some through a video link…well over a decade ago.  He said he would’ve been unlikely to pursue a degree if he’d had to drive across Puget Sound (he was in the Seattle area at the time) evenings for two or three years.

Okay, so obviously I know a lot of people who have benefitted from these sorts of things.  So why do I think it could work for everyone?  I think this is a basic principle behind Universal Design for Learning: the notion is that if you design a curriculum that helps people with difficulties and disabilities, you’re going to help many other people as well.  Our brains work on a continuum, and while not everyone may have learning disabilities, they may operate in a region where learning may be difficult, if not disabling, when it’s presented a certain way.  Therefore, if you design materials to teach someone who is hearing impaired, for instance, you’ll likely help a lot of people who may have difficulty with ingesting information through auditory means in general.  (Lest you think this must be a small part of the population, take into consideration that I was working toward a master’s degree before I found out that I likely have some sort of auditory processing disorder…and only because my son was diagnosed with one.  Smart people can often do well even with learning disabilities because they often have other ways to compensate…but it can be frustrating for them, nonetheless.  I wrote a post on this topic a while ago.)

So what does this have to do with online learning?  I can give a concrete example: my older son is ADHD and had auditory processing disorder.  He really struggles sitting in a normal classroom and, for most of his life, his teachers  told me he couldn’t possibly be gifted because of his classroom performance despite the fact that I had documented evidence to the contrary.  We took him out of the classroom, and he started earning college-level credits through CLEP exams beginning his freshman year of high school…working independently, primarily through reading.  As I mentioned above, he does all of his math through Aleks.  He does extremely well on pretty much any type of standardizes examination.  I can easily see a kid like him, even with less problems, having huge difficulties sitting in a college classroom but being able to handle an online class very easily in no small part because the method of presentation.  So why can’t this help someone who is less distractable?

Take it a step further.  If online learning is ideal for people who have jobs and families and can work in the evenings but not get to classes, why can’t it also work for students living in dorms or even at home?  Maybe some of them find that they concentrate best at night and it is preferable to sitting in a large, crowded, warm, boring classroom at 8 a.m.  (And yes, people do function on different clocks.)  Aren’t you benefitting the student by allowing them to work at their peak time?

I’m not saying everyone will take advantage of this, but I think it ought to be an option for many people.  Some people really thrive on personal interaction and keeping them out of a classroom would inhibit them from learning.  Some people don’t.  The ideal situation is where students have choices and options.

I think the final thing I have to say on this topic is that the real problem, in my mind, is that teachers see themselves as essential to the learning process.  Really, the one thing I’ve learned going through graduate school and homeschooling my kids is that teachers are more often an impediment.  The university functions to teach students, and yet, in many cases, students are quite capable of learning the materials on their own.  That’s really the reason behind homework: you learn it far better by doing it than by sitting and listening to someone talk about it.  In reality, students are still learning on their own.  The role of the university is to focus the effort, speed up the process, and assess performance.  Students are not necessarily learning anything from their classes that they cannot learn on their own…and in fact, they may be learning it less deeply than if they did it on their own.

I find this ironic given that the other aspect of a university is research: people are expected to learn new things and create new knowledge all the time.  If learning really only happens meaningfully in a classroom, then research couldn’t exist.  I can’t wrap my head around the fact that researchers who learn things on their own all the time will turn around and claim that undergraduates somehow lack that ability.

My conclusion, therefore, is that online education should seriously be considered as an alternative whenever available.   I think it democratizes education and makes a better environment for learning for a significant portion of students.  The reason we haven’t shifted to these models is mostly because professors, on the whole, are unwilling to consider that it should be done another way and are uninformed about the benefits.

In set of overlapping quandries… June 10, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, homeschooling, older son.
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I spent some time looking at options for the older boy.

First, I’m really not thrilled with the idea of a transcript (as you may have guessed) because I don’t feel it’s legit to write one up.  Yes, he spent time studying some physics in the form of reading a book on the thermodynamics of cooking and doing some experiments.  I’m sure he learned a lot about heat and thermo and it’s practical applications.  BUT.  He didn’t have a formal high school physics course, and I don’t feel comfortable putting down just “physics” on a high school transcript.  I don’t know that it’s ethical to represent what he did that way.  That’s the sort of thing I’m wrestling with.

I’m very reluctant to just throw something together because if I put down ‘physics’ and someone finds this blog post, for example, they could claim I lied on the transcript.  There are some potentially very real repercussions, including the possibility that he gets kicked out of school because he was accepted on the premise that he took a physics class which they believed contained certain content but which actually didn’t.  That’s not fair to him, obviously.  On the other hand, I think a transcript is the worst possible way to show what he’s done.  A lot of unschoolers bypass this issue by putting together portfolios…but the school won’t accept that: they want a transcript. Period.

(I am not sure what you would call our schooling style, BTW.  It was something along the lines of “use what works, throw out what doesn’t.”  I was primarily concerned that there was a lot of competence established in math and language arts because ability in those areas will help with other areas like social studies and science.  Those are a foundation…other things are icing on the cake.  But that’s just my opinion.)

The other problem I have with the transcript business is grades.  As an example, it’s pretty clear cut that he did a macroeconomics course.  In most high schools, this would be the equivalent of AP Macroeconomics and would probably be a year-long course.  So I’m totally fine with putting that as a course.  However, when it comes to assigning a grade, I don’t feel good about that.  He worked pretty diligently, but I wasn’t examining what he was doing on a day-to-day basis.  I wanted this to be his thing that he did because he was interested.  My evaluation was just likely to kill that interest.  He was working through the text and the study guide as well as watching a video course.  When he took the CLEP, he got a 50, which is what ACE says is the lowest passing grade and equivalent to a C in most college courses.  So do I give him a C because that’s what he got on the CLEP?  Or do I give him an A for passing a college-level class as a sophomore in high school?

You see…there is no objective standard for grades.  Grades are almost always context dependent and don’t, in my opinion, honestly reflect mastery of material.  A lot of what goes into grades (and I can say this as a teacher) is understanding and meeting requirements in a timely manner.  In other words, did you do what the teacher wanted, when s/he wanted it?  Some of these requirements have little to do with mastery of material.  (Not all, mind you…but some.)

In looking around, however, I found a program that actually is for high schoolers to take college classes online through a reputable university.  (There are several of them, BTW, but this one has a couple of majors that the older boy is interested in.)  As a homeschooler, they have several requirements for exams, such as SAT and subject tests.  But they also will accept a GED…and if he has the GED, he can bypass submitting things like SATs.

The thing that I’m questioning is that it’s all online.  I was hoping he’d get the experience of having to go to classes and set up a schedule and figure out when to study.  He has said things go better for him when he works out of the house.  Now, I imagine that if we do a similar situation like we did with his CLEP, only he totes a laptop with him, it may go alright.  He’s still getting out and following some sort of schedule, right?  And he’s definitely learning some independent study skills as well as knocking out some college classes.  (I really also think he’ll enjoy the college level stuff more, and I’m hoping he’ll try some classes just for fun.)

On the other hand, he can actually complete a degree entirely online through this program, and so is there really a need to physically go to classes? (Although, once he’s old enough, he could hypothetically attend this college in person.) I’m not sure.  I don’t know what the best approach is for learning those “life skills” he’ll need when I’m not there to drive him to the library in the morning.  I also have this gut feeling that the more college he has under his belt before he leaves home, the better.  I have this hope that it’ll improve his chances of finishing because he’ll be into the ‘fun stuff’ in his major and not feel like he’s wasting his time doing all the general ed-type stuff.  (I’m also hoping he’s got a more solidified direction after trying some general eds and seeing what he likes.)

I really had no idea that trying to figure out what to do with my kid in high school was going to be more of a mess than when I tried to figure out what to do for college.

Can young students learn from online classes? April 9, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, homeschooling, math, older son, teaching, younger son.
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The New York Times is covering online classes in the ‘Room for Debate’ column. It’s interesting reading the commentary from the debators because at least half of them are talking about online learning in the abstract. That is, they’ve got some ideas about what it should be like but haven’t had much experience with it.

Over the course of my kids’ schooling, we’ve experimented with a lot of different curriculum, some of which has been online. My personal opinion is that online learning is that you really can’t say much about this topic without first defining what you’re talking about. “Online learning” is very vague. Does it mean you’re talking with people online about your homework? Are you working with completely automated curriculum? Do you have feedback from a teacher? You need to know how to answer these questions before giving an informed opinion.

My first experience with ‘online learning’ was not good at all. About 7 or 8 years ago, I enrolled the older boy in an online program called “Trent Schools”. They sent ‘lessons’ on a regular basis which I later found out were simply repackaged sections from the “What Every 2nd Grader Needs to Know”. It was incumbent on me to think of how to explain these things to my son as well as work out ways to practice. Given I could’ve gotten the book and done exactly the same thing, it really wasn’t helpful at all. It sort of embodied the worst aspects of ‘online learning’ – no interaction with other students, no feedback for the student, nothing to practice, no guidance for the parent.

I was burned on the concept, but when the older boy started attending a gifted program in Minneapolis, I was introduced to it again. The program had kids work on several of their subjects using online educational programs. Specifically, they used Rosetta Stone for foreign language and Aleks for math. The first thing I learned (and I suspected this already) is that Rosetta Stone is not great for a beginner. However, once you have a bit of a language under your belt, it may help you improve. I’d use it as a study aid, but not as a curriculum entirely in and of itself. So much of foreign language, to be really good, depends on having a teacher with a good ear who can provide you with feedback. Without that, you’re probably spinning your wheels.

The older son made little to no progress using Rosetta Stone. However, many of his classmates did, so maybe there is some aspect of this that I’m missing.

On the other hand, I’ve been hooked on Aleks. I find that funny because the same complaints I had about Rosetta Stone, another parent had about Aleks. However, for my kid, it seems to really work. The older boy did pre-algebra and algebra 1 through his old school using the program. With just that background, he received a 500-something on his SAT quantitative score last fall. When we came back to Fargo and began homeschooling again, we opted to use the same program. The older boy doesn’t always like the explanations, but he is able to do the vast majority of his math with no oversight from me. The program regularly assesses his knowledge and reviews concepts he seems to have forgotten.

And did I mention we threw him into college-level algebra and trigonometry?

The program has a large review section, so he was able to catch up on any review he needed by skipping geometry and algebra II. He has the option of taking ACE credits for the course, as well, so some colleges will say he’s met his math requirements (unless he needs to take calc – but frankly, I’m not going to deal with that one).

I admit that he needs help from a real human being sometimes, but I appreciate that he can progress at his own pace. And I can definitely tell he’s learning a lot. Even when he asks for help, it’s pretty obvious he understands what concepts are necessary for understanding the topic and is able to explain things. And given how much he really dislikes math, I think it’s amazing the progress he’s made.

The younger boy started math through Stanford’s EPGY program this year. There are two options – one where you are assigned a tutor and they provide updates to your school while the other is simply progressing through the program and assumes that the parents are overseeing the learning. The second option, open enrollment, is probably ideal if you’re homeschooling. It’s also a lot cheaper, too.

He loves the program. Given he was claiming to dislike math, I was expecting a struggle. We decided to give it a try, however, based on positive feedback from others. It’s not been a struggle: he is very willing to sit down and do a 20 minute session nightly. He treats it like a game, and it gives positive reinforcement when he gets things correct as well as giving him the opportunity to correct his mistakes when he gets things wrong. Although he’s not very far into it, I’m impressed that they’ve managed to introduce variables and complex topics like balancing equations into lower elementary math. They start out at a very basic level and step things up gradually, so the only help he’s needed from me is when we have java glitches. His favorite part is that he can progress as fast as he likes, and he likes to be able to skip problems.

In both math programs, learning is adaptive. Assessments are done more regularly in Aleks than EPGY’s program. But my overall feeling is that math is probably one of the best candidates for ‘online learning’.

In the fall, the older boy will try taking some writing classes through Johns Hopkins. As far as I’m aware, there’s not much of this that will be automated. The classes will involve either interacting with the teacher and classmates on a web-based message board, meaning students will progress as a group, or emailing with the teacher, which can result in more personalized instruction. For writing, I’m guessing this is the best format for language as it provides the feedback he needs. I’m really not sure you can use online learning in an automated format for something like this, so there’s no way you can dispense with the teacher. One huge advantage to this method, however, is the medium: the older boy struggles a lot with handwriting, but can type easily. This is far less frustrating than having to compose things by hand, as he would do in a normal classroom.

Based on these experiences, I think online learning can really benefit some kids. Even in the best case, it’s good to have an adult to help out when necessary or to set and enforce some guidelines as far as how much time is spent on the programs. If it’s done right, online learning should include regular feedback and assessment and, because it works at the kids’ pace, should be minimally frustrating.

The biggest advantages, from my perspective, are that students aren’t stuck working at the pace of those around them, slower or faster, and they can take time to master the concepts they don’t understand while skipping over those that they do. It will work better for some topics than others, but there are ways to do many different topics well in an online environment. When using this type of teaching in school, it will be important to have teachers that can deal well with an unstructured environment. If all the kids are working at their own pace, the teacher needs to be a facilitator and can’t count on prepping the night before so that they understand the material. I can see that dealing with kids working at different levels might be more difficult for classroom teachers as they may need to learn to work on several topics at once.


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