Posts Tagged 'education'

Learning Analytics: The positive side

I recently attended a conference where the buzz topic was learning analytics (LA) and their use in online learning environments. One of the keynote speakers, Simon Buckingham-Shum, described a possible future where an LA program is used to analyze a student’s input to an online forum using advanced AI techniques.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only member of the audience who cringed at the thought of a machine used in this way.  The idea that your personal thoughts, attitudes or opinions could be dissected using such a seemingly inhumane approach goes against the grain for a lot of people. But what if that same analytic engine was used in a formative learning setting where the whole idea was to support a student’s learning and provide learning materials appropriate to the level of mastery attained so far?

Salman Khan

Salman Khan: Image by O'Reilly Conferences via Flickr

A recent article in Inside Higher Ed looks at the work done by Salman Khan‘s team of analysts at the Khan Academy, an online learning site that covers a huge range of learning topics from basic maths to advanced calculus, economics, biology, physics and others too many to mention.  I’ve been following the development of this site for several years now and watched a couple of the maths videos to understand the teaching methodology used – and, as a side bonus,  to refresh my understanding of basic maths principles.  Salman’s teaching style is renowned for its relaxed yet clear delivery.  He manages to make even advanced, complex topics seem obvious and easy to understand.  But as Salman himself says; “I think too much conversation about Khan Academy is about cute little videos …”.  For him, the real action is in using data collected from learners who access the Khan Academy to construct LA applications that can ultimately predict their future performance and adjust the learning materials accordingly.

Khan engineers are attempting to promote genuine mastery and to distinguish it from “pattern-matching” exercises, which form the basis of  a large proportion of summative assessments used at all levels of learning and teaching. To accomplish this, they are tracking and analysing student interactions when logged in to one of the Academy’s online courses. Using algorithms developed to predict stock market movements, they can predict  a student’s likely future performance in solving different problem types. If the prediction is that a student is highly likely to correctly solve problems of a similar type, then the inference is that mastery has been achieved.

In my opinion, the Khan Academy’s approach is a great example of LA used for good – as opposed to evil. By that I mean that using LA as a means of summative assessment of a student’s understanding is currently not achievable in any reasonable sense and may amount to an unfair summary of their true comprehension of a topic.

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Ask, Don’t Tell: A learner-centred approach to education

Many institutions teach by showing or telling and assess by asking. i.e. transmission of knowledge followed by elicitation of that knowledge. Whereas, in a learner-centred approach, both teachers and learners learn by asking and demonstrate acquisition of knowledge by building and showing. This mismatch in learning and teaching styles is at the root of many of the problems that occur when educators introduce a new regime of teaching approaches  that fail to take account of the misalignment outlined above.

The Socratic Method

Socrates teaching - Image via Wikipedia

Philosopher Richard Garlikov advocates use of the Socratic Method as a teaching tool, where the teacher asks leading questions of students rather than telling them facts to be recalled at a later time, such as during an exam. In an experiment conducted with 22 third graders in an elementary school (presumably in Birmingham, Alabama), he used a socratic approach to teach the basics of binary arithmetic over an afternoon teaching session.

Richard explains that there are four critical points about the types of questions asked during a socratic method session, i.e:

  1. “they must be interesting or intriguing to the students
  2. they must lead by incremental and
  3. logical steps (from the students’ prior knowledge or understanding) and seen to be evidence toward a conclusion (not just individual isolated points), and
  4. they must be designed to get the student to see particular points.”

This method is complemented by task or discovery-based learning approaches where students are driven by curiosity to discover knowledge, sometimes in order to solve a task or complete a quest.

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Hardcopy Video is (almost) Here

cbs-video-print_IVeIn a recent radio article for the BBC’s weekly Digital Planet program, reporter John Stewart discusses a new spin on blending media.  In this case, Entertainment Weekly’s hard-copy magazine has included an insert that plays a full-motion video ad (Pepsi – what else?)  and CBS trailers with sound in a 320×240 pixel LCD-based window, visible inside the ‘max’ text in the image above.

As always, the technology is being driven by the needs of advertisers to stand out in a crowded marketplace.  In an introductory aside, presenter Gareth Mitchell mentions that Americans are exposed to around 3000 advertising messages per day.  Early-adopters of innovative display systems are usually the ad guys so there are no real surprises there.  I can certainly see some educational possibilities in this technology though, such as photo montages of topical news items, procedural sequences for, say, simple cuisine, or dynamic maps of geographic spaces, just for starters.  I included the word ‘almost’ in this article’s title because the cost per insert is still far too high to make this anything more than a gimmicky loss-leader for the time being.

BBC Reporter Rajesh Mirchandani also compiled a BBC One Minute News video clip on this topic on September 17th.

(image sourced from here.)

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Singularity University: one possible future for graduate education?

Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil

It’s not often that a book has the power to spawn an entire university. This seems to be the case with Ray Kurzweil‘s book  The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005), a futurist discussion of where technology is leading us and an update sequel to two previous books of his: The Age of Intelligent Machines (1987) and The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999).  In an in-depth article on the 2005 book, this Wikipedia article defines the Singularity as “a point in the future when technological advances begin to happen so rapidly that normal humans cannot keep pace, and are ‘cut out of the loop’.”

Most people would probably agree that technology is advancing so rapidly that we’re increasingly subject to information overload, but Kurzweil’s main thesis is basically an extension to Moore’s Law;   that technology is accelerating at an exponential rate and will soon get away from human control.

In a scenario that could only happen in America, a group of educators and scientists have established an entrepreneurial university backed by NASA, Google and the  International Space University, to be funded in part by venture capitalists and based largely on the ideas presented in Kurzweil’s book – then made him the university’s Chancellor.


Peter Diamandis

Singularity University aims to attract the world’s top graduates, who will study across disciplines, in subjects such as A.I., robotics, nanotechnoloy, bioinformatics and finance and entrepreneurship.  In this promotional video, vice-chancellor Dr. Peter Diamandis explains where the original idea for such an institution came from, where they’re headed,and promotes some lofty ideas about addressing the world’s major challenges.  To quote Ray in the video:  “The goal of Singularity University is to get the best minds in these information fields with the best students in the world.  Both will contribute to each other and we will basically foster a deeper understanding of how we can solve the world’s major problems.”


AMES Research Park

Initially, the university will run 9 week summer sessions from the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.  The emphasis will be on introducing grad students to other, complementary disciplines, presumably to foster a synthesis of ideas through cross pollination.

While the notion of using technology in an altruistic way sounds very appealing, I’m concerned that tying research to profits means there will be a price to pay at some point, no matter how fantastic the output that the university’s promoters are trying to produce.  As one example, corporate sponsorship of pharmaceutical research can result in drugs that are of minimal benefit, that have side-effects that rival the malady in their voracity, and end up being over-prescribed by GPs who fall victim to a barrage of promotional advertising from the drugs companies keen to recoup their original investment.  This all sounds a little forced to me, more of a “pressure-cooker” approach to research than a community of practice drawn together by common goals.

(images of: Ray Kurzweil sourced from here, Peter Diamandis and AMES Research Park sourced from here)

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