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: 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.
Published October 11, 2011
Tags: constructivism, Distance education, education, Educators, learner-centred education, learning, learning and teaching, Learning Theories, Methods and Theories, Student, Teacher
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.
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:
- “they must be interesting or intriguing to the students
- they must lead by incremental and
- logical steps (from the students’ prior knowledge or understanding) and seen to be evidence toward a conclusion (not just individual isolated points), and
- 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.
Image via Wikipedia
The emerging field of optogenetics is providing neurologists with a novel way of exploring memory processing in the brain. It involves first genetically engineering the brains of test animals, such as mice, to be receptive to light, then using light to control the optically-sensitized neurons. An article in MIT’s Technology Review discusses the process of triggering memories with “light switches” (see the Related Article below).
Simply stated, the process involves triggering neurons to fire by stimulating them with light, by means of a fibre-optic probe. This firing then activates adjacent neurons which in turn activate a network of neurons equivalent to a memory unit. The process as it stands is pretty invasive, requiring the insertion of probes – not to mention the genetic engineering of the subjects’ brains. It’s not hard to imagine an extension of the infra-red scanning approach I mentioned in a previous article on mind reading to accomplish something similar in a far less invasive way, ideally without the need for any GM light-sensitive neurons. With the added ability to map the location(s) of specific memories – they tend to be spread around – an IR external probe could then trigger memories by re-visiting and stimulating the associated neurons, perhaps through highly directional ultrasound or some yet-to-be-discovered stimulus. So who knows, “read once, remember anytime” may be an axiom of learners of the future.