Friday, May 18, 2012

Digital learning and acceleration

I spent the past week out in California, visiting several schools that are using digital/blended learning strategies. Done right, blended learning means that kids are getting practice on skills using technology that provides instant feedback: you got this math problem wrong, so let's work through to see what you don't understand. Or you got it right, so let's try a harder one. With computers doing the basics and the grading, teacher time can be re-deployed from large group instruction to small group projects or individual tutoring. Class sizes can be larger. Schools can be cheaper and, with teachers analyzing the data to see exactly what kids know and don't, schools can be better. Utopia!

But does it work in real life?

This is where a lot of educational ideas founder, and certainly, blended learning is going through some growing pains. At one school I visited, I was informed that they're switching software providers because they're getting data...but it's useless. At another, student reading passages were differentiated (the level of difficulty depended on your reading preparation) but if you finished early, you sort of waited for the next assignment from the teacher, instead of moving on. And in another, a big chunk of the computers didn't work because they were old. And the capital budgets for new computers in CA are not so generous at the moment.

On the other hand, many of the schools were getting positive results despite some challenges. At KIPP Empower LA, the kids who started kindergarten in 2010 came in with 64% scoring basic or below basic on the STEP literacy test, and 36% scoring proficient or advanced. By spring of 2011, 96% of the kindergartners were proficient or advanced. Blended learning isn't the only good thing going on there, but it's certainly part of it. Good educational technology is the equivalent of "deliberate practice" -- the kind of intense practice that professional musicians engage in, addressing their weak points and repeating skills over and over. The KIPP kids are getting an extra hour a day of pure deliberate practice on reading and math skills. Is it any wonder they improve?

Most people are excited about blended learning for the possibility of getting lower-performing kids up to grade level. I'm personally more excited about the potential for acceleration. At one middle school, the principal and teachers had implemented blended/digital learning for math. The teachers did a lot of assessments through the year, using the data, and found that a few sixth graders had mastered pre-algebra concepts by the middle of the year. So...they got to start algebra. Right then! No waiting around for a new school year to start. A child who demonstrated mastery in algebra got to start geometry.

People get a little worried about acceleration because it often involves going to "different" classes, and tends to involve whole units of years. But there's no reason it has to. In the past, people have always done independent studies, but I know from personal experience it's easy to fail when you're trying to teach yourself. Educational technology gives more feedback, so failing is more difficult.


J Bernish said...

I am also excited about the potential for meeting the needs of gifted or high ability learners using blended learning. I have to say that I am also a bit amused that the movement towards incorporating digital learning into the general classroom environment is causing such a stir - when schools and teachers have been turning to online learning options for gifted learners for years -often setting them loose on a program without a guide or mentor to keep them motivated and on track. Ah well. At least we are moving in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

I'm not from the USA so I appreciate things are different but why would pupils not be bale to start Algebra mid way through a year without the technology? I'm not against the technology per se but good teaching and assessment would allow the same thing to happen regardless of technology.

Anonymous said...

I am curious how this will work out on a large scale. My children did some distance learning math through Stanford's EPGY program (one took Honors Algebra 1, the other took their 6th grade math curriculum this year).

I was quite pleased initially, and of course loved the idea that you go at your own pace, can cruise through sections that are a breeze for you, get extra practice where that isn't the case, etc. Son finished the algebra course in about 4 months, just doing about 4 weekly sessions of 30 minutes per day, and aced the final exam, which seemed rigorous. I was delighted.

HOWEVER. He finished the course back in January, and hasn't started the next course yet. And I recently discovered that the retention is not there. Of course, it would be better I'm sure, if he had continued using these skills on a regular basis. But I still absolutely believe that his retention would have been MUCH higher if taught by a human. I think the computer learning can all seem a little monotonous and blend in together. It is not memorable. Whereas, I will never forget certain things my favorite math teachers did to get us to learn things.

While I was initially thrilled, I am definitely beginning to question if this is really a great way to learn.

I hope others have better experiences!

Anonymous said...

I think what's missing in the electronic learning is the process of discovery. A human teacher can take kids through the process of learning a concept, gauge the response and determine if the kids are "getting it" or need more hints.

I find with my homeschooler, that electronic learning mastery is high initially- as if there are puzzles or roadblocks to be passed, but as anonymous said, retention over time is poor. So, we use the electronic teacher first, then reinforce and relearn via human interaction, stressing the fundamentals. Then retention is no longer a problem.

Another problem with electronic learning is that you have to guess what the program wants from you. What combination of words or symbols is the "right answer"? It's horrible for creative thinkers who simply get frustrated with the idea of thinking and instead put their efforts into guessing the game.

I imagine that electronic learning will evolve over time until it is better than a human, but at this point, I want my kids to have human interaction in a group environment where there is discussion and debate.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Re the human component to learning...ideally with digital learning you get that too. That's why many people talk about "blended learning." At the Rocketship schools, for instance, kids get 2 hours per day, total in the learning lab doing basic skills on the computer, adaptive learning style. Then the other 4 hours of instructional time are spent with a teacher, doing discovery learning projects, going over fundamentals, etc. The teacher is armed with data on the kids to make this more efficient.

Anonymous said...

Same "anonymous" again.

Sure, the ideal might comprise a perfect balance of both the computer & human teaching, but that is much harder to actually realize. In particular, this is not likely with the gifted. In your example of the gifted child cruising right into the next algebra course when they are ready, that means they are going forward alone. So the teacher will not be teaching the concepts. The child will be learning from the computer program (perhaps something like EPGY). My point is that I do not think that is a memorable way to learn. I think the computer is fine for basic practice (ie math facts for elementary students, etc), although I don't even see a huge advantage over worksheets except saving some small amount of labor in grading the worksheets. But when you start relying on the software to teach the children, you are losing that human component.

I really worry for the gifted that this may appear to be a great way to teach them. Shove them off in a computer lab to learn from the computer at their own pace. Anyway, to me the computer can be useful for practice, but NOT as much for teaching.