Friday, September 14, 2012
The hard problem of online learning
Idea: Kids learn things on their own, at their own pace.
Problem: They'll get stuck, and frustrated.
Idea: We'll give kids feedback automatically that doesn't need the attention of a person, so that they can still learn stuff on their own.
Problem: That's complicated.
Idea: We'll use computers.
Problem: Computers are pretty cheap, but the quality of the feedback isn't very good.
(See also: Turing Test)
This is a really tough problem. Nobody has any ideas that seem entirely promising. Maybe we just have to wait for the technology to improve.
Here's my pitch for a shift in the way we think about this problem.
In the world of "giving feedback to kids on math" there are two contestants. There's (1) people and (2) machines, and people are beating the stuffing out of machines. Truth is, machines haven't ever shown that they're up to snuff, as far as quality goes.
But humans have issues too. A single human can only be in one place at a time and can only focus on giving feedback to one kid at a time. We people have all sorts of stuff to do besides slavishly providing kids with quality feedback. I mean, unless you're a teacher. But, then you have to figure out a way to give quality feedback to a few dozen kids at once. Humans are limited in a way that machines aren't.
But humans are making progress. Technology is the key, here. Advances in machines have allowed humans to group together to overcome some of the limitations of being a person. If you mess around with Wikipedia, a human being will find out and fix it. Closer to our discussion, if you ask a question on Math StackExchange you'll get a good, quality response before long. If you ask a teaching question on twitter, you can also depend on getting a good answer.
The lesson here is that the humans are making progress.
Nobody has figured out a way to create a site where math students can get quality human feedback on any topic they're studying. Nobody has figured out a way to get quality feedback out of machines. Pretty much everybody who's working on online learning is trying to figure out a way to help the machines. In the meantime, sites like StackExchange or Physics Forums keep on building and improving their communities.
I've got no idea how to build a site that has a quality, supportive community of students and adults who will provide quality feedback to K-12 students. But there are places on the web that are like this. And if you can sustain a vibrant online community, then you can start creating more difficult tasks for students online. The rate of innovation in online curricula could speed up quite a bit.
Creating a quality community is a hard problem. Creating a piece of software that can give excellent feedback is an attractive and lucrative problem.
The pitch is: focus on the hard problem, not the attractive one.