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Computer tutors ‘read’ learners’ emotions

Computer tutors are learning to read students’ emotions, so they can provide better feedback, reports Annie Murphy Paul on the Hechinger Report.

Analyzing students’ posture in a special chair,  how much pressure they exert when they click on a special mouse or the pitch of their voices can reveal “academic emotions” such as “curiosity, delight, flow, engagement, confusion, frustration and boredom.”

Some systems use wireless skin conductance sensors or cameras that analyze facial expressions and track students eyes.

“One computerized tutoring program uses ‘mind-reader software’ to identify 22 facial feature points, 12 facial expressions and six mental states,” writes Paul.

Detecting the learner’s feelings is just the first step.

A computerized tutoring program called Wayang Outpost, developed by researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, features an onscreen avatar that subtly mirrors the emotions the learner is feeling. When the learner smiles, the avatar smiles too, making the learner feel understood and supported. When the learners express negative feelings, the avatar mirrors their facial expression of, say, frustration, and offers verbal reassurance: “Sometimes I get frustrated when solving these math problems.”

Then — in a shift that researchers have found to be essential — the avatar pivots toward the positive. “On the other hand,” the avatar might add, “more important than getting the problem right is putting in the effort and keeping in mind that we can all do math if we try.”

Researchers try to encourage a “growth mindset,” the belief that ability improves with effort.

If the learner seems bored, for example, (Notre Dame’s Affective) AutoTutor might respond with the comment, “This stuff can be kind of dull sometimes, so I’m gonna try and help you get through it. Let’s go.” If the AutoTutor senses that the learner is confused, it might advise, “Some of this material can be confusing. Just keep going and I am sure you will get it.”

Deep learning requires struggle, say researchers in affective computing. “Students show the lowest levels of enjoyment during learning under the conditions in which they learn the most, and the feeling of confusion turns out to be the best predictor of learning.”

However, repeated failures turn confusion into “frustration, disengagement and boredom (and ultimately, minimal learning).”

What’s wrong with close reading

Common Core’s push for “close reading” goes awry when it ignores the reader’s background knowledge, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham on RealClearEducation.

As I’ve seen it described, close reading has three critical features. First, we assume we will spend a good deal of time with a text. We will not simply read, but reread, and likely reread again. The first reading may be devoted to straightforward comprehension, but further readings will uncover other layers of meaning, allusions, techniques of authorship, and so on.

Second, the extended time spent on a text will be devoted mostly to the author’s words. We will pay close attention to the particular words used, to the structure of the argument, and so on.

Third, we will view a text as being self-contained. We will only draw conclusions that are defensible via the author’s words. In fact, we will read the text as though we know nothing about the subject at hand; the author’s words will be not only necessary for our interpretation, we’ll consider them sufficient.

That last part is crazy, writes Willingham. “Pretending that one’s knowledge is not relevant to interpreting a text conflicts with how writers write and with how readers read,

Researchers Eli Gottlieb and Sam Wineburg showed the importance of background knowledge when they asked clergy, scientists and historians to read George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789.

Clergy and scientists focused on Washington’s invoking the “providence of Almighty God,” and other religious phrasing, with clergy applauding the Christian tone, and scientists upset by it.

Historians, in contrast, focused on what the document did not say; it did not mention Jesus, nor salvation, nor Christianity. They saw the document as Washington’s self-conscious attempt to craft a statement that would be acceptable to the diversity of religions practiced in the United States, and in so doing send a message of religious tolerance and separation of church and state. That Washington knew his audience may be adduced from the fact that clergy at the time protested the lack of overt Christian references.

No amount of close reading restricted to the text would lead present-day students to this interpretation.

Reading in a knowledge vacuum makes no sense, Willingham concludes.

Skilled trades don’t appeal to students

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is trying to persuade students to train for welding, carpentry, machining and other skilled-trades jobs, but job training programs are having trouble recruiting students. Many don’t believe a community college credential will lead to a good job.

Houston business leaders also are having trouble persuading young people to train for blue-collar jobs that are seen as “dirty jobs.”

Why Minecraft is really cool

What’s so cool about Minecraft? On The Verge, Ben Popper explains why parents and kids are hooked on the game.

In Minecraft, users move around a virtual world, harvesting resources like wood, gold, and iron ore that they can use to build whatever they like. Everything is made of textured 3D cubes. The graphics are extremely low-fi. There are bad guys to watch out for and defeat, and technically a dragon you can slay to beat the game, but what has captivated millions is the total freedom Minecraft offers to wander around and build, often collaboratively, a huge world of you own.

Steven Sorka, a 36-year-old software developer from Toronto, plays with his 20-year-old stepson and 11-year-old daughter. “Minecraft seems to be a perfect storm of Lego and adventure,” Sorka says.

Parents see Minecraft as a teaching tool. Players learn about architecture and use “redstone circuits” to create “simple mechanical devices, even entire computers.”

. . .  the incredible variety of worlds to explore and items you can build comes from “mods”, modified software created by the community that can be installed on a server to reshape that world or the rules that govern it. For many young players, mods become a gateway to the world of computer programming . . .

Minecraft is “more than a game,” writes Abby Ohlheiser in the Washington Post.  “Minecraft is also an ecosystem of dedicated fans who play, create and share within and beyond the game’s open world.”

Last week, Microsoft paid $2.5 billion for Mojang, which crafted Minecraft.

Core quest

A screen shot of an Amplify game under development

“Really cool video games” may turn out to be a benefit of common standards, reports Benjamin Winterhalter in The Atlantic. By creating a national market, the Common Core has created a huge incentive for ed tech companies to develop learning games.

Amplify may be “the frontrunner in this Common Core-driven gold rush,” writes Winterhalter.

During a unit on Shakespeare, a student can watch a short video of actors performing the “out, out, damned spot” scene from Macbeth, which appears side-by-side with the passage’s text. Or the student can have the software quickly provide the definitions of unfamiliar words in reading assignments, which are added to a custom database of new vocabulary.

In a game called 12, “the universe is under attack by the largest known prime number, and the player, assuming the role of the number 12, must battle to save it.”

. . . the number 12 must combine itself with other numbers using “operation gates,” which look like sci-fi warp portals, representing +, –, ×, and ÷, and reach a desired result.

For instance, suppose the desired result is “54.” The player can track down a 4, go to a multiplication gate, become 48, and then track down a 6, go to an addition gate, and arrive at 54. This system can present puzzles as simple as order of operations and as complex as differential equations.

Lexica, a multiplayer literary game, lets players explore a “game world that looks and feels a lot like World of Warcraft.” They complete quests by talking to literary characters, such as Jane Austen’s Emma, and reading the classic books in the game’s library. “The game’s characters will talk to you about what you’re reading.”

Some games let kids be designers and coders, writes Emmanuel Felton on the Hechinger Report.

In Globaloria, students learn how to code Flash, said Shubha Tuljapurkar, director of Globaloria West.  “That’s an important skill. But that’s not necessarily something a kid wants to do, but they do want to create their very own monster.”

Zulama, which lets students design and built games, was developed by Nikki Navta, the mother of teenage boys obsessed with Minecraft and World of Warcraft. Students work collaboratively to master 3D modeling and mobile game design.

http://www.joannejacobs.com/2014/09/49443/

Virtual ed works in Florida

“Virtual education” is working for Florida high school students, concludes a Program on Education Policy and Governance working paper.

Florida Virtual School (FLVS) students taking Algebra or English I earn do as well or better on state math and reading tests as those in traditional courses, report Matt Chingos of Brookings and Guido Schwerdt of the University of Konstanz.

FLVS has expanded access to Advanced Placement and other courses, the study found.

Technology can support at-risk students’ learning concludes a report by the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE). “Well-designed interactive programs allow students to see and explore concepts from different angles using a variety of representations.”

Teaching math through dance

Malke Rosenfeld uses percussive dance patterns to teach math to her elementary students. Math in Your Feet teaches concepts such as “congruence, symmetry, transformation, angles and degrees, attributes, pattern recognition, symbols, and mapping on a coordinate grid,” Rosenfeld says.

Subtraction made mazy

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Eric Odom's photo.