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).”

Miami-Dade rethinks tablet handout

The Miami-Dade school district has “pushed the pause button” on buying tablet computers for every student. Similar initiatives have run into trouble in Los Angeles, Guilford County, N.C., and elsewhere, notes Education Week.

“This is about being prudent, pragmatic, and cautious,” said Sylvia J. Diaz, the district’s deputy superintendent for innovation and school choice.

She described the Los Angeles Unified School District’s high-profile plan to provide 660,000 iPads to students and staff members as a source of particular concern, pointing to confusion among many parents as to what their responsibility and liability is for their children’s tablets; the rising cost projections associated with the initiative; concerns about a lack of adequate teacher training; problems with students bypassing the devices’ security filters; and concerns about the readiness and quality of the digital curricular content that Los Angeles is purchasing as part of its plan.

One specific piece of the Los Angeles plan that gave Miami-Dade officials particular pause, Diaz said, was the district’s failure to include keyboards as part of its initial half-billion dollar purchasing plan.

The Guilford County, N.C., school system is suspending its tablet computing initiative, noted Diaz.  “The fact that they had 1,500 broken tablets after having them in circulation for [only a few] weeks was a huge red flag for me,” she said.

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Idaho teachers fight tech mandate

Idaho Teachers Fight a Reliance on Computers, reports the New York Times, which has become consistently hostile to school technology.

Last year, the state legislature overwhelmingly passed a law that requires all high school students to take some online classes to graduate, and that the students and their teachers be given laptops or tablets. The idea was to establish Idaho’s schools as a high-tech vanguard.

To help pay for these programs, the state may have to shift tens of millions of dollars away from salaries for teachers and administrators. And the plan envisions a fundamental change in the role of teachers, making them less a lecturer at the front of the room and more of a guide helping students through lessons delivered on computers.

Ah, yes, the “guide on the side” versus the “sage on the stage.” This is not new.

Idaho teachers want more input on the use of technology, especially if it means changing the way they teach. And they fear — for good reason — they won’t get training or tech support with the new computers.

Furthermore, the plan assumes students taking online courses won’t need a teacher in the room. “Blended learning” schools typically hire aides, at much lower pay, to supervise students working on computers.


A technology-free school in Silicon Valley

In the heart of Silicon Valley (and very near where I live), a Waldorf school has banned computers, PowerPoint and any technology more advanced than colored chalk, reports the New York Times. Who sends their kids there? Three quarters of parents work in high-tech companies, such as Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard. The chief technology officer of eBay sends his children to the Waldorf School of the Peninsula in Los Altos.

On a recent Tuesday, Andie Eagle and her fifth-grade classmates refreshed their knitting skills, crisscrossing wooden needles around balls of yarn, making fabric swatches. It’s an activity the school says helps develop problem-solving, patterning, math skills and coordination. The long-term goal: make socks.

Down the hall, a teacher drilled third-graders on multiplication by asking them to pretend to turn their bodies into lightning bolts. She asked them a math problem — four times five — and, in unison, they shouted “20” and zapped their fingers at the number on the blackboard. A roomful of human calculators.

. . . Andie’s teacher, Cathy Waheed, who is a former computer engineer, tries to make learning both irresistible and highly tactile. Last year she taught fractions by having the children cut up food — apples, quesadillas, cake — into quarters, halves and sixteenths.

“For three weeks, we ate our way through fractions,” she said. “When I made enough fractional pieces of cake to feed everyone, do you think I had their attention?”

Today’s high-tech kids are bored by low-tech environments, some argue. Schools that don’t use computers are “cheating our children,” Ann Flynn, director of education technology for the National School Boards Association, told the Times.

Waldorf’s high-tech parents say their children will have plenty of time to learn computer skills.

“It’s supereasy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste,” Mr. Eagle said. “At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.”

Most Waldorf parents limit their children’s screen time at home.

Kindergarteners at the keyboard

Kindergarteners spend an hour at the computer each day at KIPP Empower School in Los Angeles, writes Jill Barshay for the Hechinger Report. The “blended learning” experiment has worked so well, it’s spreading to other KIPP schools.

While 14 students play learning games on computers during two half-hour periods, the teacher works with the other 14 students in the class.

Principal Mike Kerr says 95 percent of his kindergarteners scored at or above the national average in math after the first year, while 96 percent scored at or above it in reading. Nearly all KIPP Empower students come from low-income families: Only nine percent arrived in kindergarten ready to read, according to a pre-reading test. By the end of the year, 96 percent of kindergarteners reached the proficient mark on the same test, Kerr says.

Computer time shouldn’t replace “active, hands-on, engaging and empowering” activities with “electronic worksheets and drill and practice,” says Chip Donohue, director of distance learning at the Erikson Institute in Chicago.

Each day, KIPP’s technology instructional assistant, Elisabeth Flottman, collects data from the educational software on each student and gives the information to teachers.

The software can report, for example, if a student has been struggling with beginning sounds, ending sounds or blending sounds. This can help the teacher zero-in on individual student needs. It also reports if a student sat idly at the computer for an extended period of time.

There isn’t much good learning software for kindergarteners, says Kerr.

Steve Jobs: Computers won’t fix schools

Technology can’t fix education, Steve Jobs said. He also strongly supported school choice, notes Jay Greene on Ed Next.

“I used to think when I was in my twenties that technology was the solution to most of the world’s problems, but unfortunately it just ain’t so,” Jobs said in a 1995 Smithsonian interview.

We need to attack these things at the root, which is people and how much freedom we give people, the competition that will attract the best people. Unfortunately, there are side effects, like pushing out a lot of 46 year old teachers who lost their spirit fifteen years ago and shouldn’t be teaching anymore. I feel very strongly about this. I wish it was as simple as giving it over to the computer….

As you’ve pointed out I’ve helped with more computers in more schools than anybody else in the world and I absolutely convinced that is by no means the most important thing. The most important thing is a person. A person who incites your curiosity and feeds your curiosity; and machines cannot do that in the same way that people can. The elements of discovery are all around you. You don’t need a computer.

As an entrepreneur, Jobs fired people who didn’t come up to his very high standards. He thought schools should not tolerate mediocre teachers.

Jobs attended public schools in Cupertino, California — now a very high-performing district — but dropped out of Reed College in his first year.

A moron with a computer is still a moron

A Moron with a Computer Is Still a Moron writes David P. Goldman on Pajamas Media, in response to the New York Times story, In the Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores.

Chinese parents are buying their children pianos, violins and music lessons, while “New Age nerds” try “to keep kids “engaged” with video games.

It is the antithesis of education, which begins with discipline and extended concentration span.

Technology is transformational when it’s designed into schools, not layered on top of the same old stuff, writes Tom Vander Ark on Getting Smart. “The story of this decade is that personal digital learning will change the world.”



High hopes for technology, few results

Schools are spending on technology with no evidence it helps children learn, writes the New York Times. Arizona’s Kyrene School District is considered a national model for high-tech classrooms:

Amy Furman, a seventh-grade English teacher here, roams among 31 students sitting at their desks or in clumps on the floor. They’re studying Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” — but not in any traditional way.

In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius.

. . . Classrooms are decked out with laptops, big interactive screens and software that drills students on every basic subject. Under a ballot initiative approved in 2005, the district has invested roughly $33 million in such technologies.

But “scores in reading and math have stagnated in Kyrene, even as statewide scores have risen,” the Times reports.

Research hasn’t shown that adding technology improves performance.

Larry Cuban, an education professor emeritus at Stanford University, said the research did not justify big investments by districts.

“There is insufficient evidence to spend that kind of money. Period, period, period,” he said. “There is no body of evidence that shows a trend line.”

Karen Cator, a former Apple exec who now runs the office of educational technology in the U.S.  Department of Education, said technology is “great” even if scores don’t rise.

“Test scores are the same, but look at all the other things students are doing: learning to use the Internet to research, learning to organize their work, learning to use professional writing tools, learning to collaborate with others.”

The National Education Technology Plan released by the White House last year calls for bringing “state-of-the art technology into learning to enable, motivate and inspire all students.”

But there’s no link between computer-inspired engagement and learning, said Randy Yerrick, associate dean of educational technology at the University of Buffalo. “Engagement” is a “fluffy” term, Yerrick said.

Professor Cuban agreed. “There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement,” he said.

Furthermore, computers can be fun without being educational.

Xavier Diaz, 6, sits quietly, chair pulled close to his Dell laptop, playing “Alien Addition.” In this math arcade game, Xavier controls a pod at the bottom of the screen that shoots at spaceships falling from the sky. Inside each ship is a pair of numbers. Xavier’s goal is to shoot only the spaceship with numbers that are the sum of the number inside his pod.

But Xavier is just shooting every target in sight. Over and over. Periodically, the game gives him a message: “Try again.” He tries again.

His teacher believes he’s learning to think quickly, but he’s not really thinking at all.

As the district seeks more technology funding, it’s also raising class sizes and stinting on copy paper, construction paper, pencils and other supplies. The tech director spent $500,000 to replace projectors whose bulbs were dimming, sometimes making it necessary to turn out the lights to get a crisp image.  “My projector works just fine,” teacher Erin Kirchoff told the Times. “Give me Kleenex, Kleenex, Kleenex!”

Here’s the Times’ discussion with Cator, Cuban and others: What will school look like in 10 years?

What will a digital school look like in five years? Former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise discusses technology as a “force multiplier” on Hechinger Report.

Students boot up classmates

Growing up with unlimited computer access, Jack Montgomery and Tyler Stout were  shocked to realize some classmates at Los Altos High didn’t have a computer at home. For more than a year, the two friends have collected old computers, fixed them up and given them to students in need, reports the Mountain View Voice. Their nonprofit, Silicon for Society, has donated 30 computers, which come with tutoring on how to use them.

Montgomery, the computer whiz of the pair, set up shop in his bedroom, where he pulls the computers apart, cleans their components, installs operating systems and software, and recycles the parts that are too old or broken.

Stout, who has had an interest in philanthropy from a young age, began writing grants and did the legwork to get the project under the umbrella of the Los Altos Community Foundation, a local charitable organization.

Both boys, now seniors, spend about six hours a week each teaching computer recipients “the basics of Internet search, word processing, slide shows and spreadsheets.”  Using Linux and its free applications keeps the costs low.

Often the computer is used by the whole family, Montgomery says.

“That’s pretty cool, actually, to see everybody in the family gathering around looking at this thing,” he said. “You fire it up and then, ‘Oh! Wow!'”

They hope Stout’s younger brother will keep the project going after they graduate, though they’ll continue to fix up computers if they go to college in the area. (I think this means Stanford.)

Los Altos High, my local high school, predominantly enrolls white and Asian-American students from affluent families, kids whose parents are likely to work at Silicon Valley companies. But a quarter of students come from low-income and working-class Hispanic families in neighboring Mountain View; most are the children of poorly educated Mexican immigrants. When my niece went there, she didn’t get to know Mexican-American students until she took a cooking class geared to students interested in restaurant work.