CCs look at self-paced, online tutorials

Self-paced, online courses backed by data analytics could help community colleges get remedial students up to speed, said Khan Academy founder Salman Khan in a keynote speech at the American Association of Community College convention.  Some community colleges are creating their own online tutorials, often geared to remedial students.

 

Khan: Free learning, cheap credentials

Khan Academy founder Salman Khan talks about his new book, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, in an interview with MIT Technology Review. Instead of the Prussian model — students march in lockstep through the curriculum — Khan believes technology will make “mastery learning” practical.

Everyone advances at his or her own pace. Don’t try algebra until you know your arithmetic. Spend less time in lectures and more in hands-on problem solving.

Most students can be motivated to learn, if they can go at their own pace, Khan says. “The core reason for students disengaging is that they are frustrated. They’re in algebra class but don’t have a good foundation in pre-algebra or arithmetic.”

Khan Academy is “investing heavily” in analytics, says Khan. “What does a student know? What does a student not know? How effective is the tutorial?” In elementary and middle schools using Khan in the classroom, teachers are very enthusiastic about the real-time learning assessments — more so than the videos.

Online learning will revolutionize higher education and liberate students from ever-rising college costs, Khan says.

Here’s what I think it could look like in five years: the learning side will be free, but if and when you want to prove what you know, and get a credential, you would go to a proctoring center [for an exam]. And that would cost something. Let’s say it costs $100 to administer that exam. I could see charging $150 for it. And then you have a $50 margin that you can reinvest on the free-learning side.

If students can earn credible credits by taking free online classes, the college cartel will be broken, writes Jeff Selingto at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Now universities often reject transfer credits, claiming the quality of instruction doesn’t match their own, he writes.

. . . what happens when students arrive at the registrars’ office with credit-bearing courses from professors at Stanford, Penn, and Princeton? What will the excuse be then to reject the credits—that the courses were free? Such an excuse might finally expose the true reason many colleges refuse to accept transfer credits: They want students to pay them tuition for a class . . .

It all depends on assessment. If there’s a credible, cost-effective way to measure learning, then everything changes.

The TED bubble

This is my last guest post, so I thought I’d take on one of my favorite big topics: the fad of the big idea. In an era of TED talks, “essential questions,” and so-called “higher-order” thinking, we are witnessing a shiny bubble that will pop sooner or later. Eventually it will come clear that we need much more than grand ideas. We need a better grasp of details and their relation to larger structures.

 TED (“Technology, Entertainment, Design”) is a nonprofit organization devoted to “ideas worth spreading”; it is chiefly known for its conferences and online videos of talks.

Over at Salon, Alex Pareene nails what TED talks tend to have in common. (Note: not all TED talks fit this formula–and not all talks that fit it come across as formulaic.)

The model for your standard TED talk is a late-period Malcolm Gladwell book chapter. Common tropes include:

  • Drastically oversimplified explanations of complex problems.
  • Technologically utopian solutions to said complex problems.
  • Unconventional (and unconvincing) explanations of the origins of said complex problems.
  • Staggeringly obvious observations presented as mind-blowing new insights.

What’s most important is a sort of genial feel-good sense that everything will be OK, thanks in large part to the brilliance and beneficence of TED conference attendees. (Well, that and a bit of Vegas magician-with-PowerPoint stagecraft.)

Pareene takes issue primarily with the TED conference’s smug elitism and its avoidance of controversial topics. My criticism is related but different; to me the main problem is the insistence on bigness, and, with it, the avoidance of the sort of modesty, tentativeness, and probing  that could make the speeches even more interesting.

Take Salman Khan, for example. I bring him up not to pick on him (I’ve questioned the viability of the “Khan Revolution” before) but to turn toward the subject of education. At the time of his TED talk, Khan had created a library of some 2,200 instructional videos on mathematical and scientific topics. Now there are about 3,200, and the range has expanded. The talk begins with a montage of videos and topics: a hypotenuse, a map of animal fossils, integration, galaxies, and more. “If this does not blow your mind,” he says, “then you have no emotion.”

He then tells the story about how it began, how it grew, and how, bit by bit, he realized that it was more than a collection of videos. It was a way of flipping the classroom; that is, with the help of these videos, students could learn the content at home and then come to class to work in groups, receive extra help, engage in projects, and so on.

A dialogue starts up in my mind:

—But wait! I want to hear more about the hypotenuse.

—Oh, you can, in your own time. Let’s focus on the big idea for now.

And there lies the problem. If we are content with a swift montage of topics, if we choose not to bother with the actual geometry, astronomy, or calculus of Khan’s videos, then our trust in his “flipped classroom” is wishful trust indeed. By this I don’t mean that an error or flaw in the videos would invalidate his project. Rather, his presentation  excites the audience precisely because it doesn’t go far into the subjects (or at least partly because of that).

Now, we find a similar phenomenon in classrooms that emphasize ungrounded “big ideas” and “essential questions.” For example, you have classes that emphasize the “scientific method” without making clear that in order to apply it well, you have to know the science. Yes, certain principles apply to all scientific investigations, but they must be translated properly into the nitty-gritty.

Or take “interdisciplinary thematic units” that focus on a theme such as identity, prejudice, or progress. The danger of such a focus on a “theme” is that it can (and often does) encourage sloppy analysis. For instance, if you’re studying Sophocles’ Antigone in a unit on dissent, you may think the play is primarily about dissent and gloss over whatever doesn’t fit. To work well with themes, one must handle them loosely and with great caution.

Now, big ideas are not bad. Whether they’re ideas about the past, present, or future, they can help make sense of phenomena. The challenge is to determine when they do and when they don’t. To this end, one must be willing to bear with the details, to admit to error, and to do without bigness for long stretches of time.  A “big idea” economy can’t sustain itself. In fact, it could land us in a rut. If we’re too hooked on the grandeur of ideas, we won’t know what to do when they wobble or break down.

We have seen the rise of the entrepreneurial geek (e.g., Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates), the person who can turn an intense, specific intellectual interest into something popular and huge. It’s dazzling, but some of the dazzle deceives; the person had to do the unpopular work behind the scenes. Spectators come to believe that they can jay drive straight to the big stuff; it rarely works that way.

So, let’s expect students to delve into the details–to practice a scale until they get it right, to memorize a poem and thus learn all its tones and turns, and to learn the binomial theorem and its proofs. Through such study, students will encounter ideas of many sizes and will learn to tolerate their temporary absence. They may not make it big; why should they have to? But whether or not they do, they will have something solid.

Now that’s a big idea. But it isn’t revolutionary, and its implementation isn’t easy.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after its original posting but before any comments appeared.

Digital textbooks pass review

Free digital textbooks are coming to California, writes John Fensterwald on Educated Guess.  Twenty-six math and science textbooks and one history book aligned to state standards have passed textbook review

What’s attractive are digital texts’ flexibility and interactivity. Teachers can mix and match content –  pick a chapter from one book and combine it with  another to meet individual and groups of students’  needs. Soon digital textbooks will incorporate videos and Internet links. And e-text readers – Apple’s iPad, Amazon’s Kindle – will be getting cheaper and more versatile.

CK-12 Foundation is leading the way by adding teacher editions and student activities.

It plans to embed hundreds of videos produced by Khan Academy’s Salman Khan, a former hedge fund manager and investment banker from Menlo Park whose self-produced instructional videos in math and science have made him an Internet cult figure.

In response to the budget crisis, the Legislature voted a five-year freeze on new textbooks for first through eighth grades.  When textbook adoptions resume, probably in 2017, printed textbooks may be passe.