The End of Education As We Know It

Using online media, adventurous educators are engaging students and teachers in fresh ways.

Imagine being 6 or 7 years old again, learning about addition and subtraction for the first time. How wonderful would it be, while taking a quiz, to be able to rub a genie’s bottle and choose from a number of on-the-spot metaphors for mathematical concepts, like what a fraction really means? Or picture this:

Rather than working through equations in daunting rows on a sheet of paper, your task is to play a game on a tablet computer in which you share a dinner table with aliens. There’s a bowl of apples in the center of the table. Suddenly the apple bowl zooms in, focusing your attention on the task at hand, which is to divide the apples equally. The aliens have a strong sense of justice, and will let you know if you don’t give them their fair share. If you answer correctly, you earn stars, which you can redeem for all sorts of goodies (new games, onscreen props, and so on).

These examples may seem charming and even silly—and they’re meant to be. They’re also designed to engage students in learning by harnessing online, interactive media to hone their math skills in entertaining ways. But they’re not just playful games. The two described above are real software applications developed by Shimon Schocken, a professor of computer science at Israel’s IDC Herzliya, an educator with wise eyes and a deep, authoritative voice. His apps track students’ progress and deliver results to teachers and parents as an alternative to grades. The genie and alien programs represent a growing wave of educational materials using the same technologies that students from kindergarten through graduate school associate with fun—there’s none of the usual boredom or competitive pressure that typically characterize kids’ relationship with required schooling.

The new wave of educational tools include fresh ways of deploying phone and tablet apps, online games and videos, and social networking. The goal is to create effective learning tools, new methods of grading, and virtual classrooms of unprecedented sizes—even numbering in the tens of thousands online. While these goals have certainly been attempted before, the latest crop of mass-market, interactive learning tools are also intended for mass-market, global consumption. And enjoyment.

“We should try to bring back the joy of learning because you want to learn, not because someone is going to give you a grade at the end of the semester,” Schocken said in a recent interview.

No Wrong Answers

As he noted in his TEDGlobal talk, Schocken believes that the traditional grading system is “degrading”—and he’d rather talk about a more positive approach to teaching that he calls “upgrading.” This means rejecting the traditional focus on correct answers. Instead, Schocken thinks we should encourage mistakes. In his app-based learning environments, if you give the wrong answer, nothing horrible happens. “We never say ‘incorrect,’ ‘wrong,’ and so on. Instead, when students give answers that aren’t the right ones, we use a non-verbal and neutral visual gesture, like vibrating the image a little,” Schocken said. This implies something like “nice try, keep trying, I’m waiting patiently, take your time.” And, after two wrong answers are entered in a row, the program gives a tip leading to the correct direction.

Schocken’s quest to shake up education by literally using new tools and, more important, a new attitude toward learning, is echoed by Stanford University’s Daphne Koller, another computer science professor nearly halfway around the world from Schocken.

“It’s surprising we are still teaching students the same way we [have] for the past 300 years,” Koller said. Her main focus is on channeling the power of online teaching for college and grad students. Koller speaks quickly and enthusiastically, and you can hear the excitement and passion in her voice. She co-founded Coursera last year, a start-up whose aim is to make high-quality education available to everyone in the world for free. So far, Koller and her Stanford colleague Andrew Ng have raised $22 million in funding (which includes $3.7 million from the University of Pennsylvania and Caltech), as The New York Times reported in July; more than 600,000 students, total, have signed up for 43 courses offered to date. When journalists describe what Coursera offers—courses taught by professors at partner institutions such as Princeton, the University of Michigan, Penn, Caltech, Stanford and many others—they tend to riff on the language of video games. The New York Times, for instance, called Coursera classes “massive online open courses,” or MOOCs. It’s a term that echoes that of wildly popular massively multiplayer online games, or MMOGs, such as World of Warcraft.

Coursera’s courses, which tackle topics such as programming, sociology, and mathematics, don’t offer genies or aliens onscreen as Schocken’s do, but they are certainly drawing huge audiences. Consider the Sociology 101 course taught by Mitchell Duneier at Princeton—the first Coursera offering in the humanities. Currently, over 40,000 students are registered for this course (although not all are actively enrolled).

One reason the class is so in demand is that it uses methods the students use to socialize online. Students have one weekly session when they watch short video chunks, small bites of lectures that might have the same length as, say, a funny YouTube cat video. But Duneier takes things further, fully using the new format to enhance sociological understanding. He takes eight students from around the world (two are from Princeton) and hosts discussions using video chat—as if the students were catching up socially over Skype or Google Hangouts. As Koller notes, this offers a unique opportunity for sociology students to hear insights on important global topics from different cultural perspectives.

Then there’s the online discussion forum, which was originally intended to be a place for questions and answers, but soon turned into a space for lively debate and student assistance. “It’s amazing to see the passion the people bring into this endeavor,” notes Koller. In these discussion forums, students do a lot of the peer teaching—offering advantages not just for the student learner but also the student teacher who gets a chance to reinforce his or her knowledge through a different route. Student responses tend to surface quickly. Students can ask questions any time—even 3 a.m.—and receive an answer from a fellow student within minutes. In the Machine Learning class taught by Coursera co-founder Ng, for instance, the median response time was only 22 minutes. They didn’t need to wait until the next class session or make an appointment during office hours to ask their professor for help—they were socializing in the way they usually do, only their topic of discussion was their class.

All of this engagement on a huge scale has resulted in rich and copious data. Every single click from tens of thousands of students is recorded—from homework submissions to forum posts. “The data … can really open up new windows to understanding new learning,” Koller noted. Teachers can more easily answer questions such as, What is an effective learning strategy and what isn’t? What are students confused about in the course? How can we make it so they can become less confused, or even preempt confusion?

Teachers have already used the data in meaningful ways. For instance, one of the teaching assistants in the Machine Learning course noticed that in one of the programming assignments, 2,000 students out of more than 100,000 made the exact same mistake, inverting two lines in a procedure. So Ng implemented a hint to help pre-empt students from making the mistake in the future. “When you have two students in a class of 100 that give the same wrong answer, you’d never notice,” notes Koller. “But when it’s 2,000, it’s hard to miss.”

Flipping the Lesson

Skeptics may argue that the resources, technical skills, and university networks required to participate in the current education revolution are available only to well-connected computer science professors such as Schocken and Koller. But initiatives are attempting to include teachers of all levels around the world to participate. One such example is TED-Ed, the new educational arm of TED.

In March, Logan Smalley and his team at TED-Ed put out a call for anyone anywhere to nominate top-notch educators and animators around the world to help package existing TEDTalks as classroom material—to be experienced online and outside the classroom.

The goal was to fashion dynamic, informative, and entertaining lessons, all under 10 minutes. To their delight, the TED-Ed team received thousands of nominations. In March they started posting a series of these crafted lessons on their YouTube channel.

But by the end of April, they had to figure out what to do with all of the lessons they were accumulating. In a world of interactivity, it wasn’t enough to just aggregate them. “Simply watching them is not the same as teaching,” says the fresh-faced Smalley, who favors T-shirts and plaid button-downs and jeans and looks like a gentle teacher-type—or education grad student—himself. “It’s a step. We want to get into higher order thinking skills.” To take learning to a deeper level, they created a framework that allows students and teachers to personalize the content.

On April 25, they launched the TED-Ed website. With the single click of the “Flip This Lesson” button, educators—and really anybody; you don’t need a teaching role to do so—can transform any TED-Ed video into his or her very own teaching lesson. Once the video is “flipped,” teachers can add in their own “quick quiz” of multiple choice questions, a “Think” section for short answers and a “Dig Deeper” section with resources for more in-depth learning about the topic. The new lesson gets its own unique URL and can easily be shared on social networking sites. The educator who created the video can also easily measure the lesson’s effect, tracking which students watched the video, what answers they got right and wrong, the quality of short answer responses, and whether the students engaged in the Dig Deeper materials. According to Smalley, this makes “every visitor to the TED-Ed website a potential student and a potential teacher.”

In the few months that they’ve been online, the site has gathered over 5,000 flips. One video about biological sex determination created by science teacher Aaron Reedy has gone viral. A few days after he published the lesson, he tweeted, “7 years as a teacher: I explain sex determination to 1000 students. 3 days with @TED_ED: I have explained it to 13000!” This tweet was written back in late April. As of today, his video has had 819,594 views on YouTube. As Smalley notes, “take economies of scale and apply it and you’re in a pretty exciting space.”

While these examples of the new frontiers of education certainly seem fresh and exciting, they actually reflect an idea that’s been circulated among educators long before tablets or YouTube or even the Web existed. Way back in 1984, psychologist Benjamin Bloom reported some shocking study results: Students who engaged in individualized tutoring with a teacher scored 98 percent better than the average performance of students in the traditional classroom. This led Bloom to propose his famous “2 Sigma Problem”: How can we accomplish the same results using methods other than peer tutoring, which are “too costly for most societies to bear on a large scale”? If Bloom were alive today, he’d surely be astonished—and encouraged—by the mass-market, loss-cost and, perhaps most strikingly, engaging possibilities that Schocken, Koller, Smalley, and their colleagues are developing. He’d have to consider changing the name “Problem” to “Solution.”

Illustrations by Ailadi Cortelletti, visual designer II at frog

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D, is a cognitive scientist who contributes to Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, and Harvard Business Review. He is Chief Science Advisor at The Future Project, an initiative to improve student engagement in U.S. schools. He is currently finishing a book, Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, to be published in 2013 by Basic Books.

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