26 September 2012

A Few Ideas on Responsive Education

My favorite emerging technology is responsive technology. The first one I ever used was Pandora, and like a hipster I tell everyone I was using Pandora years before it became mainstream. You tell Pandora what you like, and it streams music it thinks you'll enjoy. When you come across a song you don't like, you give it a thumbs down and Pandora attempts to respond to your tastes. Likewise you give thumbs up to songs you do like.

Basically, it's trying to respond to your personality. The accuracy of the responsiveness depends on how much feedback you give and how accurately categorized or tagged each song is. When it works well, it's much better than radio.

I want to apply it to education, and this post is my brainstorm.

First of all, there's already a little bit of responsive education happening in letting students choose their own elective courses. I want to expand on that idea. To start small, computers look at students' grades from certain classes or teachers and come up with recommendations. "Students who did well in Algebra and Science tend to do very well in Applied Physics," for example. You could even have students rate their classes teachers, not as an assessment of the teacher, but of the student. "Students who enjoyed Mr. Belding's literature class also enjoy Miss Spano's debate class." A good counselor might already have a knack for this, but a computer might help fill the gaps.

One limitation of schools is that students are forced to the same timetable as every other student. Grades are given every quarter for how well you did the work. It holds gifted students back because they can't move on, and it runs slower students over with its inability to slow down for them. Technology has made strides here with online schooling, which allows students the ability to work at their own pace, but I think we can do better.

Enter the flipped classroom. For the most part, students are asked to watch a video of the lecture at home, then come to class to work on the homework. Yet it's still limited in that students are all still dragged along by the same timetable.

Before I move on to my grandiose solution, let me bring in another example: Codecademy. It's not quite responsive in the way that it responds to personalities, but responsive as far as timing is concerned. It's built in. You complete lessons and courses on your own time. It gives you immediate feedback. It doesn't grade you, but it gives you points. [Codecademy's curriculum is limited to programming languages such as Java and HTML/CSS, which affords it certain abilities for immediate feedback because it can see whether your code is correct and tell you so. Other subjects such as English or Band don't have such freedom.]

The beauty of a point system, or a credit system, is that it frees students up to work as fast or as slow as they want to. I know what you're thinking—or at least this is what I'm thinking—that online education's worst problem might be that students tend to procrastinate and not engage themselves much, so eliminating time deadlines would absolutely kill it. That's where the physical presence of an educator comes into play.

Here's how it would work in my little educational utopia (it's a fresh idea so don't take me too seriously): since it's a mixture of online and flipped education, course options would expand. And many options wouldn't be entire courses, but units. I teach tech/computer classes, so I'll use them as examples.  A student could sign up for a 3D modeling unit and some web development. They show up to my classroom and attempt to complete the assignments, I'm there to help and feedback, and I make sure they're actually learning the material. When they turn things in and complete lessons, I give them points or credits. Once they get enough credits in certain subjects, they 'graduate' from those subjects. They can keep taking credits as long as they're not neglecting other subjects, and simply get a head start on college. Maybe even partner up with colleges who offer similar online education options.

One problem with the idea is that grade school is more than just completing classes, it's about making friends, working with others, and learning to be responsible members of society. I class full of kids working on different assignments with their headphones on doesn't exactly promote that kind of learning. There would have to be a little bit more structure, I think. But, as it is a delusional idea anyway, that's a problem for another day.

For now, I'm coming up with ideas to apply it to my own classroom. I want to see if the idea works, and how well. I could offer more units than there is time in the semester to complete, and let students choose the ones they want to work on. Then I'd split them up into groups to work on certain units at a time, and I'd always be in the classroom available to help.

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