Do we really want computerized personalized tutoring systems? Answer: Yes

January 3, 2018 at 7:00 am 6 comments

An excerpt from Mitchel Resnick’s new book Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play is published below in the Hechinger Report.  Mitchel argues against computerized personal tutoring systems, because they are only good for “highly structured and well-defined knowledge.”  Because we don’t know how to build these tutoring systems to teach important topics like creativity and ethics.

Agreed, but we are not currently reaching all students with the “highly structured and well-defined knowledge” that we want them to have. We prefer students to have well-educated teachers, and we want students to learn creativity and ethics, too. But if we can teach topics like mathematics well with personalized tutoring systems, why shouldn’t we use them?  Here in Atlanta, students are not learning mathematics well (see blog post referencing an article by Kamau Bobb). We have good results on teaching students algebra with cognitive tutors.

Here’s my concern: Wealthy schools can reject computerized personal tutoring systems because they can afford well-trained teachers, which means that there is less of a demand for computerized personal tutoring systems. Lower demand means higher costs, which means that less-wealthy schools can’t afford them. If we encourage more computerized personal tutoring systems where they are appropriate, more of them get created, they get better, and they get cheaper.

But I’m skeptical about personalized tutoring systems. One problem is that these systems tend to work only in subject areas with highly structured and well-defined knowledge. In these fields, computers can assess student understanding through multiple-choice questions and other straightforward assessments. But computers can’t assess the creativity of a design, the beauty of a poem, or the ethics of an argument. If schools rely more on personalized tutoring systems, will they end up focusing more on domains of knowledge that are easiest to assess in an automated way?

Source: OPINION: Do we really want computerized systems controlling the learning process? – The Hechinger Report

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Require CS at University in order to Get CS into K-12 (Revisited) What universities can do to prepare more Computer Science teachers? Evidence from UTeach

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bijan Parsia  |  January 3, 2018 at 7:34 am

    If automated tutoring systems lead poorer schools to slash staff funding even more and just give up on teaching higher order stuff, then they are a negative.

    There must be work on how partial tech solutions which are crappy but either good enough or perceived as good enough that they drive out better options (I mean besides “Worse is Better”). Matt Yglesias talks a bit about how tech(like) advances generally give us worse things but cheaper. Clothing is a key example.

    Reply
    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  January 3, 2018 at 8:10 am

      I don’t know of any evidence that that’s happening. Do you? Rather, I see evidence that poor schools already have gaps. Most high schools in the US and England do not have enough teachers to cover science. Why not provide automated tutoring systems to provide something in existing gaps?

      Reply
      • 3. Bijan Parsia  |  January 3, 2018 at 8:11 am

        I have no such evidence. Just raising the possibility. This certainly was part of the explicit threat of MOOCs to universities, though.

        Reply
  • 4. Mike Zamansky  |  January 3, 2018 at 8:46 am

    We’ve had such systems in NYC for a while. Typically in poorer and low performing schools. Pitched as tools to augment instruction I’ve only seen them for “credit recovery” where kids drill and kill in front of computers instead of with teachers until they can pass a standardized exam. This should never be confused with actual learning.

    Reply
    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  January 3, 2018 at 10:35 am

      I am sure that you’re right, Mike. Computerized personalized tutoring systems are not as effective as having an actual teacher. But they are certainly more effective than nothing, and probably do augment instruction (e.g., lead to more learning) over a single teacher and too many, underprepared students.

      I completely buy the argument that we’d prefer better learning opportunities for our students. Does use of computerized personalized tutoring systems reduce the chances of getting better funding in schools, more teachers, or better-prepared teachers? Put it another way: Are the people who make decisions about funding for schools and teachers and about developing teacher preparation programs even aware whether computerized personalized tutoring systems are used in schools? If we do not provide computerized personalized tutoring systems, does it make things better or worse for students, families, teachers, and schools?

      My sense is that it’s a different story at the K12 and University levels. Faculty generally have some governance of Universities. What goes on in the University classroom can and does influence University policy. K12 systems are much larger systems with more levels of bureaucracy between the classroom teacher, administrators, and teacher preparation faculty. It’s (too) hard for a classroom teacher to influence the higher levels.

      Reply
      • 6. Mike Zamansky  |  January 4, 2018 at 8:29 am

        I can only speak to what I’ve seen in NYC.

        While a teacher can recommend and potentially bring in outside resources on their own, ultimately they don’t have the authority to do anything. At the end of the day, the decision to use a particular tool is up to the school’s principal who is frequently just a mouthpiece for superintendent or central.

        During the Bloomberg/Klein/Walcott era the push from above was more computers, less teachers so these “solutions” were pushed to up graduation rates. In fact one of their babies – the ISchool (I think that was the one), I think was based on having kids in front of computers all day instead of real instruction and student-student/student-teacher interaction.

        When the local media got wind, they backtracked on the use of these tools.

        All the people influencing decisions send their own kids to private schools with small classes and knowledgeable teachers. Even with the best of intentions they are incredibly removed from the reality of teaching and meanwhile tech is the new shiny. It’s easy to show superficial short term results.

        Teacher prep programs should educate the teachers on the tools but that’s not going to protect kids from tool and policy makers lobbying for their adoption where they don’t belong.

        Reply

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