Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Who is the Un-Khan? A Four TED Talk Showdown

Oddly enough, on the day that Proposition 8 was struck down in California, the meatiest thing I read on the internet today came from Dan Meyer.  In his post What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About Math Education Again and Again, he argues that computer companies or educational technology companies make the mistake of limiting the mathematics that student learn to fit the available technology.  Basically, the companies are starting with the answer and then looking for the question.

The limitations of using computer technology for student assessment is that higher comprehension can be measured.  Computers can mark correct a problem that is multiple choice, a number, or an algebraic expression.  If you want to talk about a more complex problem, you have to compress it into one of those formats.

My experience with computer based assessment entirely fits Dan's complaints.  We've been using MyMathLab in our transitional (a.k.a. developmental) algebra classes for several years.  We don't rely on it exclusively for student assessment.  In fact, we kept some pencil and paper homework as part of our algebra redesign with the Emporium model.  I've noticed that the students are finishing the MyMathlab homework and struggling with the pencil and paper homework.  Most of that is due to the fact that the students don't have to read the instructions with the computer homework.  The computers prompt them for the required information.

More to Dan's point, we don't use MyMathLab in College Algebra because we use a modeling approach.  We would prefer that the students are able to find a best-fit line for data than solve an absolute value inequality.

Dan's post got me to think about the alternatives to computer based delivery and assessment of mathematics, of which I can think of three.  The debate begins now, in TED Talk format.

Salman Khan

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I will have him. (image from hark.com)
The poster child for computer based instruction is the Khan Academy.  The effectiveness for the Khan Academy is hotly debated, to say the least.  I'll let Salman Khan speak for the pro computer delivery side.

From the title of this post, it's clear that I'm not a supporter of Salman Khan.  I believe that he is making an honest attempt to contribute to education.  My complaint is that he is just delivering traditional lectures in YouTube format.  It's not fundamentally any better.

Whenever Khan Academy is mentioned, there are two people who are often brought up as alternatives.  They are the next two participants in this debate.

Conrad Wolfram

And to prove my sincerity, I will now kill one of the prisoners. (image from squarespace.com)
Conrad Wolfram has a completely different approach to the future of mathematics education than Salman Khan.  His view is to move all of the computational tasks from the student to a computer.

I've critiqued Wolfram's approach before.  To summarize, I think this method encourages students to rely too much on trial and error and does not require them to understand the mathematical underpinnings of the computer program.  In my opinion, a modeling only approach creates as many problems as it solves.

(For the record, at our college the modeling is limited to college algebra.  The other algebra classes are taught in a more traditional format.)

Dan Meyer

 Khan, I'm laughing at the "superior intellect." (image from blogspot.com)
Dan Meyer is often mentioned as an alternative view to Salman Khan.  Whenever I'm reading a discussion on the Khan Academy, I'm usually the one who drags brings in his name.

Meyer's approach to teaching is more Socratic than Khan and Wolfram.  He encourages direct instruction when it is warranted, but he is known for using multimedia to prompt questions from his students.  Formulating good questions is his passion.  (Meyer is unique in this list because he is the only one with teaching experience.)

The final person in this debate is the one person who I think could pull off a computer based curriculum and make it work.

Will Wright

 V'ger... expects an answer.  (image from blogspot.com)
Will Wright is the creator of the Sim City games and Spore.  His education was at a Montessori School, and  he credits his education as inspiration for his games.

The Montessori connection is what first brought Wright to my attention.  I'm a big supporter of Maria Montessori, and have written about her before.  I don't like to say "ahead of her time" often, but I don't hesitate to use use it to describe her.  (More on that in a future post.)  I would also apply "ahead if his time" to Wright as well.

The beauty of Wright's games is that the notion of winning is completely up to the player.  The games are more simulations than games in the traditional sense.  However, inside of Spore are achievements that players can unlock.  The achievements give feedback to the players that they have accomplished something.  Achievements are uploaded to the spore website so players can share their progress.

In addition to the achievements, players are able to create their own environment.  The amount of customization increases as your creatures evolve.  Creations can be uploaded to the spore website for players to share as well.

Applying the nexus of creative play, open ended game play, and player achievements to education would be a powerful tool.  Jane McGonigal has the same idea (her TED Talk is here).  I think that if there is anybody who has the technical knowledge and creativity to put the pieces together, it would be Will Wright.

I'm not aware of Wright making a push into the educational world in the same way as Bill Gates.  However, he is thinking about education.  One video is here.  Even if he is not involved directly, perhaps there is a way to take inspiration from his work to bring his style of game play into the educational arena.

Here are four different approaches to educational technology.  Some approaches are better than others, but each brings something to the discussion.  I would encourage any educator to think about their students when using any technology.  The real drain on student learning is when we as teachers forget our audience and start applying "one size fits all" solutions.