E-textbooks track students November 9, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
A recent article in the Chronicle outlines how e-textbooks can be used to track students’ reading behavior:
Say a student uses an introductory psychology e-textbook. The book will be integrated into the college’s course-management system. It will track students’ behavior: how much time they spend reading, how many pages they view, and how many notes and highlights they make. That data will get crunched into an engagement score for each student.
The idea is that faculty members can reach out to students showing low engagement, says Sean Devine, chief executive of CourseSmart. And colleges can evaluate the return they are getting on investments in digital materials.
So, the payoff is that the tracking data can allow the educator to tailor the educational experience to each student, to help ensure their (mutual) success. Given the important role of education in society, that outcome is a clear win.
Of course, using textbooks to track students sounds a bit creepy. Purveyors of the e-textbooks have thought about the privacy issue as well. They have designed the system so that students can opt out of having their behavior tracked if they so choose. Problem solved!
I submit that this provision does not completely settle the issue: Why is an opt-out scheme the correct choice? Perhaps students should be required to opt in before tracking occurs.
This problem of setting the default in a tracking system is neither trivial nor novel. A couple of years ago, for example, I discussed a similar issue with the Kindle, which also tracks it users’ reading behavior by default. Probably, many Kindle users never realize their data is being collected and mined, thus diminishing their freedom to choose. An opt-in system would do a better job of assuring that users know that they are being surveilled by their gear. Of course, the opt-in default would probably lower compliance, unless students could be convinced that participation is in their best interests.
Engineering better school lunches April 10, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
From NPR comes an interesting piece about a school lunch program operated by Indian engineers. The operators are called “Akshaya Patra“, which is directed by Shridhar Venkat, a former corporate CEO. Currently, the group delivers around 1.3 million school lunches daily, using freshly prepared foods.
The government provides grains and some funding, which is topped off through donations. Through these subsidies, and through efficiencies of scale and shipping, Akshaya Patra is able to deliver healthy lunches at about 11 cents/meal. No doubt, the availability of cheaper labor is helpful there too. Even so, the ability to serve decent food each day to school children over such a large area and at such a low cost is an astonishing feat. Nevertheless, Venkat says, they are always looking for more economies so that they can feed even more children.
Venkat’s motivation is certainly laudable as well:
“Feeding a child is not charity,” [Venkat says]. He used to be a corporate executive. To him, a child like Suchitra is not a hungry 13-year-old girl in poverty. She’s an opportunity, and giving her lunch is an investment. Tomorrow, an educated Suchitra could produce a huge return on that investment to her community, he said.
The payoff is that children are able to attend school who otherwise would be prevented because of a lack of nourishment:
“The school attendance goes up, malnutrition level comes down, dropout rates comes down,” Venkat says.
An increase in education levels benefits both the individual children and the country as a whole.
So, kudos to Akshaya Patra and to Shridhar Venkat on their accomplishment! It is always good to see technical and logistical savvy being used for such good ends.
Cheating on tests October 28, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A school district in Newfoundland has decided on a controversial policy: They will give students who are caught cheating on tests or assignments the opportunity to re-do the assessment at a later time. A student caught cheating will not be awarded a grade for the illicit work; the grade will be taken from the make-up work instead.
The measure is justified on two grounds:
- The policy will detach assessments of student knowledge from assessments of student behaviour. Reductions in grades for cheating, in other words, distort the picture of the cheater’s academic ability.
- The policy will encourage wayward students to complete their assessments.
“We want to encourage students to do their best work and not to give up,” said Rice [chief executive of education for the Eastern School District]. “We are a district that believes in hope and second chances and we want our policies and practices to reflect that.”
Viewed as a measure directed at an individual case of cheating, the policy seems to make sense. An educator learns little about the knowledge that a student possesses from work that was plagiarized, say. Provided that the make-up assessment is not similarly cheated, better information can be obtained. And, indeed, the student is given a second chance.
Of course, problems may arise that are more easily viewed from a broader perspective. For example, the policy will create more work for teachers, who may well have to set and grade more work per student than before. Will teachers be given more time and resources, or smaller classes, to compensate for the new policy? (I doubt it.) If not, the policy may discourage teachers from making the effort to identify and deal with cheating students.
Also, the policy may actually incentivize cheating. Suppose that a student is unprepared for a test. The option of writing the test honestly will likely result in a low mark. However, the option of cheating will likely result in a higher mark. If the student is caught cheating, then there is always a second chance. By providing a possibility of over-achieving, this policy may have the effect of inflating the performance of cheating students instead of measuring it more accurately.
Also, consider the potential effect on other students who do not cheat. The procedure will probably strike them as unfair (from the article’s comments):
I get 70 on test and not cheating You get 69 for cheating and not studying .given a second chance and you make 80 HMM .Society is disinergrating with morals and values now we are teaching in school that its ok to cheat.Whats wrong here?
The inflation of some students’ marks will be seen (rightly) as unfair to the honest students, which will demoralize them. As a result, they may become less invested in achieving well, which would bring down their performance. This result will also distort the information that the school board is hoping to measure more accurately.
So, there are plausible grounds to fear that the policy could both incentivize cheating and disincentivize the detection of cheating on the whole. If the result is to inflate the grades of dishonest students and to reduce the grades of honest ones, then the policy cannot achieve its stated ends. Worse still, honest students may decide that they have to cheat as well, in order to stay ahead of the dishonest ones. In that event, the moral value of honesty in the classroom will be cheapened.
I think that the motivation of the policy is laudable. It strikes me as an example of a maxim endorsed by Ghandi: Hate the sin and not the sinner. In other words, we should deplore cheating but try to help cheaters. Although well-intentioned, this policy strikes me as apt to backfire and harm all students, cheaters and others, through unintended consequences.
University 2.0 April 11, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
The Chronicle has an interesting article about course-recommendation software that is in trial at places like Austin Peay State University. The system is a kind like Netflix for students: It suggests courses for students to take based on their program, standing, and what other students like them have taken and enjoyed.
(Image courtesy of Yohey1028 via Wikimedia Commons.)
A system like this one presents some obvious pros and cons. Pros include:
- The system could help students to identify a program that best suits their interests. One of the problems with faculty advisors is that their knowledge of the students, and of courses outside their area, can be superficial. A software system could apply a broad base of information to better satisfy the student’s interests.
- Such a system can be more systematic about ensuring that students satisfy all their program requirements, and about guiding students towards courses when it is most appropriate. One problem mentioned in the article is that students sometimes enroll in courses that are too advanced for them.
- Early tests of the system suggest that it helps to enhance student achievement and retention. That is, students using the test system have higher overall averages and are more likely to remain in their studies than similar students in the old advisory system.
- The system may work more efficiently that the existing system, and the software is available 24/7, unlike a human advisor.
Some of the cons include:
- The system predicts what grades students are likely to get in each course they consider. As a result, the system may steer students toward “bird” courses (“gut” courses in the US), that is, courses that may be easy but are not as challenging or otherwise rewarding for the students.
- The system may tend to excessively narrow the menu of courses that students consider taking. Music and movie recommendation systems tend to play it safe, depriving customers of opportunities for experiences that they would have enjoyed given the chance.
My own feeling is that a system of this sort could be a boon to students and universities if implemented appropriately. Course selection is an important part of a student’s career, obviously. The more relevant information that can be applied, the better it will be for the student. Also, a system that deals with course material might be more useful that systems like RateMyProfessor that trade mostly in information about personality and hotness. Course selection is also an important part of how students develop their identities as adults, so the ability to play around with selection and evaluate the possibilities accurately is important too.
The potential drawbacks are serious concerns, however. To those mentioned in the article, I would add the difficulty of introducing new courses into the curriculum. How would you attract students to a new course that they might really benefit from if no one has taken the course before? Designers would have to think seriously about how to avoid these problems, perhaps by weighting a variety of information besides previous experience.
In any event, I suspect that automated course planning is on the way, whether implemented by universities, entrepreneurs, or students themselves. So, universities might as well get into the act while they still can.
Crowdsourcing education February 7, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
One interesting thing that blog entries can do is to juxtapose two unrelated items to see how they might connect. Today, I have found a couple of things that make an interesting pair. First, there is a New York Times article that discusses the possibility of online courses with no human instructors. So far, no institution has created a course without a human being running the show. Why not? I suppose no one has yet figured out how to do it, although it seems quite plausible.
This is where the second article comes in. This Technology Review blog discusses an experiment where a program managed a group of humans in the construction of an encyclopedia entry, using the crowdsourcing tool Mechanical Turk. Appropriately, the project was called “My boss is a robot.” The experiment was successful enough that its creators are looking for other projects to manage with a similar approach.
(Image courtesy of Mikael Nordin via Wikimedia Commons.)
So, I would suggest that the robot boss be put in charge of organizing university courses. It would be interesting to see what courses are most amenable to this approach. I suspect that many introductory classes, e.g., Calculus 101 or Introductory Psychology, might lend themselves to almost total automation. More specialized courses would be tougher to automate entirely as they involve more specialized knowledge of a field and often need to be conducted in a more flexible and responsive manner. Of course, I could be wrong.
Would such a system appeal to universities? Maybe. Of course, many universities employ inexpensive, human sessional instructors to deliver the low-level mega-courses, so development costs for the robot boss would constitute a substantial barrier to entrance in the marketplace. However, Bill Gates is throwing a fair amount of money into this forum, and he has very deep pockets and was a university drop-out. So, your professor may be a robot sooner than you think!
And I, for one, welcome our robot overlords to uWaterloo!
Computers do not aid education? July 14, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
Here is a report in the New York Times summarizing recent research on the educational value of computers to impoverished schools and households. The effect seems to be negative, that is, the introduction of computers into low-income households did not increase academic achievement. If anything, achievement declined compared to similar households without computers.
On the bright side, low-income households with new computers did see an upsurge in some things: namely computer skills. For the most part, the new computers seemed to be used largely to play computer games and to surf the Internet.
Similar results were seen when computers were introduced into low-income schools.
The article does not go far to explain the results, although some hypotheses leap to mind:
- Simply dropping computers on people does not make them smarter, certainly by pre-computer standards. The stereotype is that brainiacs like computers but it is a fallacy to infer that computers are therefore going to make brainiacs out of people.
- Perhaps the computers were not well integrated into the curriculum or equipped with educational software that would interest the students. A computer is an all-purpose device that presents many opportunities, such as games and Web-browsing, along with educational activities. Whatever educational opportunities are presented will have to compete with the other opportunities that are available.
- Instead of competing with the video games, it is tempting for educators or other well-meaning individuals to win the competition by “cheating”, that is, by banning the fun stuff.
This last point may apply to the situation in the article. Consider how computers were introduced into low-income schools in Texas:
Catherine Maloney, director of the Texas center, said the schools did their best to mandate that the computers would be used strictly for educational purposes. Most schools configured the machines to block e-mail, chat, games and Web sites reached by searching on objectionable key words. The key-word blocks worked fine for English-language sites but not for Spanish ones. “Kids were adept at getting around the blocks,” she said.
Schools are perfectly right to want to set limits on the usage of their computers. However, it is a mistake to treat a network of computers like a fancy library of books and board games from the old days. If and when computers are introduced into schools and homes, it would be better to try to take advantage of the affordances that they present for socializing and game playing instead of mandating against them. For example, send the kids to the Kahn academy, which is an educational opportunity that the kids seem to find both useful and compelling.
Outsourcing university email April 13, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
A recent NPR news story explains that some universities are outsourcing their IT to Google. That is, students use Gmail and Google Tools to communicate and work on assignments, all organized through a portal dedicated to students from that university.
The service is provided to Wesleyan at no charge, which is a big help to the University’s IT budget. Also, students find the Google services effective and easy to use, whereas the University’s own services were considered “clunky”.
Google claims that there are no catches to the service. Although they are in possession of students’ data, they will not scan it nor will they charge for it in future. Thus, privacy concerns are minimized. Of course, security concerns remain (Gmail has been hacked in the past) but such concerns would apply anywhere. And the portal will not display ads, and so concerns that the university experience would resemble a shopping mall are diminished. The only reward Google seems to want is to burnish their good name, i.e., brand, with university students.
Would you like to see Waterloo adopt Google services to provide IT facilities to its students?