Learning Software – Must Move Beyond the Trivial

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

In an article in the New York Times, Trip Gabriel and Matt Richtel shine a light on an issue that’s been debated around this country for years. Does all of that technology really help learning?

To be fair, they’ve focused on student learning software and not on social media in education or other such technology that teachers have grafted into their classes, often with great success. Instead, they looked at just software that is supposed to help students learn specific subjects. The bulk of the article considers Carnegie Learning’s Cognitive Tutor program that works with algebra concepts.

The authors point out that the U.S. Department of Education reviewed educational software last year and found “Undistinguished math curricula. Unproven results.” Rather damning.

The Houghton Mifflin Harcourt product, Destination Reading, also comes under scrutiny. It was found “not to have statistically significant effects on test scores.” And so it goes.

Yet, the classroom software market has been estimated at $2.2 billion per year. The article points out that the cost of Cognitive Tutor to a school is triple what textbooks for the same number of students would cost. Carnegie Learning was just acquired by the Apollo Group who run the University of Phoenix.

Of course, the push-back from the educational software industry involved accusations of schools not deploying the software properly and not training teachers well. These accusations ignore the large amount of money spent by schools on teacher training by the vendors.

I could go on summarizing more of the article, but I think that it’s more important to consider what’s really going on here, to dig a bit deeper. I have not reviewed Cognitive Tutor. The article contains a snippet from a Cognitive Tutor session. I’ve looked at a number of education software products, mostly in science but also in other areas.

The Cognitive Tutor session shows how branching based on answers can help students better master concepts. This idea is not new and does not require modern technology or even new research. We’ve had the ability to do this sort of thing at least since the University of Illinois created PLATO in the early 1960s. The software to perform branching is almost trivial, at least compared to lots of other software being created. The problems in creating this sort of software lie in writing large volumes of content and in providing the right content based on what the student has done, in reading the student’s mind. Computers cannot do that. Instead, developers must create something based on a norm, on some sort of standardized student profiles and hope that individual students match up with expectations.

As if that task were not obstacle enough, the nature of these software programs must be examined too. I find that they all are variations on drill software, even the adaptive ones such as Cognitive Tutor. Those adapt the drill content depending on the results. Cognitive Tutor also touts its immediate feedback. That’s also as old as PLATO. Sometimes, it’s a good idea, especially in drill situations. I think that it’s not so good in helping people learn to think. Feedback should come, in those situations, after the student has had a chance to reflect.

I put out the call to all who create classroom software. Stop reproducing failed systems with software. Do something innovative, not incremental. I know that incremental improvements sell better than true innovation, but educating our youth is too important to settle for a little here and a little there. Stop spending your software development dollars on glitzy interfaces and leaving a pittance for the real software that makes the learning happen. Don’t just do the trivial.

There’s a huge future awaiting educational technology, especially software. Don’t settle for hiring journeyman software developers when you have to have the best. Perhaps, large organizations such as big book publishers and big universities do not have the constitutions to perform real innovation. Maybe, it takes small individuals and tiny companies. And maybe not. Look at IBM and the IBM PC. How did one of the largest and most conservative companies in the country break so many rules and create something really innovative?

One-on-one computer-to-student learning software must break out from the drill basis that underlies most of what we see today. While drill is useful in a number of situations, it does not fully realize the potential for learning software. It’s time for software that truly supports and even forces student thinking. Perhaps, 21st century will cease to be just an accident of our calendar and become a meaningful term when describing technology in education.

4 Responses

  1. That article also only used the standardized tests as a benchmark — there are other benefits to online computerized learning that are reflected in other skills and abilities that aren’t measured on the standardized tests. Perhaps the issue is less with the software, and more with the tests.

  2. There used to be a decade ago an office of technology assessment. It seems now that the market is cornered by the groups who vendor, and promote software, and that is determined by how many people they can convince to use it. The Department of Education weighs in with projects. But in education we all know that the bigs are the groups who endorse projects and products. Some of the groups which used to be teacher organizations are the power in ed tech, and dues are necessary to play the game, ie vendors have to pony up with a fee, silver, gold or whatever to share with the members or they can’t exhibit, share or promote their product. Furthermore, they unlike presidents get to be in Washington and lobby heavily . There are funds and groups to support the lobby in sister organizations.

    All of this to say that there is really good software out there , but if it is not promoted, marketed by vendor groups who have the ear of education in America, it is a tough row to hoe.

    I posted an article from the New York TImes about educators being taken on trips to various places, .. read it and think.

    Education is a business. Sort of. But sometimes we the teachers are being given the business and we pay without knowing what is real.

    • Education should not be a business in the usual sense. We don’t make building and maintaining most roads a business.

      It’s all right to have businesses support education until the problem you reference comes to pass. Yes, I have discovered that these education organizations definitely pander to the big companies that continue to grow by absorbing the smaller ones. Being a significant part of such organizations (you know who they are) becomes quite costly once they gain some traction.

      The government should work to level the playing field. However, the big companies would not like that either. So, here we are.

      I’ve been hoeing that row for over a decade now. We’re finally gaining some traction but only by having such a standout product that we win sales just by getting through the door. In the beginning, we had a special concept and an OK implementation. I could go on and bore anyone reading this, but I’ll just remark that there could be plenty of excellent software products out there but relatively unknown.

      We frequently manage to get a meeting with a school and visit to show them our service. They look and exclaim something such as “Wow! That’s really incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it. How come I’ve never heard about you before.” It’s that last sentence and the number of times we’ve heard it that convinces me that what you say is true. The fact that few small groups have the staying power to last as long as we have means also that many great software products have simply failed and left the market entirely before they could be polished up and get the rave reviews necessary for success. It’s not because of educational value but because of weak marketing, marketing that must, these day, include lobbying, joining lots of organizations, and exhibiting at conventions.

      I’m sitting here hoping that the Internet age will change this old paradigm, and I spend lots of time figuring out new ways to take advantage of it. I’m still figuring it out. Sigh.

  3. I like this.. You said,” Education should not be a business in the usual sense. We don’t make building and maintaining most roads a business.
    It’s all right to have businesses support education until the problem you reference comes to pass. Yes, I have discovered that these education organizations definitely pander to the big companies that continue to grow by absorbing the smaller ones. Being a significant part of such organizations (you know who they are) becomes quite costly once they gain some traction.

    I think the problem is that many businesses give educators the business. Political winds and networks create a void in our understanding and those who lobby go to the hill ” on our behalf”
    sort of. I don’t have any problems with the lobbying, I do have problems with the fact that there is no respect for the most part, for those who use the technology. I guess we are just customers being given the business. If you know what I mean.

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