Learning With Technology: What Works?

24 Oct

In 2003-04, I’d researched the Web sites of master’s and PhD programs at over 200 US universities in the field of technology-based learning. I was particularly impressed with the Cognitive Tutor research program at Carnegie Mellon University, and applied to their PhD program. I was not surprised to learn that I was not accepted to the program. I was, however, accepted to a prestigious PhD program in educational psychology at another university but eventually decided to not go there.

A few days ago, I read an article in The New York Times, “Inflating the Software Report Card“, about Cognitive Tutor, the very same program that had attracted me to CMU. The Cognitive Tutor is a product of Carnegie Learning, which was acquired by University of Phoenix. What surprised me was the mention of a report that says the Cognitive Tutor is not as effective as it is made out to be. The evaluation appeared on What Works Clearinghouse, a federal institution.

The Cognitive Tutor helps students learn math by showing a problem. If the student gets it wrong, the program shows some hints, and eventually helps and guides the student to the solution. This is adaptive learning at its best. The program is based on years of research on cognition and computer science. How could it not work effectively? The article took some time to sink in, and my opinion is that adaptive/computer-based learning works best when we have an engaged student, who would sit in front of a computer and work diligently, without getting frustrated and giving up. In absence of engagement and the motivation to learn, no amount of computer-generated content and algorithms are going to work. The failure of this program might also have resulted from an absence of the perfect conditions for its success and the way it’s implemented.

“This is what every parent and teacher dreams of – a turned on child” – movie “Dolphin Tale”. What are we doing to turn on our children? Giving them more and more technology without any evidence that technology actually supports learning. Meanwhile, the technology experiments go on.

Related readings:
Why Education Startups Do Not Succeed
A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute

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