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Proficiency = Hard Work + Mentor

30 Jan

Despite the occasional rants of random people criticizing teachers appearing in the media, I’m a huge believer in the noble profession of teaching. I believe that the presence, help, feedback, and expectations of a teacher is crucial to a student’s, particularly a school kid’s, performance – academically, athletically, and in other activities.

The availability of a teacher, or a mentor, can be extremely valuable to people of all ages and in all disciplines of life. The exchange in the screenshot below happened on Facebook where one of my friends posted and a few other people responded with their comments. My beliefs exactly.

Hard work and mentors

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The Digital Babysitter

22 Dec

When I visit restaurants, a very common view is families looking at their smartphones, even with food on the table. Kids playing games on phones or handheld gaming devices while following their parents in grocery stores is not very uncommon. When we gather at a friend’s house, most of the kids play video games on phones, tablets, or a gaming console. Even in parties where people dance, these kids are busy with their phones. The adults are setting a bad example for their kids.

Digital babysitter: When kids are busy with their devices, they don’t trouble their parents, who are already tired from a hard day’s work. So they use these devices as digital babysitters. I’ve seen parents having fun at parties while their children are glued to their screens. I wonder if life is passing by these kids and they don’t even realize it. Eating, while watching TV, has been proved to lead to eating disorders. The diagnosis for ADHD has exploded in recent years, and less parent time is not helping the children.

kids-technology

Empathy: It is going to be the number one job skill by 2020. We develop empathy by interacting with other people, learning about them, getting social cues, empathizing with them. Unfortunately, technology is steering many children away from socially interacting with other children and adults.

My home, my rule: At my home, we have a simple rule: A maximum of one hour of screen time a day at home, and zero screen time outside home. This rule is applicable to kids and adults. My wife and I don’t check emails or go to facebook when we are in movie theaters or restaurants or parks. Our kids run around at social events and dance in parties. We eat without a screen in front of us. We talk, we laugh, and we generally have fun a lot.

Even people leading technology companies – the late Steve Jobs and Dick Costolo – did not approve of too much technology use for their kids.

What research says: Unregulated physical activity has tremendous benefits in terms of academic achievement and health. According to The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Society of Pediatrics, the exposure to technology should be limited for children and young adults. Smartphones and tablets are a recent phenomena, so there have not been any long-term research to study the effect of screens on children’s lives. However, some research shows that more time spent looking at devices has a negative impact on academics and social behavior. This, of course, is not a general rule. Some kids who use technology a lot will grow up to be leaders and inventors. Unfortunately, a majority of kids might suffer from its bad effects.

Additional readings
10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children Under the Age of 12
Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent
Is E-Reading to Your Toddler Story Time, or Simply Screen Time?

(Deliberate) Practice Makes Perfect

6 Nov

Practice makes perfect. It’s a very famous quote that I’ve heard and read since I was a child.
Practice makes perfect

But is it true? The answer is both yes and no.

Yes
When we perform an activity – any activity – for the first time, we don’t do it correctly. Reading and writing for kids, calculus for high-school students, driving, piano, soccer, everything is learned. The more we do it repetitively, the better we get at doing it. Practicing piano for a few hours every day makes us better than practicing for a few hours every week. Though inherent talent, intrinsic motivation, feedback, and support or coaching does play a role.

So the answer is yes, practice does make us better- not perfect – but better, which is okay since perfection has a different meaning for everyone.

No
Practice makes us better only to a certain extent. After that, practicing more doesn’t necessarily lead to an improvement in skills. Why? This is where “deliberate” comes into the picture. You need to figure out what parts of a skill you have mastered and what parts you still need to get a grip on, so you can make a “deliberate” decision to practice only those parts that you are not yet proficient in. While playing the piano, it might be certain types of notes. In tennis, it might be the backhand. In physics or math, it might be a certain topic or problem. Practicing everything, all the time, only wastes time. More time should be devoted to learning new skills.

Metacognition
In cognitive psychology, researchers call it metacognition, the knowledge about one’s own knowledge. If you are aware of how much you know and how much you need to learn, you’ll be able to use different strategies to learn the content or skills.

Adaptive learning
A common buzzword these days is adaptive learning, which has different meaning for different people, but it generally means the content or assessment adapting  to the learner’s knowledge or skill level. If you answer a few questions correctly, you are presented with a higher-order content or questions. If you don’t do it well, you get lower-order content. This way, you spend your time learning new or higher-order things, and not spending a lot of time on content that you already know well. This is the premise of my adaptive learning model for K12.

Related readings
Over-Practicing Makes Perfect
No. 1 Reason Practice Makes Perfect

An Adaptive Learning Model for K12

20 May

My wife and I have been planning to launch a technology-centric non-profit organization to serve the underprivileged kids in poor schools in India. Much research and analysis needs to be done, and it’s going to take us a few years to get everything right. Fundraising, needed to purchase hardware, would take a lot of time too. However, the software, which would be an online product utilizing an adaptive learning model, can be launched sooner, so that we can iterate rapidly and keep improving it.

On a very basic level, for third-grade math, here are the requirements.

Database
A database of math questions with these fields:

  • Question ID
  • Difficulty level
  • Question number
  • Options
  • Correct option
  • Feedback

Adaptive algorithm

  • A multiple-choice question with four options is served.
  • When an option is selected and submitted, the option is compared with the correct option.
  • If correct, the corresponding feedback is displayed.
  • if incorrect, the corresponding feedback is displayed.
  • When the Continue button is clicked, the system checks if the question was answered correctly.
  • If true, another question at the same difficulty level is served to make sure the previous answer was not a fluke.
  • A total of three questions at the same difficulty level is served.
  • If all are answered correctly, the next question would be at a higher difficulty level.
  • If any question is answered incorrectly, more questions at the same difficulty level will be served.
  • If two or more questions are answered incorrectly in succession, a brief tutorial will be displayed showing how to solve the question.
  • The tutorial will be followed by a question at the same difficulty level.

Though there are multiple interpretations of “Adaptive Learning“, I interpret it as a learning model that adapts or shows content based on the users’ current performance. It’s not a one-size-fits-all product, which are common these days though the technology has made rapid advancements. Great content and a great algorithm can be integrated with the right hardware to teach the kids effectively. It’ll take time but I think it’s doable.

A Technology-Centric Non-Profit Organization

14 May

Learning is hard. For most people. Because most of us are average learners.

Learning is hard also because the teachers in schools are not well trained, the classroom size is large, the socio-economic status of some students is low, there are not enough resources in the classrooms, and/or the students don’t expend enough time and effort outside the classroom.

In developing countries like India, there are thousands of schools that suffer from these problems. Surviving on minuscule government funds and poor management, these schools fail to teach their students effectively.

Classroom - India

Classroom in India

A technology-centric non-profit organization
There are many non-profit organizations in India and the US that serve the underprivileged kids. They are focused on training teachers and arranging for resources. Is it possible to build and implement a technology-based learning product for such schools when these schools lack even basic computers?

This is a question my wife and I have set out to find answer to. A few years ago, we’d decided to found our own education-focused non-profit organization to help poor schools teach their kids. This model requires two things:

Software/Learning product: The learning product can use an adaptive model to help the kids learn by creating a personalized learning path.

Hardware: I envision two options.

  1. Cheap 10″ tablets embedded in the desks to prevent mobility and potential damage. This model can be used in the classroom under the teacher’s supervision.
  2. Large touchscreens in kiosk-style stations. This model can be used outside the classroom in common areas to foster group learning and collaboration.

In the next post, I’ll elaborate on my adaptive learning model.

Related:
An Adaptive Learning Model for K12

There’s Something About Print Books

7 Mar

In the middle of the fifteen century, the fist major book – Gutenberg Bible – was printed. With the advent of the printing presses, an advancement in printing technologies and chemicals, and the dawn of the industrial revolution, the print books proliferated. Later, some predicted that the Internet was going to kill books, but the number of books published is increasing every year. However, the sale of print books is in decline, mainly because more and more people are reading books on their electronic devices, mostly tablets, e-readers, and smartphones.

Books

The current generation
The current generation, the so called Digital Natives, are considered to be extremely tech-savvy. They are supposed to own all kinds of electronic devices and live their life in a digital world. The printed paper should be anathema to them. We don’t expect them to use printed books.

So what’s the reality? It’s totally different!

I’ve spoken with more than 5o undergraduate students taking business courses in the past few months. The first thing they do when classes start is buy a print book, either a new book, a used book, or a rented one. Many of them are aware of the existence of ebooks, but they all prefer print books. Cost is a factor but not for everyone. I wonder what’s going on?

I asked some students why they prefer print books and got some vague answers. I’ve even asked myself why I prefer print books. I like the touch of the book, I like to display them on my bookshelf, it’s romantic, it’s nostalgic, but I haven’t been able to come up with a better answer. Do we prefer print books because we have used a print book most of our lives? Is it just a habit that’s difficult to break? People break old habits if something compelling enters their lives. Does it mean the current ebooks are not compelling enough?

Some theories
Humans have evolved to be responsive to visual and tactile signals as these traits helped them survive in the wild for thousands of years. Books are tangible things, ebooks are not. Flipping the pages in a physical book is easy and visual/spatial. Research shows that it’s easy to retain information when using a print book versus an ebook. Reading a print book is faster than reading on a screen. Taking notes and highlighting is easier with a print book. There is no battery to charge, no worries of damaging it. The ebooks are mostly a replica of print books.

Some people say that the next generation who are growing up using digital devices since childhood will be more inclined to use ebooks. However, the schools still use mostly paper books and homework though the tests are computer-based and kids use some ebooks and digital learning tools. It might take another 15-20 years before college students use only ebooks.

There must be something about print books.

Related readings
Why Printed Books Will Never Die
E-Reading Rises as Device Ownership Jumps

The Revolution That Wasn’t: Part 2

28 Jan

I recently read some comments about MOOCs.

Doubts About MOOCs Continue to Rise, Survey Finds: Babson Survey Research Group, Pearson and the Sloan Consortium

The findings, released in a report on Wednesday, reveal a growing skepticism among academic leaders about the promise of MOOCs. The report also suggests that conventional, tuition-based online education is still growing, although not as swiftly as in past years.

The article – Top Issues Facing Higher Education In 2014 on Forbes.com, ends with:

You may observe a notable omission from this list: MOOCs. Increasing awareness of their limitations for certain audiences combined with a feeling of “enough already” will make these yesterday’s news in 2014.

The pioneer of MOOCs, Stanford Professor and founder of Udacity, predicted in 2012:

In 50 years, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them.

Recently, however, he changed his opinion of MOOCs:

“I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial. But the data was at odds with this idea.”
“We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product. (emphasis mine)”

I have taken a few MOOC courses on Udacity, Coursera, Stanford Venture Labs, and NovoEd. I’m enrolled in one or two courses all the time, which I complete at my own pace. I believe it’s a great but overhyped idea, and MOOCs are not a replacement for traditional students and universities.

Meanwhile, I stand by my take on MOOCs two years ago – Are MOOCs A Disruptive Innovation?

Suggested Readings: