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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.

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.

An Adaptive Learning Model for K12

Bill Gates: The Hero

25 Jul

Hero: A man admired for his achievements and noble qualities; one who shows great courage (source: Merriam-Webster dictionary)

I have a picture of Bill Gates in my office along with a few other people I admire. I’ve been asked why I have Bill Gates’ picture, but not Steve Jobs’. The reason is that Bill Gates is a hero. A silent hero.

A visionary

His vision during Microsoft’s earliest days was to “put a computer on every desk and in every home”. In 1970s, nobody had thought of having a computer at home. Computers were the sole preserve of big companies that had IBM’s mainframe computers for data processing tasks. He wanted the magic of software developed by Microsoft to work on hardware developed by other companies. Apple, at around the same time, had a similar vision but wanted to control the entire user experience from software to hardware. Microsoft, and Bill Gates, won big time.

Success is one’s own worst enemy. Having realized his vision by all means, including some alleged monopolistic practices, and becoming the richest man in the world, I think he lost his way. He focused more on making money for himself and Microsoft’s investors than creating value for the users. And when you try to harvest more value than you create, things start to fall apart. Gates didn’t focus on design and user experience. He didn’t focus on innovation. Perhaps he didn’t read The Innovator’s Dilemma. Though Microsoft is doing just fine, Apple now rules the world.

Rivalry with Steve Jobs

They were about the same age, started their companies at the same time (1975), and had the same vision. Gates was a software genius and Jobs was a design genius. They were competitors, borrowed ideas for GUI from Xerox PARC, and worked fanatically to establish their companies. In Jobs’s biography by Walter Isaacson, he quotes Jobs: “Bill is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything, which is why I think he’s more comfortable now in philanthropy than technology. He just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas.”
This statement is not true. Gates invented countless software for consumers and enterprise (much more than Apple) but also copied some. Same is true of Jobs. In fact, Gates is much more imaginative than Jobs. Gates imagined a world free of diseases such as malaria, polio, and AIDS, and a literate, innovative, and competitive America.

Philanthropy: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
In 2000, Bill Gates quit his job at Microsoft and is now devoting his full time to the Gates Foundation traveling to poor countries, meeting with people, and understanding the health issues prevalent there. He has committed his wealth to the foundation and also convinced his rich friends like Warren Buffet to donate most of their wealth to charity. He is working with non-profit organizations to get rid of preventable diseases and improve the health of people in developing countries.

Steve Jobs wanted to put a ding in the universe, but it is, in fact, Bill Gates who did it and still doing it. While Jobs was busy inventing beautiful gadgets, Gates first changed the world with personal computers, and now changing it again with his fight against deadly diseases in the developing world and his mission to fix the broken education system in America.

Bill Gates’ courage to fight the biggest challenges and his commitment to noble causes make him a true hero.

Suggested readings
A Conversation With Bill Gates About the Future of Higher Education
Bill Gates on Charlie Rose
Malcolm Gladwell: In 50 years, Bill Gates will be revered and Steve Jobs will be forgotten
The Real Reason The World Will Remember Bill Gates

The Failure of OLPC

13 Apr
Logo of One Laptop per Child

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few years ago, a group of affluent people in a first world country decided that the kids in third world countries need to be educated, and they are the right people to revolutionize education in those countries and help with their social and economic upliftment. The leader of this group – the founder of a world-renowned technology lab in an elite university – wanted to hand over an electronic device to millions of kids so they can search for information on the Internet, collaborate with their peers, and be responsible for their own learning. A number of big organizations too supported this initiative.

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program was launched in 2005 by two non-profit organizations and chaired by Nicholas Negroponte. It was implemented in several poor countries including Uruguay, Peru, Mexico, Ghana, and Rwanda. It was rejected by the Indian government, which later decided to build an even cheaper tablet.

It was a noble mission destined to fail from the beginning. The mission of OLPC was to let every kid have access to a laptop when the mission should have been to educate the kids. OLPC was supposed to be a means to an end, but it, unsurprisingly, didn’t fulfill the dream. The socio-economic and other factors in these countries proved to be an insurmountable barrier.

OLPC XO-1 Laptop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The foundation planned to develop $100 laptops and sell it (not donate!) to governments for deploying in schools. People that don’t have enough money for food, don’t have access to drinking water and electricity, schools that don’t have continual Internet connection, kids’ homes not connected, teacher not trained on how to use the laptops in class, a Linux-based OS (Sugar) with buggy software, and other issues didn’t let the schools take full advantage of the laptops. This proved once again that it’s not the technology that helps people learn; it’s the pedagogical methods and good, engaging content, and of course, qualified teachers with ongoing training and support.

A recent study – Technology and Child Development – conducted in Peru concluded that there has not been a statistically significant improvement in the children’s reading and math scores after the implementation of the OLPC program. Some might say that test scores are not the real measures of the program’s impact and things like engagement and motivation cannot be quantified. There might be other benefits to the schools and children, but until those benefits are somehow measured over longer periods of time, the vision and promise of OLPC would remain unfulfilled.

It is, however, encouraging that many countries, organizations (Khan Academy, Intel’s StudyBook), and schools (the flipped classroom, iPads/tablets) are experimenting with different pieces of technology to engage and educate children.

Related readings
One Laptop Per Child
The Failure of One Laptop Per Child
Flipping the Classroom Requires More Than Video

TEDx Women Talk By Dr. Piya Sorcar On World AIDS Day

9 Dec

This TEDx Women talk was given by my friend and founder of, Dr. Piya Sorcar. We were in the same master’s program at Stanford University. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in Learning Sciences and Technology Design and is committed to improving the lives of millions of people around the world with the innovative use of technology.

From the TEDx Women page:

Named to MIT Technology Review’s TR35 list of the top 35 innovators in the world under 35 in 2011, Dr. Sorcar is the founder and CEO of TeachAIDS, a nonprofit social venture founded at Stanford, which creates breakthrough software used in over 50 countries. Funded by UNICEF, Barclay’s, Google, Yahoo, and other organizations, the TeachAIDS software addresses numerous persistent problems in HIV prevention, and provides the most effective HIV education tools to schools, governments, and NGOs worldwide – for free.

Dr. Sorcar began the research to develop TeachAIDS in 2005 as part of her graduate work. Today, she leads a team of world experts in medicine, public health, communications, and education, to develop versions of the software for new languages and cultures. She is the author of numerous articles and has been an invited speaker at many universities, including Caltech, Columbia, Tsinghua, Utrecht and Yale. She holds degrees in Economics, Business and Journalism from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and an M.A. in Education and Ph.D. in Learning Sciences & Technology Design from Stanford University.

Is This The Future Of Learning?

2 Sep

When I was in school, I’d never seen a computer, except may be in books or magazines. I got to work on computers in college, but nobody had one in their homes or dorm rooms. Fast forward to this day, and we have a whole generation of “digital natives” who are growing up with laptops, smartphones, and tablets (mostly iPad). They think of these gadgets as one of their toys, totally comfortable watching YouTube videos as playing Angry Birds on iPhones. They are smart and motivated.
Salman Khan
Last year, I heard of The Khan Academy. It’s founder Salman Khan has created thousands of videos on various subjects that anyone can use for learning. Bill Gates, a huge proponent of online learning as a means of saving money and helping the poor kids learn, has promoted Khan and talked about him. That’s how the world noticed the Khan Academy. He was featured in numerous news articles, blog posts, and videos, and has appeared on the Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report. The Khan Academy got some funding and hired more people to scale the not-for-profit business.

I’m impressed. By the number of videos. By the relentless pursuit of one man to serve millions. By his selfless service. Bill Gates is my hero. Spending all his money on charity is something only heroes can do.

The question is – are these videos really going to help kids learn science and math? Salman Khan and Bill Gates certainly think so. So do many other people, including academicians.

Do you?