Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Learning App for Teaching Language

My Duolingo learning app can reshape education

Luis von Ahn, creator of a popular language-learning app, says tracking how people learn online will reveal teaching tricks that are invisible in the classroom
Duolingo users are making new courses for people who speak Asian languages like Chinese and Hindi. How does that work?
We give people a skeleton of what the course should teach. Then they make it and we give them tools and access to a lot of data to figure out if the course is doing well and how to improve it.
What kinds of tools and data do you use?
For example, right now we're teaching adjectives after plurals, so let's try teaching adjectives first. We pick a subset of 50,000 users and see if they learn better – if they come back more often and make fewer mistakes. We can see the statistics and if they're positive, switch all users to the new method. We then give the community making the courses access to the same information so they can run experiments to work out how to do better.
What can conventional language teachers take away from these experiments?
We're in a position to discover how people learn on a much larger scale, and we're going to release a lot of that information. Let's say moving a single word forward in the curriculum improves learning outcomes by 0.1 per cent. You can't measure that with 50 students. You need tens of thousands of students to see those differences: 0.1 per cent is not a lot. But if you do 10 of these changes you have 1 per cent improvement; if you do 100, you have 10 per cent improvement. That's big. These are the types of things that you can't do offline.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

There's More to Life than "Critical" Thinking?

I've often disagreed with Michael Roth's take on liberal education, but I think he's hit a nail on the head here. He lumps "critical thinking" with "problem solving" and contrasts it with "absorption" suggesting that all-critique-all-the-time is a sort of wall-flower in society condition. Liberal education he says 
"must also foster openness, participation and opportunity. ... designed to take us beyond the campus to a life of ongoing, pragmatic learning ... increases our capacity to understand and contribute to the world — and reshape it, and ourselves, in the process."
If anything, he's stopped one step short - our tutelage should also include how to do things. In my own field, sociology, much of the teaching (and writing, for that matter) has been given over to, as someone put it, "learning the 9000 ways that the world sucks"; graduates leave knowing how to DO very little (except lame research that shows how much the world sucks). That's too bad since there is a lot of sociology (and social science more generally) that helps us, for example, design institutions, improve organizations, and make communities work better.

I'm not persuaded we make the world a better place by turning out legions of clever critics who can join the snipey, take-down culture of the blogosphere, parsing texts to find hidden signs of X-, Y-, or Z-ism.

from the New York Times
Young Minds in Critical Condition

It happens every semester. A student triumphantly points out that Jean-Jacques Rousseau is undermining himself when he claims “the man who reflects is a depraved animal,” or that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for self-reliance is in effect a call for reliance on Emerson himself. Trying not to sound too weary, I ask the student to imagine that the authors had already considered these issues.

Instead of trying to find mistakes in the texts, I suggest we take the point of view that our authors created these apparent “contradictions” in order to get readers like us to ponder more interesting questions. How do we think about inequality and learning, for example, or how can we stand on our own feet while being open to inspiration from the world around us? Yes, there’s a certain satisfaction in being critical of our authors, but isn’t it more interesting to put ourselves in a frame of mind to find inspiration in them?

Our best college students are very good at being critical. In fact being smart, for many, means being critical. Having strong critical skills shows that you will not be easily fooled. It is a sign of sophistication, especially when coupled with an acknowledgment of one’s own “privilege.”

The combination of resistance to influence and deflection of responsibility by confessing to one’s advantages is a sure sign of one’s ability to negotiate the politics of learning on campus. But this ability will not take you very far beyond the university. Taking things apart, or taking people down, can provide the satisfactions of cynicism. But this is thin gruel.

Read More at NYT Opinion Pages

Monday, May 12, 2014

Research on Effectiveness (sic) of Lecturing

paper (pdf below) published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science reports a meta-analysis of some 250 studies of effectiveness of lecturing vs. various forms of "active learning" in STEM fields. Upshot is that active learning is associated with 6% improvement in exam scores and that lectures yield a 50% increase in likelihood of failing the course. Interestingly the effect was stronger in classes under 50.

From the National Science Foundation
Press Release 14-064
Enough with the lecturing

May 12, 2014
A significantly greater number of students fail science, engineering and math courses that are taught lecture-style than fail in classes incorporating so-called active learning that expects them to participate in discussions and problem-solving beyond what they've memorized.

Active learning also improves exam performance in some cases enough to change grades by half a letter or more--so a B-plus, for example, becomes an A-minus.

Those findings are from the largest and most comprehensive analysis ever published of studies comparing lecturing to active learning in undergraduate education, said Scott Freeman, a University of Washington principal lecturer in biology. He's lead author of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of May 12.

Freeman and his co-authors based their findings on 225 studies of undergraduate education across all of the "STEM" areas: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Many of the studies analyzed were funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The researchers found that 55 percent more students fail lecture-based courses than classes with at least some active learning. Two previous studies looked only at subsets of the STEM areas and none before considered failure rates.

On average across all the studies, a little more than one-third of students in traditional lecture classes failed--that is, they either withdrew or got Fs or Ds, which generally means they were ineligible to take more advanced courses. On average with active learning, a little more than one-fifth of students failed.

"If you have a course with 100 students signed up, about 34 fail if they get lectured to but only 22 fail if they do active learning, according to our analysis," Freeman said. "There are hundreds of thousands of students taking STEM courses in U.S. colleges every year, so we're talking about tens of thousands of students who could stay in STEM majors instead of flunking out every year."

This could go a long way toward meeting national calls like the one from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) saying the U.S. needs a million more STEM majors in the future, Freeman said.

"Freeman's study reinforces the conclusion of PCAST [President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology] that widespread implementation of these evidence-based practices will increase retention and persistence in STEM fields and further supports the findings of the National Research Council's Discipline-based Education Research report, funded by NSF," said Susan Singer who leads NSF's Division of Undergraduate Education.

It is encouraging news as NSF convenes an interagency team to implement the undergraduate goals of the Federal STEM Education 5-year Strategic Plan. One of the four goals is to "Identify and broaden implementation of evidence-based instructional practices and innovations to improve undergraduate learning and retention in STEM and develop national architecture to improve empirical understanding of how these changes relate to key student outcomes."

Attempts by college faculty to use active learning, long popular in K-12 classrooms, started taking off in the mid-1990s, Freeman said, though lecturing still dominates.

"We've got to stop killing student performance and interest in science by lecturing and instead help them think like scientists," he said.

For the paper, more than 640 studies comparing traditional lecturing with some kind of active learning were examined by Freeman, Wenderoth and their other co-authors, Sarah Eddy, Miles McDonough, Nnadozie Okoroafor and Hannah Jordt, all with the UW biology department, and Michelle Smith with the University of Maine, whose research was funded by NSF. The studies, conducted at four-year and community colleges mainly in the U.S., appeared in STEM education journals, databases, dissertations and conference proceedings.

Some 225 of those studies met the standards to be included in the analysis including: assurances the groups of students being compared were equally qualified and able, instructors or groups of instructors were the same, and exams given to measure performance were either exactly alike or used questions pulled from the same pool of questions each time.

The data were considered using meta-analysis, an approach long used in fields such as biomedicine to determine the effectiveness of a treatment based on studies with a variety of patient groups, providers and ways of administering the therapy or drugs.

Regarding grade improvement, the findings showed improvements on exams increased an average of 6 percent, which might raise students half a grade, for example from a B+ to an A-.

If the failure rates of 34 percent for lecturing and 22 percent in classes with some active learning were applied to the 7 million U.S. undergraduates who say they want to pursue STEM majors, some 2.38 million students would fail lecture-style courses vs. 1.54 million with active learning. That's 840,000 additional students failing under lecturing, a difference of 55 percent compared to the failure rate of active learning.

"That 840,000 students is a large portion of the million additional STEM majors the president's council called for," Freeman said.


Active learning improves grades, reduces failure among undergrads in STEM

See Also
Bajak, Aleszu. "Lectures Aren't Just Boring, They're Ineffective, Too, Study Finds." Science Insider

Friday, May 2, 2014

New Browser Tool Lets You Copy Text from Images

Project Naptha is a new plug-in for the Chrome browser that lets you do text recognition (OCR) of online images (e.g., photos of documents) and then cut and paste directly from the image in the webpage.  That means no more save-image-as + import-photo-into-Word + save-as-PDF + OCR + copy-paste-into-your-document OR the old standby: transcribe.

That means you can copy the title or legend from a chart and diagrams or a quote on an inspirational Upworthy poster! Life is good. Should even work on old books in the Google books archive.

Anastasia Salter writes about it in the ProfHacker column (28 April) at Chronicle.com.

Higher Ed: The Times, They Are A-Changin'

Increasing segmentation of potential student market, lots of new entrants (education providers), new demand for "just in time" learning, aggregators as brokers between providers and students, conventional faith in higher ed brand value may be overstated.


To Reach the New Market for Education, Colleges Have Some Learning to Do

Afew weeks ago, I moderated a panel discussion at the South by Southwest education conference, in Austin, Tex. Known as SXSWedu, the gathering is in only its fourth year and already draws some 6,500 entrepreneurs, educators, investors, and policy makers, easily surpassing the attendance at many of the annual meetings held by the various higher-education associations.
Many of the education providers who showed up in Austin were relatively new players in the field. They don’t yet have the brand names of traditional colleges that have built their reputation over generations by offering degrees and certificates through the factory-model, one-size-fits-all delivery method of modern higher education.
But what these new entrants have been able to do relatively quickly is divide the massive higher-education market into segments based on what students want and need, and then create offerings that appeal to only a slice or two of the overall market. Such a lean approach, of not trying to serve everyone, is definitely cheaper, and often better, for meeting student demands.
Read More at the Chronicle Online

Thursday, May 1, 2014

European Educators Discuss Changes in Higher Ed

Some familiar themes, some new takes on them, at recent meeting of European University Association
...post-Bologna Process...new teaching tools...changes student body...alter university landscape...changes in technology and learning expectations...universities have to change...important to push student learning...learning in more individual way...digital learning moving to tablets and smartphones...MOOCs...MOOCs help bridge school-university gap by opening courses to high school students...rise in lifelong learners..new demographic mix...teaching is changing...globalization... attract international students...curriculum changes and training in cultural differences needed...prepare them for a globally functioning world.
The New York Times

Adapting for the Future at European University Conference


BRUSSELS — Senior European academics, university officers and policy makers met this month at the European University Association’s annual conference in Brussels to discuss the rapidly changing European higher education market.

European Union member states have increasingly standardized their degrees and courses under agreements known as the Bologna Process. Now, policy makers are looking to a future in which new teaching tools and changes in the student body could significantly alter the university landscape.

Eye on the Prize: Lowering Costs

"A small number of universities are starting to go against the grain, reducing amenities and frills in favor of keeping the costs relatively low.

"Neil Theobald is the president of Temple University, which recently began offering students $4,000 per year in grants — if they promise to limit the number of hours they work during the school year and graduate on time.

"Donal O'Shea is the president of the New College of Florida, the small honors college for Florida's state university system. There, costs have historically been kept to a minimum by not offering extracurricular sports and amenities.

"Morning Edition's David Greene spoke with Theobald and O'Shea about the choices they've made, how they're pulling them off and why they think it is good policy."

Interview Highlights

On varsity sports
Theobald: We eliminated five varsity sports. We are trying to reallocate our funds toward our student body, what goes on in the classroom, what goes on in the lab, so we scaled back by five sports. But it was incredibly difficult.

O'Shea: We don't have any varsity sports. We are a very lean organization. We invest in faculty. It's about a 10:1 student-faculty ratio. ... Only 40 percent graduate with debt, and of those who have debt, the average debt is a little under $18,000. We invest in faculty instead of sports and even some student services.

On running bare-bones operations
O'Shea: Oh, I worry about it all the time. What if someday no one wants to come? At the time, we have many more students applying than there are places. But I have four kids. I know how they think. And, as I say, it is a risk.

Theobald: You've got to set priorities. There is an arms race for spending. And so a university needs to know who they are, who their students are and what their mission is. We need to focus on getting them in, getting them a course of study, making sure courses are available when they need them and getting them out in four years. That's the priority for our students.

On the breaking point in college costs
Theobald: There will be pushback. Parents are becoming much more cost-conscious today in looking at universities. ... When you get top privates touching $60,000 a year, that's a quarter-million dollars for four years! I think people are really taking a step back.

O'Shea: I think what is going to stop being a major driver is student expectation. I think the worry about cost is outstripping the desire for ... huge facilities and things like that.