Instructional technology / distance education

Training evolving for Instructional designers

The education and training of instructional designers is becoming more formalized as their role grows in importance at many institutions.  

3 Nevada colleges to use Ex Libris's library solutions

The University of Nevada at Las Vegas, the College of Southern Nevada and Nevada State College selected Ex Libris library solutions to consolidate the management and discovery of their physical, electronic and digital collections. UNLV and the two colleges will use the Ex Libris Alma library management service and the Ex Libris Primo discovery and delivery platform.

Relias Learning acquires Advanced Practice Strategies to expand in acute care field

Relias Learning, a subsidiary of the German Bertelsmann Education Group, acquired e-learning company Advanced Practice Strategies. Bertelsmann said the acquisition strengthens its education business with the full takeover of Boston-based APS, significantly expanding its range of services in the acute care field. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Cal State, VitalSource team up to bridge gap between OER and traditional materials

The California State University System and VitalSource Technologies announced a collaboration designed to increase the adoption and use of open educational resources. Open resources aim to provide students with affordable course materials that are easily customizable to meet the needs of individual instructors. However, the materials often lack reliable distribution, easy integration and detailed analytics that are common with established types of course materials.

Essay: Improving student success may mean fixing subpar courses

Not long ago, San Francisco investor and entrepreneur John Greathouse penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal claiming he found a solution to the tech industry’s diversity problem. Because of rampant bias in the tech industry, Greathouse suggested female job candidates should “create an online presence that obscures their gender” in order to improve their employment prospects.

The response was swift and vicious. Concealing one’s gender in response to bias addresses the symptom rather than the disease (biased hiring managers/employers and biased hiring practices). Greathouse, critics contend, offered a “Band-aid”: a superficial and ephemeral solution that avoids dealing with a deep-seated systemic challenge.

The temptation to optimize the path that people take through dysfunctional systems isn’t, of course, limited to hiring practices. It is a familiar pattern in a higher education discourse obsessed with predictive analytics -- one that all too often avoids tough conversations about poor instruction and outdated pedagogy.

This temptation to fix people rather than dysfunctional systems reminded me of current conversations in education technology around how new technologies can improve student success. Specifically, the interplay between two powerful new approaches: predictive analytics and adaptive learning technologies.

Using predictive analytics as an early warning system to predict which student is likely to fail is becoming commonplace. The goal is as clear as it is noble: reduce the number of college dropouts by intervening early.

The New America Foundation recently published “The Promise and Peril of Predictive Analytics in Higher Education,” a report detailing ethical concerns involved in using data to make predictions and its impact on underrepresented students. (I served on the advisory board for the project.) Yet the report overlooks the fact that, despite well-intentioned efforts, early warning systems put the responsibility to change on the student when what those of us whose job is to improve student success -- educators, administrators and policy makers -- really must do is change the system.

To illustrate, consider this example: in 2007, my colleague Ganga Prusty, a professor at the University of New South Wales, Australia, inherited a course in first-year engineering mechanics that had a 31 percent failure rate. The high-enrollment, introductory-level course teaches students concepts and techniques to solve real-world engineering problems. Success in engineering mechanics is a prerequisite for most engineering-related majors. The high failure rate meant that nearly a third of students couldn’t live up to their dreams of becoming engineers. And this, mind you, in an economy that’s starved for STEM graduates!

At the time, I was doing my Ph.D. building something I called the adaptive e-learning platform -- years later it would become the technology behind Smart Sparrow, the company I founded -- trying to find ways to create digital learning experiences that are more than PDFs and PowerPoints. I was introduced to Prusty because our dean thought it would be useful to try to apply this new technology to real-world problems. I found myself for the first time trying to find new solutions for what is essentially a very old problem: student success.

Yes, Prusty could have intervened with at-risk students and advised them to consider another major, but is that what he should have done? Should he not instead have discovered why the course was failing one in three students, and tried to fix it?

Prusty and his team did the latter and started by identifying “threshold concepts,” a term Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land introduced in 2003 that refers to core concepts that, once understood, transform perception of a given subject. After identifying the course’s threshold concepts, Prusty and his team designed adaptive tutorials to teach engineering students what they needed to know.

Prusty’s adaptive tutorials are a form of smart digital homework. They take students about an hour or two to complete as they work on solving problems with interactive simulations and receive feedback that is based on what they do.

For example, students learn how to analyze the mechanical forces that act on beams of a bridge by designing a bridge and driving simulated cars on it, measuring in the environment whether the forces they calculated were accurate. The system is “intelligent” because it can provide feedback based on the specific mistakes the student makes (called “adaptive feedback”). If the tutorial detects that a student would benefit from more examples or content, it dynamically changes the activity to show that content (called “adaptive pathways”).

Prusty and his team designed four adaptive tutorials in all, delivered weekly to students and targeting the threshold concepts and common misconceptions students had.

It worked. Not only did students begin to enjoy doing homework -- an achievement in its own right -- but they also performed better in the course’s assessments. Prusty’s team did not stop there, however. They analyzed the way students learned using these adaptive tutorials, noticing what worked and what didn’t, and then improved the tutorials. Over time, Prusty’s team built and introduced eight more adaptive tutorials.

The result? After a few years, the failure rate dropped to 5 percent. That happened while using the same course, syllabus and final exam, and while growing the number of students by 70 percent. The only difference was the number and the quality of adaptive tutorials used.

Prusty replicated the process in another course (a more advanced course in mechanics of solids), and the failure rate dropped from 25 percent to 5 percent.

Now let’s imagine that instead, we could have used predictive analytics to identify failing students. What would we have done? We probably would have found a clever way to identify students likely to fail the course and gently suggested alternative degree programs. But would that have been the ethical thing to do?

Put another way, if you have a course with a high failure rate, should you use technology to predict who’s going to fail and alert them? Or should you fix the course? The former will improve your institution’s graduation rates, and the latter will have you try to convince your faculty to address the issue.

Which one is easier? Which one is more ethical? What happens when student success and institutional outcomes conflict?

It is all too easy to design Band-aid solutions to higher education’s completion crisis while ignoring more complex problems -- such as courses that are simply not good enough when we have an opportunity to redesign them entirely. Predictive analytics and adaptive learning are two sides of the same coin. But we will fall short at true improvement if we stop at analytics.

Dror Ben-Naim is founder and CEO of Smart Sparrow, an educational-technology company that helps faculty members create better courses by making them more active and adaptive. He is also a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and an adjunct academic in the University of New South Wales Australia’s School of Computer Science and Engineering, where he co-supervises research students in intelligent tutoring systems and learning design.

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Top art schools partner with online education platform Kadenze

Elite U.S. and international programs are starting to offer online courses so they are more accessible and affordable -- and to attract new students to their campuses. 

Gallaudet Partners With SignAll for Sign Language Software

Gallaudet University and SignAll have formed a partnership to develop automatic sign language translation software. Gallaudet University is the world’s only liberal arts university for deaf and hearing-impaired students. SignAll is a research and development start-up company in Budapest, Hungary. Gallaudet is providing American Sign Language (ASL) and telecommunications accessibility expertise, and SignAll is providing sign language translation technology services for spoken languages.

Gutenberg Technology and VitalSource Collaborate on Content Tool

Gutenberg Technology, a cloud-based tools creator for educational content, and VitalSource, a educational technology provider, have announced a collaboration for a simple-to-use tool for publishers to create and distribute interactive content.

Davidson College launches online course about fake news

Davidson College launches a free, two-week online course about defining, identifying and avoiding deliberately false stories.

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