Can Tech Teach?

My question, a burning question, is whether or not technology, even “adaptive” technology, can teach a student who does not have the basic reading and writing skills needed to succeed at college.

Here’s what I am talking about, from Inside Higher Ed:

new technologies to help usher students through to a degree, education technology companies are seeing a ripe market of potential buyers for new e-learning products — in particular, software aimed at high school graduates who lack the basic reading, writing, and math skills to succeed at the college level.

Most companies are offering variations on a theme: “adaptive” technology that learns the strengths and weaknesses of individual students and tailors its tutorials to address their needs. Unlike a traditional sequence of instructions in a learning exercise, adaptive software adjusts to how well a student appears to understand different concepts. If a student struggles to learn a skill when it is presented one way, the software will detect her confusion and present it another way. The model is highly individualized instruction, without the many instructors that would be needed to adapt to each student’s needs the old-fashioned way.

“It is similar to what Google and Netflix and other web applications are using, where they measure activity that user is doing and bringing back the data … based upon actions that you’ve taken,” says David Liu, Knewton’s chief operating officer. “Not only do we data mine all [your] activities as a student, but we also begin to understand some of the tendencies you have and compare you to cohorts that we have using the system.”

It is not a burning question because I would be out of a job if those students could use software that would help them learn. I wouldn’t. Even the companies producing this software aren’t saying that teachers would go away.

Most of the companies, after all, say their products are intended as a supplement to live counseling and instruction, not a replacement. In developmental education especially, the “blended” model — which promotes heavy instructor attention no matter how smart the software is — is still the best way to improve learning…

It’s important, though, because if it would work, why aren’t we using it like crazy? Why aren’t we doing whatever it takes to at least get the students who want to go to college up to par?

I started last semester and this semester with 75 students. Those students come, primarily, from inner city schools, a few years past high school, without reading and writing skills that will help them succeed. Often with little in terms of background education. Many times they are parents and holding down jobs while going to school.

But when the semester ends, I have half the students I started with, 40 at the most, and some of those who stuck with the class for most of the semester gave up at the end.

What is going on? How do I help them? Would a software program allow them to feel that they are making progress? Would a software program help them see where the tiny steps they are taking are moving them on the path of succeeding in higher education?

I don’t know. But I want to do something to help them. I am going to be looking into this a lot more.

Does anyone who reads here have experience with any of the programs mentioned in the article? Are they helpful?

I realize many of my students don’t have the computer skills needed for these programs. That’s a part of what I work on in my classroom. I’m prioritizing what I think will help my students most. If this will help my students, I will add it too.

One thought on “Can Tech Teach?”

  1. Hello! I just discovered your blog, and I am enjoying sifting through archived material. Like you, I teach Developmental Writing and college level English courses (Composition). I have been teaching since 2003. This year, one campus where I teach (I am an adjunct) began using MyWritingLab, a companion online environment designed by Pearson, in all of our Developmental Writing Courses. We have found great success in using this tool as a part of our classroom environment. It is an expense, both to the student, purchasing access in addition to the textbook (our books are now packaged with access codes), and required these courses to take place in a computer lab. If you have any questions, please send me an email!

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