Tag Archives: book club

“Disrupting Class” and the Age of User-generated Content

Group Work, SOLSTICE Centre, CETL, Edge Hill University
Photo by jisc_infonet on Flickr

Clayton Christensen’s “Disrupting Class” was one of our recent picks for the Knewton Book Club. 

I was really drawn to this quote in particular from Clayton Christensen’s “Disrupting Class:”

“Teachers, parents, and students, who previously could not develop or market these learning tools, will now be able to do these things. Rather than expecting that in one fell swoop computers will be in and textbooks out, the user-generated tools will be used independently as tutorial tools. For several years, most teachers and students will still have conventional textbooks. But little by little, textbooks will give way to computer-based online courses–increasingly augmented by user-generated student-centric learning tools. The second, or student-centric stage of this disruption will move to the mainstream when users and teachers start piecing together enough tool modules to create entire courses designed for each type of learner.”

In Knewton systems engineering, the department in which I work, the nature of the work is such that each of us becomes an expert in a part of the environment. “Domain expert” is just a fancy way of saying that you’re the go-to guy for that particular piece of technology, and everyone needs you to be able to answer questions. Some of these areas that require domain expertise include Amazon AWS, DNS, Kerberos, and Graphite. Since there’s always an infinite amount of work to be done, it’s best for the company and for each individual (who wants to grow in the profession) if everyone is teaching everyone else in the group their domain knowledge. This allows everyone to facilitate the growth of their colleagues’ knowledge and become exponentially more valuable to the company.

To get in the practice of educating each other constantly and being good custodians of our own knowledge, we’d like to be able to use our own tools in the future. Each of us domain experts would write our own content, power it with the Knewton Adaptive Learning PlatformTM, and teach each other what we know in our own course shell. This practice would give our company tremendous “surface area”–multiplying the number of people teaching others, so that more people are teaching and learning at any given point.

Just imagine how this would change organizational dynamics–and even the field of human resources in the future! Each employee would be valuable not only for what they can bring to the organization but for what they can help others bring to it. The mathematics of it get pretty exciting.



Why the Time to “Disrupt Class” is Now

Clayton Christensen’s “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns” was a Knewton Book Club pick this month.

When it comes to the intersection of technology and education reform, Christensen’s “Disrupting Class” is a virtual crystal ball for our educational system trajectory.

The theories and prognostications contained in this book represent many of the reasons I decided to work for Knewton. I believe Knewton is standing at the precipice of what will be transformative change in how education is delivered to the world.By using technology to personalize learning, and eliminating the “one size fits all” model that exists today, we can bridge the gap between the way students live and the way they learn.

Students today have come to expect personalization in all aspects of their lives, whether it’s a song recommendation on Pandora, ads targeted just for them on Google and Facebook, or a movie recommendation on Netflix. Young people have come to expect the data mining that makes future experiences more targeted and meaningful.

To illustrate this point, let’s think of an average teenager: “Mary.” 

For Mary, a typical morning before school might look like this:

6:00 am: Mary’s alarm on her cell phone goes off (she doesn’t own an actual alarm clock. Why should she? Her phone has a clock and an alarm!).

6:10 am: Quick login to Facebook to see what’s going on with her friends. Mary updates her status and has a brief chat with a friend about a homework assignment due later that day. She also sees an ad for flowers from a site she frequents and remembers Mothers Day is coming. She orders the flowers quickly.

6:30 am: After a quick shower, Mary texts two friends to tell them to save a few seats on the bus so they can work together on the math homework that was due today. Mary is weak in math so this collaboration will help. She tried using the textbook, but she couldn’t find the content she needed to complete the homework (however, the book has been a great doorstop to keep her little brother out of her room).

6:45 am: Mary walks to the bus listening to Spotify on her phone. Three new songs are queued up for her. She shares one of them with her friends on Facebook.

7:00 am: Mary is on the bus. Turns out she and her friends couldn’t get seats together. Not to worry! Mary’s phone has a wifi hub built in, so they fire it up, open a Google doc and work collaboratively on the homework from opposite ends of the bus. Together they successfully complete the work.

7:20 am: Mary arrives at school. She posts a final Tweet and one last status update on Facebook. She notices that she has an email from the flower store: the flowers she ordered will be ready by the end of the day. They also included a box of chocolates free of charge. (Every time Mary has ordered flowers in the past, she’s also bought chocolate. She wasn’t planning to do so this time, but she’s happy to hear the company included the box! Her Mom loves chocolate.)

7:30 am: Mary’s school day begins. She has to turn off and store her cell phone, as they’re not allowed in the classroom (ugh). Next up — 7 hours of boring lectures in the same classroom, most of them on topics she already understands.  She really wishes she could spend less time listening to lectures on history and science topics she already understands, and work more on math where she is struggling.

This is a made up scenario, of course, but it illustrates the stark contrast between the way a student like Mary lives her daily life, and what happens when she steps into a classroom. It’s as if students are living in the future –- using technology to collaborate, communicate, and consume –- until they get to school. Too often, when they walk through the school doors, they step back 50+ years into a one-size-fits-all factory-model educational system that, for the majority of learners, is both inefficient and ineffective.

Changing the Paradigm

At Knewton we’re working hard to help change this paradigm. We believe that we can provide a better and more personalized educational experience for all learners.  By using the vast amounts of data that an individual student creates when working online, and by harnessing the combined data power of thousands of learners, Knewton can make a precise recommendation on what a student should work on next, and even the best format (modality) for that student to consume it most effectively.

In “Disrupting Class,” Christensen asserts that the problem in American education is that schools, curriculum, and pedagogy are monolithic.  He says that in order to cultivate multiple intelligences, we need to move past the monolithic textbook experience.  He goes on to say that schools, by offering more student-centric curriculum, will see increased student interest and motivation, and learning as a whole will dramatically improve.

“Student-centric learning opens doors for students to learn in ways that match their intelligence types in places and at the paces they prefer by combining content in customized sequences.” Christensen goes on to point out that, “Student-centric learning is the escape hatch from the temporal, lateral, physical, and hierarchical cells of standardization.“

Think about how Mary’s world changes with more student-centric learning. Her educational experience will more closely mirror the way she lives, and will help her engage in her learning. Instead of helping students “get through a textbook,” Mary’s teachers and school will start thinking more about how to make the most of school time by providing the exact content Mary needs at that moment in order to get the maximize learning gain.

The technology to make this happen is available today. However, in order to make this a reality there needs to be large-scale reform in how we think about and define school and learning.  We need to move closer to a proficiency-based model that is based on outcomes — and away from a model that is based on a student being in a seat for 8 hours a day – in order to improve learning effectiveness in a meaningful, long-lasting way. Christensen seems to agree.


Knewton Reads: A Data Scientist Reviews “The Information”

James Gleick’s “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood” was the pick for this month’s Knewton book club. The book covers the history of information — from the invention of scripts and alphabets to the Morse code and the arrival of the Information Age. We’ll be posting reviews throughout the month; read others here.

When a molecular biologist reasons about genes and heredity, the second law of thermodynamics is not always her second thought. As I sit here composing these sentences, I’m barely cognizant of the fact that I could leave out roughly half of the textual characters I’m typing and still my point would come across, and only mildly adulterated. Because I’m a creature of 2012, I think nothing of the miracle of this language transmitted in full fidelity across the many wires of the web — but what if I were a creature of some time earlier and my medium was the drum?

It’s a rare book that manages fantastic leaps across time and concept, and does so with such complete fidelity to the sciences and biographies of those who developed those concepts. It was a pleasure to be able to share a few hours in the mind share of James Gleick, reading his latest book, “The Information,” which explores information in all its streaming, noisy, lively, expressive, fickle, and multitudinous incarnations. It was particularly rewarding to realize that many of the connections and relationships he shares are particularly foundational to thought processes that run through an information scientist’s mind here at Knewton at any given moment.

The Information dissects the lifecycle of information itself: transmitter goes to encoder- goes to imperfect medium- goes to decoder- goes to receiver. For a data scientist at Knewton, this view of the world — this particular lifecycle of information — can be mapped to the way we model student understanding and behavior. A student’s unknowable state of understanding- goes to imperfect assessment of that understanding–goes to receiver — with the exception that the receiver in our system is really a feedback loop wherein we update both our knowledge of the properties of our assessments and our knowledge of each student that operates through this loop. This is a process-oriented description of what Item Response Theory (one of the fundamental tools we use at Knewton) provides us.

Given a configuration of messages we derive from an assessment medium, the task is to “decode” the inner state of a student’s knowledge. To me, this is just one notion of what a (probabilistic) model is — a layer of abstraction that rides just above the clickstream, the knowable answers to questions on tests viewed through an imperfect lens, that gives us a picture of a student’s state of knowledge, from which we attempt to infer a student’s optimal next course of action.

Knewton Reads: “The Information” and the Impact of Technology on Thought

James Gleick’s “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood” was the pick for this month’s Knewton book club. The book covers the history of information — from the invention of scripts and alphabets to the Morse code and the arrival of the Information Age. We’ll be posting reviews throughout the month; read others here.

In “The Information,” Gleick flies through centuries of early history, describing monumental changes in the representation of thought from oral language to pictographs, to ideographs, to written language. He presents the argument that these developments in language represent a much more significant development: changes in the representation and levels of thought. Citing Eric Havelock, Gleick argues that written language enabled conscious thought, converting experiences to a prose of ideas, which triggered a change in the human psyche to embrace abstraction. In contrast, Plato took a completely different view on the impact of the written language on human thought, arguing that the “innovation will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it… [offering them] the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.”

While they held two opposing arguments, Havelock and Plato shared the belief that there were huge implications from the development of a new technology — writing– on human thought and wisdom. As Gleick goes on to argue, the current technological innovations enable other forms of information, such as bytes, which can be seen as changes in the representations of thought. Applying this to the education space, there are many arguments synonymous to Havelock and Plato’s, on whether or not educational technologies will be effective in furthering students’ thought capabilities, or in Plato’s words, delivering greater “wisdom” to students. Havelock and Plato’s arguments provide important insights to that question, that while “educational technology” has become a term and a sector of its own, it encompasses a large span of technologies — from computers to Knewton’s adaptive learning engine, and possibly even writing itself.

In this context, it seems that the jury’s still out on the broader question of whether educational technologies are increasing our wisdom or knowledge, even for an old technology like writing. Our best bet is to narrow down that question on technology by technology basis. While we may never be truly able to resolve the debate until we delve into epistemological questions of defining wisdom, we can measure possible proxies of  student knowledge, performance, or proficiencies, and the impact of each technology on those proxies.

Here at Knewton, we’re doing our part by measuring our proxies. We are starting to see some really interesting data on the impact that our technology can have on student learning. In the process, we’re making some gains toward the epistemological question too, by continuing to refine our measurements of those proxies. For now, we’re working on them internally, but we’re excited to share these out with everyone very soon.

Knewton Reads: “The Information” in Today’s Classroom

James Gleick’s “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood” was the pick for this month’s Knewton book club. The book covers the history of information — from the invention of scripts and alphabets to the Morse code and the arrival of the Information Age. We’ll be posting reviews throughout the month; read others here

One of the most impressive things about “The Information” is how dynamic it feels as it covers the same ground again and again. We see a wide variety of characters (including Charles Babbage, inventor of the first great mechanical computer and Ada Byron, the world’s first programmer), scattered through history, briefly grasp an aspect of the nature of information, and use it to tremendous effect. The epiphany is almost always a variation on the same theme: when we separate the sign from the signified (the symbol from what it means), the former becomes light, swift, and malleable and lends itself to experimentation and discovery.

These ideas have ramifications for the field of data science, which is concerned with testing and analyzing data. On the adaptive learning team here at Knewton, a lot of what we do is abstraction. As we work, we ask ourselves questions like the following: in what ways are a video about fractions and a paragraph about analogies different versions of the same thing? Is the relationship between a book and a chapter similar to the relationship between a quiz and a question? If we use data to recommend study groups in which students teach each other, where exactly do we draw the line between a student and a teacher? These questions could come off as trivial, esoteric, or even disruptive, but for us they are the key to linking, comparing, and understanding the huge range of learning experiences with which our work puts us in contact.

At the same time, it’s possible to take abstraction too far. The last 10 years are full of examples, from the financial crisis to no-fly lists, in which separating data too completely from the reality it represents has caused great harm. As we begin using our models to help shape the learning process, one of our top priorities is to maintain close relationships with the students and the educators affected. With their feedback, we can strike the right balance between freeing information, so that it can be used in new ways, and keeping our feet on the ground regarding what’s actually happening in the classroom.

Knewton Reads: “The Information” and Data Visualization

Last month, we started a book club at Knewton to jumpstart discussion on tech, education, and management ideas related to our work. Every month the whole company is invited to nominate and vote for a relevant book. “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood” by James Gleick was our winner for the month of April. The book covers the history of information — from the invention of scripts and alphabets to the Morse code and the arrival of the Information Age. We’ll post a few reviews of each book on our blog each month; stay tuned for more reviews of “The Information” in the weeks to come! 

In “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood,” James Gleick explores some of the most groundbreaking scientific revolutions in history through the lens of the concept of “information.” The first anecdotes depict English anthropologists investigating the mechanism behind drum talk, a communication system based on drumming used by certain tribes in central Africa. It is a simple and brilliantly clear way to introduce the concept of information. Throughout the book, whether he’s writing about Ada Byron or Samuel Morse, Gleick builds on this theme like a composer at work on a grand symphony.

Gleick argues that the flood of information we have today will transform every single field in science and business. For example, Gleick describes the discovery of an informational basis for the genetic revolution, which turned biological sciences into strong information sciences, with codes and instructions defining the way we think about life and the role of individual beings in evolution. Later in the book, we learn about the birth of the information-based sibling of psychology–cognitive science–which approaches the understanding of the mind through information.

“The Information” is open to interpretation. One could argue that the book does not question the vision of a completely data-mined society. However, I think Gleick has a more nuanced aim in mind. “The Information” reminds us of the past, so we can understand the future in a broader context and be fully cognizant of the dangers, wonders, and possibilities of our age.

The third and final part of the book–the “flood” part–deals with the current work being done in the world of information: finding patterns, understanding them, and communicating them effectively. Gleick describes how there is a newfound need for additional layers of symbolic framework in order to make sense of the information rushing towards us. In other words, there is an increasing need to rapidly pack and unpack information as “the flood” shapes our society, our businesses, and the very foundations of our knowledge.

Data visualization is part of that abstraction. First of all, there is a need for understanding and describing the patterns behind data. Secondly, it seems natural to describe those patterns through visual relationships rather than linguistic ones. Thus I predict a much greater emphasis on the visual going forward (hence the burst of interest in infographics and interactive visualizations). To some extent, we need the visual to make sense of the data flood; we’ve entered an entirely new plane of reality where we’ll need to explore new ways to communicate the knowledge we possess. At the same time, we’ll continually need to draw ourselves back from the brink of total abstraction–back to the limitations of words and physical experience itself, so that we stay grounded enough to understand the tangible reality of the symbols that reflect that reality.