Tag Archives: teachers

Edit, Reshoot, or Ignore? How to Deal with Mistakes in Educational Videos

This post was co-written by Kristen Tracey.

Scalability vs. Perfection: that’s really the issue at hand any time you need to make a large number of videos. Of course, we want every educational video we make to be perfect — clear, engaging, and without any stumbles. However, the reality of producing lots of videos is that you simply can’t always fix everything.

Editing educational videos, like any other web videos, is all about balancing scarce resources with quality. If you notice flaws in your footage, you might consider how important the error is, how central to the course the video is, and how much time it will take to reshoot.

Then decide: edit, reshoot, or ignore?

Sound issues

Jess speaks into a microphone to record a voiceover in our studio with a greenscreen and lighting poles in the background

Outside noise, static from the mic, random glitches in the file: these things happen. Sometimes static or hissing can be improved with tools like the De-crackler or De-hummer in Adobe Premiere, one of the editing programs we use at Knewton (there are similar tools in almost every pro or semi-pro editing program). Often, though, it’s impossible to remove noise issues completely. If the sound issues will be distracting or impede understanding, reshoot. But if it’s just a random short glitch, fix it up as best as you can and then move on.

Tip: One way we deal with sound issues at Knewton is to have two teachers in the room while filming. The second teacher listens through headphones attached to the camera, hearing exactly what the microphone is picking up, in order to immediately catch any audio issues. That way, we can reshoot instantly before any editing resources have been wasted.

Tip: “Hollow” audio (a recording that echoes or sounds like it was recorded in a big empty room), is nearly impossible to fix after the fact. Just reshoot in this case. Prevent that type of sound by doing a test recording beforehand. Recording in a smaller room, or one with sound-absorbing material like thick curtains, can help, as can moving the microphone closer to the person speaking.

Verbal missteps

Teachers are human; like anyone else, they sometimes make mistakes when they talk. What to do in these cases depends largely on context, so make sure that the video editor understands the lesson content.

Always fix any error that it central to what’s being taught or might cause misconceptions. In our experience, students can ignore small missteps and flubs if they’re irrelevant, or if the teacher immediately corrects herself, but can be easily confused if, say, a teacher says the wrong number in a math problem.

If you do decide to fix a mistake, you can try to use cutaway visuals to skip over the error — try cutting to a full-screen version of the question to cover the fact that your video just skipped a few frames. You could also re-record the word or sentence and dub it over, but if the audio isn’t exactly the same, it might seem strange and distracting to students.

Tip: In our Math Readiness Course, none of the videos are more than 5 or 6 minutes long. That length is great for lots of reasons — one being that if we make a mistake, it’s only 5 more minutes to get a whole new take. For these videos we vastly prefer reshooting to trying to edit out an error. If you’re having trouble getting through an entire video without flubs, try making several shorter videos instead — your video editors (and students) will thank you!

Visual issues

This is a more complex set up we used for some interview-style videos. We turned off the overhead lights and used bright studio lights to get an even, controlled lighting setup.

From poor lighting or dropped frames, to typos in visual aids, to accidentally leaving a half-eaten meatball sub in the background of the shot (whoops!), visual issues can be a tough call.

You can often fix lighting issues using image controls in your video editing program, or crop out that sandwich stub. For other visual problems such as typos, just like with teacher error, we recommend not worrying too much unless student understanding is compromised. That said, if you’re planning to put this video out in the world for hundreds or thousands of students, it’s probably worth fixing by reshooting or replacing that portion of the video with a corrected visual.

You do need to take into account that some people may be watching your video on an iPhone or a low-quality web connection. If you can’t get the video to look clear on your own monitor, consider a reshoot. And seriously consider if dropped frames or other technical glitches will be distracting to students who need to be paying attention to the lesson, not the quality of your video.

Tip: More light is generally better than less. Lights that seem incredibly bright in your studio will probably look great on-screen — alternatively, that faint shadow that you barely notice in person might become a distracting issue once you’re looking at it on a computer monitor. As with almost everything in video, it’s much easier to get it right in the original shot than to try to fix it later with editing. Take the time to set up good lights in the beginning, and reap the rewards of easy editing later.

Final note

With all of these decisions, anything you decide to ignore can always be added to your to-do list for later. Knewton’s all in favor of iteration — release a product that works, but continue to improve it until it’s the best it can be.

Good luck, and happy shooting!


Educational Video Formats: Style Advice from Knewton’s Video Team

This post was co-written by Jess Nepom

There has been a lot of talk lately about creating educational videos for your students, whether you mean to use them in class, on the web, or both. Fewer people really talk about the different options for the format of your video — by which I don’t mean the technical file format, but rather the actual style of what will be on the screen. Should you use an on-camera teacher? Animation? Screencasts? You have lots of style choices when you’re making educational videos.

At Knewton we spend a lot of time thinking about how to make videos that are engaging and effective, but can still be produced in a manageable and scalable way. If you want to create some educational videos but don’t know where to start, here are some elements to consider:

1. Screencasts and slideshows

Slideshows can be exported to a series of images and then narrated by a teacher — an easy, versatile option. All you need is a mic and presentation software. Even better, although you’ll need additional software (for example, Camtasia), is a “screencast” or a digital screen capture: a video of exactly what’s going on on your computer screen. With some programs, you can circle, underline, annotate, doodle on your slides — anything to illustrate what you’re saying and keep your students watching. As a benefit, teachers who are uncomfortable being on camera don’t need to be. No worrying about hair or wardrobe either! The downside is that since you can’t see the teacher in the video, the overall experience can be less engaging for the student, especially if the video is more than a few minutes long.

Tip: At Knewton, we particularly like using simple screencasts with voiceover to demonstrate brief solutions to single problems. As a plus for subjects like math, you can actually write out your solution and allow the students to easily follow along.

A screencast video with voiceover showing the teacher’s handwriting. We used a tablet computer, Powerpoint slides, and a stylus to create this video.

2. Teachers

Having an on-screen teacher is a great way to increase the human factor of a course that is largely online, and it can often increase a student’s engagement. On the other hand, being forced to watch a boring or awkward speaker may actually decrease a student’s interest, so teachers must be telegenic as well as knowledgeable.

You’ll also need to think about how much of the person to show. Is your teacher sitting down behind a desk? Standing at a podium? Can you only see the face and shoulders? Consider both the physical limitations of your space — how much can you light, and how much can you back up your camera? — and the natural motions of your teacher. A teacher standing up could seem awkward, or she may move and gesture more naturally than she would while sitting. A teacher behind a desk may feel more comfortable himself, but the video may be more boring for the students.

Tip: For Knewton’s longer videos (ex. mini-lectures in our Math Readiness courses), we often film one of our super-charismatic teachers using a green screen so that we can put their images in front of a screencast.

We filmed our teacher Jen in front of a green screen, then superimposed the screencast from the tablet she’s writing on behind her.

Tip: In the case of our On-Demand GMAT courses, which are much longer videos, we chose to use a two-teacher set-up, and have them sitting. This allowed us to have room for the large slides, and allowed the teachers to banter and play off each other while teaching. It’s a bit unconventional, but our students really responded to the natural, conversational feeling of the lessons.

In these videos, shown here in our custom video viewer application, two teachers sit side by side while walking through slides in a longer lecture.

3. Camera angle and number of cameras

Putting your teacher onscreen means that you have to come up with a way to deal with errors. Some will be small, but the longer the video, the more mistakes you’re bound to have! A single continuous take lessens the need for editing but might be tough to get perfect all in one go. On the other hand, if you use multiple camera angles or cut between a teacher and a full-screen slideshow or screencast, you’ll need more video resources (cameras, people to film, and people who know how to edit) but you’ll put less pressure on your teachers to be perfect all in one take.

4. Whiteboards and projectors

If you already have a classroom setup available, you can film your teacher in front of a whiteboard, or writing on an overhead projector. This is a nice, cost-effective way to have both a teacher and visual aids in your video. These set-ups are great if you want to replicate the traditional classroom, but don’t allow as much innovation over the classic lecture model. Even with an engaging teacher, your students will likely feel as though they’re in class, but with less accountability since it’s on a computer. Technically, these videos are also much harder to light appropriately — your teacher may be in the dark, or your projector or board might be washed-out and too bright. If you do use a whiteboard, avoid common mistakes: make sure your teacher’s writing is well-lit, large and clear!

An example of a whiteboard video. The text is hard to read and the colors look washed out, but it’s easy to make many videos in a short amount of time.

5. Animation and interactivity.

Some concepts — like surface area, or centripetal forces — might be best addressed by animation or interactive tutorials. Adding animation and interactivity to your course is a great idea, especially for kinesthetic learners. But you’ll need more software, and maybe even additional staff who know how to use it.

Choosing a format isn’t necessarily obvious or simple, but we hope we’ve given you some ideas to think about! Try out some sample videos in a couple of formats, to see which one feels easiest and most natural to you and the subject you’re teaching. Once you’ve chosen a format for your video, gotten your software and hardware ready, and prepared your lesson, you’re ready to start filming.

Good luck!

iphone post photo

How to Make a Complete Movie With Only an iPhone

Several months ago, I upgraded to an iPhone 4s. I could go on and on about various apps and games, but one functionality I hadn’t explored until fairly recently was my phone’s ability to create a video. Well, I’m part of the Video Team here at Knewton – we’re responsible for all of the videos you see in our products and around our website and blog – so I thought I’d challenge myself:

Could I make an entire video using only my iPhone?

Turns out, of course, the answer is yes! Check out my first (very) quick video below and then read on to find out how I did it and how you too can use nothing but an iPhone to make quick, high-quality videos. This video was filmed at the 2012 NAB Show:

Just to reiterate, that video was created 100% using my iPhone — including filming, editing, and everything. Not including the filming, it only took me about an hour to actually create the video — proof that making a high-quality, presentable movie doesn’t have to take long!

Do you work in education?

If you can get your hands on an iPhone (or several), the possibilities are endless: create a short video of a field trip that students can show to their parents, create a trailer to tease a big school dance or event, or challenge students to split into groups and make a mini-documentary about an issue facing their lives. How about a “Day in the life” video to send to a pen pal or sister school in another country?

I could go on and on. The power and ease of the iPhone apps makes all this so much more accessible and real than ever before.

So, how did I make that video?

I used:
-iMovie (for editing), $4.99
-Motion Pictures (to create the time lapses), free

That’s it for the apps!

Other materials you may need or want:

-a tripod or stand for your phone — strongly recommended when making timelapses (I use the iStabilizer, but there are lots of options)
-music you wish to use as a soundtrack (the music in my video is a default that comes with iMovie, so this is optional)

Getting the shots

The first step, of course, is to get your video clips. Depending on what kind of movie you’re making, the types of clips you want will vary. Whatever you do, try to get different types of shots — experiment with far-away shots to set the scene, close-ups, and shots of people talking. Make sure you get a good variety, and don’t be afraid to get lots of short clips with different angles, as opposed to a few long videos.

Still photos are good too! As you can see in my video above, iMovie makes it easy to use still photos in your movie, for those moments you captured but didn’t film. A compilation of still shots is a great way to give a general sense of an event or vacation, or to tell a story quickly, without needing tons of video footage.


There are two timelapses in my video: one of the convention floor, and one of the sunset over Las Vegas. I used the free app Motion Pictures, and I’m a huge fan of it. All you need is a stand or tripod where you can leave your phone for a while without it moving. I have a tripod with flexible legs, which is great because I can bend it around the arm of a bench (as I did on the convention floor) or around a lamp (as I did in my hotel room, pointing out the window) to hold my phone steady. The app is extremely clear — you set certain factors such as amount of time between frames, and how long you want it to go, and it helpfully shows you how long your finished video will be. Then hit Start, sit back, and once it’s done it automatically saves to your camera roll — try it on sunsets, when setting up a big stage, when taking down decorations in a big room, or anywhere with lots of movement and people walking around! It’s a great way to get a “wow-factor” in your video without a lot of work.

Putting it all together

I’m not going to try to explain how to use iMovie in this blog post — there are a lot of fun features to discover! — but here are a few good free online resources for learning the app if you need some help:

Apple support FAQs (official; text)
YouTube link (unofficial tutorial video)
YouTube link 2 (another one)

Here are a few screenshots from my project that should keep you on the right track if you just want to tap around and try it out (which I recommend!):

Create a new project by tapping the + button:

Basically, just start throwing the good parts of your clips into your project. The yellow line shows you which parts of the clips you’re using.

Tap on things to get options: transitions, audio levels, titles, etc.

Don’t be afraid of the themes. Yes, they can be a little cheesy sometimes, but they can also make your video look put-together and professional. (I used the default theme “Neon,” which provided the title screens at the beginning and end, as well as the themed transition and background music.)

Want narration? iMovie makes it super easy to make a voiceover recording on all or part of your movie. Simply choose the point where you want your recording to start and hit the microphone icon. You’ll have a chance to preview your recording before either re-taking it or accepting it into the project.

Once you’re happy with your video, tap the share button to export it to your camera roll or iTunes, or directly to a number of websites such as YouTube, Facebook, or Vimeo. It’s as simple as that!

Do you have other tips for people creating videos on the fly? Other apps we should try? Creative uses for video in the classroom? Let us know in the comments!

Photo by Orange42 on Flickr

6 Steps to Teach Any Skill

Have you ever tried to teach a skill, then gotten frustrated at the process because nothing seemed to be getting through?

“It’s easy, let me show you. You just do this.”

“Like this?”

“No, not like that. Just do THIS.”

“Like this?”

“No! ARGH!”

Is it your fault for not being able to get through to the student? Or is it their fault for not understanding something that seems simple?

In most cases, it’s your fault.

To teach something successfully you need to know three things. 1) The material, 2) The student, and most importantly 3) The learning process. Most people who fail at teaching fail because of #3.

Knowing the material means that you can explain a difficult skill in a way that makes sense to other people. Knowing the student means that you know what the student doesn’t know and what they need to know. Knowing the learning process means knowing the necessary steps everyone needs to take in order to master a new skill.

The learning process includes the following steps:

  1. Exposure
  2. Application
  3. Feedback
  4. Correction
  5. Repeat steps 2-4 until…
  6. Mastery!

That’s it! There is no other way to master a new skill. To expect someone to master a new skill without going through these 6 steps is expecting the impossible and setting yourself up for failure.

The six steps of the learning process is not a new idea by any means. However, most people tend to forget about them when they teach. This is because the skill we are teaching seems so simple and intuitive to us that we assume the learning process is not necessary. We somehow get the idea that if we just demonstrate it clearly, something would click in the student’s head and voila! But unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to learning, unless you’re Neo from the Matrix.

In order to understand how the learning process functions, we need to understand how the brain works.

The brain learns by changing the synapses between neurons in the brain to create different neural pathways. This is essentially how the brain encodes information. The brain is constantly managing these pathways, adapting the brain to the world we are in. (Here’s a TEDtalk that goes into more detail about brain plasticity.)

Things that you do everyday are considered to be “hard-wired” into your brain because those pathways have been strengthened over time. These apply to skills such as walking or eating. You no longer think about how to walk, you just do it.

When we first encounter a new skill, it seems very foreign to us. We don’t yet have the neural pathways in our brains to perform the skill. That is why our first time learning a new skill can often be an awkward and embarrassing experience. But this is a necessary step because that’s when our brains are creating the pathways that allow us to get better.

As we continue to practice the new skill, our brains automatically strengthen these new neural pathways. We start to perform the skill faster and more accurately and our progress accelerates. This is the principle behind the simple idea that the more you do something, the better you get at it. In fact, if you perform a certain skill enough, it can even physically change your brain. Evidence for this was discovered by a team at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, which found that the brains of professional musicians contained larger auditory complexes than the brains of non-musicians.

Most people who fail at teaching fail because they do not leverage the power of repetition. A clear explanation or demonstration is important, but it will not create the neural pathways necessary for performing the skill. Without repetition, all you have are weak neural pathways that will likely disappear over time. (This is a big problem with the current educational system. Because students are only required to have a superficial understanding of the skills they’re taught, they do not repeat the skill to a point of mastery.)

My advice to anyone trying to teach a skill is to understand how the brain works and to leverage the power of repetition. Give students the time they need to practice their skills until they have achieved mastery. Better yet, teach them how the learning process functions so they become better at learning how to learn.

How Learning Analytics Can Empower Teachers and Encourage Critical Thought

When we talk about the ongoing revolution in education, we tend to focus on students: how their experience is changing, how to personalize learning, how to make the classroom a more engaging and effective place. Sometimes we don’t pay enough attention to another large group (7 million people in the US alone) who think about these issues every day: teachers.

Last March, Metlife released the Survey of the American Teacher, which has been published since 1984. The study was conducted in over 1000 schools across the US, and provides an interesting snapshot on teachers’ perceptions of their own role in the American education ecosystem.

The conclusion seems clear: teachers’ perception of the quality of their jobs has been decreasing in the last few years.

This is a complex issue; no one party is to blame. Some of the time trends are uncertain (for example, in 2006, 26% of teachers said they were likely to leave the profession). The shadow of the current economic environment may have had an effect on teachers’ responses, or perhaps changes in the education world are eroding their confidence. Whatever the reasons, our society is not succeeding in creating an environment in which all teachers feel satisfied, valued, and secure in their jobs.

Teachers are also feeling more pessimistic about student engagement, a perception associated with budget cuts. Many teachers report that education resources and facilities have declined in quality. Seventy-seven percent of teachers feel they are being treated as professionals by their community — a fairly high percentage, but one that has declined over the years. This measurement has historically been closely correlated with teachers’ perceptions of job security and satisfaction, which have also decreased.

As other successful educational systems in the world (such as Finland) have shown, teachers’ perceptions of their own roles and their passion about their profession has a huge influence on students’ educational outcomes. And it’s not about money. A majority of teachers feel they are being paid fairly and feel engaged in their communities.

As the educational landscape changes, so will teachers’ needs and job responsibilities. We need to ensure that teachers have the tools they need to best serve students in this new educational environment.

The contribution of educational technology: learning analytics

Our society as whole, and policymakers in particular, should be paying close attention to these results. But what can we, the educational technology community, do to put teachers back in a leading role in this educational revolution? One of the innovations in education I’m most excited about is the field of learning analytics.

The 2012 Horizon Report defines learning analytics as “the interpretation of a wide range of data produced by and gathered on behalf of students in order to assess academic progress, predict future performance and spot potential issues. […] The goal of learning analytics is to enable teachers and schools to tailor educational opportunities to each student’s level of need and ability in close-to-real time.”

If students are to change and adapt to a new way of learning (in consonance with the way they live, as Ken recently wrote), we need teachers to be ahead of that change. What we are seeing now is a revolution in the wealth of information we’re gathering about each student.

With the right analytical tools, teachers will have a much more accurate picture of where each student stands in relation to her individual needs, capacities, and interests, as well as within her group of peers. This is what learning analytics is about: insight and context. It is about teachers gaining access to new, meaningful information about their students’ progress.

At the same time, learning analytics should not be seen as taking over the teaching experience. Analytical tools are unlikely to capture subtler aspects of the benefits of a classroom experience, such as motivation, discovering new interests, or engaging with a community. Learning analytics will serve a specific function for teachers, helping them detect students’ needs more quickly so that they can make informed decisions on how to most effectively serve them.

Some will argue that it’s not fair to say that learning analytics are a true innovation. At some level, they’re right. Teachers and administrators have been keeping track of their students’ educational outcomes and behavior for a very long time: attendance records, grades, observations, scores, etc. This is the reason tests exist: to provide a measure of students’ knowledge and progress. However, over the years, tests have come to serve a purpose they were never meant to: they’ve become the object of learning, rather than the method by which to assess it.

Now, with the amount of data gathered per student increasing by several orders of magnitude, analytical tools are likely to gain a much more important role in the classroom. These more powerful analytics will lessen the burden on tests to assess learning, and in doing so, allow critical thinking and knowledge gain to become the primary goals of education once again.

In this new landscape, teachers might be relied on less to transmit knowledge. Instead, they will likely regain a role of a more Socratic nature: guidance through knowledge. The teacher will be responsible for helping to produce well-rounded, inquisitive, and thoughtful citizens, rather than fact receptacles. Teaching will become much more about developing critical thinking tools and designing collaborative interactions and creative environments, and less about a simple transmission of content.

As analytical tools develop and are adopted, it is inevitable that issues will arise. What’s the privacy policy? Who should have access to what? Is it possible for an instructor to have too much information? Are there any dangers that will distort the goals of teaching? Of learning?

In a certain light, learning analytics could do for education what business intelligence is doing for business. Today, it seems unthinkable to run a business without these tools. But if we’re not talking products, but citizens, the need to make this an effective and ethical transition in every step is even more dramatic. The goal of the adoption of learning analytics should be to escape the “one-size-fits-all” framework and replace it with a much more personalized view of each individual. In this way, teachers will be able to develop a climate of critical awareness, creativity, and collaboration.


Why Students Don’t Like School, and What Adaptive Learning Can Do About It (Part 3)

computer classMiss Part I or Part II of the series? Check it out here.

I recently read Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.

As I was reading Willingham’s investigation, I noticed that most of the real reasons Willingham argues that students don’t like school can be eliminated or reduced through continuous adaptive learning technology. In my first two posts of the series, I discussed seven ways in which adaptive learning can improve the classroom experience.

Here are three more reasons students find school distasteful – along with explanations of how adaptive learning can help.

1. Discomfort moving from the concrete to the abstract (and back again).

If the aim of school is to make students independent from it (so they can apply what they learn in school to real-life situations), the processes of learning, problem-solving, and synthesizing matter just as much as the factual knowledge used to transfer ability in these areas. It generally works like this: having encountered a range of material, students start to recognize patterns, in both the subject matter and in their own learning. Of course, this abstract pattern recognition isn’t the whole point of learning; the ability to be concrete (to recall facts, execute plans, and work with different materials) is just as fundamental to the educational experience. What matters ultimately, then, is the ability to move seamlessly between pattern and detail, between the abstract and the concrete.

Students gain these skills, according to Willingham, by mastering detailed tasks (ex. revising a sentence in an essay), and then figuring out how these details fit into the whole (ex. understanding the way in which that revised sentence changes the essay’s overall argument). Willingham argues that teachers facilitate this cognitive “muscle-building” in several ways: they provide examples and ask students to compare them; they ask questions that prompt students to identify patterns and remark on structural qualities in the information.

Helping students gain these skills, however, isn’t always easy. As with most productive (and unfamiliar) work, there is often a general level of discomfort involved. The process can be slow and ineffective, especially when students in a class are at varied levels of understanding. Learners at either end of the spectrum are likely to be either bored or confused, and as a result are more likely to “check out” of the lesson and begin to harbor resentment for school in general.

How can adaptive technology help? By tailoring questions and examples to each individual’s level of understanding and learning style, an adaptive system can improve engagement and facilitate success. Specifically, an adaptive system is able to: a) insert reinforcement moments that prompt students to think about meaning, structure, and process b) draw abstract moments back to the concrete by requiring students to apply principles, theories, and formulas to the contexts of new problems, and c) track through data the efficacy of these shifts to optimize the flow of cognitive work for each learner’s individual style. Ultimately, students walk away not only having learned more and in a deeper way – but also having become more confident and engaged in their learning.

2. Lack of connection between past and present learning.

The controversial writer, John Gatto, famously posited that public school as we know it, with its rigidly segmented class day and byzantine rules, teaches students that no subject really matters beyond the forty minutes during which it is taught and that the lack of continuity between subjects and grade levels teaches students to accept “confusion” as their destiny. Regardless of whether you agree with Gatto’s assessment of public schools, student engagement can be strengthened if academic work is imbued with a sense of continuity and meaning. After all, as Willingham suggests, the hardest part of many cognitive tasks is getting geared up to start over or start up again. Nothing is more dissatisfying to students than feeling like the hoops and hurdles they face are essentially arbitrary and culminate in nothing.

Adaptive learning can assist in knowledge recovery and transfer, reducing the extent to which students feel overwhelmed by the introduction of a new type of problem, skill, or knowledge area. A finely tuned adaptive system can accomplish this by quickly reminding students what they learned previously (in the form that sticks with them the best), highlighting certain patterns in the material (or nudging students to grasp them) or bringing certain structures into relief (so that students are guided to what they should be focusing on), or maybe even re-introducing a student’s past notes and commentary at a later point. (Imagine that you were given eternal access to all the notes you ever composed and all the material you ever underlined–how would this change your learning?) The message this sends students is that their learning extends in unfathomable ways beyond the assessment at hand–that what they’re learning today will form the foundation of what they learn tomorrow.

3. Lack of connection between different subjects and areas of learning.

As mentioned earlier, a lack of continuity between different learning episodes creates a sense of meaninglessness and implicitly teaches students that “nothing really matters.” What if, however, you could use student curiosity in one area to fuel interest in every other? What if the positive effects of every learning experience were capitalized upon exponentially?

In his book Disrupting Class, Clayton Christensen identifies the self-perpetuating cycle through which the curriculum and methods of instruction for various subjects are tailored for those who are gifted in them. Math classes, for instance, are taught by those who are gifted at math and through texts written by those who are gifted in the subject as well; and class itself is shaped by the questions and comments of gifted math students. (This leaves those who are not gifted at math feeling excluded and turns them off from the subject.) Imagine an alternative: what if you could use the confidence students develop in the areas in which they excel to help them learn in subjects for which they have less proclivity?

For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll introduce the “7 types of intelligence” that Willingham and other writers and researchers have identified:

  •  Linguistic: ability to use language and express thoughts
  • Logical/mathematical: ability to work with numbers and logic
  • Spatial: ability to think three-dimensionally
  • Bodily-kinesthetic: ability to use one’s hands and body in complex and fine-tuned ways
  • Musical: ability to work with pitch, melody, rhythm, and tone
  • Interpersonal: ability to interact with others;
  • Intrapersonal: ability to understand one’s self
  • Naturalist: ability to observe environment and work with patterns in nature

How might an adaptive learning system allow individuals of the above intelligence types to harness their strengths to approach the study of, say, math differently?

An adaptive system could process each individual’s performance, activity, and preferences to deliver the same material in different ways. Someone who is, say, a “naturalist” might develop his math ability by using math to conduct experiments and test hypotheses about the natural world. Someone who excels in the “interpersonal” might learn by teaching others what he knows. And someone who is “musical” might use math to grasp the science behind harmony.

This differentiation is a fairly blunt-edged example of how an adaptive system might use a student’s strengths to remediate weaknesses (an idea that Willingham introduces and which adaptive learning can make a reality). It could happen in a more subtle fashion as well. If a student excels in rapid-learning problems but fails at projects that require long-term planning and study, an adaptive system might encourage him to segment the longer project into less-intimidating chunks. And vice versa: a student who has difficultly absorbing and processing material quickly might have more luck conceiving of the activity as part of a long-term project. The possibilities are endless.


The Unprepared Nation: College Readiness Today [INFOGRAPHIC]

The U.S. is facing a full-on college readiness crisis.

One-third of college students require remediation before enrolling in college-level classes. Of those students, one-half will never receive their bachelor’s degree.

What’s causing the problem — and what’s at stake? This infographic lays out the state of college readiness in the U.S. and explains why being prepared for college matters now more than ever.

Click the image below to go to the full infographic – The Unprepared Nation: College Readiness Today.

View All Education Infographics ›

EdTech Blogs We Love: Web 2.0 Classroom, ICT in Education, The Innovative Educator

It’s been a while since our last installment of EdTech Blogs We Love. Here are 3 more to add to the list!

Blogging about the Web 2.0 Classroom

Steven Anderson, the author of Blogging about the Web 2.0 Classroom, is well-known both for his blog and his prolific Twitter feed, @web20classroom. Steven is a District Instructional Technology, in which capacity he “[works] with district and school administrators on how to harness the power of technology to enhance learning.”

From roundups of new edtech resources to insightful posts on the challenges (and rewards) of teaching and learning in the digital age, Blogging about the Web 2.0 Classroom is a must-read resource for teachers and anyone who wants to connect with today’s evolving classroom on the ground level.

Don’t miss posts like:

ICT in Education: The Educational Technology Site

ICT in Education: The Educational Technology Site is a comprehensive site written and curated by Terry Freedman, an educational consultant in the UK who has also worked as a teacher and administrator. Intended for ICT leaders, Terry’s site contains news about the latest edtech resources, provocative thought-pieces about the current and future state of the classroom, links to professional development resources for ICT managers, and more.

Don’t miss posts like:

The Innovative Educator

Written by Lisa Nielson, an educational administrator and permanently certified teacher, The Innovative Educator is a resource- and knowledge-sharing destination for educators and anyone interested in edtech. Lisa, who regularly encourages educators to “Think Outside the Ban,” in order to capitalize on the potential of technology to transform education, writes thoughtful posts on helpful edtech resources, pressing ed reform issues, and more.

Don’t miss posts like:


Why Students Don’t Like School, and What Adaptive Learning Can Do About It (Part 2)

Miss Part I of the series? Check it out here.

I recently read Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.

As I was reading Willingham’s investigation, I noticed that most of the real reasons Willingham argues that students don’t like school can be eliminated or reduced through continuous adaptive learning technology. In my first post of this series, I discussed how adaptive learning can improve school by fully engaging students, providing instantaneous or near-instantaneous feedback, establishing a knowledge and hinting scaffold that can guide students in the right direction, and ensuring that each student receives work pitched at just the right level.

Here are some more ways that adaptive learning can eliminate or reduce the reasons that students find school distasteful:

1. Lack of self-awareness about learning patterns.

Many students who dislike school feel overwhelmed by the work and do not know where to begin or how to approach the problems they are given. As a result they feel uncomfortable, internalize the idea that school is not for them, fail to seek help, and fall behind.

This feeling of being overwhelmed is caused by what Willingham calls an overload on “working memory” (the capacity to perform cognitive work using stored factual and procedural knowledge as well as information from the environment). This overload is often caused by the presence of one or more of the following: “Multistep instructions, lists of unconnected facts, chains of logic more than two or three steps long, and the application of a just-learned concept or new material.”

There are several ways that adaptive learning can increase the amount of space in “working memory” and ensure that students don’t feel overwhelmed by the complexity of problems they encounter. As I mentioned in the first post in this series, continuous adaptive learning can provide “factual and procedural knowledge” scaffolding and “chunking hints” that guide a student toward the solution while still allowing him to make the discovery for himself.

The benefits afforded by this approach are intertwined by nature; a “scaffold of factual and procedural knowledge” can improve a student’s “chunking” capacity, or ability to break problems down into multiple steps, which can increase both a student’s rate of learning and the overall exposure to knowledge a student receives. These increases can in turn reduce discomfort, aid in “chunking” ability, improve student performance (which generally improves student confidence), and thereby generate a never-ending positive cyclical effect on a student’s relationship with school. In other words, success breeds more success.

All these transformations and moments of insights will also yield greater self-awareness, the invisible ingredient in successful long-term learning. After all, the ultimate goal for school is that students learn how to teach themselves, how to encounter problems in life or on the job and break them down into steps, process the information, deliver solutions, measure results, and iterate. The processes taught in school should thus become so ingrained and automatic that students know exactly what to do when they encounter certain situations. And if they don’t know what to do, they should know what to do to make themselves know what to do–whether that involves defining the problem further, asking the proper questions, or conducting research and evaluating sources.

What adaptive learning can do about it. While developing greater self-awareness is a natural byproduct of learning, adaptive learning can stimulate and speed up the process by inserting “reinforcement” moments into cognitive work–moments that prompt a student to reflect on the problem-solving process, underscore the concept behind the solution, or describe the structure of some body of information. Even if a student happens to correctly guess the answer to a question, he will not be able to complete the lesson without proving his grasp of the underlying concept. This of course increases the chance he will experience repeat success with a similar problem. Any online learning program can achieve these aims in a basic way, but a continuously adaptive system can bring reinforcement to a new level by evaluating how well such moments are working and by providing reflective moments (and even longer exercises) tailored for each learner’s idiosyncratic style.

2. Social Anxiety.

School is quite obviously more than the sum of its parts (homework, testing, grades, etc), in large part because of the opportunity it provides for students to develop an awareness of themselves in relation to others. Unfortunately this social component can sometimes detract from learning instead of enhancing it. Many students are quiet in class for reasons that are more complex than meets the eye; they may not know how to process information delivered to them or orient themselves within the material. They may have preconceived notions about the subject or not understand obscure vocabulary or jargon. They may not have picked up basic skills along the way and may be self-conscious as a result. Whatever the reason, the posturing or mere presence of other students can severely heighten the discomfort and result in total student shutdown.

Anyone who has ever been lost in a class environment knows that it takes a significant amount of grounding or traction in a subject area to even pinpoint a question to ask that might yield a productive response. Thus, those who ask questions are usually the ones who know the most, are the most confident and need help the least.

What can adaptive learning do in this respect? It can provide the appropriate factual and procedural knowledge, so that students feel grounded enough in the material that they can pinpoint the questions they need to ask. For example, imagine a student who is lost in a class session about metamorphic rock: everyone else mentions “sedimentary” and “igneous” rocks and the student can’t figure out what sedimentary and igneous rocks are and what they have to do with metamorphic rocks to begin with. The student can figure out from a scaffolding system (which can be anything from a sophisticated search engine to an online system tailored to individual thinking patterns) that metamorphic rocks are sedimentary or igneous rocks transformed by extreme heat and pressure, and get up to speed with the rest of the class–which is already on to discussing how the foliation on a particular metamorphic rock reflects the pressure and heat it was subjected to. Of course some productive discomfort is necessary in the classroom; but, if designed well, an adaptive learning system will reduce unproductive discomfort and proliferate the opportunity for productive discomfort.

Adaptive learning can identify social possibilities that build student confidence and make students more likely to participate in large discussions. By aggregating and analyzing data, an adaptive system can create situations in which students assist and mentor each other online. Depending on the aim of the class, teachers can use data regarding performance, learning style, and preferences, to create cohorts of students who complement each other academically. In an English class, for instance, you might be able to create mini workshops of 4 people each, with each workshop composed of an “organization” master, a “style” master, a “grammar” master and a “clarity of purpose” master. Teachers can also create opportunities for peer evaluation that allow students to grapple further with the material at hand (it’s an age-old principle that you don’t truly learn something until you teach it yourself). Using data culled from assessment and surveys following these activities, teachers can then determine the efficacy of these strategies.

3. Need for appropriate pacing.

When observing classrooms, it is always fascinating to chart the wax and wane of student energy and focus. One second, everyone is riveted; the next, everyone is distracted by a bee or a lawnmower, and momentum is lost entirely. The amount of debate surrounding something like block scheduling points to the underlying difference in student needs. Some students function better if they’re working on one project for an extended period and have ample opportunity for reflection, while others need a constant change-up or enjoy a rapid succession of drills.

Adaptive learning can help us out in several ways here. As described in the previous post, any continuous adaptive learning system is built on opportunities for students to “show what they know.” Such opportunities, in addition to engaging students more fully, also break up instruction and order activities in a natural way, ensuring that precious class or study time is not wasted.

An advanced system can also help educators discover the precise way that lectures, assessments, activities, and peer evaluation opportunities should be combined to produce maximum learning benefits for each individual student. One student, for example, might learn best in the sciences if she absorbs a lecture, is tested on it immediately, and then engages in group work. In English class, by contrast, that student might see the most gains if she engages in an activity, absorbs some instruction, then reinforces her understanding by evaluating someone else’s paper. Or for that student, the adaptive system might determine that it’s not the kind of classroom activity that matters but rather the kind of cognitive work she is doing. Maybe she needs rigorously analytical work (think logic games) before introspective creative work. Maybe her ideal “learning day” consists of math drills, nonfiction reading, then creative writing.

The data generated by an adaptive system can also help determine the ideal amount of time each student should spend doing each type of activity. The system might discover, for example, that one student functions best if he learns in 20 minute spurts for 3 hours at a time with approximately 5 very short breaks thrown in, while another student works best in 1 hour segments with two 10-minute breaks built in.

In summary, adaptive learning can help educators serve up academic material in a way that is tailored to each student’s unique learning style.

Stay tuned for more reasons why students don’t like school — and how adaptive learning can help!


Why Students Don’t Like School — and What Adaptive Learning Can Do About It (Part 1)

Ask students why they don’t like school, and you’ll get several answers: it’s “hard,” “boring,” “disconnected from reality” or “only for smart people.” The real answer is of course more complex than any of these responses would suggest. To get a deeper understanding of the matter, I recently read one man’s investigation: Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.

As I was reading, I noticed that most of the real reasons Willingham argues that students don’t like school can be eliminated or reduced through continuous adaptive learning technology. Here’s how:

1. Work pitched at the wrong level.

Willingham begins his book by debunking some conventional notions about what exactly the human mind is designed to do: “Contrary to popular belief, the brain is not designed for thinking. It’s designed to save you from having to think, because the brain is actually not very good at thinking. Thinking is slow and unreliable.” Willingham indicates, however, that “people enjoy mental work if it is successful.” Hence the popularity of crossword puzzles, sudoku games, and brain teasers. What makes mental work enjoyable? The snap of discovery, the sudden moment of insight. Mental work becomes fun and even entertaining if it consistently yields such moments.

When students complain that school is boring, what they’re probably saying is that it’s either too hard or too easy. The challenge is to get the balance just right: too easy and there’s no satisfaction; too hard, and students will invest effort only to feel frustrated and lose focus. Thus, the key to maintaining student engagement is to escalate the difficulty of the work incrementally, so that students receive a constant stream of questions targeted at the precise level at which thinking and real engagement are likely to occur. Continuous adaptive learning can provide this by determining a student’s ability and “serving up” questions at just the right level.

Of course real life doesn’t happen this way–you don’t get a series of challenges perfectly calibrated to your level, so that every exertion leads to maximum satisfaction; the hope is, however, that adaptive technology can be harnessed so that students engage productively with schoolwork and are therefore better equipped to tackle “imperfect” challenges in the real world. Think of it this way: an adaptive learning system is like a superior mental work-out machine that leaves you ready to scale intellectual cliffs and undertake marathons of critical thought.

2. Not enough opportunities for engagement.

The above paragraphs are premised on the fact that students have enough problems to solve in the first place. If students are only given lectures with minimal opportunity to exercise their cognitive muscles, they will obviously be less engaged.

These “cognitive-work” opportunities are inherent to adaptive learning systems. After all, a continuous adaptive system is based on the idea that what you see going forward depends on your previous activity and performance. In other words, it’s practically impossible to design a continuous adaptive learning system that doesn’t give students a chance to “show what they know” in a fairly constant way. Thus, keeping students mentally active throughout a classroom session is a fundamental challenge that adaptive learning solves.

3. Slow feedback.

The above point — that students need to be active to be engaged — seems an obvious one, but consider from a teacher’s perspective how difficult it is to build problem-solving into every single lesson. The trouble with student problem-solving is that it generally requires feedback of some sort (grading, evaluation, commentary) and good feedback takes time to generate. In this way, the administrative aspect of many productive class activities can make the work for teachers spiral out of control.

As far as evaluation is concerned, adaptive learning can efficiently provide high-quality student feedback, reducing administrative burden on teachers and enhancing student engagement. Whether it’s multiple choice, free response, or even an essay that’s submitted, a continuous adaptive learning system can process student work and deliver personalized assessment. (For more on how adaptive learning works with material as subjective as English composition, check out my post on adaptive learning for soft subjects.) Most importantly, the feedback provided by an adaptive learning engine (designed for continuous as opposed to single-point adaptivity) can be instantaneous or near-instantaneous. This enhances student engagement because students are less likely to lose focus if feedback is immediate and they can quickly self-correct. The result is pacing conducive to risk-taking, experimentation, iterative development, and rapid learning.

4. Lack of background knowledge.

Anyone who’s ever had trouble with the reading comp section on any standardized test (think GMAT or GRE) understands the soporific effect of subjects like the “electromagnetic spectrum” or “sessile organisms.” However, smart test-takers know that the subject itself is supposed to be irrelevant; critical reasoning ability is what’s being tested. For the most part, this isn’t a problem on standardized tests; the obscurity of the content is a neutralizing factor that makes the exam more fair. With schoolwork, however, the subject matter used to impart analytical and creative skills can put students on unequal ground and disadvantage students who have weak background knowledge or have simply not been exposed to certain vocabulary or jargon: “Research from cognitive science has shown that the sorts of skills that teachers want for students–such as the ability to analyze and to think critically–require extensive factual knowledge.” In this way, Willingham asserts, “factual knowledge must precede skill.”

Think of it this way. If you have no experience in economics, you can still read The Economist and get something out of it; but a trained economist will be able to read the magazine much faster, extract the important details, ask intelligent questions, and put the knowledge to work more quickly. Not because he’s a more gifted critical thinker but simply because he’s developed an intuition for the material due to deep functional exposure.

What does this have to do with adaptive learning?

A) A continuous adaptive learning system can provide a scaffolding of hints (definitions, encyclopedic knowledge, formulas) to help level the playing field for those students who have had less exposure to culture, world events, and certain types of vocabulary and jargon. This will allow students to absorb the background knowledge seamlessly and focus on the analytical and creative aspects of any exercise designed to improve their skills in those areas.

B) Adaptive learning can help students learn more efficiently and effectively and in the process, expose students to a range of material in a shorter amount of time (this is related to my point below). Depth and range of exposure can improve a student’s “chunking” ability. Even the simple act of locating a subject in relation to other subjects (an option afforded only by scope of exposure) can make something “click” for many students.

C) Willingham defines “chunking” as “the phenomenon of tying together separate pieces of information from the environment.” Students are thus able to absorb complex knowledge by breaking it down into smaller, manageable chunks. The same goes for problem solving: students tackle complex problems by perceiving them as a series of manageable steps. Adaptive learning can determine what a student needs to grasp before he can have this kind of insight–whether it’s background knowledge, a highlighting of structural qualities in the information, or a certain breadth of range, or a combination of all these elements. In this way, students can be guided toward making those “chunking insights” themselves.

To achieve benefit #3, it is especially important to develop “continuous” as opposed to “single-point” adaptivity.

Stay tuned for more ways that adaptive learning is changing the way students think about school!