August 20, 2013
It’s the time of year when learning seems remarkably possible. Students are excited, teachers are motivated–let the learnfest begin.
But by next month, it will become clear once again that the teaching/learning routine is a tricky dance, that all kinds of things, both in our heads and in our lives, can knock it off balance.
Fortunately, scientists have kept busy analyzing how and why people learn. Here are 10 examples of recent research into what works and what doesn’t.
1) Flippin’ it old school: The latest thinking has it that the most effective way to get students to learn these days is to flip the old model and instead have students first watch videos or read books, then do projects in the classroom. Au contraire, say researchers at Stanford University. They contend that you need to flip the flip after finding that students are much more likely to understand those videos and books if they first do hands-on exercises in class that tap into their prior knowledge of a subject, say to solve a problem. Only then, the researchers said, are students able to fully grasp more abstract concepts.
2) Such as “three idiot drivers”: Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Missouri found that preschoolers who have a hard time estimating the number of objects in a group were more than twice as likely to struggle with math later in life. Those researchers concluded that it has to do with a child’s inability to learn the concept of how numerals symbolize quantities. They suggest that parents should take advantage of opportunities to show how things in the world can be expressed in numbers.
3) Give that machine a timeout: Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario say that laptops in classrooms distract not only the students using them, but also those sitting nearby. They gave laptops to some students and asked them to perform certain tasks during class. They also asked classmates using only #2 pencils to complete the same tasks. Guess who performed worst: the kids with laptops, plus the people sitting next to them.
4) Like clockwork: Young girls need to stick to a regular bedtime if they want to help their brains develop. So says a study from University College, London, which found that girls under seven years old who had erratic bedtimes scored lower on IQ tests than girls who went to sleep around the same time every night. Inconsistent bedtimes also affected young boys, but the effect seemed to be temporary. The researchers also determined that when girls went to bed didn’t seem to matter nearly as much as whether they did so at the same time every night.
5) Let’s give them a big mazel tov shout out: One of the keys to learning a second language is the ability to pick up patterns, according to a recent study at Hebrew University. The scientists determined that American students who were better at learning Hebrew also scored particularly high on tests in which they needed to distinguish regularities in the sequence in which they were shown a series of shapes. Being able to spot patterns proved to be a very good predictor of who would have the best grasp of Hebrew after a year of study.
6) Not to mention, they can now sing in Hungarian at parties: It apparently also helps to sing the words of another language. In a study published last month in the journal Memory & Cognition, scientists said that people who sang back phrases they heard in a foreign language were considerably better at learning it than people who simply repeated the phrases in spoken words. In fact, research participants who learned through singing performed twice as well as those who learned by speaking the phrases. The study required English speakers to learn Hungarian, which is a particularly difficult language to master.
7) Brains are just so smart: Another recent study, this one by German scientists, determined that even under stress, humans are able to learn because certain receptors in the brain help us move from conscious and to unconscious learning. People in a study who were given drugs to block those receptors had more trouble learning in a stressful situation because their brains couldn’t make the switch.
8) Reading minds: Thanks to researchers at M.I.T., it may soon be possible to diagnose dyslexia in young children before they start trying to read. Using a type of MRI brain scan, the scientists discovered a correlation between the size and organization of a certain region of the brain and a child’s ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of language. By having a biomarker for dyslexia before they try to read, kids may be able to avoid some of the psychological stress they suffer when they struggle to understand written words.
9) Kids who can hand jive are off the charts: Turns out that it may a good thing for small children to talk with their hands. A study published in the journal Developmental Psychology, concluded that preschoolers and kindergartners who naturally gestured to indicate what they were trying to do showed more self control. The gestures seemed to help the kids think things through, according to the researchers, who said the hand movements had a stronger correlation to successful performance than age.
10) Strangely, however, they are unable to hear parents: If you have kids in middle school or older, they’ve no doubt told you countless times how good they are at multitasking, that they can watch a video, text their friends and study for a test without breaking a sweat. But, according to a study published in a recent issue of Computers in Human Behavior, they’re probably not learning much. Not only were researchers surprised at how often kids in the study multitasked–even when they knew someone was watching– but they also found that their learning was spottier and shallower than those who gave studying their full attention.
Video bonus: Math was always a lot more fun when Abbott and Costello did it.
Video bonus bonus: Forgive me if you’ve seen or heard Kenneth Robinson’s lecture on changes in education, but his insights, along with the clever animation illustrating them, make it worth an encore.
More from Smithsonian.com
To Develop Tomorrow’s Engineers, Start Before They Can Tie Their Shoes
March 29, 2013
Depending on who you’re listening to, Massive Open Online Courses, aka MOOCs, are either the greatest boon to the spread of knowledge since Gutenberg cranked his first press or the biggest threat to learning on campus since the coming of cheap beer.
No question that they are the most disruptive innovation to come out of universities in a very long time, although it’s still too soon to say if that’s “good” disruptive or bad. A quick refresher: Though free online courses, notably through Khan Academy, were already starting to build an audience, the first MOOC by a university professor popped up at Stanford in the fall of 2011 when Sebastian Thrun, also head of the team behind Google’s driverless car, decided that he and his colleague, Peter Norvig, would offer online–and free–their course on artificial intelligence. About 160,000 people around the world signed up.
The following semester Thrun left Stanford–which didn’t particularly like the free part of his grand experiment–and started his own online education service called Udacity. A few months later, two more Stanford computer scientists, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, got venture capital backing to create another online company named Coursera, built around the model of signing up professors from top universities to teach classes. And then last fall, MIT and Harvard anted up, jumping in with a MOOC service they called edX.
A lot of professors who taught in the first wave of MOOCs were effusive about the experience, especially about having the opportunity to reach more than 100,000 people all over the world with just one class. But plenty of others wondered what really had been let out of the bottle, and whether once people got used to the idea of free college courses, how would they feel about the old model, you know, the one involving payment of tens of thousands of dollars.
Views from the front line
So, more than a year has passed since Thrun went to the free side and MOOCs–and the philosophy they promulgate of valuing competency more and time in the classroom less–are clearly gaining momentum.
Last week the State University of New York’s Board of Trustees approved an ambitious program of online education, including MOOCs designed to help students finish their degrees in less time for less money. The week before that, Darrell Steinberg, a leader of California’s State Senate, introduced legislation that would allow students to get full credit for a class by taking a MOOC if he or she was shut out of a course and unable to find a comparable one.
Also, the National Science Foundation has kicked in $200,000 to study a free online course in electronics offered through MIT last year, with the goal of comparing data and feedback from students who took the class online with what was gathered from those who took the same course in a classroom setting.
But a bit of analysis already has been done, in the form of a survey published by The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month. More than 100 professors who have taught MOOCs responded to an online questionnaire. Among the highlights of their feedback:
- Almost 80 percent said they think MOOCs are worth all the hype–although the Chronicle did point out that the professors most enthusiastic about the experience were more likely to respond.
- Eighty-six percent said they thought MOOCs would eventually reduce the cost of getting a college degree (45 percent said it would significantly, 41 percent marginally.)
- But 72 percent said they didn’t think free online students should receive full credit from their universities.
The dark side
It is a noble notion, this idea of first-rate professors sharing their wisdom with knowledge-hungry students around the world, playing the role of “sage on the stage,” as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman put it recently.
In practice, it hasn’t been such an idyllic model. The large majority of people who sign up for free online courses are what Phil Hill, an education consultant who has analyzed some of the MOOC data, refers to as “lurkers.” These are people who perhaps watch a video or two, but then drop out–a lot never get beyond registering. Hill says as many as 60 to 80 percent of MOOC students never make it past the second week of a course.
It’s apparently not unusual for as many as 90 percent of those who sign up for a free online class to drop out before they finish it. In one case, a bioelectronics course offered by Duke University through Coursera, only 3 percent of those who registered made it to the final exam.
Proponents of free online classes acknowledge that a lot of people who sign up for MOOCs are more curious than committed, and with neither a financial investment nor the option to earn credit, they don’t feel a compunction to stick it out to the end. More often now, universities are providing certificates to students who finish a course, for a nominal fee, generally under $100.
For professors, a big part of the motivation to teach MOOCs, according to the Chronicle survey, was the sense that mass online education is inevitable and that it would be wise to get ahead of the curve. Many also said they thought the experience made them better teachers.
But some believe the trend doesn’t bode well for many universities, particularly smaller ones and community colleges. Michael Cusumano, a professor of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, sees a troubling parallel with what happened with newspapers. “Free is actually very elitist,” Cusumano wrote recently in the monthly magazine of the Association for Computing Machinery. The result, he warns, could be a “few, large well-off survivors” and far more casualties.
His worst case scenario is “if increasing numbers of universities and colleges joined the free online education movement and set a new threshold price for the industry–zero–which becomes commonly accepted and difficult to undo.”
Adds Cusumano: “Will two-thirds of the education industry disappear? Maybe not, but maybe! It is hard to believe that we will be better off as a society with only a few remaining megawealthy universities.”
Here are other recent developments in open online learning:
- “Like” us if you’d rather not have a mid-term: The first MOOC service based in the U.K., called Futurelearn, launched in December and will be offering classes later this year. Its CEO says that one day people may congregate around online learning courses the way they now do around Facebook.
- Engineering can be fun! No, really: Brown University has begun offering a free, six-week online course designed to encourage more kids to consider careers in engineering.
- All MOOCs, all the time: And in Rwanda, a non-profit called Generation Rwanda is moving ahead with a creating a “university” for which all of the courses are taught online by professors elsewhere.
Video bonus: Here’s a bit more on MOOCs in a New York Times video report.
More from Smithsonian.com
How Artificial Intelligence Can Change Higher Education
August 27, 2012
It was a just about a year ago that a handful of Stanford professors began hatching a revolution in college education.
Sebastian Thrun, more widely known as the head of the team behind Google’s driverless car, decided that he and colleague Peter Norvig would start making their popular course in artificial intelligence available online. Free of charge. To anyone in the world. About 160,000 people signed up.
A few weeks later, another Google researcher/Stanford computer scientist, Andrew Ng, followed suit, offering his equally popular course, “Machine Learning” for free. More than 100,000 people watched his lectures online. As Ng pointed out, it would have taken him 250 years to reach that many students in a conventional Stanford classroom.
The problem, of course, is that Stanford charges students in those conventional classrooms about $40,000 a year. Freebies were not a good business strategy.
By January, Thrun had lined up venture capital money and left Stanford to start Udacity, an independent, online-only education service focusing on science and technology courses. Within a few months, Ng and another Stanford computer scientist, Daphne Koller, had rounded up their own boatload of VC money–a reported $16 million to start with-and went on leave from Stanford to start their own online college operation called Coursera.
Less talk, more questions
But Ng and Koller actually have ratcheted things up another notch. Instead of just distributing its own online courses, Coursera has formed partnerships with some of America’s top universities to help them convert courses for free Internet access. Last month, the startup announced that in addition to its four original partners,–Stanford, Princeton, Penn and Michigan–it has added 12 more, ranging from Duke and Johns Hopkins to the University of Toronto and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
So what does that mean? For starters, Coursera is spreading what’s becoming the new model for online teaching. No more videos of professors talking non-stop for an hour. Instead, lectures are chopped into much smaller chunks, say 10 minutes long, with students asked a quiz question every few minutes. They need to answer correctly before they can move on with the video.
And having tens of thousands of people taking the course at the same time makes it much easier than you would expect for students working on their own to find and study with like-minded classmates. Ng says that, on average, it takes only 22 minutes for someone to get a question answered in Coursera’s online forums.
The huge size of Internet classes–they’re now known as massive open online courses or MOOCs–also allows for much more comprehensive analysis of how subjects are taught and whether they’re understood. Since the online behavior of students is tracked–where they rewind videos, how they respond to quiz questions, etc.–professors can see where a large number of students may have struggled or given the same wrong answer and then make adjustments. Course material now not only has to be interactive, but also more dynamic. Immutable lectures, delivered as if chiseled on stone tablets, are going the way of chalkboards and elbow patches.
Professors also will be teaching classes far more culturally diverse than any they’ve previously experienced. When Coursera announced a few week ago that its enrollment had topped one million in just four months, it also noted that the students who’ve signed up for courses live in 196 different countries. Six out of 10 are outside the U.S.
Can this make money?
Is this really where college is headed? It says something that last spring Harvard and MIT launched their own their MOOC partnership called edX, and that over the summer, the University of California at Berkeley joined it. Even if top-line universities aren’t sure what they’ll gain by offering free courses to the world, they don’t want to risk being left behind if this is a template of the future.
Clearly, there remain some very large unanswered questions, starting with how do any of these partnerships make money. One notion is to charge a relatively small fee, say $50, for a student to receive a certified copy of a letter saying he or she has completed a course. In other words, it wouldn’t cost anything to take a class, but you’d have to pay for proof that you finished it.
Another idea Sebastian Thrun has floated is to have MOOCs serve as a new kind of placement service, using what they glean about students to help companies find employees with very specific skills. But, as recruiters from Intel and Dell told Bloomberg Business Week recently, a certificate for an online course may help someone land a job, but only if they already have a conventional, sit-in-a-classroom four-year degree. Only a very few colleges, including the University of Washington and the University of Helsinki, have agreed to give credit to students who complete MOOC courses.
What about cheating?
No question that plenty of skeptics are dubious about the depth and quality of an online education, who feel the sheer size of the classes precludes any level of one-on-one learning and also invites cheating.
So far only about 25 percent of the people who have enrolled in Coursera courses have actually completed them. And earlier this month The Chronicle of Higher Education reported “dozens” of complaints about plagiarism in essays written for some of the humanities courses Coursera is now offering. (Almost all of the free online courses to date have been in science or technology.)
The accusations actually came from other students, who, in the Coursera system, grade and comment on each other’s essays. In response to the complaints, Coursera reminded students of the honor code they signed when they enrolled. It also is considering using software that can detect plagiarism.
Some professors in the program have suggested that cultural differences could, at least in part, explain why someone would lift whole sections of text from Wikipedia for a course for which they’re not receiving any credit. Eric Rabkin, a University of Michigan English professor who teaches a Coursera class, told the Chronicle that one student who admitted plagiarizing content said he didn’t realize copying and pasting text from another site was inappropriate.
Coursera’s Daphne Koller would point out that this comes with making top college courses available in places where a year ago it would have been inconceivable. She put it this way recently: “This could enable a wave of innovation because amazing talents can be found anywhere. Maybe the next Albert Einstein, or the next Steve Jobs, is living in a remote village in Africa.”
Here are a few other ways technology is changing education:
- Pack light: Another well-financed online initiative called The Minerva Project will be added to the mix by 2014. Its goal is to be the first elite global university. From sophomore year on, students will be encouraged to live in a new country, or at least a new city, every semester.
- That algorithm just doesn’t understand me: Winners of a competition sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation have devised algorithms that can grade essays.
- Today’s assignment is from “Mythbusters:” Big media companies, such as Discovery Communications and the News Corporation, are moving into the digital textbooks business in a big way. They see it as a boom market that could become a new source of revenue.
- You tie shoes?: According to an infographic from LearnStuff.com, 1.5 million iPads will be used in classrooms this year. Also, while 70 percent of American children between ages two and five can use a computer mouse, only 11 percent can ties their own shoes.
Video bonus: Want to hear why so many top universities have become enamored of Coursera? Here’s co-founder Daphne Koller, in a recent TED talk, laying out why online courses should be a big part of college education’s future.
Also on Smithsonian.com
June 11, 2012
These are tough times for storytelling.
While they’ve proven that brevity is not always the soul of wit, Twitter and Facebook have transformed what it means to communicate. We now write in quick bursts, sometimes completing thoughts, often not, with the goal always of cutting to the chase. No need for nuance or complexity. No reason for meandering twists to add flavor and depth or slow builds that unfold a story rather than eject it.
What hope in this world is there for the great long narrative, such as Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” or even more so, John Hersey’s 31,000-word epic, “Hiroshima,” which sold out the August 31, 1946 New Yorker within hours after the issue hit the street?
Actually, there’s a glimmer of hope, maybe even a glow.
Two relatively new companies actually are trying to make a business of saving long-form non-fiction, a quest that might seem to make as much sense as attempting to apply the rules of grammar to texting. Yet both are convinced that a lot of people still like to settle in for a long read of real-life stories.
Have I got a story for you
One, called Byliner, is taking a more traditional approach, albeit with a touch of social networking and personalized recommendations thrown in. The other, The Atavist, is experimenting with multimedia enhancements, adding video, music and other extras, without, hopefully, distracting the reader from the tale being told.
Byliner launched in San Francisco less than two years ago with a goal of collecting in one place, the best literary non-fiction and narrative journalism out there. It links out to articles on other magazine sites, but also publishes what it calls Byliner Originals–pieces such as author William Vollman’s “Into the Forbidden Zone,” a 20,000-word narrative about life after last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan and Jon Krakauer’s “Three Cups of Deceit,” which focuses on the myths and deceptions at the heart of Three Cups of Tea, the best-seller by Greg Mortenson. If a story takes off–they sell for $2.99 for download on iPads, Kindles and Nooks–a writer can earn considerably more than he or she could make selling the piece to a magazine.
Because their stories are online, writers can be much more current than in a book, and they can add updates, something rarely done in magazines. Byliner also provides recommendations to visitors based on other stories they’re read and liked–it’s been dubbed “the Pandora of non-fiction writing.” A few months ago, for “making literary nonfiction and journalism hip,” Byliner made it into the Top Ten of Fast Company’s list of most innovative media companies.
Mixing in maps and timelines
But it’s The Atavist, based in Brooklyn, that’s working closer to the cutting edge. It too champions longer nonfiction, but its iPad and iPhone app also invites readers to veer outside the text if it feels the story can be clarified or strengthened by adding video–a story, for instance, titled “Lifted” about a bank heist gone bad in Sweden, starts with security video of the robbers in action–or music or sound effects. Timelines, maps, and background info on the characters are also available, although they’re flagged through subtle gray arrows, the goal being to allow the narrative to flow, with minimal disruptions.
The Atavist publishes one major piece a month and each includes a feature through which you can easily toggle between the text and an audio version read by the author. A story for an iPad costs $2.99 and comes with the bells and whistles. Versions for Kindle and Nook, which are only text, cost $1.99.
But the real revenue engine at The Atavist is a custom-designed content management system that makes it fairly simple to not just create and publish multimedia stories, but also automatically adapts their format to the platforms on which they’re appearing. So the content for an iPhone will be optimized for a smart phone. The same goes for an iPad. And for a Kindle.
That’s potentially a game-changer in the storytelling business and it’s no surprise that the bulk of the Atavist’s revenue comes from licensing its software to other publishers. Later this summer it plans to release a free version to the public that will enable people to start self-publishing their own multimedia books.
And that shiny tool is what makes The Atavist much more than another digital publisher. It undoubtedly was a a big reason the company was able to raise $1.5 million in seed money a few weeks ago. And if you still have doubts about the potential of this venture, consider some of its new investors: Eric Schmidt (Google’s executive chairman), Marc Andreesen (one of Netscape’s founders) and a group called the Founders Fund, which is led by the likes of Peter Thiel (a founder of PayPal) and Sean Parker (co-founder of Napster and the first president of Facebook).
Not bad company to be in. Not bad at all.
Here are other recent takes on how and why we tell stories:
- Your life is a lie, actually many lies: A recent book by Jonathan Gotschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, elaborates on the reasons we tell stories, not the least of which is to bring meaning and order to the chaos of life. Also, as Maura Kelly pointed out in a recent review in The Atlantic, we tend to lie a lot to ourselves as we fine-tune the narratives of our lives.
- Here’s my brain’s story and it’s sticking to it: Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga talks about how research has found that a part of the left brain always wants to explain actions we’ve taken after they’ve occurred, the purpose of which is to turn behavior into a story that makes everything feel coherent.
- A wag of tales: In a fast-paced TED talk, storyteller Joe Sabia uses an iPad to trace the history of storytelling from the first interactive element–the pop-up book–to the re-versioning of Shakespeare on Facebook.
Video bonus: Here’s a little tutorial on how The Atavist tries to wrap extras through the thread of a narrative.
April 12, 2012
In two weeks Frankenstein returns…and this time it’s personal.
At least for you it could be. Mary Shelley’s tale of monstrous obsession and an obsessive monster is being revived as an interactive book, specifically an app for iPads and iPhones. What that means isn’t absolutely clear. But one of the people responsible for reconstituting the novel in digital form, author Dave Morris, says it’s not simply a matter of a reader making choices that change the story. It’s more nuanced than that, he insists.
While a reader of the interactive Frankenstein will make decisions that affect the story, they’re “part of the interaction with the main characters,” says Morris, and not just shifts in the narrative. Explains Morris: “As the plot unfolds, you will develop a personal relationship with the main characters. That’s why we’re describing it as interactive literature–it’s truly a new kind of novel for the digital age.”
That may sound like a lofty description of bells and whistles, but the London publisher, Profile Books, and inkle, the U.K.-based design firm that worked with Morris to interactivate Frankenstein, truly believe this will be a watershed moment in literature, the point at which readers will no longer be satisfied in going along for the ride with a book, but will start to want to brake and steer and maybe look under the hood.
Instant messages as dialogue
Now I’m sure many of you are asking, “Why would I want to work so hard?” Why reconstruct when so much joy can be had reading and imagining? A lot of people in the publishing business would agree with you. But they feel they have no choice. A recent Pew Internet study found that about one out of five Americans now say they’ve read an e-book. Last year U.S. consumers bought more than 48 million iPads, Android tablets or e-readers, twice as many as in 2010.
And even if the large majority of readers are still taking their e-books straight, publishers worry about falling behind the curve, particularly with a generation that embraces storytelling in tweets and IMs and expects lives to come with a mix tape. So Simon & Schuster plans to bring out 60 “enhanced” e-books this year; Penguin says it will release 50.
But “enhanced,” it seems, can cover a lot of ground. With the digital version of Chopsticks a young adult novel published by Penguin in February, “readers” can flip through a photo album, watch video clips, listen to the favorite songs of the book’s characters, see their instant messages. You even can consume the book in shuffle mode–that’s right, you’re able to change the order of content.
Why stop there? Other publishers are looking at ways to make book-reading more social than solitary. For instance, Panio Gianopoulos, co-founder of Backlit Fiction, speaks of a “literary Farmville.” (Now there’s a phrase I thought I’d never see.) That could mean readers voting to flesh out characters and storylines they like or they getting access to secret chapters if they encourage friends to read the book.
“Multimedia is more than a tie-in,” Gianopoulos told Wired in a recent interview. “Done right, it becomes a new type of product entirely, a hybrid of book and film, or Facebook page and TV show, or something no one has even thought of yet.”
Whatever it becomes, it’s likely to feel less and less like a book. Truth is, no one knows how long it will take–if ever–for hybrid storytelling to go mainstream. Many enhanced e-books do have a heavy scent of CD-ROMs, and we know how they turned out.
Writer Laura Miller got to the heart of the matter in a recent piece for Salon.com when she raised the question of whether we can immerse ourselves in a narrative and be interactive at the same time.
“Narrative constructs this alternate reality in your imagination and narrative sustains it,” she wrote. “What matters is not the story on the page–or the screen–but the story in your head. Interactive baubles pull a reader’s attention back to the screen, serving as a reminder of the thing you want to go on forgetting: the fact that all of this is just made up, words on a page.”
Miller, however, does see great potential in reinventing non-fiction books. There our aim is to understand more than imagine and so animations or videos that clarify concepts or illustrate a process really do enhance the experience. Who wouldn’t want a step-by-step video with a cookbook?
Yet no one in the publishing business is sure where all this is headed. They do know that it’s heading there fast and they’re still trying to figure out what works where and how. Or as Ana Maria Allessi, vice president and publisher of HarperMedia puts it: “We’re all still sort of creating radio for TV.”
Video bonus: Here’s the promotional video for the aforementioned Chopsticks. There’s a book in there somewhere.