Online education has received a lot of attention lately. Many factors have contributed to the rise in online educational content, including higher bandwidth, free video hosting (YouTube), mobile devices, growing and global audiences, improved customization mechanisms (scoring, similarity recommendations), gamification (earning badges, friendly competitions, etc.) and others. Interactivity is an important ingredient for any form of learning.
“I tell you and you forget. I show you and you remember. I involve you and you understand.” [Confucius, 500 BC]
During learning a student forms a mental model of the concepts. Understanding a concept means to have a model detailed enough to be able to answer questions, solve problems, predict a system’s behavior. The power of interactive graphics and models comes from the ability of the student to “ask questions” by modifying parameters and receive specific answers to help refine or correct the evolving mental model.
Digital solutions are bringing innovations to many of these areas. One of the most innovative approaches is the Khan Academy. What started as an experiment just a few years ago by way of recording short, narrated video lessons and sharing them via YouTube with family and friends has grown into a broad-based approach to revolutionize learning. Over the years, founder Sal Khan has developed a large collection of more than 3000 such videos. Backed by prominent endorsers such as Bill Gates the not-for-profit Khan Academy has developed a web-based infrastructure which can handle a large number of users and collect and display valuable statistics for students and teachers. The Khan Academy has received lots of media attention as well, with coverage on CBS 60 minutes, a TED talk and more. The videos have by now been seen more than 130 million times!
Another high profile experiment has been launched in the fall of 2011 at Stanford University, where three Computer Science courses have been made available online for free, including the Introductory Course to Artificial Intelligence by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. In a physical classroom a professor can teach several dozens to a few hundred students at most. In a virtual classroom these limits are obviously far higher. Exceeding all expectations, some 160.000 students in 190 countries had signed up for this first course!
The basic pillar of online learning continues to be the recorded video of a course unit. The student can watch the video whenever, wherever to learn at his own pace and schedule. One can pause, rewind, replay however often as needed to better understand the content. Of course, if that was the only way to interact, it would be fairly rudimentary. Unlike in a real classroom or with a personal tutor, one can’t ask the teacher in the video a question and receive an answer. One can’t try out variations of a model and see its impact.
That’s where the tests come in. Testing a concept’s understanding usually involves a series of sample questions or problems which can only be solved repeatedly and reliably with such an understanding. Both Khan Academy and the Stanford AI course have test examples, exams and grading mechanisms to determine whether a student has likely understood a concept. In the Khan Academy, testable concepts revolve around mathematics, where an unlimited number of specific instances can be generated for test purposes. The answers to test questions are recorded and can be plotted.
The latter form of interactivity may be among the most useful. The system records how often you take tests, how long it takes you to answer, how often you get the answers right, etc. All this can then be plotted in some sort of dashboard. Both for yourself as individual student, or for an entire class if you are a coach. This shows at a glance where you or your students are struggling and how far along they have progressed.
Concepts are related to one another in a taxonomy so that one gets guidance as to which concepts to master first before building higher level concepts on top of the simpler ones. Statistical models can suggest the most plausible hints of what to try next based on prior observations.
Founder Sal Khan deserves a lot of respect for having almost single-handedly having recorded some 3000+ video lessons and changing the world of online education so much for the better with his not-for-profit organization. From an interactive content perspective, imagine if at the end of some Khan video lessons you could download an underlying model, play with the parameters and maybe even extend the model definition? I know this may not be feasible in all taught domains, but it seems as if there are many areas ripe for such additional interactivity. We’ll look at one in the next post.