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Education Science Technology

Machine-Guided Learning Matches Teachers In Study 76

Posted by Soulskill
from the open-your-books-to-beep-boop-beep dept.
New submitter dougled writes "A study at six universities found that students taught statistics mainly through software learned as much as peers taught primarily by humans. And the robots got the job done more quickly. '... our results indicate that hybrid-format students took about one-quarter less time to achieve essentially the same learning outcomes as traditional-format students.' They add, 'There is every reason to expect these systems to improve over time, perhaps dramatically, and thus it is not foolish to believe that learning outcomes will also improve.'"
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Machine-Guided Learning Matches Teachers In Study

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  • by perpenso (1613749) on Tuesday May 22, 2012 @11:34PM (#40083557)
    Was the teacher tutoring a single student, as the machine was? How does the machine do when teaching a group of 30? I suspect that all we have really learned is that individual tutoring is better for some topics.

    Of course computers can be less expensive tutors so the approach does have merit.
    • by wanzeo (1800058) on Tuesday May 22, 2012 @11:50PM (#40083633)

      The most valuable part of machine assisted learning is the ability to move at your own pace. There are some OCW lectures I had to watch 3 or 4 times before I got it. Now matter how good a teacher is, no student is going to ask them to repeatsomething four times. The student will just nod and feign understanding, and the teacher will move on.

      • Too expensive to have one computer per student. We'll just get a cheap big-screen TV hooked up to a single computer at the front of the class, and each student has a 'go back 30 seconds' button.

        What could go wrong?

      • by perpenso (1613749)

        The most valuable part of machine assisted learning is the ability to move at your own pace. There are some OCW lectures I had to watch 3 or 4 times before I got it. Now matter how good a teacher is, no student is going to ask them to repeatsomething four times. The student will just nod and feign understanding, and the teacher will move on.

        Depends on the tutor. Some will ask a question that is designed to demonstrate your understanding of the concept. It wasn't one-on-one but I've had professors who were notorious for posing questions to students to gauge their understanding of the topic at hand during a lecture. Nodding and feigning was hazardous to your grade, admitting your confusion was not.

        Computer based lectures can also be helpful for those who are getting the material. You can get through it faster than if sitting in a classroom le

      • by nbauman (624611)

        So why not use a textbook?

        When I don't understand a chapter, I can repeat it as many times as I like.

        • The old adage of practice makes perfect would seem to apply - it only makes perfect if you're practicing correctly from the beginning. I ran into a particularly (for me) difficult piece of relativity equation in a text book some time ago, even now when I look at it it makes little sense to me. I was, however, able to go to a lecturer and have them clarify it for me based on how they understood my previous perceptions.

          Bring on the robits.
        • Its always been true that a robot or a book could do the job. I learned my math way back in 1980 from Engineering Mathematics by K A Stroud and Dexter J Booth. Oh it helps to have a lecturer and other students to back it up but the only way to really learn is by doing and this book takes you there.
          ISBN-10: 1403942463
          ISBN-13: 978-1403942463

        • This is a good point. If you can't ask one of these machines a question, then these should be compared to textbooks, not teachers.

      • by Hatta (162192)

        Now matter how good a teacher is, no student is going to ask them to repeatsomething four times. The student will just nod and feign understanding, and the teacher will move on.

        If the student is able to 'feign' understanding, the teacher isn't very good at all. A good teacher will be able to tell from the questions the kid asks how much he actually understands.

        • A good teacher will never have a single student. It doesn't matter how much juggling they do it is impossible to achieve the same level of synchronization with the individual student as is possible with a piece of software. If humans "teachers" still exist in the future, it is inevitable that their roles will dramatically change as software steps in to augment and eventually provide the lessons.
        • by HiThere (15173)

          Now matter how good a teacher is, no student is going to ask them to repeat something four times. The student will just nod and feign understanding, and the teacher will move on.

          If the student is able to 'feign' understanding, the teacher isn't very good at all. A good teacher will be able to tell from the questions the kid asks how much he actually understands.

          Or possibly the teacher just has a large class. I really doubt that currently a computer can really replace a teacher, but I can easily believe that they could replace a lecturer, with LOTS of improvement. Computer programs may not be as flexibly interactive as a one-on-one teacher, but they can be a lot more interactive than a lecturer can. If a teacher has to handle a class of 30, some of whom really don't want to be there, then the computer can probably teach those who *do* want to be there better tha

      • by glorybe (946151)
        College students are heavily invested in success in their education and not just with money. They have put in a lot of work just to get accepted at a decent college. That means they don't act up, act out, or risk being bounced out of college. But when we are talking grade schools the picture changes quickly. In my area getting tossed out of school means lots of nice days at the beach. It is almost the norm to drop out of high school and it can actually give a kid status to get expelled. That means
      • by Idbar (1034346)

        Now matter how good a teacher is, no student is going to ask them to repeatsomething four times. The student will just nod and feign understanding, and the teacher will move on.

        And how is this a teaching problem? Instead of a learners problem? If people think they are being "tracked" on their computer based study, they probably will feign understanding as well, just not to be label stupid... by a computer.

        If a student is not capable of stopping by the teacher's office and ask for an in deep explanation, or if it's stubborn to keep asking and asking holding everyone behind, then there's a learning problem. The teacher is there to help for sure. I had plenty of help from my teache

    • by l0ungeb0y (442022)

      Why would we need to have the software teach a classroom? Isn't the ability to have teaching software able to deal with individual students better than a single teacher dealing with a class full of students? Why ruin it by saddling it with unnecessary burdens?
      That's sort of like bashing a nice sports car because it wont do any better than a Honda Civic in a traffic jam.

      • by rtb61 (674572)

        Actually doing both makes the most sense. Were the students unsupervised or was someone present to ensure the odd student did not abuse the computer they were using.

        In the end, is not thus why computers are being introduced to the classroom. The computer does the bulk of the teaching and the teacher supervises and helps students stuck and not proceeding the with computer driven teaching. So no the teacher must understand the computer education program as well as the subject being taught.

        If you think ha

      • Alternatively, think of the teacher as a seed node in a peer-to-peer system. Those who learn faster can become 'supernodes' and help teach the rest of the class. Clumps of students who are at similar levels can work through their difficulties with the help of a seed node or a supernode.

        Just thought I'd point this idea out, as it doesn't have to be an either/or choice between 1:m and 1:1 teaching. We can also have m:m, m:1 and any other combination. Facilitating that effectively would be the challenge.

  • Could it be that the results balance out because what the software lacks in being a human, it makes up for by being able to handle each student "personally"? As opposed to a fleshy instructor who has to spread himself or herself thin over the whole class.

  • who did the analysis? 'hybrid-format studentsâ(TM) or 'traditional-format studentsâ(TM)? Please donâ(TM)t say the statistics software.

  • by c0lo (1497653) on Tuesday May 22, 2012 @11:44PM (#40083613)
    I can't believe how low the teaching level must've got if a machine receives better outcomes than a teacher. Or how low the assessment of learning...

    Gosh, from the Fermi's [wikipedia.org] way of teaching to this? In a space of... what??... last 20-30 years?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Really? What, honestly, do "people as a teacher" even do compared to software? A piece of software can deliver all of these questions, sit there and blather at me and etc. just as well as a far more expensive professor. The only thing in fact that a professor could do that software can't (yet) is foster class discussion, every scenario of which I've seen over a decent sample of classes AND professors at no less than 3 different colleges indicates that a class discussion is pretty much always useless.

      In fact

      • by sFurbo (1361249) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @12:22AM (#40083793)
        A teacher can understand what essential part of understanding you are missing and make an analogy that explains exactly that. He can then change the analogy if you don't get it. This, of course, assumes rather few students per teacher, and good teachers. But by all means, let's find out where humans do well and where computers are better.

        At the university where I work, the experience seems to be that class discussions work better in e-learning courses. This could be because even quiet types will join in, or because people spend longer time thinking about their answers. This is, of course, only anecdotal.
        • by dgatwood (11270)

          A teacher can understand what essential part of understanding you are missing and make an analogy that explains exactly that. He can then change the analogy if you don't get it.

          For a subject like math where you're learning a skill, computers can do a good job of that, too. You evaluate the child's performance by asking questions that have only one right answer. Based on what things that child got wrong, you explain the concept in a different way.

          This doesn't work as well for non-skill classes, however, a

      • by mevets (322601)

        I feel your pain.

      • by c0lo (1497653)

        A piece of software can deliver all of these questions, sit there and blather at me and etc. just as well as a far more expensive professor.

        Here's the proof for the current low level in education... people that don't know and can't imagine better about learning/teaching than teachers that delivers questions, sit and blather. (with a grid exam at the end, isn't it? Because it doesn't matter that's a suboptimal way of assessing the learning: it's "objective" and, above all, cheap)

        Boy... I should consider myself lucky, then.

        • Is it though?

          I mean consider the university lecture: you have 50 people in a room, 1 professor delivering essentially a fixed lecture. Even with questions answered live, you would struggle to deal with 10 students who wanted to ask different questions. And my university mathematics lectures were far bigger then that.

          But when you think about it, it's also just a grossly inefficient use of resources. We have the technology to deliver lectures whenever we want, at any rate we want, at people's own pace. Surely

          • by c0lo (1497653)

            Is it though?

            I mean consider the university lecture: you have 50 people in a room, 1 professor delivering essentially a fixed lecture. Even with questions answered live, you would struggle to deal with 10 students who wanted to ask different questions. And my university mathematics lectures were far bigger then that.

            During my uni time, after a 1.5-2 hours lecture with 200 students, we had at least one 2-3 hours seminar - in smaller groups 18-20 at max - to discuss and detail the topics, explore consequences and solve problems. With one of the professor's assistants (every professor had 2 or 3). Each professor would have at max 16 h/week teaching and research for the rest of it (with or without students. BTW, does a 6 school-days/week, 8-10 hours/day somehow horrifies you?)

            But when you think about it, it's also just a grossly inefficient use of resources. We have the technology to deliver lectures whenever we want, at any rate we want, at people's own pace. Surely we can think of a better use of human resources in this equation then narrating a powerpoint presentation.

            If the "human resources" are just narrating a s

    • by williamhb (758070) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @01:15AM (#40084047) Journal

      I can't believe how low the teaching level must've got if a machine receives better outcomes than a teacher. Or how low the assessment of learning...

      Gosh, from the Fermi's [wikipedia.org] way of teaching to this? In a space of... what??... last 20-30 years?

      Four things to say on this one -

      1. It looks like essentially the same result that's been repeated over and over again since the 1990s. Technology-enhanced learning papers from a host of universities have been occasionally reporting gains of up to about 1.1 standard deviation over classroom teaching alonefor a couple of decades.

      2. Beating university lectures is an extraordinarily low bar. We've known since the 1980s that non-interactive teaching, as typically happens in lectures and used to happen in high school classrooms too, is rubbish. See Bloom's "Two Sigma Problem" paper for extensive details (from high school classroom studies), and how simple things like "setting homework" can give a gain (actually marking the homework gives another gain; teaching students where they went wrong in the homework yet another gain! Wow, who'd have thunk it! What a surprise that a computer doing some of those things that we found 30 years ago provided a gain ... provide a gain over doing nothing). There is a more difficult challenge of matching human tutoring -- the intensive small group teaching by experts that routinely beats classroom teaching by two standard deviations but is much more expensive to do.

      3. Unfortunately for the field, a lot of mixed-mode experiments are flawed because the groups can't practically be isolated properly, and there's usually very little way of knowing how much of the learning is due to what part of the technology. It varies from case to case, but one of the common problems (from an experimental, not a learning, point of view) is that students are pretty much required to subvert your system -- no student is ever told "you mustn't find some other way of learning this". So, even if some part of the teaching is crap, if the system has given the students a clearer indication of what's going to be on the test, students will find another way of learning how to answer the test (ask their friends in the other stream, read a worked answer to last year's exam, Google...). That means there's often a hidden variable of whether setting computer practice tests is making the students better at the guessing game of knowing what's going to be on the real test. In some ways that'd actually be fine (yay, our students are doing better), but not if it means they neglect any learning that isn't on the computerised test (Joe can calculate eigenfactors til the cows come home; he just can't do anything else and has no clue when it's useful to do that)

      4. It's also important to note these are not machine-only learning methods. There's been plenty of lionisation of entirely online teaching, but the subtle truth is that universities have never thought it's just knowing the material that matters. Which is why they don't mind giving away all the material for free. After all, you've been able to go to the library and get the material for free for a few centuries now, but not that many people choose the Good Will Hunting route for their education. It turns out there's value to the soft skills you develop from being stuck in with a bunch of bright kids and (hopefully) bright faculty and put through the academic rigmarole, and to the credibility of having come out successfully at the other end. Or if you want to be really cynical about it, it turns out that employers also value some of the less glorious things that universities teach you:
      * Being able to navigate ridiculously over-complex bureaucracies and still get things done
      * Being able to learn what you need and accomplish what you've been required to do even when faced with setbacks such as the unintelligible academic gibbering away at the front of the class being actually pretty useless at teaching
      * Being able to manage your workload even when every damn subject lands a 40-page assignment on your plate in the same week of semester
      etc

      • by c0lo (1497653)
        Wow, thanks. Highly informative.

        So, even if some part of the teaching is crap, if the system has given the students a clearer indication of what's going to be on the test, students will find another way of learning how to answer the test (ask their friends in the other stream, read a worked answer to last year's exam, Google...). That means there's often a hidden variable of whether setting computer practice tests is making the students better at the guessing game of knowing what's going to be on the real test.

        In the context of experiments (mixed-mode or not), I tend to agree with you.

        However, it is not true in general. The best exam I ever stayed (nuclear protection engineering): open-books exam, a single problem to solve (each student had their own), you were even allowed even to go to the library and consult whatever book or journal you'd like or even borrow it. Even talk to whoever you liked outside the exam room. The single restrictions: the total time you were allowed to mis

    • by Beetle B. (516615)

      I can't believe how low the teaching level must've got if a machine receives better outcomes than a teacher.

      Your lack of objectivity is startling. You're assuming a priori that machines should be worse than teachers. As such you're not in a position to gauge the merits of the study.

      Also, comparing to Fermi is silly. Even in Fermi's day most teachers were not as good at instruction as he may have been. The study isn't trying to show that machine guided instruction outperforms the best teachers, but that they outperform most.

    • by glorybe (946151)
      These days teachers are forced to be mild and teach to the slowest in the classes.
    • by BitterOak (537666)

      I can't believe how low the teaching level must've got if a machine receives better outcomes than a teacher. Or how low the assessment of learning...

      Did you say the same thing about human chess players when computers started beating the world champions? Maybe it isn't that teachers have gotten worse, but that computers and instructional software have gotten better.

  • Read the PDF (Score:5, Interesting)

    by solarissmoke (2470320) on Tuesday May 22, 2012 @11:50PM (#40083635)

    They actually make some pragmatic conclusions in the report itself, and don't claim that machine-guided learning is some sort of panacea:

    The findings in this study warn against “too much hype.” To the best of our knowledge, there is no compelling evidence that online learning systems available today—not even highly interactive systems, of which there are very few—can in fact deliver improved educational outcomes across the board, at scale, on campuses other than the one where the system was born, and on a sustainable basis.

    ...

    We do not mean to suggest—because we do not believe—that ILO systems are some kind of panacea for this country’s deep-seated educational problems, which are rooted in fiscal dilemmas and changing national priorities as well as historical practices. Many claims about “online learning” (especially about simpler variants in their present state of development) are likely to be exaggerated. But it is important not to go to the other extreme and accept equally unfounded assertions that adoption of online systems invariably leads to inferior learning outcomes and puts students at risk.

    • They actually make some pragmatic conclusions in the report itself...

      I have a much shorter translation for you: "We do not want to be assassinated by the teachers union".

      If we were allowed to have good teachers they could easily do better than computers, but since we cannot have good teachers in schools bring on the automation I say.

      • by rmstar (114746)

        If we were allowed to have good teachers they could easily do better than computers, but since we cannot have good teachers in schools bring on the automation I say.

        Yes, just fire everybody from the good jobs, so that they can work as packbots [motherjones.com]. Nice idea. [/sarcasm]

    • This is /.; without hype, it would only be /|.
      Your lofty ideas are not welcome here; this is the realm of gutless reaction to misunderstood hype.

      The real question is when can we replace the upper echelons of power with these ILO systems?

  • by ToddInSF (765534) on Tuesday May 22, 2012 @11:55PM (#40083667) Journal
    That measures success not by ability to think critically and solve problems, but instead by the ability to regurgitate garbage back to the robots.

    Which is all good and well, since that's mostly all that teachers have been doing anyway.

    Way to shoot for the bottom of the barrel and diminish any real improvement in education !
    • by anomar71 (2527480)
      I would have to agree. A teacher who inspires students are very, very rare these days.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        That might just be because it takes a special kind of person to be a great teacher. Specifically, it takes the kind of person willing to put up with absolutely everybody from all walks of life acting like they know the profession better, with the constant interference from legislatures and especially right-wing pressure groups, with people making the laughably false claim that they're overpaid, with parents who don't parent but who love to bitch and whine about absolutely everything, and of course with the

  • by White Flame (1074973) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @12:09AM (#40083717)

    By offloading the rote and basic informational dispersal to the students, that would hopefully free up the teacher to focus on walking through real demonstrations and examples, interacting with students, and helping out with some of the difficult-to-understand areas, instead of spending most of their time doing the same lecture-style material over and over.

    • by slew (2918)

      I'd have to disagree with you on letting teachers *teach*.

      One day in elementary school, I made the relavation that I wasn't in school to let teachers teach me and that made all the difference. It doesn't matter what the teacher is teaching, demonstrating, interacting, or lecturing, it really only mattered what I'm getting out of it and if I think it is important to me.

      Of course many things that can be important to a person at various point of time (e.g., listening enough to a teacher to get a good grade in

    • by wrook (134116)

      It is not just rote and basic information dispersal that is important for students to do. A student's job is to learn. They must provide determination, courage and a willingness to learn. You are exactly right that this must be offloaded to the students. If we try to "push" information into the students, we become a bottleneck. We slow the process down to nothing. A student must "pull" the information from whatever resource is most appropriate. Most students do not know how to do that initially, but

    • by bcrowell (177657) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @09:14AM (#40087303) Homepage

      By offloading the rote and basic informational dispersal to the students, that would hopefully free up the teacher to focus on walking through real demonstrations and examples, interacting with students, and helping out with some of the difficult-to-understand areas, instead of spending most of their time doing the same lecture-style material over and over.

      In the subject I teach (physics), what you're describing is standard modern pedagogy. What I mean by the word "standard" is that anybody who pays attention to the published empirical evidence knows that this is what you have to do in order to get decent results. It's not really new. A lot of the relevant work was done by Richard Hake (see this paper [mit.edu]) in the early 90's, and it was popularized by Eric Mazur in his 1996 book Peer Instruction. What Hake and his colllaborators have shown is that in traditional lecture-style courses, the amount of conceptual understanding that students gain (compared to what they had entering the course) is always extremely small, and there are no exceptions to this rule. The findings apply even to lecturers who have won awards, get wonderful student evaluations, etc. Techniques like the ones you're describing have been shown to do significantly better.

      The problem is simply that most teachers don't pay attention to the empirical evidence -- which is pretty pathetic for someone teaching a subject like physics, which is supposed to be an empirical science. Rather than doing what works according to the evidence, they do what their own professors did when they were undergraduates.

      A secondary problem is that students typically prefer traditional lecturing, because it doesn't make as many demands on them. They come to class without reading the book, sit passively in their seats, doodle in their notebooks, and think about sex.

  • Seeing how a lot of kids come out from our teachers, I would say they need to make a bit more progress in machine-guided learning.
  • I can not believe it...
  • by Anonymous Coward

    I've been learning from Duolingo for about a month. It seems to be working quite well. So far I've learned over 100 words en espaniol, and I hope to learn the rest of the 11,011 words more quickly, but we shall see.

  • How is this any different than having my calculator teach me about sex ed?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Replace also the students by robots for the best perfomance!

  • by fiziko (97143) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @06:30AM (#40085423) Homepage

    This was a hybrid approach. How would they have done without the face-to-face hour each week to get questions answered that the machines couldn't answer?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Machines can not do counseling very well. We still need real teachers for that, no matter how good machines can be.

  • How am I supposed to develop a crush on my teacher?

  • I've been doing a Master's thesis on hybrid learning, and this story is incredibly misleading. Hybrid learning doesn't equal machines teaching. It just means that the teacher is reframed as someone who has to use instructional technology more to save class time. In turn, they end up having to spend a lot more time troubleshooting course software issues, providing student tutoring, etc. We're getting to a stage where most asynchronous learning can effectively be done online. But this doesn't invalidate the

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