Sunday, September 4, 2016

Engagement opportunities in education

Which areas in school education can deliver the biggest bang for the buck? For non-governments seeking 'big bang' engagements in education, I can think of three exciting opportunities.

1. There is now a well endowed body of research which confirms that children learn along varying trajectories and speeds. This means that the standard one-size-fits-all classroom instruction is very inefficient. Instead instruction should be customized to the specific need of each child. But the human resources necessary to do this makes it a non-starter, especially in developing countries with large classroom sizes and vast differences in learning levels. It is in this context that adaptive learning systems assume significance.

I am going to stick out my neck and say that adaptive learning systems are the future of education, at all levels. In simple terms, an adaptive learning system gradually leads the student up his or her unique learning trajectory - each student has a specific learning trajectory which is dependent on antecedent learning levels and the student's pace of learning - using the computer as the interactive learning device, with appropriate facilitation by the class teacher.

The effectiveness of any adaptive learning system depends on its learning trajectory algorithms, which is in turn dependent on the volume and diversity of student learning data from which it was developed. As the depth and breadth of data analysed increases, more variations of concept learning mistakes and their speeds of learning becomes available, which in turn enhances the library of learning trajectory algorithms. At its most efficient and ideal, the library should be rich enough that a student can start a grade and move on the most appropriate learning trajectory to achieve all competencies for that grade in the shortest possible time.

2. Fundamentally, achieving grade-specific basic competency in math and languages is about mastering a few concepts. A concept can be anything like place value in decimals or carry forward addition, and there are likely to be no more than a few such ladder concepts in each grade. Children generally make a few standard mistakes in each concept. The challenge for a teacher is to identify the handful of commonest mistakes made in a subject by children in each grade and then teach them in the most effective manner.

In the circumstances, a repository of all such ladder concepts for each grade and their respective common mistakes, with the most powerful teaching methodologies and digital content assume significance. If this can be delivered in an easily accessible (say, on mobile phones) and cognitively striking manner as byte-sized packets (2-3 minute interactive graphic videos) to instructors, it can become powerful instruments to help effectively explain difficult concepts to children.

There are a number of technology entrepreneurs who claim to have apps which can deliver such content. I am not sure whether they have got it right or can get it right so easily. For a start, even identifying the concepts and the commonest mistakes requires access to massive volumes of data. Then there is the issue of developing the most effective teaching methodologies that incorporates learnings from the pathway of each mistake. This content then has to be rendered in a cognitively striking manner. Finally, the content should be delivered in a manner that is easy for teachers to access and encourages them to use.

Not that easy for technology entrepreneurs, howsoever smart, to develop for a few million in a few months. If some of them are still attracting interest, it is only because the market is so large and broad, and largely un-served, that content with even limited value addition will attract significant interest. 

3. Public school systems collect massive volumes of data about various school level activities, including on physical infrastructure and human resources as well as on transactions like student and teacher attendance and utilization of allocation funds. Unfortunately, in the absence of any work-flow application, this data is rarely used as decision-support on either regular monitoring or policy design. I have blogged earlier about the challenges with developing IT applications in education, health, and other sectors.

Given that the monitoring hygiene factors are largely identical across school systems, apart from being powerful force multipliers in improving service delivery, IT applications that incorporates these activities can break open a very large market. But it will have to emerge through a patient iterative process that marries both professional expertise and programming skills with strongly engaged public stakeholders. 

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