As always, our NPR Ed inboxes are clogged with press releases about the latest amazeballs app or product. Like the following, edited to protect the guilty:
…an unprecedented new DOODLEHICKY app optimized for iPhone® and Android™ smartphones that includes real-time monitoring of a child’s learning progress. DOODLEHICKY is the tutoring program that fuses the most effective elements of personalized teaching with a fun and engaging iPad® and Android tablet-based experience for measurably improving student DOODLE performance.
It’s part of our job to cover meaningful innovation in schools, including new technology, but we don’t want to get sucked into the hype. Over the next several months our Ideas series will tackle this topic from a number of different angles.
We began this week with Eric Westervelt’s piece about Knewton, the adaptive learning engine, and his story about a community college using data science to try to improve learning and help more students graduate.
And to go with that, here’s a little rundown of some of the most common buzzwords we come across when covering educational technology and innovation.
Algorithm An algorithm is nothing more than a set of steps for solving a problem, like a math problem. As technology writer Paul Ford wrote in Bloomberg Business:
“Algorithm” is a word writers invoke to sound smart about technology. Journalists tend to talk about “Facebook’s algorithm” or a “Google algorithm,” which is usually inaccurate. They mean “software.”
Adaptive Simply something, usually a computer program, that responds to the user. Tetris, the puzzle-solving video game, is technically an adaptive program, because the more lines you make disappear, the faster the puzzle pieces rain down. Most video games share this feature, which is otherwise known as level-based advancement. More sophisticated games and learning software don’t just speed up, the tasks also get more complex as you go along.
Analytics or Predictive Analytics Did you know that when students don’t do their homework, they are in danger of failing a course? Did you know that students who miss a lot of class, have low grades and behavior problems in sixth grade may be at risk for dropping out of high school? If you are a teacher, would you like to know walking in in the morning that two-thirds of your class bombed the homework last night because of a particular fractions rule they don’t understand?
Analytics programs try to give educators useful, timely, actionable information like this.
App Short for application; a piece of software, especially for a phone or tablet. Typically an app doesn’t run in the web browser but instead must be downloaded, installed and run separately.
Blended Any combination of face-to-face and computer-based learning. A single course can be blended, or a student’s full course of study or a school’s offerings can be blended between online and in-person classes. Blended learning within a course has demonstrated better outcomes than online-only, and sometimes better than in-person only.
Competency or Competence-Based Education or CBE Refers to any education program that seeks to certify student learning directly. Competence-based programs define learning in terms of specific skills or “competencies” mastered, rather than time spent in class. It’s supposed to be both more efficient (for students who learn more quickly than average, or for older students drawing on prior knowledge) and more relevant, because student work can be related directly to employer needs. The U.S. Education Department said two years ago it would issue guidelines for colleges that wanted to pilot fully accredited competency-based programs; it has yet to do that.
Content A term borrowed from online media. It connotes the digitization and commodification of anything originally created by people to convey meaning. A math problem, a lesson plan, a vocabulary quiz or a science video typically becomes “educational content” when it is accessible to others via an online “platform” such as Twitter, Pinterest, Google Docs, Slideshare, Better Lesson or within a software program or app. Content can be open-licensed for anyone to use for free, or it can be trademarked, copyrighted and placed behind a paywall.
(Big) Data Data are facts or pieces of information. Academic researchers are bound by professional ethics when they gather data through surveys and research studies. They must get voluntary informed consent, for example. Schools, districts, states and the federal government have fewer restrictions when they collect data on students, ranging from enrollment numbers to family income to race to test scores. In addition, when anyone, adult or child, interacts with a piece of software such as Facebook, they are allowing passive data collection, which is worth over $13 billion to marketers annually.
What is big data? In recent years computers have become more powerful and they can collaborate more easily thanks to faster Internet speeds. This makes it easier for them to analyze, search and store larger data sets. Predictive analytics are one result.
With more power to collect and analyze data comes more responsibility to guard student privacy. Groups like the Data Quality Campaign advocate for more data-driven decisionmaking at the classroom and school level.
Digital Refers specifically to electronic circuitry that stores and processes information as a string of binary values (ones and zeroes), and more broadly, to anything that is not analog or is located in the real world (aka “meatspace”).
Device Catchall term for a smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop, phablet, headset, smartwatch …
Disruptive Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen coined the term “disruptive innovation” to describe companies that begin at the fringes of a marketplace. Because their offering is so much cheaper or more accessible (or rarely, because it is so much better) the product essentially creates an entirely new market and puts the established players out of business. For example, the Uber app, which allows almost anyone to start giving rides for money, has been disruptive to the taxicab industry, which is more strictly taxed and regulated.
According to this theory, established players find it difficult to dramatically change what they are doing when new opportunities arise; they become victims of their own success. Christensen has a great interest in educational innovation and has repeatedly predicted “disruption” in the higher education market in particular through digital innovations such as free, video-based online courses (aka MOOCs).
Efficacy/Effective In the age of big data it is easier, and more often expected, to cite some kind of evidence that your educational program or product is working. Evidence might be a teacher/student satisfaction survey, graduation rates or test scores. Evidence of effectiveness is only as good as the robustness of the measures used to demonstrate it.
Microcredential or nanocredential An educational certification that’s even shorter and more specific than a one-year certificate. Often associated with the rise of 12-week “coder bootcamps,” with certifications offered by software companies, with CBE, and with continuing education and professional development.
Politicians like Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio have been talking about officially recognizing microcredentials and even awarding student aid for them.
Mobile Any device that fits in a pocket, at least a coat pocket. U.S. Internet use on mobile devices exceeded that on larger devices for the first time in 2014.
Open The term “open” as in “open educational resources” is associated with Creative Commons, an alternative to traditional copyright. Open-licensed digital content can be available for free for others to legally download, use and “remix,” that is, change to suit.
A key issue in OER has been “discoverability,” i.e., finding the good stuff amongst everything that’s free. Lumen Learning is one company that offers services to colleges and schools that want to adopt open educational resources for free or cheaper.
The second “O” in MOOC stands for Open too (Massive Open Online Course). But the major MOOC platforms (edX, Udacity, Coursera) do not offer open licensed content. In this case “open” just means anyone can enroll for free.
Personalized Software that seeks to provide what’s called personalized instruction is typically adaptive, that is, level-based and allowing students to move at their own pace. It also typically includes a recommendation engine, the same type of software programs that Netflix and Amazon use to suggest the next show you should watch or the next book you should buy, based on previous experience with you and people like you. A 2011 review of research suggested that personalized instruction as provided by tutoring software could be almost as good as that provided one-on-one by a human tutor.
But this account of “personalized learning” excludes students’ individual interest and motivation, or the importance of cultivating skills such as communication and collaboration, or the importance of truly personal relationships among students and teachers.
Privacy The more data is being collected and shared about students, especially children, the more concerns there are about who has access to it and for what reason. These concerns include hacking, data breaches, commercialization and sale of student data, a lack of transparency and concerns that a poor student record will haunt students throughout their lives.
Laws have been introduced in most states and in Congress to try to address various aspects of privacy.
Realtime Digital technologies sometimes provide information more quickly than schools used to. For example, a parent may be able to log in to a student dashboard and see a child’s grade on a test before the child herself has seen it. Sometimes “realtime” information informs better decisions; sometimes it just leads to demands for faster decisions, whether they are good or bad.