Engaged Learning, Backed by Gates Foundation, Adapts to Each Student

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by the availability of computers in classrooms, as well as more advanced tech that is transforming many other fields: real-time data capture and analysis, machine learning, and cloud computing.

Popović distinguishes Engaged Learning’s idea of adaptive curriculum from other approaches that have used the term. Existing “adaptive” curricula may simply mean that after taking a test, students either move forward to new material, or repeat the old material, depending on their performance, he says. Or the system may gather data and a team updates the curriculum every six months based on student performance. (If you want to impress your pedagogically inclined friends with some jargon, this is sometimes referred to as a gated adaptive curriculum, as opposed to Engaged Learning’s “generative” adaptive curriculum.)

He sees several problems with the gated approach, each of which Engaged Learning is designed to solve: Test outcomes don’t tell teachers the best next set of problems to give to individual struggling students to help them advance, he says. Repeating the same material can be demoralizing, causing students to disengage and fall further behind. The approach is also inefficient.

Popović, a computer scientist, says Engaged Learning melds several concepts from his field to address these problems. It applies a “thought-process language” to encode everything a student needs to learn for mastery of a subject. Algebra, for example, is broken down into small conceptual parts: variables, say, or equations. Questions that cover those parts are identified.

The system applies something akin to software verification techniques to figure out all the possible paths—or sequences of problems—a student can use to achieve mastery. “If you want somebody to definitively learn something, you want them to have visited every part of the thought process,” he says.

In this way, the system can identify and present problems that introduce the concept a student is ready for, based on having correctly solved earlier problems. Likewise, it can surface a problem that revisits the specific concept a student may be struggling with—even if it’s from a few lessons back—in a simpler form. “We can find just the right remediation piece, generated specifically for that kid,” Popović says.

And, as the company’s name indicates, Popović places as much emphasis on keeping students engaged as on helping them achieve mastery. Say a student is repeatedly struggling to advance to the next concept. “The best thing to do is to try something tangential for a little bit to give them a sense of accomplishment, and then merge that with the key thing they were struggling with,” Popović says.

In a 17,000-student trial using a learning game that employs the underlying approach, kids not only completed 30 percent more problems correctly than a control group, they also worked longer on a culminating problem designed to be well above their current level of knowledge. Popović says the system essentially makes students struggle just enough to feel challenged, but not frustrated. They feel that with each struggle, they improve, building up persistence, he says.

“This has implications in school, but also in life,” Popović says.

What’s more, as data is accumulated through students’ work on individual problems and exams, the Engaged Learning system determines the most effective sequences of problems. In this way, individual elements of the curriculum—including non-technological aspects like a teacher’s examples or a lesson at the chalkboard—could be evaluated and adapted not only for individual kids, but also to entire classrooms, schools, districts, and beyond.

For example, I had a math teacher, Craig Holt, who taught the distributive property by having pairs of kids stand as though we were inside of parentheses, holding ice cream cones. Holt would “distribute” a scoop of ice cream on each student’s cone. It definitely caught the attention of sixth and seventh graders.

Engaged Learning could measure whether students were suddenly mastering the distributive property after Holt’s ice cream lesson. If they were, the system would ask him to input his notes on the lesson. “You have best practices in non-technology ways [of teaching] collected and immediately spread to all the other teachers for further experimentation,” Popović says. “Is this something specific that only this teacher can do, or is this a gem that everybody else would benefit from?”

A system like Engaged Learning obviously requires computers in the classroom, ideally one for each student, Popović says. That’s not the reality today for most U.S. classrooms, let alone for the developing world—and Popović does aspire to take Engaged Learning to a global scale—but it will be soon enough, he says, thanks to cheaper smartphones and tablets.

Until one-to-one computing in classrooms is a reality, the system can still suggest the best set of activities for classrooms with limited resources, Popović says. It can also help teachers determine which students could benefit most from using a computer at a particular point in the class. “Is it kids that need remediation, or kids that need to zoom off because they’re way ahead of everybody else, so that the middle can be focused on by the teacher?” he says.

Even if there is a computer for every student, Popović believes the teacher will always have an integral role. (He does not have some Ender’s Game vision of the future of education, even though people often mention the sci-fi classic, recently a major movie, when he describes what he’s working on.) “What we’re trying to find out is the way in which technology can maximize the outcomes of all the other things a teacher can offer, rather than in any way replace it, because that would be a big mistake,” he says.

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Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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