Sunday, 15 February 2015

Educational nuggets

Quite a while back I attended an MIT Task Force Retreat on Digital Learning. Numerous talks and discussions were given (by various internal MIT groups and committees) about the future of online education and the issues surrounding it. One concept that stood out to me was that of "educational nuggets". I think this is very suitable (and sticky) terminology to describe the bite-sized educational modules - like the 5-10 minute lectures - that have become a popular medium for online courseware and educational websites such as Khan Academy.

The idea of bite-sized lectures comes from educational research showing that a student's attention span does not extend much, past about 10 minutes. A sad truth. That is not to say, however, that a student can not internalize concepts past 10 minutes (if that was really the case, then school systems would not work at all). Rather, efficiency of learning goes down, and more mental effort needs to be expended to stay attentive - instead of, say, all that mental effort being channelled to learning the concepts.

So, it seems to be most effective to present material to students for about 10 minutes at a time, and then break up the stream by giving students some time to think about the concepts, asking students questions (or asking for their questions), providing a quiz module, initiating a discussion (if applicable), etc. This allows students to more actively internalize the material, apply the concepts, and check that they have understood the past 10 minutes worth of content.

The additional advantage of splitting educational material into nuggets is to break up a course into little, self-encapsulated, independent units. To go back to the previous post, this provides a means for customization: both for the individual student, and for the individual course. Imagine the course of the future: you are a biologist looking to brush up on statistics. Instead of pointing you to a full course offered by the statistics department, or instead of having to specifically design a course on statistics in the biology department, you could be given a set of "nuggets" to complete. These nuggets could come from different places - from the statistics department, from the math department, from the biology department - such that when they all come together, they give you - the biologist - the statistics knowledge you need, in the right context, with maximal relevance.

The concept of educational nuggets naturally raises some questions: is everything really nugget-izable? what about basic courses like calculus that need to be taken in full? who will decide what goes into a nugget? can many small nuggets really be equivalent to a course?
I think if we become more accepting of this form of education and the benefits that we can glean from it, then the answers to these questions will start to emerge through discussions.

The bigger philosophical question is whether we are changing too much, as a human species, and becoming too ADD with all the bite-sized facts, bite-sized tweets, bite-sized news, and potentially bite-sized education thrown at us. Like many things, this is a two-edged sword -- and like the related notion of multitasking, can either make or break productivity and long-term memories and understanding. The related benefits/downsides of multitasking will be left for a future post...

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Education as customized paths through knowledge graphs

Lately very frequently I've been involved with, and witness to, discussions about the upsides/downsides of online learning in comparison to traditional classroom learning. I'd like to summarize a few of my main views on this point.

The traditional classroom has a 1:N ratio of teachers to students, where N grows large for many basic-level courses. Tutoring can provide a 1:1 ratio, and has been found (by multiple quantitative studies) to be more successful at getting concepts across to students. Why? Tutoring provides customization to the individual, and thus can build off of the knowledge base of that individual. New information can hook onto any existing understanding the individual already has, and this is what can let the concepts stick. New concepts become more tightly intertwined with what the individual already knows (and perhaps cares about), and are thus more relevant than concepts presented in the most general setting, with no customization.

In a recent talk of Peter Norvig's that I went to (Norvig is originator of MOOCs: massive open online courses), he indicated that even artificial tutoring systems can have the same benefits as human tutors, with statistically-significant benefits over the traditional classroom. This is very promising, because artificial tutoring is a potentially infinite resource (unlike the finite number of good-quality human tutors). In the same talk, Norvig put up a slide of a dense knowledge graph of all the information that can be available to a student on a particular topic in a particular course(s). He drew some squiggly lines through this graph, standing in for unique paths that could be taken through that material. This is the same visual representation of customized learning that I envision, and deeply believe in, for the future of education.

There is no reason why different individuals should take the same paths through learning. Different types of information may be relevant to different people, and a different ordering of material may make more sense to some individuals but not others. Naturally it should be possible to constrain which points an individual should definitely pass through for a particular course/subject matter (to cover the fundamentals), but the paths themselves should be less constrained. This is the diversity that I referred to in my previous post, which is why I believe that online education is the way forward.

We already have almost all the tools to make this a reality: (1) sophisticated machine learning algorithms that can pick up on trends in user data, detect clusters of similarly-behaving individuals, and make predictions about user preferences; (2) thorough user data through logging and cloud storage, integration of physical and virtual presence and social networks, integration of all of a user's applications and data (and the future of the "internet of things"), universal login systems, etc.

Thus, the question is only one of time.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The Popping Rate of Knowledge

I use the term "popping rate" to refer to the amount of novel/interesting/useful material gained in a given time period. If you're used to microwaveable popcorn, you know that as the popping rate decreases past a certain point and pops become rarer - if you don't take the popcorn out of the microwave, it will fry. I think the same goes for my brain when it is trying to suck up knowledge. If I'm watching a really interesting documentary, reading a good nonfiction book, or listening to a captivating talk, I can almost feel the new knowledge and facts pop and fill my brain. I consider the time well-spent if the popping rate is above a certain threshold... however, if the pops become too rare, I feel my brain frying under lack of stimulation. That is when I know to turn off the TV, put down the book, or zone out of the talk... and pursue an activity with a higher popping rate.

In fact, I've found that quantifying the informational/factual content of something using some notion of pops per minute or pops per hour (referring to # of novel bits of information/facts gained during that time), provides a useful frame of comparison between activities.