The Reflective Educator

Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

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Day: January 30, 2010

Free online education for anyone

Imagine a school without walls and completely online.  Students could log onto any web ready computer, and sign up to join classes.  They could interact via a moderated back channel chat and vote questions to the teacher up or down during live sessions and participate in forum discussions during asynchronous sessions.  Assignments would be handed in electronically, mostly through online individual student blogs.  Assessment of understanding would be tricky in such a system, I’m not totally clear how student work at the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy would be assessed.  Perhaps peer assessment mixed with sample moderated by the teacher?

A number of these schools exist already all over the world but they all include one important barrier, registration.  Students have to enroll in the schools, and funding for the school is based on enrollment.  If anyone knows of a K to 12 school which is free for anyone to join and doesn’t require registration, please let me know.  I would like to see a school where anyone at all, anywhere, can join the school without an application requirement.  There might have to be some identity verification, if only to allow the school to comply with federal laws in most countries regarding sex offenders, but that would be it and such information would not be public knowledge.

The reason why I want such a school to be free of registration is because I suspect that there would be three distinct types of people interested in such a program.  The first would be high school students looking for an alternative to typical public school.  They might want to register in the program to receive official credit for their diploma.  Another group of students would be supplementing their education in a face to face to school with essentially free support in an online school.  The last group of people, who would probably want the most anonymity, would be the people coming back for a second chance to complete high school, the adult students.

The problems with creating such a school are not trivial.

1.  There is significant cost associated with such a school.  Each teacher involved needs to be paid for their time, and given that the teachers will both have to be experts in trouble shooting connectivity issues and their content area, they will likely cost more than the average teacher.  There’s no reason to run the school if the teaching isn’t excellent and the easiest way to do this is to hire the right people and keep them with the right salary.

2.  Finding the teachers themselves will be difficult.  How many teachers do you know who would substitute time in the classroom (or free time outside of it), have the technical expertise to assist students who are struggling to connect, know their content area well, AND are good teachers.  These are a lot of requirements that need to be met.

3.  Assessing student understanding in a meaningful way would have to be well thought out.  One of the most time-consuming tasks teachers have is assessing student understanding.  Obviously, in an online format, it would be easy to handle any of the lower level skills.  In fact you’d probably see these kids tested more often on the easy to test stuff, but figuring out ways to assess the more difficult to assess would require some work.

4.  Actually being connected live in such a way that everyone feels like they have an equal opportunity to participate would be extremely difficult. I recently participated in an Elluminate session using webcams for viewing the presenters, and the audio and video were awful, I quit after a couple of minutes.  Now, I’ve used Elluminate before successfully, so it was just the set up of these particular sessions.

5.  Becoming part of the school and connecting has requires vastly different access points.  We’d have students attending part-time from a public library to little 5 year old students who are just learning how to use a computer.  We’d have to differentiate the access to the system so that it was easy enough that anyone could participate.

Fortunately, I believe these problems have solutions and that if a team of dedicated teachers and administrators worked together, we could solve these problems.  Education is a right for everyone and it is our society’s responsibility to provide it.  Unfortunately, as we know, not everyone has the access to the high quality education we all desire for our children, so I think we should step forward and provide it.

 

What could 3D do for language learning?

So I’ve had a thought about the direction of language learning.  I’ve been experimenting with 3D interactive worlds (specifically OpenSim), which are programs which let people interact with each other real-time in 3D.  Pretty cool stuff.  This is already being used to help people learn languages as many of the 3D servers offer the ability to communicate with each other via voice and text.

There are a couple of problems I can see with doing this activity with students in a class.  The most important problem is that it is extremely difficult (or expensive) to find a real human being that speaks the language you want to know and who has the time to interact with your students.  It can be incredibly difficult to find an entire classroom’s worth of people willing to interact with your students one on one.  Certainly the online nature of the 3d world makes this easier to manage, but still it almost certainly does not happen in most classrooms (although some languages teachers are adopting Skype successfully).

The second problem is the lack of control you have over what happens during the conversation.  Unless your language learners are somewhat advanced, they will probably struggle to communicate effectively with a native speaker, especially early on in their learning.  You also don’t know if they will cover the content you want to cover, or if their conversation even becomes completely off topic or even inappropriate!

Technology has come a long way recently. There are already chat programs which do reasonably well in conversation, especially if they are limited to a specific known topic area.  3d animation is amazing with highly realistic facial animation and human-like gestures, just check out the movie Avatar.  Voice recognition is improving in leaps and bounds every month with some big players (like Google and Microsoft) putting a lot of money into development and again this technology works better when the bounds of the conversation are known.

Imagine we combined these three technologies together.  Students could then be lead through a carefully arranged conversation including, most importantly, the context of the conversation.  All of the subtle cues and body language we use to learn languages can be programmed into the simulations so that students get as close to a real life experience as possible.  Programs of study could be designed for all levels of language learners, allowing for extremely differentiated and customizable instruction for every student in your class.  Instead of having to carefully plan an online session, your students could interact any time from any computer with sufficient power to run the program.  It would also be a fair bit of a fun for the students and hopefully end up engaging them at a deeper level than revision exercises from a textbook.

What’s amazing is that the technologies to implement this are very close to becoming a reality.  Within 2 or 3 years, all of the component technologies to make this work will be mature enough to produce a software package which is stable enough to release into the classroom environment.  Hopefully with a little bit of work on the administrator’s interface, a typical non-techy language teacher could set up their own simulations for their students.

The future language learning looks very bright, although maybe in 10 years we won’t need to learn other languages because the technology will be so advanced that all of our phones will include universal translators.