#EdTech and the Socratic Method

WorldView Software’s product line includes a feature that few if any other online learning tools do: testing through a modification of the Socratic method.

The Socratic method, simply stated, is the asking of questions in order to lead students to knowledge.  According to The Critical Thinking Community,

A Socratic questioner should:
a) keep the discussion focused
b) keep the discussion intellectually responsible
c) stimulate the discussion with probing questions
d) periodically summarize what has and what has not been dealt with and/or resolved
e) draw as many students as possible into the discussion.

For more information on why to use the Socratic method in the classroom, this essay from the University of Chicago Law School does a terrific job of briefly explaining what everybody in the classroom should get out of the experience (and also why it shouldn’t be regarded with fear).

Using software to ask questions requires a modification of the method — most of the time it is used to lead an individual, rather than a group.   (But don’t forget that that’s one of the great things about our software — if you want to use it to guide classroom discussion, you can!)

All of the chapters in WorldView’s programs have additional material in the mini-lesson answers to study questions. Click on study questions, then select the types of questions to answer.  Factual questions are about factual information in the overview.  Conceptual questions require students to analyze information, drawing inferences and making evaluations.  Chronological questions make use of the program’s chronology, placing information from the overview in chronological context.  And graphical questions require students to analyze and interpret information that is presented graphically, in maps, graphs, and charts.  Select the question type and the number of questions to be studied, then start a session.

Notice that the mini-lesson answer contains additional information to that found in the overview.  Study sessions allow students two tries at a correct answer, and provide the explanation both times.  The point is to encourage students to actually read the answer and get it right.  Even if they only skim, they will still glean enough information to figure out what the correct answer is (as in the featured image above).

While the Factual study questions in our products merely test recall of important data contained in the overviews or glossaries, the Conceptual, Graphic, and Chronological study questions all follow a modified version of the Socratic method both in asking students questions that require either analysis, evaluation, or inference, as well as in giving them additional information about the topic in the mini-lessons that accompany the answers.  Because students are allowed to attempt the question two times, they are encouraged to read the answer through before the second try — learning while in the process of testing.

This is the difference between WorldView’s Socratic method and other “adaptive learning” software: Our software encourages the student to learn the material — the point of their edtech is to get the software to learn the student.  Which do you think is more conducive to your students’ learning?


BulbgraphOnOffStudy questions can be used for formative assessment in the beginning of a lesson or for summative assessment at the end.

Learning Objects

The “learning objects” approach to creating educational materials is reminiscent of the flip books for pre-school children in which they can mix up heads and bodies for different people or animals to create their own chimeras.  It doesn’t matter if the platform is digital or not — the truth is that teachers have always been making mashups to suit their own students’ needs.

The news that a major educational publisher is once again attempting to create standardized learning objects thus comes as no surprise, nor does the partnership with a technology giant’s proprietary platform (McGraw-Hill-Microsoft).  The biggest change here is the linking of data to the object, thus theoretically enabling personalized instruction to be analytically driven.  David Wiley‘s reaction is that what gets lost in this world of remixes is the context in which the object appears — which gets ironed out into uninformative blandness:

The Reusability Paradox typically leads designers of learning objects to attempt to “strike a balance” between effectiveness and reusability. This generally results in materials that are neither particularly effective NOR particularly reusable across contexts.

He believes the way out is to create open license objects that are platform-independent and not subject to copyright restrictions.  D’Arcy Norman for the most part agrees, with special caveats for closed file formats such as Flash or obscure proprietary (but documented and “open”) metadata and content packaging formats that also make things difficult to share and reuse.

So why post about learning objects here?  Because WorldView was designed to take some of these arguments into account.  First, WorldView’s materials are written in chapters, with specific audiences in mind, whether high school or middle school.  All the ancillary materials associated with that chapter can be thought of as boxes or sidebars in a traditional print textbook.

Screen Capture from American History I, filter view "chapters"
Chapters filter view in American History I

But because our products are software, not print, we can also gather each object — chapter overview or ancillary — into a separate filter that can be used independently to meet learning objectives.  Whether you want to create your own mashup of materials, or use the study questions to assess student learning, or have students practice a particular type of skill such as image analysis, you can use the Resources filter view (just click on the resources icon) to find things easily.

American History I Resources, fliter view "resources"
American History I resources viewed by filter.

These materials can all be regarded as enrichment — students can choose what they find most interesting (and interest is known to foster learning and achievement).  Some provide more structure than others, but all can be used as a springboard to further exploration and learning.

It’s not open copyright (because researching, writing, and coding are not free).  However, it is firmly fixed in a particular context (which is as close as clicking the chapters icon), it is browser-based making you independent of a particular device or application, and data tracking is available through the Progress Report mechanism.  As a teacher, there are multiple reports you can run on a class-wide basis, as well as the ability to monitor individual performance.


BulbgraphOnOffProject the multiple choice questions and have your class use clickers to answer. Then use the mini-lesson answer to kick off discussion.

#EdTech and the Human 1.0

Is there a difference between educational technology and just plain old regular technology? The question used to be whether there’s a point to designing hardware specifically for “educational” use, rather than just using the devices or programs that everyone else uses.  However, the rise of bring-your-own-device (BYOD) seems to have settled the question for hardware even as it raised questions of access.  Edtech can make educational gaps wider — a recent Pew Research Center poll on smartphone use established that

Today nearly two-thirds of Americans own a smartphone, and 19% of Americans rely to some degree on a smartphone for accessing online services and information and for staying connected to the world around them — either because they lack broadband at home, or because they have few options for online access other than their cell phone.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Information Technology Report, at the current rate of adoption it will be NINE YEARS before the United States achieves 100% internet penetration.  And the question of software that is built for “educational” purposes is still open.  Audrey Watters recently wrote a post titled “Ed-Tech’s Inequalities” in which she points out that the end goals of technovangelists must be questioned:

with a renewed effort recently for one-to-one computing at school, which children get this opportunity? Which get to use computers for self-directed learning? Which children experience this epistemological turn? And which children, which students still experience education technology only on the days they’re taking assessments – with the computers “putting them through their paces”?

The question here is about the use to which technology is put — even in a home or school with zippy broadband access and a laptop for every student, how is that technology being used? Is it limited to selfies on Snapchat while streaming Netflix, or is it being used to explore what is known about life, the universe, and everything?  Consumption or education?

We here at WorldView Software do not believe that the purpose of edtech is to replace teachers, or to drill students to the exam.  The purpose is to enrich the learning experience by making more things possible — not fewer.  We’ve designed our programs to do everything a printed textbook and workbook can do (so you can still print stuff out if you need to), but added the flexibility and reach of software.  Students will need teachers who can reach them no matter their gender, race, culture, or class.  And they should be encouraged to explore the massive amount of content in our programs, and then to follow up on things they find interesting.

After all, the technology is advancing all the time, but humans still learn in the same ways we always have.  Humans are still version 1.0.


BulbgraphOnOffSoftware makes it easy to create multiple levels of the same lesson; enrichment for advanced students, concept development for struggling students.

Designing Educational Software, part 10

We hope you enjoyed this tour through the process of our creative development.

To re-cap, the process of redesigning software for a different delivery system had us considering many different issues, from form to function. The program design process went through several steps: a thorough grounding in the principles of good web design and the construction of several product-use scenarios led us to prioritize certain design features over others. Next came the creation of storyboards and mockups to more completely model the software’s behavior, and the writing of technical design specifications based on these for the programmers and graphic designers. Once the program was complete, we then turned our attention to the management system that gives users access to the program and to their stored data, and gives administrators access to user progress data. The management system was also configured to be able to run different types of reports to track and aggregate user progress data.  The outcome is a truly interactive and customizable educational program.

However, that’s not the end of the story!  Educational software design is a dynamic process, and we welcome teacher input about what works and what would be helpful.  We are currently working on several reporting functions that have been requested: a Targeted Progress Report, allowing teachers to aggregate all the individual Progress Tracker data for a class for a single assignment; and a Complete Progress Report, allowing teachers to aggregate all the individual Progress Tracker data for all of the class’s assignments.

What elements of WorldView work best in your class? What tweaks or features would make your job easier?  Let us know!


BulbgraphOnOffUse the Search feature to find instances of words or phrases — the search results tab will stay open until closed.

Designing Educational Software, part 9

Reports

Quite a bit of thought was put into the types of report that could or should be run by teachers. On the one hand, quantifying individual and aggregate student performance can be a useful tool in perfecting one’s pedagogy. On the other hand, such data is subject to privacy concerns, and can be open to different interpretations, some of which could be harmful to the student, particularly if used incorrectly.

We decided to give teachers four different types of report:

Report Type Purpose Interpretation
Roster lists all students enrolled in a course Should be used to verify that a student is enrolled or subscribed in the course.
Study Tests Taken
  • reports the student’s score on a study test
  • (coming soon: reports which questions were correctly and incorrectly answered)
Should be used to estimate student’s grasp of material, and to pinpoint material with which the student is having difficulty.   This report should be used with students who are likely to have trouble with the material, such as remedial students, special needs students, and those who are already struggling. This can be used frequently, in order to alter teaching strategies before students become discouraged and disengaged.
Practice Tests Taken
  • reports the student’s score on a practice test
  • (coming soon: reports which questions were correctly and incorrectly answered)
Should be used to assess student’s grasp of material, and to pinpoint material with which the student is having difficulty.   Because practice tests will be taken less frequently, this report does not need to be run as often. It should be used not to alter teaching strategies, but to verify that current teaching practices are effective.
Individual Progress Tracker allows the teacher to see the student’s Progress Tracker, including final test scores and written answers Should be used to monitor assignment completion and test scores, and to grade short answer questions. In addition to grading, this reporting mechanism also allows the teacher to monitor completion rate and time spent in-product.  (coming soon: essay answers)

The ability to run reports raises several concerns. First, and most importantly there is the danger that the reports will be used inappropriately to track and segregate students by ability without giving them either the time or the teaching to improve. While our teacher and curriculum guides have suggested activities for gifted and for special needs students, it is important to realize that any one student’s abilities are dynamic and occur on a spectrum. It is hoped that the ability to see more data, on a more regular basis, will prevent pigeon-holing students into lifelong “labels.”

Second, there is the danger that they will be used as the sole data point with which to evaluate teachers. This is unrealistic, and does not take into account environment and interaction. And third, there is the danger that these functions will be targeted by hackers in order to get actionable, salable information about individuals. The last instance is the only one that we as a company can do anything about.  WorldView’s dispersed storage mechanism and security measures, however, make the reconstruction of student data by hackers virtually impossible.


BulbgraphOnOffUse the outline page in guided essays to spark in-class discussion on using supporting evidence. Click on “Hint” for ideas.

Designing Educational Software, part 8

Management System Design

The management system consists of the user database, account administrator dashboard, reporting mechanism, and governance of interaction with other management systems. The aspects of management system design that will be discussed here are the first two, which pertain to the content and access to the content. In particular, the use of software makes it easy to generate and report data by student and by class (and thus by teacher and by school).

User Database Structure and Access

All of our content and all users’ data (stored test sessions, long-form answers, etc.) are stored in the database on “cloud” servers operated by Amazon. Users access the program (and their saved data) by way of a login, with an account username and password.

Account Administrator “Dashboard”

We decided on two types of account administrators: parents and teachers. This reflects both the pricing of site licenses vs. individual licenses, and the differing levels of access that the administrator would be allowed. Access to the management system is through an account administrator “dashboard.”

Through the dashboard, the account administrators have access to student accounts and student-generated data. There is a company-provided answer key for short answer questions, the teacher’s guide, and the curriculum guide.  The Progress Tracker widget indicates scores on machine-graded assignments, and lets teachers see student answers for all other assignments. Teacher administrators also have the ability to enroll students in courses as well as see the courses the student was currently enrolled in, end or extend subscriptions, to change the student’s password, and the ability to run reports using data generated by the students’ use of the program. Parent administrators do not have access to the answer key (to make it more difficult and therefore unlikely that the answers would be disseminated without authorization), and would not have the ability to run reports. However, they do have access to their student’s Progress Tracker widget.


BulbgraphOnOffProject the multiple choice questions and have your class use clickers, tweets, or texts to answer. Then use the mini-lesson answer to kick off discussion.

Designing Educational Software, part 7

Desired Design Features, continued

Users with Disabilities

We also tried to design our web-based program to accommodate users with different physical and intellectual abilities. The software user experience is ultimately a subjective one. However, students with differing physical abilities were often at a significant disadvantage because making materials accessible — even software — could be cost prohibitive. “Retrofitting” software can be difficult, especially when working with poorly commented or documented code.

For this reason, we tried to design software that could meet the needs of different users. For example, each overview is equipped with sound files that reproduce the text. There is a “play” button students can click to hear the paragraphs in the section read aloud. And because it is delivered within a web browser, the user can adjust the size of the text font to suit. We also wanted a color background, not a black-text-on-white-background. Students with visual processing difficulties may find it easier to read with colored lenses, filters, or on a lightly colored background, although there is currently little scientific evidence of the effectiveness of this approach for dyslexia (while background color may make dyslexia more difficult to cope with it is not the cause of dyslexia, which is a language-based disorder). Another element that should make it easier for students with screen reading software is that there is alternative text for all images — titles of all pictures are also available on mouseover, as well as when you mouseover on the “Credit” link.

Mockups

Microsoft PowerPoint® was used to “storyboard” and then animate how we wanted the product to look and act. In the example below, a case study widget is open in the title Civics: An Interactive Approach. The mockup instructions also included a description of the page’s behavior.

product mockup

For example, the image in the top left corner and the page title both indicate the chapter that is currently in use, while “Civics: Chapters” indicates the program and filter in use. When the widget is open, students should still be able to navigate to other resources within the chapter from the left side of the screen, indicated by the resource type icon. There should be a status button, shown as an oval at the bottom left of the question widget. It should have three states: clear (before anything has been typed), mixed (typing has begun), and full (student has clicked it). There should be a mouseover on the status button, saying “click here if you are finished with this case study” (or whatever activity it is). The panes in the widgets should be moveable to maximize space for reading or writing (whichever task is at hand). The resources on the left hand side should all be related to the chapter. If there isn’t a particular type of resource available in the chapter, the resource’s icon should be grayed out. The widgets should open “soft” tabs within the “hard” tab of the browser. Selecting from an icon on the left (via pull-down menu) should open a soft tab. All other filters and parts of the program are accessible at the bottom of the page. For example, clicking on “Search” should create a soft popup.

From there, we wrote the technical specifications that the programmers needed. This covered the platform it would be delivered on; the main navigational structures, panes, and widgets; as well as the internal filing system for the content.


BulbgraphOnOffUse a data visualization (map or graph/chart) to deepen students’ understanding of quantitative information.