Computerized education

As a homeschooler, I learned – on penalty of the Three Hour Lecture that was the inevitable result of asking Dad for help – to use every resource at my disposal to clear up anything I didn’t understand in my math courses. (This was before the internet and “ask Google,” mind!) This meant that I learned the valuable skill of How To Read The Textbook, which is more difficult than it might first appear. Math in particular has a specialized vocabulary that you don’t use in everyday life like you use vocab from English and history lessons. It’s also sometimes difficult to manage the peculiar focus required for making sense out of an alphanumeric soup: reading line by line, figuring out what the textbook isn’t saying because the writers are assuming you can figure out what just happened without an explanation. For some classes, I had videos that went along with the textbook, so I could watch someone doing the problem in “real time” – which is helpful for reducing the Wall-O-Text effect of a written example in a textbook.

Sometimes I wonder if learning how to diagram sentences in English really helped when it came time to identify types of equations in math. I think it must – the level of abstraction in thought is very similar. Seeing the grammar patterns of equations and making sense of them: recognizing that changing the numbers here doesn’t change what kind of equation you’re dealing with but changing them there means you have to use a whole different approach to solve the problem.

So when it comes to reverse-classrooms, which require students to watch a lecture or read their texts before class, and then complete the homework in class with a “teacher” on hand to answer any questions, I’m in favor of it, because that’s the way that learned. I knew how to do it, because I was homeschooled.

Public school students have no freaking clue. Well, I should be fair and say that some of them do have a clue, but not because of anything they were taught in your typical lecture-based class. I shall generalize: imagine a hypothetical average student Jane,* who goes along getting decent grades in a “decent” public high school, who takes Algebra I, Geometry, and the school’s particular Math For Future Liberal Arts Students and then doesn’t take math her senior year at all. Then she goes to community college, and she needs a particular math class that is online, computerized work only. With a reverse-classroom situation she’s never encountered before.

It’s been three or four years since she did much at all with algebra. She’s basically forgotten everything about it; like many public school students, she’s calculator-dependent for anything past very elementary addition, subtraction, and maybe a bit of multiplication. She’s used to having a teacher give a lecture with examples, maybe taking a few notes, and “studying” exclusively from numerous worksheets and handouts. Textbook? If there was a textbook at all, the only thing she ever cracked it open for was the odd homework assignment that wasn’t on a handed-out worksheet. Reading the textbook wouldn’t have given her much benefit for the classes that jumped around from chapter to chapter or had “supplemental” material from other sources.

Jane is used to having everything handed to her in a math class. She’s used to turning in her work on paper, and being graded by a human being who probably gives partial credit and at least a little feedback on whether she’s making typo-errors or doesn’t understand the problem itself.

A computerized class does none of that. There are videos – but they’re buried somewhere in a list on one of the dozen or so pages the class has on the college system. There’s no textbook – there are “handouts” but they’re stuck with the videos on some page she’s probably never done more than glance at, because in order to pass the class she has to jump through a lot of hoops on the “assignments” page and watching the videos or reading the powerpoint slides is entirely optional and doesn’t count for the “points” she needs to “unlock” the quiz. Then when she goes to take the quiz, she encounters a totally computerized system that is completely unforgiving of typos (you just lost ALL the points, no partial credit for demonstrating understanding) and doesn’t give any feedback as to what she should study in particular from that unit. If she fails to get enough points to “pass” the quiz, she has to go back to the previous assignments, all of which have respawned – meaning there’s now a lot of busy-work involved, and no personalized instruction on whatever topic she’s having trouble with. She has to try to remember what problems she didn’t know how to do on the quiz and hope that she can find similar ones in the mountain of new homework she has to do to re-unlock the quiz.

If she’s bad at taking a math quiz on the computers, she’ll go through the fail-redo-fail-redo cycle several times, without going to the teacher and asking for more personalized help, or watching the videos or reading the notes. Just working on those endlessly respawning homework assignments, getting more and more frustrated and angry and feeling like it’s hopeless. She did fine in high school! She graduated with a good GPA! Why is this so hard? Where did all these really complicated number-salad things come from? What’s she supposed to do with these?


So yes, even though I’m in favor of using computerized classes, I recognize that not every student is going to be able to do well under those conditions. Especially if none of their classes have actually taught them how to learn by yourself. And while there may well be other problems for students like Jane, calculator-dependency and taking the “easy route” in math that leads to a “dead year” in which to forget everything you ever learned about algebra, there are particular problems with the computerized classes as currently run.

First off, the students are not trained in how to use them effectively. Students are lazy. I know this because I was one once. If reading the text or watching the videos can be circumvented, then a lot of students are absolutely going to do this – to the point where, if they run into trouble, they’ll have no idea where to start with using the supplemental materials to help. They don’t have textbook-reading skills because they’ve never needed to develop any. They don’t know how to use their resources because there was always somebody right there who could give them the answers – somebody who definitely didn’t have time to uncan a personalized Three Hour Lecture every time a student didn’t understand something. (I wish had time to do this with my students. But even though I do work one-on-one with them, the services of personalized tutoring are expensive enough that I don’t think the parents would be happy about it! Someday I am going to be a homeschooling mom, and I WILL have time for that. Mwahahaha.)

But I do like computerized classes; they just need to be a little better. The studious (ie, successful: intelligent and sufficiently motivated) students are going to be successful no matter what kind of class they’re in – so the classes need to be geared towards the less-adept. Here’s what I would do: first off, any time a student fails a quiz, that student must meet with the teacher one-on-one to review the quiz before beginning the respawned exercises. That way the teacher can actually, you know, teach. And when doing the exercises online, the system needs to include a link to the relevant video whenever a student clicks the “help” button.

I don’t think the computerized classes need to be more forgiving of typos – math requires accuracy and unless a student has a severe case of dyslexia or a similar learning disability, I think that the elimination of “partial credit” for careless errors is useful. But I don’t know that college-level computerized math courses are the right place to phase in this new requirement – it is, after all, practically a foreign class environment for students used to working with pencil and paper rather than a keyboard and screen. I’d like to see students learning this at the high school level. Though the increasing popularity of touchscreens will help with the changeover from paper to pixel – part of the reason computerized math classwork is slightly irritating is the necessity of doing all one’s work on paper and then switching to a keyboard and mouse to type in the answer (and click all the specialized character buttons as needed). This switch is just another opportunity for typos to appear – and it’s really hard to copy-edit your own work in math as well as in English.

I look forward to the day when touchscreen and stylus can replace paper and pencil, and give teachers of computerized classes the ability to see the work the student is doing, and not just their answers. As a teacher, it’s not enough for me to know only that the student got the answer wrong; in order to actually teach I need to know the “how” and the “why”. Trust me, you can’t depend on students remembering what they did on problems they missed! (Especially if the answer is “I had no idea what I was doing.” Well, sometimes that’s true, but sometimes the student got halfway there before things ran off the rails.)

Computerized courses are good things. But they aren’t a silver bullet for education problems that start earlier, and for students who haven’t yet been taught how to learn, they can cause a lot of frustration and heartache that could be easily avoided.

*Jane is a composite of students I’ve had, both male and female, and none of whom have ever actually been named “Jane.”


About pancakeloach :)
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2 Responses to Computerized education

  1. As a fellow homeschool graduate, I can sympathize with the frustration of those who feel annoyed when you interact with those to whom you turn to for help. However, I believe firmly that there are many who homeschool who do not understand the importance of learning how to interact with their children in the way that works for that child. I had family members who could not stretch themselves to learn how to meet that child’s needs. We don’t really get along well to this day, so I can certainly understand.

    On the subject of technology, it is useful for a number of things. Computer software makes learning a foreign language easier than ever before, and software like Saxon Teacher and DIVE Into Math are great when you get to the higher algebra which you’ve been away from for a number of years. Also, every child needs to learn to type, and there is some software like Mavis Beacon that is really wonderful.

    However, having taught for a number of years, I find it odd that you talk about never opening the textbook — what’s the book for? I never passed out worksheets. We worked out of the textbook and maybe a workbook if there was one. We had workbooks for K-2 and reusable textbooks for 3rd grade on, in the math and English grammar department.

    Now that I homeschool, I usually photocopy any workbooks we are using (only for our own personal family use) as I found I can purchase ink cartridges in bulk for less in general than in purchasing a new round of workbooks every year.

    • pancakeloach says:

      “What’s the book for?” was my reaction, too – but there’s at least one math course taught in the public schools ’round these parts that doesn’t have a textbook at all. And classes with textbooks don’t always use them for homework – though some do.

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