What if you could teach a college course without a classroom or a professor, and lose nothing?
According to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, there’s no “what if” about it. Earlier in the decade, Carnegie Mellon set out to design software for independent learners taking courses through the university’s Open Learning Initiative, an effort to make courses freely available to non-enrolled learners. But rather than merely making course materials available to non-students, like MIT’s famous OpenCourseware project, Carnegie Mellon wanted to design courses that would respond to the individual needs of each student. It currently has courses in 12 different subjects available on its Web site, mostly in math and science.
In the process of testing the software on Carnegie Mellon students to make sure it would “do no harm” if used, the researchers found that, over a two-semester trial period, students in a traditional classroom introductory statistics course scored no better than similar students who used the open-learning program and skipped the three weekly lectures and lab period. . . .
As intriguing it was to find that a computer program could prepare students to pass tests just as well as a professor, the researchers seem more excited by a hybrid application of the open-learning program that, instead of replacing professors, tries to use them more effectively. By combining the open-learning software with two weekly 50-minute class sessions in an intro-level statistics course, they found that they could get students to learn the same amount of material in half the time.
So what exactly is the pedagogical model Carnegie Mellon has discovered, that has inspired such faith? Essentially, it’s an online
program that teaches students itself, rather than just being the medium a professor uses to teach. Furthermore, it leverages the opportunity to interact directly with a unique student — an opportunity a professor addressing dozens of students in a lecture hall does not have. . . .
In other words, the software acts like a private tutor, quizzing students constantly as they work through linear lessons and adjusting in accordance with how quickly they show they are grasping different concepts. . . .
The virtual tutor takes care of the basic concepts that typically dominate lectures, leaving professors open to plan the face-to-face
component of the course according to what parts of the curriculum the software tells him students are picking up more slowly, and what concepts could bear reinforcement. For example, if a statistics professor notices in the data he receives from activity in the open-learning program that a great number of students struggled with the assessments the program gave while teaching conditional probability, the professor could use the class periods to hold a discussion with his students about that concept until he is confident they get it — a preferable alternative, Thille says, to rolling through concepts didactically and hoping they stick.
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