Homework software is ready

Like practically every teacher I’ve ever met, I am deeply skeptical of replacing classroom learning with personalized learning software. But since the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is in the middle of a long, sloppy kiss with personalization advocates, we’re apparently going to have to put up with it for a while.

In particular, Summit Learning is essentially a CZI initiative, and — surprise! — it’s having precisely the same issues that everyone who has ever attempted to do this has had, i.e. open rebellion:

Brooklyn teens are protesting their high school’s adoption of an online program spawned by Facebook, saying it forces them to stare at computers for hours and “teach ourselves.”

“It’s annoying to just sit there staring at one screen for so long,” said freshman Mitchel Storman, 14, who spends close to five hours a day on Summit classes in algebra, biology, English, world history, and physics. “You have to teach yourself.”

Look, I haven’t done a ton of research about Summit Learning or the particulars of what’s happening at this school. It’s ridiculously easy to hate on personalization and that’s not what I came here to do.

No, I came here to talk about DeltaMath.

DeltaMath is dead simple. It’s a robot that puts different numbers into math problems and tells kids if they solved them correctly. There are examples to study. Nothing fancy here, though there are many different types of problems the teacher can assign. The algebra sequence is especially well-covered. I choose what kids do for homework. I see their responses. It’s free for now, and God help us let it be free forever.

I’d known about DeltaMath for years and dismissed it. After all, it’s just a robot that puts different numbers into math problems and tells kids if they’ve done them correctly or not. There are all sorts of fancier robots out there. And there are well-documented problems with simple robots. Why get excited about this one?

Not to beat up on DeltaMath, but it is literally the least inspiring idea in education. It brings simple, repetitive practice with right/wrong feedback to homework. Wheeeeeeee.

And yet: today was parent teacher conferences, and parent after parent thanked me for using DeltaMath as homework. Thank you, they said, over and over again.

And my kids, the algebra students? They love it too. One kid: “DeltaMath has changed my life.”

I mean this is ridiculous, right? But I swear, it’s true.

And it’s not because it’s perfect. No no no, not at all. The point is that it’s marginally better than conventional homework for every party. I know, not exactly the sort of thing that will get you billionaire money, but here are its advantages over conventional homework:

  • For the kids: They get simple information about whether their answer was accurate. Sometimes kids get frustrated when the computer doesn’t get their input and marks them wrong…but they all seem to recognize that the alternative is no feedback while working on their homework. This is better.
  • For the parents: A lot of what we do in class is difficult to communicate, but this is simple. Parents appreciate the simple clarity of understanding just a bit of what their kids are working on. It’s an improvement over being totally confused by what their kids are working on.
  • For me: Homework is a relatively low-yield instructional activity, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not there to help or observe so it’s hard to trust what kids bring in. It can be worthwhile for kids, but it’s definitely worth less of my work hours than what I put together for the classroom. And that’s the thing: a homework worksheet takes too long to make for its contribution to learning. The software both improves the practice a conscientious kid can get from doing homework while drastically cutting the time it takes to create a homework assignment.

Insert quote from literally anything Larry Cuban has written about educational technology here. Maybe a line from Tinkering Toward Utopia, maybe. My copy is in the other room, so I’ll just make up a Cuban-ish quote:

“Despite the sky-high promises of would-be reformers, schooling has a strong conservative tendency. This is not to suggest, however, that teachers have not embraced technology. They have — though often not in the ways reformers intended.”

Just to be clear, that quote is entirely made up. Do not cite that.

That’s the thing with personalization software, though. In a few years when this all plays out and Chan Zuckerberg compliment themselves on having taken a big swing and on not being afraid of failure, classroom learning will be more or less intact. But I have no doubt there’s going to be a role for cheap software that improves learning at the margins. And now that I’ve seen how it’s playing out in my algebra classes, I’m much more willing to support software that replaces paper homework.

Seriously: the robots are ready for homework.

One thought on “Homework software is ready

  1. I particular, the robots are ready for detecting when students have forgotten something they used to know and helping them relearn that topic (relearning a skill with a computer’s help is much much easier than learning something for the first time using a computer’s help).

    Liked by 1 person

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