I Design Educational Software And These Are Its Limits As A Teaching Tool … For Now

The stuff works better — and worse — than you might think.

by Ian McCullough
Originally Published: 
Flickr / Stephen Chin

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To what extent does interactive learning software improve test scores?

In and of itself — absent meaningful social connection and ongoing reinforcement — a piece of educational software won’t typically lead to a long-term outcome like sustained test score improvement.

If you measure topic comprehension or ability to perform a task or apply knowledge immediately before and immediately after a software intervention (intervention is a fancy diagnostic word for some different procedure that you don’t normally do), a solid portion of subjects in the test group can often – assuming well-designed, engaging software – outperform subjects in a control group where the intervention did not occur.

Flickr / College Library

A single intervention, however, is unlikely to have a lasting effect. There needs to be a lot of reinforcement; reinforcement means sustained engagement with the program over a long duration of repeated sessions, and that typically means social interaction – and, despite countless research efforts of involving software agents and physical robots, I’ve yet to see a routine-running machine offer the level of social interaction that a human teacher can.

Preschoolers are a bit of a different case. Kids from the ages of 2-4 will engage with well-made television programs that use call & response as an engagement technique.

The infinite patience of a programmed system and its readiness to repeat something as many times as the learner wants is also an asset. The upsides for that age are very real, but so are the limitations. In addition to emotional awareness of the learner, a fully independent teaching system needs spatial awareness and to be able to meaningfully process the visual and sonic context of the room.

Flickr / Rainer Stropek

It needs to be able to help the child apply information gleaned from an interactive exercise. It’s one thing to be able to have a preschooler learn that a quadrilateral on a page or screen with two sets of two parallel lines connected perpendicularly is called a “rectangle.” It’s another thing to have them look around the room – beyond the page or screen – and have them identify other rectangles around them or to have them identify the shape of the door to the room as a rectangle. Such engagement is currently feasible in a highly controlled room, but rooms with preschoolers don’t tend to stay highly controlled and by the time you have the sensors and software in place, you might as well hire a human teacher.

For now, that is. Educational software and other technology experiences can make powerful learning aids, be we are headed towards a day when such systems will be able to teach humans all by themselves. And on that day, we’re going to have some much larger questions to answer about humanity’s relationship with machines than simply figuring out how to reduce the cost of instruction and improve test scores.

Ian McCullough is a consumer technology professional, as well as a freelance writer who has been published by Forbes and The Huffington Post. See more of his Quora posts here:

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