Monday, November 05, 2012

Use of Computers as Tutors is Growing

An interesting article about using computers as tutors from the NY Times Magazine last Sept:

Affluent American parents have since come to see the disparity Bloom identified as a golden opportunity, and tutoring has ballooned into a $5 billion industry. Among middle- and high-school students enrolled in New York City’s elite schools, tutoring is a common practice, and the most sought-after tutors can charge as much as $400 an hour.

But what of the pupils who could most benefit from tutoring — poor, urban, minority? Bloom had hoped that traditional teaching could eventually be made as effective as tutoring. But Heffernan was doubtful. He knew firsthand what it was like to grapple with the challenges of the classroom. After graduating from Amherst College, he joined Teach for America and was placed in an inner-city middle school in Baltimore. Some of his classes had as many as 40 students, all of them performing well below grade level. Discipline was a constant problem. Heffernan claims he set a school record for the number of students sent to the principal’s office. “I could barely control the class, let alone help each student,” Heffernan told me. “I wasn’t ever going to make a dent in this country’s educational problems by teaching just a few classes of students at a time.”

Heffernan left teaching, hoping that some marriage of education and technology might help “level the playing field in American education.” He decided that the only way to close the persistent “achievement gap” between white and minority, high- and low-income students was to offer universal tutoring — to give each student access to his or her own Cristina Lindquist. While hiring a human tutor for every child would be prohibitively expensive, the right computer program could make this possible.

So Heffernan forged ahead, cataloging more than two dozen “moves” Lindquist made to help her students learn (“remind the student of steps they have already completed,” “encourage the student to generalize,” “challenge a correct answer if the tutor suspects guessing”). He incorporated many of these tactics into a computerized tutor — called “Ms. Lindquist” — which became the basis of his doctoral dissertation. When he was hired as an assistant professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, Heffernan continued to work on the program, joined in his efforts by Lindquist, now his wife, who also works at W.P.I. Together they improved the tutor, which they renamed ASSISTments (it assists students while generating an assessment of their progress). Seventeen years after Heffernan first set up his video camera, the computerized tutor he designed has been used by more than 100,000 students, in schools all over the country. “I look at this as just a start,” he told me. But, he added confidently, “we are closing the gap with human tutors.” 

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