Live 2 Learn

A few thoughts and ideas

The AltSchool Initiative – Algorithms in Education


A colleague of mine recently sent me this link which presents a short movie clip showing the AltSchool initiative. This is a thought provoking piece.

AltSchool is developing a model of education that relies on modern technology to bring about tailored programs of instruction. The system marries sophisticated algorithms, resource development and adaptive instructional programs. It utilises algorithms that track student progress through ongoing formal, but predominantly formative, assessment and the use of quality teacher- and child-actionable feedback, built in to the learning process.  This is supported by the development and presentation of tailored resources, activities, assessment and experiences.

We already understand this process as ‘differentiated learning’ or ‘differentiated instruction’ – which, when automated, is also labeled ‘adaptive’. We see this type of approach to supporting students as one of the ideals of education and ask our teachers to do this type of analytical, evidence driven work with students.

What the technology shown in the clip does, and the bit that is exciting, is use algorithms that enable teachers to access the analysis and planning required for a truly differentiated approach that teachers/schools usually don’t have the capacity to do well. The algorithms will, as a core part of their design, incorporate analysis of impact and efficacy (as advocated by Hattie’s ‘know thy impact’).

During the movie clip, the point was made that this type of approach is likely to produce less skilled teachers – I’d say three things about this.

Firstly, we (Western-style, traditionally formulated education) already have teachers who, on average, have less ability to effectively differentiate than is optimal, and definitely less than would be possible by the application of appropriate technologies. This characteristic that I have labeled ‘less ability’ is an aggregation of factors including deficits in time, skills, experience, practice, training, infrastructure, culture, norms etc, etc.

Secondly, so what? Do we expect education to be the only sector of modern activity not revolutionised and reformed by the application of powerful and efficient algorithms and economies of scale and automation? Of course we need to ensure our students are experiencing, learning and growing physically, spiritually and socially as well as academically. I am quite sure that in order for any new system to be sustainable and successful these factors will be essential ‘plug-ins’ or features. The scenario presented in the clip is a long way from being ready to scale to mainstream education but, technology moves fast and the demand is getting bigger by the term. Would any educational organisation or any state or country not adopt this methodology if it was a. proven to work, b. effective when scaled, c. adapted and adaptive over time to the needs of students and their communities, and d. affordable.

Thirdly, the most skilled and effective educators would become those involved in the generation of content and the building and testing of the algorithms. Without skilled educators being involved, including child psychologists and educational researchers, the system would fail to be engaging because, as we all know, the system cannot be content driven and must be relevant and engaging for students. There will likely be fewer teaching professionals required at the highest levels and more support staff in various roles. But the teaching professionals would need to be far more expert than they currently are.

Despite the passionate efforts of individual teachers, ‘education’ is a slow moving institution in the face of innovation because it is so large and complex. However, it will not be able to resist massive reformation through massive disruption when, not if, the right system is developed. AltSchool may not be ‘the system’ but, at the very least, it is a very interesting precursor.

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