Friday, January 16, 2009

Modern Digital Education - Changing the Way We Educate

In a paragraph this is the idea. Lectures are recorded in a digital manner (more on these details later and how it is really cheap and easy.) Students can view these lectures via an online medium. As time progresses the lectures are improved. Questions can be added, mistakes fixed, material added. Student could be asked to add material as well. Explain problems, solution manuals, etc. Essentially the system would iterate towards a 'perfect lecture.' This system has numerous benefits (such as flexibility, resources, mobility) which we will explore. Further infrastructure can be added to make this into a national system, thus making the information available for everyone.

As I see it, if a system like this was setup, you can eliminate the need for traditional lectures. Every few years the lectures could be updated, via redoing the entire series, or adding notes and re-editing. This does not remove the role of the professor (or teacher) it instead shifts it to a more of a tutor type of position. Professors could hold question answering sessions where students could ask questions (which would be added to the digital media) This both enhances the education and reduces workloads allowing teachers and professors to focus on the students.

Once a system like this is put in place we can continue to make even greater changes. I will use high school as an example. It is clear that in many schools there is a large variance in the levels of the students. Some students progress significantly faster than others, some need more help. This creates a big problem when many students are placed together. The fast ones get bored and are held back and the slow ones don’t get the attention they need. By implementing the previous digital system students essentially become their own entities within an education system. Essentially there would still be ‘math’ teachers and such, but no classes. Students would simply have a set of requirements, they would follow the thorough media sets, and possibly on a weekly basis would have a question session for that course with the professor (again all questions are added to the media set. Eventually one would assume that most questions could be addressed via the digital data.)

Additionally, digital lectures do not need to be only of your teacher, they could be a collection of lectures from across the country, collected into a database. Then students would be able to use the lectures they found most informative and also be able to rank and criticize the videos. This fixes a few things – first, the good teachers are clearly recognized and they are recognized for their teaching skills, because, with a flexible learning system the teacher who teaches best helps the student accomplish his requirements sooner. Secondly, it significantly levels the playing field. Schools with less funding or poorer teachers now immediately have access to the best in the country.

One may say that this places too much responsibility into the hand of the student. In my opinion systems which clearly state the requirements and clearly give you a way to challenge yourself and succeed, or fail miserably, will, in the end, work better. No longer will students be able to be content scraping by. Similarly it gives the really talented students as much room to grow as possible. This will give a clear message to the slackers that they need to work harder. We want to prepare students for life, life is tough and you need to know how to work and push yourself. This system of education gives you that skill. Also, by reducing the load of the teachers and allowing the faster students to work on their own it gives the teachers the opportunity to focus on the trouble students. The individual attention may in many cases change their status. Thus, this system helps both the fast and slow students.

Details of the System
A view of the system fully implemented after starting with our current system.

We start things off with teachers recording their lectures. This can be done in several ways. The use of a camera can work, but it has significant downfalls. Without a very high resolution camera the video cannot adequately capture the notes being written. This in turn requires either someone manning the camera zooming in to the text or the high resolution cameras. Both of which are very expensive. An alternative method is to use a tablet PC. The lecturer writes on the PC and the text is displayed to the class (if there is a class) via a projector. The video is captured from the screen and the audio is recorded alongside the video. All this can be done easily and cheaply (~$1000 for tablet PC, $300 for software for a single purchase in a onetime purchase) and it allows the video to have high quality recording of the text being written. The lecturer would not be seen, which in the end is typically unnecessary.For lectures which require visuals (maybe a chemistry course) a lower quality camera could be used alongside the PC recording.

The tablet PC has other advantages. Equations and notes can be premade, allowing the speaker to spend more time explaining and less time writing. Additionally, other digital media can be used easily within the lecture.For schools who may already have computers and projectors the simple addition of a Wacom tablet ($100-$300 for simple versions, even wireless bluetooth versions) and a bluetooth mic ($50) can change a traditional setup to a wireless digital recording system.

This is the first iteration. As a class progresses additional material can be generated. Questions are bound to be asked. These questions can be cataloged and added to the lectures. All of this data would be added to a searchable online database. It could be organized as the users see fit. Preferably, the system should be capable of feedback. Additional data can be added to the system as time progresses. Students can add solution to problems. Practice tests and quizzes can be included as well. Lectures could be updated with additional material and taking into account the questions and comments previously noted.

Initially each school would have its own database. Having such a database gives flexibility to teachers. Now, with lecturers prerecorded, students can watch them individually, at their own pace. Smarter students will have the opportunity to progress faster. This system has immediate realizable benefits even before things get more complicated.

As the catalog of courses matures schools would become interconnected (maybe just all the public schools.) Now students are able to receive lectures from any number of teachers. Lectures could be rated, either based on student reviews, other teachers’ reviews, or ideally by correlating lectures with the students test scores. This could be done by keeping track of which students are watching which lectures. If tests were given in a standardized way the test scores could then be related to the lectures being watched. This allows the best lectures to come forth. Finally a way to quantify teacher performance. All students will then have access to the best lectures and the best teachers will be recognized for it. Most importantly small or poor schools will have access to the best teachers.

Testing would need to be done in a standardized way. This is the only pitfall, but I think it can be overcome. A few things make this different. Because the system is challenging students, harder tests can be written. Also, because everyone can see all the lectures and rate them it would be more difficult to 'teach to the test' since everyone would see it. Additionally those lectures are likely boring and students are going to be interested in interactive entertaining learning. Teaching to the test generally doesn't fall into the exciting category of classes.

Alongside the lectures, open source books could be developed for the public school system. There is no need for them to pay for books. Open source books like Motion Mountain (a physics book) are high quality. Besides the initial investment in technology (which many schools already have,) a digital system reduces schools costs.

Something can be said about giving the students too much responsibility, but in my mind that is the power of this method. Reduced teacher load permits them to focus on trouble students. Many students, given the chance to learn and challenge themselves will. Also, the brightest students will be able to shine at their full potential. There is no longer any mechanism which will hinder them. Students may also be able to finish their class work faster moving them on to college or the work place quicker. This will reduce the number of students in a given high school further reducing teacher load and other costs.

This kind of system does not replace in class or hands on work. Laboratories would still be needed. Gym class, shop class, art class, etc would all still exist as they are (although additional instructional material may still be available.)

Private schools and universities are probably less likely to implement a nationwide system since they compete with each other. State schools could have inter-state systems. Individual universities could at a minimum have their own systems. Many large schools still have multiple teachers teaching the same class so a rating system may still work.

A lot of these ideas may not work for younger students. Personal instruction is still important. As time goes on this could be experimented with.

I have additional material on digital teaching systems and problems. I will add these posts soon

In conclusion. A system like the one presented uses cheap digital systems to alter the current education model. It allows for an iterative method for creating education resources. It allows for student input and rating. Teachers can also then be rewarded for true quality teaching. Poor schools easily (with only an internet connection and computers) have access to the best teachers and materials the nation can offer.

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