Technology Is at Least 3 Years Away From Improving Student Success

Las Vegas—At the very start of the Higher Ed Tech Summit here this week, James Applegate threw out a challenge. Mr. Applegate, vice president for program development at the Lumina Foundation, told an overflow crowd that the United States needed 60 percent of its adults to hold high-quality degrees and credentials by the year 2025.

During the rest of the day, technology executives described programs that could improve graduation rates and learning, but won’t be able to do so for several years. They collect many points of data on what professors and students do, but can’t yet say what results in better grades and graduation rates. “We’re beginning to get lots of data on things like time of task, but we don’t have the outcomes yet to say what leads to a true learning moment. I think we are three to five years away from being about to do that,” said Troy Williams, vice president and general manager of Macmillan New Ventures, which makes the classroom polling system called I-clicker. “These are really early days,” agreed Matthew Pittinsky, who runs a digital transcript company called Parchment and was one of the founders of Blackboard.

There’s lots of technology out there that’s outcome-related. For instance, at the meeting, which is part of the international Consumer Electronics Show, the interactive textbook publisher Kno announced a suite of new features. One of them, a performance gauge callled Kno Me, gives students information about how much time they spend on different sections of a book, the results of quizzes, and the kinds of notes they took. “With thousands of students using these books, we can show them which of these variables are related to students—anonymous, of course—who get A’s, or B’s, or C’s, so students learn what kind of activity leads to the best results,” said Osman Rashid, the company’s chief executive.

But he admitted that the grades were self-reports: Students would have to add that information themselves, since colleges did not supply it to Kno. So the outcome data might not be reliable.

Video lecture capture is another tool that could help professors fine-tune teaching techniques, said Fred Singer, CEO of Echo360, whose lecture-capture software is used by more that 400 institutions. The software could identify parts of a talk devoted to a particular concept, and also detect how often students went over that segment, how long they spent on it, and all that information could be related to how students do on tests about that concept. If students don’t seem to be doing well, then a professor could try a different explanation. And even borrow one from a professor teaching the same subject whose students are doing better. But while all that information is available now, it isn’t being tied together, Mr. Singer said.

Technology companies are only beginning to realize that the tools they created for interactivity—last decade’s education buzzword—are powerful devices for learning analytics—this decade’s hot term. So now they are going to have to work with colleges to connect the dots to teaching outcomes, said Mr. Applegate.

He added that this will also require colleges to agree on desirable teaching and learning outcomes in the first place, something they don’t do now. And that’s another problem.

[Photo by Flickr user LGEPR]

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