‘Digital Tutor’ Adapts to Students [short]

Published August 25, 2012

A newly developed digital tutor incorporates what education expert Michael Horn calls the “holy grail” of education technology: the ability to tailor itself to individual students as they use it. It’s part of a wave of adaptive technology, says Horn, executive director of education at the Innosight Institute.

Education publishing giant McGraw-Hill distributes the program, called “LearnSmart,” as a separately purchased aid to more than 100 of its college textbooks.

“A lot of companies have emerged under the idea that if Netflix can help us find movies that we’d most like based on our prior preferences and Amazon can help us shop, we can figure out what’s most likely to help students learn best,” Horn said.

Students using LearnSmart answer multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank questions, noting their confidence in each answer. The program uses an algorithm to determine the next question, gearing students toward material they don’t know as well.

Students get a customized report of strengths and weaknesses, plus recommendations for specific material to study. LearnSmart costs $24.99 per course.

Efficient, Personalized
“It’s highly personalized. It lets students study in a way that is as efficient as possible. Making studying more efficient for students encourages them to study more,… and it more closely connects students to the learning process,” said Brian Belardi, director of media relations for McGraw-Hill. “They know at all times where they’re at.”

Frank Wray, a University of Cincinnati professor of biology, has been requiring his online students to use LearnSmart for several years.

“I find a very direct correlation between students who complete a [LearnSmart] module and how well they do in the class, so I think for the majority of students, it’s a real benefit to their learning,” he said.

Early Stages of Technology
Adaptive technology is in its early stages, Horn said, and teaching requires more data than predicting book and movie preferences.

“The technology has a super-exciting horizon and potential, but [it’s] very early in terms of collecting the amount of data we need … and being able to better target learning objects for each student,” Horn said.

Adaptive technology will likely work better in more objective subjects and lower-level classes where students are building basic knowledge than in higher-level and discussion-heavy subjects, Horn said.

Belardi said K-12 LearnSmart programs are “nothing I can rule out.”

Image by CityYear.