‘Precision Education’ Hopes to Apply Big Data to Lift Diverse Student...

Digital Learning

‘Precision Education’ Hopes to Apply Big Data to Lift Diverse Student Groups

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jul 19, 2017

‘Precision Education’ Hopes to Apply Big Data to Lift Diverse Student Groups

Professors at National University are spending the summer slicing their courses into smaller and smaller pieces, and looking for as many ways to explain each concept as they can. The idea is to replace one-size-fits-all lectures with a range of mix-and-match educational materials, so delivering a course can be done the way a doctor might consider different treatment options for different patients.

Officials are calling the approach “precision education,” a nod to the practice of “precision medicine” that is gaining popularity for cancer treatments and other ailments. And today National University, which specializes in serving nontraditional students, announced that it will spend $20 million over the next three years converting dozens of general-education courses to a precision model.

For Nima Salimi, an adjunct professor at National, that means taking the eight key concepts covered in his introductory biology course and devising 5 or 6 “micro-competencies” for each one. “It’s actually quite challenging as an instructor,” he says. “It’s kind of like one of those questions like ‘Why is the sky blue?’ When you go to actually answer it it gets complicated.” He’ll design short quizzes to test each concept, and make a menu of choices for students to turn to when the results show they need to learn more.

Once he settles on the concepts he wants to cover, Salimi will look around for open education resources or multimedia from textbook publishers to explain each one. And he’ll identify several different materials for each concept. Later, he’ll put the materials into a commercial software developed by Gooru, which will look for patterns in which ones work best for which types of students, and eventually present different options to each learner based on those patterns.

What’s the difference between precision education and personalized learning? To be, er, precise, the goal is not to make a totally unique experience for every student, but to create a few distinct paths of teaching materials. David Andrews, who developed the method while he was dean of the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, says the biggest difference is that it tries to find out where students are in their level of knowledge, and look at what has worked well for similar students in the past.

“We have precious little information about where students currently are and what they’re prepared to do in terms of learning and what they’ve responded to in the past,” he adds. “Locating them in terms of their educational progress is something we have to get much more precise at.”

Andrews, now president of National University, presented the idea to the board of trustees when he took the job last year. He sold it well. Today the university announced a Precision Institute to support the effort and research its effectiveness. Andrews says he hopes to work with other universities as well, and forsees a day when multiple colleges might share precision systems. The more students who go through such system, the better it will get, he believes.

The plan is to offer both traditional versions of courses as well as the new adaptive ones, so that students can choose which approach they like better. “Over time if students are voting with their feet, we will convert as much as we possibly can” to the new format, says Andrews.

New Buzzword?

The notion of looking to precision medicine as inspiration for education is happening at the K-12 level as well.

Sara Hart, a behavioral geneticist at Florida State University’s Florida Center for Reading Research, is also researching precision education. Her idea is to consider genetic factors when delivering education. Since studies have shown that people who have a dyslexic parent are more likely to have dyslexia, she says, perhaps schools should ask students to report family history of any learning disabilities at the start of their education.

“Why don’t we start monitoring them sooner, rather than waiting for them to start to fail?” she asks. “We know that early intervention for reading problems is super effective.”

Some educators question the approach, out of concern that if students with no learning disability are treated as if they have one, it could create a self-fulfilling prophecy or put them on a slower track unnecessarily. But Hart argues that “having more information is better,” and the benefits of early intervention outweighs such concerns.

She says the bigger challenge may be that the approach could cost students more. She is working on a simple questionnaire that could be given to families, asking questions such as whether the parents were good spellers when they were kids. “People tend to know if they were a poor speller—that’s a pretty good proxy,” she says.

Other researchers are experimenting with systems that could deliver different teaching materials to students depending on the answers on such questionnaires, says Hart.

“We’re still maybe a couple five-year grants away from proving to schools that we can get there” with the approach, says Hart.

More Precision Experiments

At the nearby University of Florida, another education researcher recently received nearly $10 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Education for a “precision education” effort.

“I thought I came up with the term,” says Carole R. Beal, a professor in the College of Education there who leads the project. Like the other researchers, she says she set upon the term after following developments in precision medicine. But Beal is most interested in the idea of open data sharing by educators, as is being discussed by some medical professionals.

Beal’s effort will build on a statewide effort to improve student performance on a statewide algebra standard for high school students. The university developed an online tutoring system it calls Algebra Nation, in partnership with a local company called StudyEdge.

They have three years of data from students going through the tutoring system. The question she asks is: “Could we refine it to make it more customized for a particular student?” A year from now they hope to have a new version of Algebra Nation that incorporates the “precision education” approach.

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