Engaged Learning, Backed by Gates Foundation, Adapts to Each Student
When University of Washington computer science professor Zoran Popović describes his effort to dramatically change the way kids learn math, you can pick up echoes of personalized medicine, targeted online advertisements, and even choose-your-own adventure books.
As in virtually every other sphere of business and life, the technology-driven transformation of education from a data-poor to a data-rich field is creating the potential for innovation. And data is at the heart of what Engaged Learning, a nonprofit founded by Popović and backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is trying to do.
The Engaged Learning system is designed to monitor a student’s answer to each new question, and adjust the next question in real-time—though, more realistically, on a daily basis—to address that student’s specific challenges, level of engagement, and readiness to advance toward mastery of a subject. Each new data point gathered on a student informs what the system does next.
This automated, adaptive curriculum should, in Popović’s words, understand “exactly what the kid is thinking about, and exactly the kind of new light bulb that’s about to illuminate in their heads.”
The 11-person Seattle organization is building what it describes as a platform capable of turning an ordinary curriculum into one that adapts to each individual student’s pace of learning, automatically measures and propagates the best teachers’ best practices across K-12 classrooms and schools, and generates reams of new content to ensure that struggling students can get the amount of practice they need to master a subject.
That might sound like a big, audacious promise, but Engaged Learning has years of research behind it and says it is gaining traction within its target market. The nonprofit is planning 10-week trial implementations with Washington schools this fall and is in discussions with seven large educational publishers, which would use its software to add capabilities to their curricula, Popović says. Assessment companies are interested in the technology, as well. “They need a way to automatically generate a huge amount of content that they curate towards assessments. With the emergence of Common Core standards, this becomes more important,” he says.
The company was created a little over a year ago to translate to a broader K-12 curriculum the novel approach taken in a highly successful algebraic math game developed by the UW Center for Game Science, which Popović directs. By adapting to the way each individual player is learning, the game helped more than 93 percent of players master arbitrary complex linear equations in about 90 minutes. (Mastery here means they were able to complete three problems—such as solve for x: a*x+b=c+d—with no errors or extra steps.) He says this approach could apply not just in math—though that’s the natural place to start—but also subjects like reading comprehension and science.
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