Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Beginning...

As an undergraduate I once planned on becoming a teacher, and was pursuing a dual major in Computing Science and Education - then I spent time volunteering in a local classroom.  While I enjoyed working with students and loved the interactions, I was shocked by the amount of paperwork that consumed the teachers' time and had little to nothing to do with teaching.  This, along with the lack of support in our state for teaching Computing Science led me to shelve my teaching interests in favor of developing others - in the realms of game development, simulation, augmented and virtual reality.  Yet, I did find myself teaching soon enough, at the undergraduate level.  And now, nearly fifteen years since, I find myself coming full-circle, making the decision to pursue an Education Ph.D.

In many ways, this decision has its genesis in Neil Stephenson's excellent novel "The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer." Set in a not-too-distant future, the book centers around the childhood of a vagabond girl Nell, and a sophisticated teaching AI housed within a "magical book" that helps her develop skills to survive in her challenging world.  This wonderful device caused me to re-evaluate my understanding of how teaching could be done, and how the powerful tools I had learned in Computing Science could lend themselves to transforming the way our schools work - eliminating much of that paperwork load, providing more accurate and useful assessments, and giving far better support to our teachers, freeing them to focus on what we've trained and asked them to do - to teach.

It turns out I have not been the only one playing with these ideas - my good friend Tanner pointed me to a school in New York that has been exploring some of the same concepts that have been flitting around in my head for the past five years.  Just watch this short video they have produced:


It's incredible to see what is being accomplished here - we see some of the most powerful tools of Computing Science enabling a new form of education: collecting and mining vast amounts of data about individual students, and using that data to build personalized education plans to ensure that every student reaches their full potential.  It is supplying this guidance back to the teachers, giving them a more in-depth understanding of their students' strengths and weaknesses are than they have ever had before.  It manages the daily schedules of every student and teacher, dynamically scheduling lessons - pairing students, teachers, lessons, and resources based on the student's level of adeptness, ensuring that children never fail to master a necessary skill before embarking on further lessons that depend on that skill.  It's incorporating multiple modalities, selecting the ones that best match an individual student's learning style and needs.

It's a paradigm shift, and one that our nation has been hungering for.  But there's still plenty of work that needs to be done, and it's my intention to add my own humble efforts to this great enterprise.

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