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A feature article in Scientific American magazine examines the national shift to data-driven, personalized learning practices. It opens in a fully interactive classroom in the School of Mathematics and Statistical Sciences in Arizona State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Sophomore Arnecia Hawkins, a member of the Sun Devil’s women’s basketball team, is calculating annuities – learning from a machine and interacting one-on-one with mathematician David Heckman.
The article examines ASU and other institutions' decisions – and the benefits – to move to computerized learning: "Arizona State administrators went looking for a more efficient way to shepherd students through basic general-education requirements – particularly those courses, such as college math, that disproportionately cause students to drop out. A few months after hearing a pitch by Jose Ferreira, the founder and CEO of the New York City adaptive-learning start-up Knewton, Arizona State made a big move. That fall, with little debate or warning, it placed 4,700 students into computerized math courses. Last year some 50 instructors coached 7,600 Arizona State students through three entry-level math courses running on Knewton software. By the fall of 2014 ASU aims to adapt six more courses, adding another 19,000 students a year to the adaptive-learning ranks."
Hawkins reports that she liked the self-pacing, which “allowed her to work ahead on her own time, either from her laptop or from the computer lab.” For Heckman, the program allowed him to more easily track his students' performance: “He could open a dashboard that told him, in granular detail, how each student was doing – not only who was on track and who was not but who was working on any given concept. Heckman says he likes lecturing better, but he seems to be adjusting. One definite perk for instructors: the software does most of the grading for them.”
Research has shown an increase in student success when traditional lectures are replaced with active learning exercises that promote this interactive approach. In addition to mathematics, ASU has rapidly embraced these new, proven learning tools and launched other classrooms. For example, in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, the course “Habitable Worlds” has been developed by President’s Professor Ariel Anbar and instructors Steve Semken and Lev Horodyskyj with funding from the National Science Foundation. Active learning classrooms have also been launched in the School of Life Sciences to teach genetics, evolution and neurobiology.
According to the Scientific American article, while the shift has professors making big adjustments from lecturer to mentor, the expectation "is that generational turnover could make these computerized methods of instruction and testing, so foreign now, unremarkable, as they are for Arizona State's Hawkins and her classmates," notes Phil Regier, ASU's executive vice provost and dean of ASU Online.
“With this technology, we can nurture skills required by most employers today – skills that traditional lecture halls simply don’t have the capacity to build,” notes Bina Vanmali, an instructional professional and biology education researcher in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “This innovative classroom helps students learn teamwork, collaboration and communication, and ultimately, will help them when they land their first jobs out of college.”
In addition to the piece in Scientific American, ASU's investment in adaptive-learning initiatives was noted by President Obama in his speech on college affordability on Aug. 22, and also was reported in Inside Higher Ed.