Friday, November 13, 2009

The radical little quiz

There's got to be a ton of research on this, right? When it comes right down to it, most of the Pearson MyLab products, which I have spun out a good number of electrons praising in this space, is learning by testing. And then remediating. After all, when is a person's mind more focused than when trying to get the answers right?

I posited an interest in the question of learning by quiz during my session on the End of Book Learning at Elliott Masie's Learning 2009 conference, and I got a follow-up from an energetic attendee who wanted me to discover SpacedEd. Which I have now done, and about which I can now say... okay, cool.

Here's what it does. You sign up for a course, and you get one quiz question a day. Or, every other day if that's too much for your hectic lifestyle. They email you the question. You answer it. They tell you if you're right or wrong. They provide some feedback, reasons, material that further explains the correct answer. Then they tell you when they're going to send you the same question again. Which you can opt out of. In addition, there is a place to make comments and read comments, so that the wisdom of the crowd can add context and application, not to mention some occasional humor.

That's it. Ho hum. Except that this little thing is based on two very well-researched principles: The Spacing Effect, and the Testing Effect. Both are well-explained at Here's something about the former, lifted from the SpacedEd website:

"Since its discovery in the late 19th century by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, the spacing effect has been extensively studied. Even though this research has repeatedly demonstrated the spacing effect’s potent ability to improve learning retention, these findings have only had limited translation into formal educational practice. Recently, the spacing effect was found to have a distinct neurophysiological basis: Sisti et al (2007) showed that spaced learning in rats improved neuronal longevity in the hippocampus (a region of the brain which is important for long-term memory). "

I love this. Not just because of the reference to a rat's hippocampus, which you rarely get in educational literature these days, but also because I think this is important. I think it's innovative. And it has some very Web 2.0 implications. There's a reason no one has paid attention to this research, and that is because it doesn't fit the process of education. But now, because of Web 2.0, the traditional process of education is all set up to be deconstructed and reconstructed based on research and practice just like this.

Think about it; the entire structure of the education edifice up through and including Web 1.0 was based on the Learning Herd Effect. I just made that term up, but what I mean is that most of the peculiarities of education spring directly out of the need to run large numbers of students through a gamut of some sort and have them come out the other side educated. The Industrial Revolution required, or at least inspired, educators to create grade levels, classes, semesters, credit hours, letter grades, grade-point averages... all for what purpose? To organize the great Herd of Learners. The problems solved by our now-rarely-questioned infrastructure were similar in nature to the problems solved by Disney in the Magic Kingdom, or EPCOT. How do we get huge numbers of people in limited physical space to have the same or similar experience day after day, year after year, at an acceptable level of quality?

Now let's think about the problems that this solution created. It required all learning to take place inside the boxed walls of some room. The boxes may be labs, or simple classrooms, and there may be an occasional field trip, but the point stands. It assumed, by necessity, that all learning, ALL learning mind you, could be divided up into equal parts and be delivered in regular, timed intervals within those boxes. It further assumed that everyone could be made to learn at the same pace, at least everyone who was within the same box at the same time. The teacher was required to do the herding, and to whatever extent possible, leveling of material. So what we got from all that is what we still have, a process-based education that really has little bearing on what the outcome of the process may be. Some students may have learned a lot, some only a little. Some will have been just-shoot-me bored, others just-shoot-me challenged. Doesn't matter, we're solving a people-moving problem, so sit back down and listen up.

Enter Web 1.0. What did we do? We created little boxes online. We even called them classrooms. We boxed the same couple of dozen learners together, following along the same process, dividing the learning up into the same weekly, semester-long schedule. We brought the people-moving solution into a world where there was no people-moving problem.

Now we've got a Web 2.0 world. That means that we can think about what the web can do that can't be done in the physical world. We finally understand that an online environment is not "virtual reality," it is reality using technology, just as we grew up knowing that a phone call is not "virtual conversation," but real conversation using technology. We're no longer stuck with mimicking the physical world and its people-moving problems. And yet we still do it. Most of the Web 2.0 solutions being brought into online Learning Management Systems and Course Management Systems are tacked on, preserving the classes, class sizes, semesters, schedules, all of it. We still artificially divide all the learning up into equal-sized chunks, and we still require learners to group up and let some be bored while others drown.

Which brings us back to this little SpacedEd community. What I like is that it breaks most if not all those structures. It is designed from the learner back, from the research back, and it doesn't give a hoot and a half about any of the Learning Herd Effect solutions. It's about what you can learn when you aren't tethered.

Now you could argue that this device has its own artificial structures, built into the one-question-a-day method. What if I want two questions a day? Or three? And I wouldn't have much with which to argue back. But the point is not whether this structure is better than that one. The point is that here is a radical little quiz that is making an enormously good case for the power of Web 2.0 to upend the mammoth Learning Herd structure of education, and replace it, or even just parts of it, with real, provable, outcomes-based learning that fits no other mold. The box is entirely gone, vanished, beside the point. Learning is the point.

And I like that.

1 comment:

  1. The way I heard about the "spaced ed" process was 1)present material 2)repeat in 10 mins. 3)2hours 4)8 hrs 5)2 days 6)14 days or something like that. It was in Peter Russell's Brain Book in about 1988.

    Whatever the correct timing turns out to be, I don't think classroom or Web2.0 is what makes the difference. It is simply the timed interval for review of the material. All the current Web offers is the ability to automate the timing. You can do it just as easily with flash cards put in piles to be reviewed after the appropirate interval. Whether the learner uses piles of papers or email messages the learner still has to show up at the right intervals to do the review.

    For some additional ideas about how to use the Web to alter the basic structures of educational systems, check out my wiki at:

    Please don't hesitate to join the wiki and add your thoughts, responses - both positive and negative and further ideas.