New Teaching Tools

Gary King and Maya Sen discuss some of innovative ways that they use technology to teach Gary’s legendary class in statistics and social science at Harvard. Here is one bit

Instead of prohibiting smart phones in class, we require them …We then automatically deliver to their device a difficult conceptual question. We then give students a few minutes without discussion to reflect on the question and to indicate their answer on their device.

…Next, our system automatically puts students into groups of 2–5 [the system tells the students which other students to talk with and where to move in the classroom to find their group, AT]…We use an empirical approach to create the groups so that the conversation will be maximally productive. This is a system that is continually
updated, but for predictors we begin with data collected to characterize each student at the
start of the semester and add each student’s initial answer to the question just asked, their
answers to all previous CAPI questions and answers, their experience in the system, and
how productive previous CAPI discussions they participated in were. Finally, data from
thousands of other similar students in hundreds of other classrooms taking similar courses
can be used as well.

We then ask the students to try to persuade the other members of their group of the
veracity of their answers. Since social connections motivate, we often get highly animated
discussions…Since teaching teaches the teacher, the students trying to persuade their
classmates improves their understanding of the subject matter.

…We then deliver the same question to each student’s device again and have them answer
it. A minute or two later we project on the screen in front of the classroom a summary
of the answers before and after discussion, which gives them immediate feedback.

…When it works best — which, like in survey research, is primarily a function of us
asking sufficiently clear questions — the proportion of correct student answers increases
from 20% to more than 80%.

Note that this particular technology recommendation is a bit of plumping for Gary’s company with Eric Mazur, Learning Catalytics. Nevertheless, I think these types of technologies pair very well with online education. It’s a mistake to think that online education is just delivery of lectures–online lecture delivery is merely a leading example of how information technology is revolutionizing education.


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