Online Education and Personalized Learning

Today I spoke at Brookings India on Online Education and India. One of the things I discussed was how online technology and AI can dynamically adjust content to the needs of an individual learner. An Indian firm, Mindspark, is a leader in mathematics education that is synchronized to an individual student’s actual ability regardless of grade. The ubiquitous Karthik Muralidharan with co-authors Abhijeet Singh and Alejandro Ganimian have an important paper doing a RCT on Mindspark, finding large gains in math ability and also in Hindi ability for students who win vouchers to the program. David Evans at Development Impact the World Bank blog has an excellent post on the Mindspark RCT.

I want to focus on a different issues: the personalization of education is especially important in India because classes often contain students of widely different abilities. Here’s a graph from Muralidharan et al. showing the student’s grade along the horizontal axis with the student’s actual ability on the vertical axis. The students are drawn from a sample of Delhi public schools.


The graph shows two things of importance. First, if most students were operating at grade level the dots/students would be clustered around the blue line. But very few students in grade 6 are operating at a grade 6 level–most are operating at a grade 3 or 4 level and some even at a lower level. The distribution of ability level in the same grade is extreme. No math teacher can be expected to teach students in the same class who are operating at grade levels 2-7. Even if the teacher teaches to the level of the average student the material will go over the heads of many. As a result, many students do not progress. Indeed, the second point is shown by the red line, the best-fit line for academic growth. The growth in achievement is slower than the growth in the standard. As a result, over time students fall further and further behind the standard.

Keeping all students in the same grade at a similar level of ability would be excellent and the best way to do this is by teaching to a student’s actual ability but the only way to do that on an economical basis is through online learning and AI technology.


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