Sunday, July 25, 2010

Why does most "educational" software...umm...suck?

As a supplement to my pursuit of graduate and post-graduate degrees, I recently purchased some educational software. While I do indeed have respect for Dr. Wayne and Company, I have to admit that the material left a lot to be desired.

It's not as if they are alone in their failure to meet my expectations. It seems to be axiomatic that much of what passes for e-learning technology is of a substandard quality when it comes to imparting the desired knowledge to the student. This is a nice way of saying that it sucks.

What's sad is that the shortcomings of the material aren't so much related to their content (in fact, in most cases, the content is indeed accurate and comprehensive) as they are to theirpresentation. The fact is that humans are not machines; we do not learn things by having information fed to us the way you might, say, "feed" information to your PC by inserting a USB stick into the front panel. No - it's way more complicated.

A cursory familiarity with cognitive science will inform the reader that the process of learning involves (on the abstract level) forming and refining associations between concepts, and (on the physical level) forming and reinforcing connections - literal, physical, electrical-chemical connections - between neurons and synapses. Most educational software applications, however, consist of large blobs of informational content, followed by a quiz at the end of each large blob (section/lesson) which tests one's memorization of the contents previously presented.

The problem with this methodology is......we retain only about 10 percent of what we read and/or view. However, when the content (that which is read or viewed) is accompanied by, say, an interactive exercise, voluntary repetition, or an illustration which forges an analogy between what is being learned and what is already understood - then this 10 percent figure increases dramatically.

So what do I plan to do differently when I develop my own suite of educational software applications?

  1. The flow of the learning will be punctuated - at frequent but unpredictable intervals - by "pop quizzes".
  2. The software will take note of the learner's accuracy in answering questions, and will dynamically alter the learning content accordingly.
  3. Many quizzes will feature questions that are partially answered. As the learner develops proficiency, the degree to which questions which follow will be answered will decrease - leaving more for the learner to fill in.
  4. Some exercises will be presented in the form of games.
  5. Illustrations, which form analogies between the lesson being taught and concepts the learner is already familiar with, will be a predominating feature.

This, of course, is a complex topic. There is more to come after I do some more research.

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