Sunday, November 2, 2008

Technology might be the answer, but not to this question.

Dangerously Irrelevant posted the other day

Can a computer lecture better than a human?
I’m going to prime the pump a little bit for my K12 Online presentation next week… My fifth-grade daughter’s math homework this weekend required her to find out what a radian or a grad was (hint: both are ways besides degrees to measure angles). We hit ye olde Google and quickly found this helpful (and free) learning activity from Wisconsin Online.

I'd like for all of the people reading this to follow that link and see if you see what I saw. Then come back and finish here.

Interesting that none of the viewers of this pleasant little graphic actually learned enough to notice that one of the slides in the presentation was incorrect. The commenters on Dangerously Irrelevant were all effusive in their praise of this wonderful new tool for education called technology. The commenters on wisc-online were as well - it's so much better than school!

Aside to people: if you're going to praise something, check your grammer. Typos can be forgiven but incoherence is another matter.

"This website is what our entire culture will be like in the future when society is truly and educational and deschooled (read Ivan Illich) one, straight talk free and available to the public, instead of academia building walls around information. How many thousands of dollars would I have had to give a bank to get a school to tell me, pretending theres no other way, what this site alone has taught me? Many thanks."


Interesting, too, that wisconsin-online has not corrected the slide.

The real problem here is that this style of education - this Death by Poweroint animation model - is touted as the paragon of education. "Bam! Ten minutes later my daughter and I had learned what a radian was (the animation was much more helpful than the mere definitions that we found), answered correctly all of the self-assessment questions, and were ready to move forward."
"It’s going to become unbelievably easy to find a variety of ways other than text to learn about almost anything we want."

Well, not really. You found a definition and answered three multiple-choice questions.

Let's look in more detail at the "wonderful job" this thing does.

page 3 says "click next to learn why they chose 360" - and shows a circle divided into 72 sections. Hmmmm.

Page 4 puts out a reason that is NOT the most likely, isn't the one accepted by scholars or even Wikipedia. It doesn't mention any other reasons, reasons which are more likely and more reasonable if you credit the Babylonians with any brains at all. Unfortunately this animation just assumes they miscounted the number of days in a year, something they knew quite well. Interesting.

I can't complain about the animations too much. The animations ARE useful. I would probably use one myself if I hadn't already had several versions of it. Mine don't have the straight red line extending a bit as it gets wraps around the circle but most kids wouldn't notice that happening.

I also don't like the habit of filling in the sector to represent the angle. It's an unnecessary multimedia "feature" that doesn't help understanding. I'm probably just quibbling, though.

page 12 is really quick with no additional explanations - I can't see students accepting that fact without questions or discussion.

page 16 is just wrong. Think about it -- page 14 just got done saying that pi radians is a half-circle. (That's 3.14 radians for those asking) The page 16 figure has three radii as being MORE than a half-circle. This is such a simple error to fix, yet no one has. WHY? Can it be that the creator did not realize the error himself and that no one has pointed it out? Again, why has no one pointed it out? - because all the information on the internet is true, as far as most students are concerned. Who dares question the great shiny box?

This is the problem with computerized learning, internet information, wikipedia, and many other "modern" methods of learning -- it seems so good because it's colorful and mostly accurate, yet contains mistakes that are fundamental and should have been obvious. These mistakes arise because the programmers are not math people, and math people are generally not programmers. More, those programmers are very often teenagers with an imperfect grasp of the material, but have the time to waste creating Wikipedia content.

It seemed somewhat amateurish, like something I'd get if I assigned it's creation to my 11th graders. The fact that it's held up as the model for the next generation of teachers is disturbing and bears witness to the folly of depending on the top results from Google to answer much more than trivia questions.

By the way,
All of the math teachers I know who have seen this recognized the errors as fast as I.


DI replied:
Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Of course textbooks have errors too, and often teachers miss those as well. We can't blame the medium (Web or print), only our authors and fact-checkers. I appreciate you giving me some food for thought for today!


As quick reply and follow on, then I'm going back to checking homework papers.

Fixed stays fixed.
I agree that books have errors, but mostly in the problem solutions or in some area that is left to the graduate students to flesh out. The teachers I know take great pride in finding those errors and the students great satisfaction at noticing and correcting an error in the supposedly perfect text. An error, once found, remains corrected. Internet errors, especially Wikipedia errors, have an amazing ability to resurrect themselves. I am reminded of the case of a man who couldn't correct his own biography - the teenaged uber-user kept rewriting it and finally locked him out. How many other errors are there?

The second issue with "Textbooks are wrong, too" is the frequency. True, textbooks have errors, but far fewer than the information I typically find on the web.

Book errors are usually due to oversight or grad student miscalculation. They are rarely errors in fact or method. The errors on the web are due to not only typographical or "understandable" mistakes - I would include page 16 above - but also of the intentionally misleading (what politics calls spin), intentionally incorrect and nasty (see or just plain boneheaded nonsense.

I don't mean to pick on your one line, but the flexible and ever-changing nature of the medium demands that factual and methodological errors be fixed as soon as possible. I don't see that happening in very many cases.

Does internet reference ever work? Wolfram, yes. Wikipedia, only when it's a fact-based question that can be easily checked. Wisc-online - as far as I can tell. General websites, almost never - you just can't trust the answers unless you already know them.

Internet learning can be valuable - fix the errors above and that would be a good explanation of radians. But how are students supposed to know what's good and not? The previous commenters and reviewers and website users all took that little tutorial and none realized the errors. And that's a single page on a generally good site.

These ARE the fault of the medium as it is today and we must lay the blame at its feet or the medium will never change or improve. Is it a deal killer? No, but it worries me.

The whole lipstick on a pig thing.

But then, I don't want to be political.

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