A-M u s i n g s

Musings are thoughts, the thoughtful kind. For the purpose of these articles, a-musings are thoughts that might amuse, entertain
and even enlighten.

                                                                               Computerized Initiatives in Learning

You know, it just occurred to me, dear reader, that I have not really kept you informed of my progress the past few months; so this week I thought I would rectify that slight omission, if you don’t mind, and if you are interested, of course. Throughout my career, starting in the 1960s, I have been blessed with a mind that questioned everything. I firmly believe that there is always a better way of doing things, even if it means rejecting reforms and initiatives that I have been part of creating. It’s called progress.

You see, in the 60s, technology was beginning to influence teaching. Tape recorders appeared in classrooms making language learning different. Then came language laboratories where students could sit with their headphones on and practise in isolation imitating models on tape. The overhead projector that could project images on to a screen in a well-lit room added visual stimulation and, incidentally, removed the need for tedious hours of writing examples on the blackboard.

The methodology of teaching changed with the advent of new technologies. Slowly but surely the teacher’s central role in the classroom developed into more of a supporting role. The teacher was there to help and encourage, and not necessarily to dictate and lead. Then came computer labs, and once the Internet took hold, then a whole new universe of information, some good, some bad, became accessible to just about everyone. I suppose it is true to say that English became a world language due to the unique role played by the British Empire. The Brits spoke English, and the rest of the world had to follow. Well, that’s more or less what has happened yet again. Internet English is the world’s language.

I have spent a great deal of time in recent months with kids aged between 9 and 13 from all sorts of different linguistic backgrounds, and one outstanding feature of their educational development towers above all others: they all understand and speak English to an unprecedented degree, not because their teachers have suddenly become more proficient at teaching but because the kids themselves have become more motivated through their ardent, fervent quest for success at online games, games that have developed from isolationist activities for single players to competitive, cooperative team games that can be played between kids sitting in front of computers miles apart. And most of these games demand that the players understand the universal language: English.

In the old days, I can recall following kids from, say, the age of 5 up to 15 and I could be quite certain that I personally was responsible for all the English they knew because I was their only source of information. Today, no such control exists. Kids have access to so many sources that it is impossible to know what they know, what they don’t know and what bad habits they might have picked up and what misinformation they might have gathered, which brings me back to what I wanted to talk about today.

Computers in education offer so many alternatives; they make individualization a reality; they perform a multitude of onerous, time-consuming tasks in seconds; they provide individual solutions; they adapt to the speed of their operators; computers are docile; they do what they are told. So it occurred to me that I should come up with a new methodology. Instead of merely using diagnostic tests to find out how much students have learned during a course, our starting point is to discover how much they already know, and how many misconceptions they have managed to pick up before they even start, which does not, of course, preclude the traditional uses of diagnostic instruments..

So that is what I am presently busy with. The work involves the production of a catalogue of English language items – a sort of list of every possible mistake a student can make – that can be included in a battery of diagnostic tests, which computers correct, analyzing the results in seconds. Errors made almost always have a variety of causes so it is essential that students be guided to an even more extensive battery of remedial exercises that allows them not only to stop making these errors but also addresses the underlying reasons for them. In recent trials we have been able to process more than 120,000 tests in under three days. For teachers, it is a hands-off process. Students log on, take the tests, and immediately get the results and guidance on how to proceed. The computer continues to generate remedial work until the student is satisfied; some will be happy with what might be a passing grade, others will strive for a 100% success rate. Computerized, individualized learning has come of age. Students are in charge; they set the pace.

Well, that’s what I’m up to, and I’m loving every minute of it. The reception among educators wherever I go in the world is overwhelming. Like all good ideas, its simplicity is seductive, and its advantages for students, teachers and administrators everywhere painlessly obvious.

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