The DEMML™ blog is about the Distributable Educational Material Markup Language™,
an XML standard being developed by Grant Sheridan Robertson.
Learn more about learning more at www.DEMML.org

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Introduction to DEMML Powerpoint

I don't know why I never posted this, but here is a link to the PowerPoint I used for my Apiron presentation about DEMML.  Below is the text of my notes for that presentation:

    • Introduction
      • Did you know that, despite the growing population, the worldwide birth rate is relatively stable at about 140 Million per year? My Educational Psychology teacher told us that, on average, new teachers stay on the job for only two years. Assuming 12 school years per person and a conservative estimate of 30 students per classroom, according to my back of the envelope calculation, exactly 1/5 of all people born, that's 28 million per year, would have to choose to become teachers just to keep up.  To put this number in perspective, that's more than the entire total population of  New York City, Los Angeles,  Chicago, Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Dallas, San Diego, San Jose, Detroit, San Francisco, and Jacksonville, Florida combined, all deciding to become teachers every single year.  Completely disregarding all the other problems we have in the education system, it is clear we can never produce enough teachers to keep up.


    • Back of the envelope calculation.


    • Quite frankly, the only way we have been able to "keep up" so far is to simply let the majority of the world population go uneducated, which I consider completely unacceptable.
    • Clearly we need a different solution.
    • What follows is an overview of my vision for that solution.
    • "Brief" definition of DEMML
      • The Distributable Educational Material Markup Language™ (DEMML™) is both an data format for storing educational material in a highly structured yet incredibly flexible manner and a system for authenticating and distributing that content for independent or shared use throughout the world, even where there is no internet connection. This material is organized and classified to a degree never before attempted, using what turns out to be a rather simple system of encoding the hierarchical tree of all possible educational material right down to the paragraph - or even sentence - level. This allows anyone to easily contribute any amount of material to what will hopefully grow to be a vast library of vetted content for all to use. In addition the format facilitates a new level of flexibility in computer based learning by allowing educators to specify what material the student should study while still allowing the student instant access to additional material as their needs require. Multiple different explanations or presentations can exist for any one fact within any very specific topic. This allows any student at any level to quickly find just the right explanation that helps them most efficiently understand the topic at hand. To be clear, DEMML™ is not just another Computer Based Training system. Instead, it is a way of creating a library of educational material in a standardized format which all compatible Computer Based Training systems can instantly draw from, with no manual editing whatsoever.

    • Core Aspects of DEMML
      • DEMML has quite a few core features that make it unique:
      • Break it down
        • First we have to break down all educational content into the smallest reasonable topics and delineate the individual facts or concepts within those topics. This will require time spent with organizations expert in each of the different academic disciplines to define what all the different topics should be. Each topic is stored completely separately from the others so they can be presented in any order necessary or desired. 
    Animation of cutting up textbook and separating paragraphs.
    • Organize it
      • All that educational content will be organized into a gigantic hierarchical tree with a classification and coding system that is designed to allow additional topics and sub-topics to be inserted at any point in the tree without adjusting the existing content.
    Picture of tree from Shunga Trail
    Fade to background. Overlay graphics of folder structure and branch metaphor from web site.
    • Metadata
      • Metadata is added so software can better choose which content to present when. This metadata will include things like:
        • Learning style.
          • Learning Style
        • Prerequisites.
          • Prerequisites
          • Not just that someone has taken a particular course, but that they already know a specific fact that is necessary to understand the current topic being studied.
        • Difficulty level.
          • Difficulty Level
        • Thread.
          • Sometimes it is best to keep the same theme or "thread" when moving from one topic to another. Assigning named threads will allow software to choose content that is associated with the same thread as other content the student has studied before. This provides familiarity for easier learning.
        • Hardware and software requirements
          • Hardware and software requirements for displaying this particular content.
        • Other
          • And any other type of information that may help software choose the best content to present to the student.
    Animated mind map adding all this information about the information.
    • Multiple explanations for each topic or fact
      • One of the primary problems with all current education systems is that they are applied in a one-size-fits-all manner. DEMML allows multiple, different explanations for each different topic or fact so that just the right explanation can be presented to and/or chosen by the student. Each different explanation is given a unique code and is treated as a separate entity, or "Item."
    Animation of adding multiple different paragraphs in stacks for each different topic.
    • Multiple questions for each fact or concept.
      • DEMML allows a large variety of questions all about the same concept, which ensures that students are learning the concepts rather than just memorizing specific answers to specific questions.
    Slide in a stack of questions and problems.
    • Unlimited possibilities in content
      • Anything that can appear on a web page can appear in DEMML content. This could be simply text and diagrams like what is in textbooks now, or videos, audio clips, animations, or even interactive simulations. And so you don't think DEMML is all about sitting in front of the computer all day, it even can recommend outside learning activities such as lab experiments, collaborative projects, or identifying specimens found in nature. Anything that can be done in a regular classroom or out of class activities.
    Collage of different kinds of educational content.
    • Contribution and vetting
      • Anyone will be able to contribute content but it will be vetted by certified educators and experts.
    • Store and forward data transfer
      • The content is designed to be delivered in a store and forward manner so no internet connection is required to transfer or study the content.
    Final slide from DEMML communication PowerPoint.
    • Syllabuses and lesson plans
      • Teachers can easily produce electronic syllabuses to specify which topics students are to learn, by which dates. As well as lesson plans, which contain no actual content but are merely lists of specific explanations to be studied.
    Large outline representing topics.
    • Students can also create their own syllabuses indicating what they are interested in learning.
    Add in small outline.
    • Spaced Repetition
      • Spaced Repetition is when content is re-presented, or questions are asked, at timed intervals. Those intervals grow semi-exponentially which has been shown to increase learning and long term retention. However, the time intervals and the exact rate of increase which is most conducive to learning is different not only for each student but for each different piece of material learned. Only a computer can accurately calculate and keep track of this much data. There are already many flashcard programs that make use of spaced repetition. Unfortunately they only track learning patterns for specific question and answer pairs rather than for all the questions that pertain to a specific concept.
    Just a diagram showing the forgetting curve but adjusted for each repetition.
    • While DEMML does not do spaced repetition in and of itself, the way DEMML content is structured allows  software to easily make use of the content when quizzing students. However, rather than just asking the same question over and over again, the software can choose from any of the multiple questions associated with a specified topic or fact.
    • Study anywhere on almost any device.
      • Because the metadata indicates the hardware and software requirements, software can automatically select only appropriate content to transfer to users' various devices.
    Collage of multiple different devices.

    • User Interaction
      • Install software
        • In order to use DEMML content, students can install any compatible software they choose.
        • I hope to promote the creation of open source as well as proprietary software.
      • Import syllabuses and/or lesson plans
        • Next, users will import syllabuses and/or lesson plans obtained from teachers or any other source.
      • Obtain content.
        • The software will then know what content to obtain and import based on:
          • All the different syllabuses and lesson plans that have been imported
          • What the student already knows
          • As well as the prerequisites for all the specified topics.
      • Initial Learning
        • Based on this, the software chooses the most appropriate content to present to the student next. Student's can choose to study one particular subject in depth, follow a lesson plan or just take what comes in little pieces. If they don't understand the first explanation, students can instantly choose a different one, or a video or other format.
      • Study
        • Using spaced repetition, the software has the students review material, asks questions about the material, and presents problems that require knowledge and understanding of the material, all to reinforce their learning.
      • Testing
        • Although DEMML is not designed to administer evaluative tests, its vast storehouse of questions can be used by teachers to automatically generate tests based upon all that metadata.
      • Just bullet points for the different steps.
    • Differences from other systems.
      • So, what are some of the differences between DEMML and existing "systems"
      • The Internet
        • First we have the internet itself:
        • However, it is definitely not organized.
        • And searching for a very specific explanation can take hours.
      • Wikipedia
        • With Wikipedia, content is not vetted.
        • Nor is it stable. The articles can change at any time. Once content is officially accepted into DEMML, it can not be edited. If someone thinks they can write a better explanation they can do that, but it will be an entirely new explanation which is hopefully better suited to a different set of students than the original.
        • Finally, Wikipedia has only one version of any explanation so it is a one-size-fits-all proposition.
      • Lesson Plan Repositories
        • There are repositories of lesson plans available on the internet.
        • Unfortunately, they are poorly organized.
          • Lessons are usually merely grouped by major classification such as Biology, or Math.
          • And the metadata usually consists of simply listing what grade level the content is designed for.
        • It is difficult to find what is needed.
        • Once teachers have found something close to what they need, it often must be hand edited to adapt it for their specific purpose.
        • Once adapted, the lesson is still applied in a one-size-fits-all manner to an entire classroom.
      • Computer Based Training programs
        • Computer based training is often nothing much more than click-ware.
        • It is expensive to create therefore expensive to obtain.
        • If the software is good then the content may be poor or vice versa.
          • DEMML separates content from software so anyone can create different software to use the same library of content.
        • Though the developer of computer based training software can allow for variations in student ability, it is up to the content author to foresee all possible scenarios. If a particular scenario is not provided for when the software is produced then the student is out of luck. So, again, the one-size-fits-all (or at most just a few) problem.
        • Finally, it is very difficult to tell exactly everything that is in one of these programs before you buy it, so you have to go by general reviews and hope for the best.
    • Work to be done:
      • DEMML is still very much a work "in progress." I still have to:
        • Complete the rest  of the standard
        • Work with various educational associations to develop the hierarchical tree of topics.
        • Assign codes to all those topics
        • Start creating content.
        • Develop prototype software.
        • Get enough people on board that it will start to take off on its own.
    • Conclusion:
      • I believe, using DEMML, students will be able to learn much faster and retain what they learn far longer. As long as they want, in fact. I believe this will usher in a new age of what I call Ubiquitous Super-Education. Imagine if almost everyone on the planet had at least a college level education and they actually remembered almost everything they learned. Imagine if even ten percent had a graduate level education. Imagine the solutions that could be discovered. Imagine just how fast we could progress as a people.
      • Only when students can easily obtain and master all the material necessary for a course of study entirely on their own will they be free of the barriers that stand between them and knowledge. Only when everyone in the world has free and easy access to all the education they want or need will we be able to overcome the suffering created when the uneducated are left to fend for themselves against the unscrupulous.
      • To learn more go to www.demml.org



This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Star Trek and Vygotsky

I wrote this essay for my Educational Psychology class. We were assigned to take a movie about teachers and "reflect" on how one of the educational theories we were learning about had been applied within the context of the movie. Not being a big fan of movies about teachers, I asked if I could use an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation instead.


Star Trek and Vygotsky: How Vygotsky's theories, when taken too far, can result in poor education as illustrated in an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation

by Grant S. Robertson

The various theories of educational psychology are most often brought to mind in a classroom setting. This may be the college classroom in education departments all over the world, where they are first learned, or in our children’s classrooms where teachers put those theories to work. However, examples of these theories often show up where they are not usually expected. The reader may be familiar with the many books and movies – usually based on the books – depicting real and fictional teachers succeeding in “bringing the tough cases around” or “breaking through” to troubled kids in underprivileged schools. This theme is so common that it has become almost formulaic. Things always seem to work so perfectly and in such short order that the cynical among us may be excused for believing them to be fantasy. So, what might happen if we accept the fact that film and television really are just fantasy and examine instances where education is exhibited in these realms? How might it reflect education as it exists in the real world?

Science fiction has a long tradition of exploring human nature and society in “what-if” situations and offers many fantasy realms from which to choose. Some are quite imaginative, though without much internal cohesion. Others have a long tradition of maintaining internal consistency and relevance to the real world. One such science-fiction realm is the world of Star Trek. Many are only familiar with the original series launched in the 1960s. However there were many spin-offs from that first series. Their large fan base keeps them consistent and in touch with today’s reality. The first spin-off, called “Star Trek, The Next Generation” includes a character named “Data” who is actually an android but who is written to explore many aspects of human nature.

In one episode, Commander Data crash lands on a “primitive” planet whose inhabitants have reached the technological level of Earth’s dark ages with many myths and misconceptions about science and the world around them. The crash damages the android so that he develops “amnesia” which allows him to function but cannot remember any of his past or any of the scientific or technological facts he has been programmed to know. However, he still has an intuitive sense for how things work. Data is befriended by a community and begins to live among them. One day he chances to observe a lesson being taught by the local school-teacher. In it she explains the ancient notion that all matter is composed of just four “elements:” earth, water, fire, and air. In the lesson she demonstrates how by adding fire to a stick, she can release the air (smoke) that is in the stick and leave only the earth (ashes) behind, thus proving that the stick is composed of earth and air. Naturally, we know this to be utter hogwash, and Commander Data was a bit perplexed though he didn’t know why. He just “knew” that this explanation was too simplistic.

When Data questioned the teacher about her lesson, she replied that that was the way things worked and she knew this because it had been handed down by learned individuals before her. This is a perfect example of Lev Vygotsky’s theory of culture-based learning run amuck. Vygotsky claimed that all learning came from an individual’s culture. That we can – or should – only learn what is taught to us by our elders or those in authority. (Considering that Vygotsky came from Soviet Russia, this author tends to think that he meant the latter.) Those who know their history should know that the above example is not just science-fiction fantasy. The “four elements” “theory” of matter was pervasive for hundreds of years, believed for no other reason than that it was taught by those in authority. Naturally, we like to believe that only the people in the dark-ages would be gullible enough to fall for something so silly. But we see many common myths promulgated by our education system even today. “Abraham Lincoln never told a lie.” “George Washington inexplicably chopped down a cherry tree and then confessed” (but only when asked - in typical politician fashion). “The definition of ‘theory’ is something that hasn’t been proven.”

This last is particularly important because it seems to come up again and again, but only seems to be selectively applied to one aspect of modern science by people who seem hell-bent, as it were, to destroy the very foundations of science itself. The definition of “theory” is clearly stated in many science textbooks. It is an explanation for a collection of scientific principles that is widely supported by facts and a preponderance of physical evidence. No one claims that the “Theory of Gravity” isn’t proven. Even Vygotsky gets to claim his notion that all learning should come from culture and “the authorities” is a “theory” and no one doubts him. But challenge something that is widely believed – and believed merely because it is promulgated by some who claim to be in authority – and suddenly the accepted definitions don’t apply. Suddenly something that is supported by more evidence than almost any other scientific theory is claimed to not be proven because it is a “theory” and something with no evidence to support it whatsoever should be taught merely because charlatans masquerading as authorities have attached the six letters “T H E O R Y” after its name.

Yes, “Creationism” is the “Four Elements Theory” of the twenty first century. The “Four Horses” of the demise of scientific thought all rolled into one, to stretch a metaphor.  It’s proponents want to set American Education back to a time before there even was an America. A time when “the way things are” is determined by how much authority is claimed by those promulgating the “theory.” Yes, culture can, does, and should play a part in what and how we teach our children. But Vygotsky got it dead wrong when he claimed that culture should be have the lead role, reciting a running monologue and shutting out all the other actors in the guild. Culture should play a part but a small, bit part that says its lines and gets off of the stage. Real research and real evidence must play the lead roles in what and how we teach our children. From science, to history, to gym class. We must be sure that how and what we are teaching is based on evidence, not tradition. Science, not authority. If we can’t give at least this to our children then we might as well just give up and accept the same culture that lead Vygotsky to create his “theory” in the first place.


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Star Trek and Vygotsky by Grant Sheridan Robertson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Letter to Developers

To any developers interested in contributing to DEMML:

I am currently still working on the XML schema. It will be relatively involved and I am currently working entirely alone, so it may take me a while. If you already know about XML and designing schema then, yes, I would really love some help with that right now. If you do not know about XML Schema then I suggest you learn. I firmly believe that XML is the way of the future for data and data transmission. Solid XML standards will pave the way for developers to create standard APIs to allow many different types of applications from many different vendors, in many different languages, and on many different platforms to interoperate. I highly recommend "Beginning XML Development 4th Edition" from WROX Press and "Definitive XML Schema" by Priscilla Walmsley. (Avoid the O'Reilly Press book "XML Schema" like the plague. The author seems to think if he obfuscates everything as much as possible it shows that he is smarter than other people. Ether that, or he is trying to hide the fact that he doesn't really know what the heck he is talking about.) As DEMML is an XML schema it will be important for developers to know how to write code that deals with XML.

Once you understand XML well enough, then you will need to learn about DOM and SAX to write code to read and write XML properly. I just finished an independent study course working on a simple project to read and display some basic XML so I could help you out with that some if you don't already know it, although I am far from an expert. I highly recommend "Core Java" volumes I and II by Cay S. Horstman and Gary Cornell. Those guys really know how to explain things so you can understand it and they don't skip the important details. So many Java examples and tutorials I have found out there, including the Sun tutorials, seem to simplify many things to the point of being wrong. Their sample code works but it does not follow best practices. It is just barely good enough to get the job done. But real developers want more than that.

Once you know how to write code that handles XML well, then you might want to learn about how to display XML content that contains HTML markup in a window that uses the engine from a solid web browser such as IE or Firefox or Opera. One of the goals of DEMML is for it to be able to contain and present any content that could be displayed in a web browser. This includes JavaScript, Flash, videos, etc., using the same plug-ins that are already installed in the user's regular browser. (It is important to keep in mind, however, that all of this fancy content must work when all of the files are stored on the user's hard drive. They cannot rely on a connection to any server at all. This is so users in the most remote rural areas of underdeveloped countries can still use the content once they have gotten it onto their computers.) I have yet to figure out the technical details of how the heck to use the browser engine technology. I do not know how to develop a browser or how to use the engines for existing browsers, such as the Gecko engine for Firefox. So this would be a very good area where you could help a lot.

If you are more interested in internet routing protocols then you may want to help develop the routing protocol I invented to make it possible to distribute all the content out to areas where there aren't internet connections. I would like to refer you to an idea I posted on my personal blog. It is for a new type of "network" routing protocol that doesn't actually require a network at all. Devices would transmit data to other devices as they happen to come into contact with them and transfer messages on an ad-hoc basis. The messages would hop from one device to another till they eventually got where they needed to go. The post is merely an idea, with no actual implementation whatsoever. However, I have placed that idea and a full outline of how it could be implemented in the public domain. Anyone is welcome to develop the idea and I will be happy to provide more feedback with additional ideas to help anyone complete that project. My hope is that someone else will work out all the details and write all the code and then I won't have to. This is the true spirit of open-source development. Everyone contributes what they can and then everyone benefits from the results. The protocol is called The Intelligent Epidemic Routing Protocol and you can find my post at http://www.ideationizing.com/2009/07/intelligent-epidemic-routing.html. It would make a great graduate thesis project for a computer science graduate student. If you were to write the code to actually implement this idea, you would be famous. You would be able to get a job just about anywhere you want.

One of the best things is that, once I have published the DEMML schema, anyone will be free to develop software that makes use of the schema. I will be encouraging any and everyone to write software (open-source and commercial) that creates and/or uses DEMML content. Just as there are a bunch of competing web browsers and dozens of different HTML editors, I want there to be lots of competing software for DEMML. I will be founding a DEMML.org non-profit soon (eventually). One of the purposes of that organization will be to develop software libraries to make it easy for developers to develop software that makes use of the DEMML standard. I hope to eventually be hiring full-time developers to work on those types of things.

If you are interested please contact me.

Sincerely,
Grant Sheridan Robertson


This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

DEMML for Organizing Audio Books?

I like to read the One Laptop Per Child News blog. It is not an official blog of the OLPC project but the author often posts interesting things related to education in addition to just the latest news about the XO laptop or the OLPC project. The other day I read a post about whether it was practical or beneficial to distribute XO laptops in areas that don't have internet connections. I decided that I have been keeping DEMML™ a secret for far too long and posted a comment about that article. Here is what I wrote:

Over the past few years I have been working on a solution to the exact problem you discuss in this article. I have invented a system for organizing and storing educational content such that it can be used even if there is no internet connection. I call that system the Distributable Educational Material Markup Language (DEMML). You can find more information at http://www.demml.org.

I have also invented, though not implemented, a communications protocol that can distribute the content, or any other content, to intermittently connected computers. I call that protocol the "Intelligent Epidemic Routing Protocol." You can learn more about this at http://www.ideationizing.com/2009/07/intelligent-epidemic-routing.html.

I have been keeping rather quiet about these so far because neither of them are quite ready for prime time and I haven't had much time to work on them due to the demands of school. I am also concerned about those with far more skill than me wresting control of my idea from me and turning it into yet another proprietary lock on the one type of information that truly needs to be free. However, it seems that I can't (or shouldn't) keep my cards close to my vest any longer. As I have always expected DEMML to be used with XOs I have decided to mention it to you first.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A story to illustrate the usefulness of DEMML

Somewhere in a small village in some underdeveloped country there is a young boy. Let’s call him Hidarth. Like over 121 million young children worldwide (1), Hidarth cannot go to school. There is no school in the village where he lives and it would take him far too long to walk to the nearest school several villages away. His village has no phones or internet connections. However, Hidarth was recently given an XO laptop from the One Laptop Per Child project (2). While playing with the computer is fun, he has no internet connection in his village so he can only learn how to do the few things that are available to do on the laptop. Hidarth quickly gets tired of taking and drawing pictures and leaves the laptop under his bed, leaving his education behind.

One day Hidarth’s friend, Leelum, stops by for a visit. She has an XO as well and asks Hidarth why his is under the bed collecting dust. After agreeing that just playing with a computer doesn’t really get one anywhere, Leelum shows Hidarth some new software that actually teaches her whatever she wants to learn. She shows him how to transfer the software to his computer along with her entire library of educational material. Hidarth is impressed but sadly can’t really use any of the material Leelum gave him because he is far behind her in his schooling. So, Leelum shows Hidarth how to mark the topics he would like to learn about and indicate his learning level. A click of a button then makes Hidarth’s computer send Leelum’s a message requesting the content. Leelum explains that while he won’t get the content right away, the next time Leelum is in town her computer will automatically download the requested content and store it till Leelum can visit Hidarth again where the content will be automatically transferred.

Leelum doesn’t come by Hidarth’s village again for over a week, but, when she does, her computer transfers more than enough content of various learning levels for Hidarth to study for over a month. As he studies, the software keeps track of how fast Hidarth learns various types of material. Over time it learns much better exactly which type of explanation will help Hidarth understand which type of subject matter the best. This way, it can request more material that more closely matches his learning style.

This goes on for a few months and Hidarth is getting very excited about all the new things he is learning. However, Leelum doesn’t come by nearly often enough these days to keep Hidarth stocked with fresh material. So Leelum explains that Hidarth can just use one of the free thumbdrives being given away at the school and place his requests on it. He can give that thumbdrive to his father who walks into the nearest town about once a week. His father can simply walk into the schoolhouse and plug the thumbdrive into a special computer and that computer will automatically read Hidarth’s requests and place the requested content onto the thumbdrive. In this way, Hidarth can be continuously stocked with educational material that exactly meets his needs and allows him to learn all on his own without having to walk most of a day just to attend class and without needing to have direct access to an internet connection.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the United States, there is a young girl who does have a classroom to go to (they even send out a bus so she doesn’t have to walk at all) and she hates it. She spends much of her time sitting with her chin in her hands because she doesn’t understand a thing the teacher is saying most of the time. Mary is a one of the 30% (3) of sixth graders in America who doesn't know it yet, but will never graduate from high-school. She does OK on some subjects but she just doesn't understand the more technical subjects like math and science. The teacher goes too fast and Mary doesn't have time to understand what he is saying before the teacher moves on to the next subject. So Mary quickly gives up, gets bored, and decides that science is just for boys. Mary eventually drops out of high-school and gets a job at a local fast-food restaurant.

One day Mary sees an advertisement on TV about a way she can finish her high-school diploma and maybe even test out of a lot of college classes just by studying at home on her mom’s computer. She tries it out and discovers that this is nothing like the computer programs they made her work on at school. Instead of just repeating the same stuff for everybody, whether anyone understands it or not, this program has lots of different explanations for the each and every thing she needs to learn. And since all the content - contributed by people all over the world - is checked by real teachers, Mary knows that what she is learning is guaranteed to be reliable, unlike some of the stuff she finds on the internet. And now, when she doesn’t understand what the computer says, she can just click a button and get a different explanation. Pretty soon, the computer somehow knows just what explanation to give her without her even needing to ask any more.

Mary quickly works her way through all the material she needs to get her GED. She can’t believe how much she can remember either. It’s not like in school where she would just cram for the test and then forget it all the next day. The program keeps asking her different questions about the same stuff but at just the right times so her brain just naturally decides to remember it, without her really trying that hard. Soon Mary is working on testing out of college level classes in science and math, subjects that she has taken a renewed interest in now that it is so much easier to learn them.

What could possibly have helped both Hidarth and Mary learn. Two people from drastically different backgrounds and life situations? Both were using software that made use of educational content in the DEMML format. The Distributable Educational Material Markup Language™ (DEMML™) will be both a free and open XML format for marking up educational material in a highly structured yet incredibly flexible manner and a system for authenticating and distributing that content throughout the world, even to areas that have no internet connection at all. Once distributed, no internet connection is required to use the material either. This material is organized and classified to a degree never before attempted, using what turns out to be a rather simple system of encoding the hierarchical tree of all possible educational material right down to the paragraph level. This allows anyone to easily contribute any amount of material to what will quickly grow to be a vast library of vetted content for all to use. In addition the format facilitates a new level of flexibility in computer based learning by allowing educators to specify what material the student should study while still allowing the student instant access to additional material as their needs require. Multiple different explanations or presentations can exist for any one fact within any very specific topic. This allows any student at any level to quickly find just the right explanation that helps them most efficiently understand the topic at hand.

To be clear, DEMML™ is not yet another Computer Based Training (CBT) system. Nor is it yet another Wiki or lesson-plan repository. Instead, it is a way of creating a library of educational material in a standardized format which all compatible CBT systems can easily and automatically draw from, with no content editing whatsoever. Existing CBT software can be modified slightly to make use of this content or modified even further to employ the rich functionality that only DEMML™ provides. Just as hyperlinking existed long before Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and HTML, CBT has been around a long time before DEMML™. Before HTML all hyperlinking systems were proprietary and only worked within limited confines. Similarly, current CBT systems are all either proprietary systems or are relatively unavailable to the public. DEMML™ will be to CBT what HTML and WWW have been to hyperlinking. It will open up a world of possibilities by making education easily available to everyone, everywhere.

Only when students can easily obtain and master all the material necessary for a course of study entirely on their own will they be free of the barriers that stand between them and knowledge. Only when everyone in the world has free and easy access to all the education they want or need will we be able to overcome the suffering created when the uneducated are left to fend for themselves against the unscrupulous.

People all over the world, in all walks of life, desperately need a new way to learn. They need to be able to learn at their own pace, using content that is fine tuned to their specific learning style rather than having canned content regurgitated at them by over-stressed teachers. I believe that DEMML will be that new way. I believe that DEMML will create a paradigm shift in the way people learn. Unfortunately, DEMML™ is not quite ready for prime time yet. I will be creating the first version of the XML Schema next semester and will begin forming a non-profit organization to oversee the standard soon. Would you like to play a part in ushering in this new era of education? If so, please contact me and let me know.


References
1: Anup Shah. (2009, March 22). Poverty Facts and Stats — Global Issues. Global Issues. Blog, . Retrieved October 4, 2009, from http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats.
3: Jay P. Greene, Ph.D., & Greg Forster, Ph.D. (2003). Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States. Education Working Paper (p. 32). Center for Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute. Retrieved October 3, 2009, from http://www.tedna.org/pubs/ewp_03.pdf.

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

Some Education Statistics to Brighten Your Day

Of the 2.2 billion children worldwide there are anywhere from 33 million (1) to 121 million (2) who are not even enrolled in school. Countless more are enrolled but don't or can't attend. The average adult has spent only 6.2 years in school (3). Only 44% of people get to their senior year of high school (4) and only 28% even make it to college (5). Closer to home, the high-school drop-out rate in the U.S. is almost 9% (6). Only 70% ever graduate and only 32% are actually ready for college (7) if they do graduate. Although, 63% of high-school graduates enroll in college, 25% don’t make it to the end of their first year (8). In even the best educated areas of the country, only 33% make it all the way through (9). After taking thinner and thinner slices of the worldwide education pie, we can see we live in a world that is woefully uneducated. Almost every education-oriented organization in the world has the same solution to this problem: Produce more and better teachers. It sounds like a worthy goal. However, the world’s population is expanding exponentially while the number of colleges remains relatively constant. In addition, the average burn-out rate for teachers is about two years. As Malthusian as it may sound, there is absolutely no way the world can produce enough qualified teachers fast enough to keep up.

I originally gathered up these statistics for my class about GrantWriting. The point is not to depress you but to demonstrate that a drastic change in thinking is needed within the education community. Millions of dollars are granted to non-profit organizations every year for programs to increase the number of teachers available or to make a few more teachers available in some remote areas. I do not believe this will ever be enough. In fact, I am starting to believe that providing these "services" is starting to become a major industry, simply because the problem is so insurmountable. There will always be room for one more service agency. It is easy for anyone to demonstrate need simply by describing how bad things are in any one location. Heck you can't swing the proverbial dead cat without hitting on some location that needs better educational services. We need something that will completely change how we think of education. We must empower every individual to educate themselves (entirely on their own if necessary). I believe DEMML can be that change.


References


1: Children out of school, primary (most recent) by country. (n.d.). . Retrieved October 4, 2009, from http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/edu_chi_out_of_sch_pri-education-children-out-school-primary.

2: Anup Shah. (2009, March 22). Poverty Facts and Stats — Global Issues. Global Issues. Blog, . Retrieved October 4, 2009, from http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats.

3: Average years of schooling of adults (most recent) by country. (n.d.). . Retrieved October 4, 2009, from http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/edu_ave_yea_of_sch_of_adu-education-average-years-schooling-adults.

4: Senior Secondary > Educational Attainment statistics - countries compared - NationMaster. (n.d.). . Retrieved October 4, 2009, from http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/edu_edu_att_sen_sec-education-educational-attainment-senior-secondary.

5: Educational Attainment tertiary (most recent) by country. (n.d.). . Retrieved October 4, 2009, from http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/edu_edu_att_ter-education-educational-attainment-tertiary.

6: The NCES Fast Facts Tool provides quick answers to many education questions (National Center for Education Statistics). (n.d.). . Retrieved October 3, 2009, from http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=16.

7: Jay P. Greene, Ph.D., & Greg Forster, Ph.D. (2003). Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States. Education Working Paper (p. 32). Center for Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute. Retrieved October 3, 2009, from http://www.tedna.org/pubs/ewp_03.pdf.

8: Kinzie, J. (. L. (2005). Understanding and Reducing College Student Departure (review). Journal of College Student Development, 46(2), 213-215. doi: 10.1353/csd.2005.0016.  

9: Getting in isn't enough - The Boston Globe. (2008, November 17). Boston.com. Newspaper, . Retrieved October 4, 2009, from http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/editorials/articles/2008/11/17/getting_in_isnt_enough/?page=full.


This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Philosophy Statement

When discussion turns to "educational technology" many consider only those "technologies" that can be used to augment a typical American classroom. Thoughts turn to digital projectors, computers, software, and the internet. All of these technologies can be quite beneficial. They allow teachers to illustrate principles that would be very time-consuming or difficult to illustrate using only a chalkboard. Computers and software can provide drill and practice with much more immediate feedback which greatly enhances learning. And the internet can be a source for a vast wealth of information, providing access to almost all the knowledge of mankind right in one's own bedroom. They are the power-tools of education. Unfortunately, these power-tools are being used in the same old context as the previous "hand-tools" represented by chalkboards, pencil, and paper. Just as power tools make building a house faster and more efficient, if one builds that house using the same plan as in the past then one will end up with the same old inefficient, thin-walled, rectangular, box. Sometimes, however, a new tool or material will come along that has the power to entirely change the industry. Rather than build houses out of 2x4 studs and drywall, some are experimenting with spraying structural foam onto a form made of nothing more than a bubble of plastic sheeting. Many of the same tools (power and hand) are used to finish up the building, but the entire definition of a house has changed. Similarly, adding technologies to the classroom while keeping the same old educational system will result in the same old, ineffective, shallow, rubber-stamp learning. The only way technology itself can truly affect the educational system will be if that technology is revolutionary enough to completely redefine what we mean my "education."

In the old system "education" has meant that a teacher stands up in front of a class and disseminates information in a manner and at a rate designed to meet the needs of the "average" student. Unfortunately, very few students are "average." Students differ in the rate at which they learn as well as in the ways in which they learn. Some learn best when lectured and handed facts. Some learn best when given interesting projects to work on. New, technologies, especially the internet, seem to lend themselves to this kind of project-based-learning. Wonderful "web-quests" have been created to lead students on a journey of learning through the vast pile of content that is "The Internet." For many these are much more interesting, and thus more motivating, than simple reading and lecture. However, for those who lack a solid foundation of knowledge within which to contextualize their discoveries, a web-quest can be nothing but an exercise in frustration. Yes, it is possible to write just the perfect web-quest (or any other lesson) for any specific level of student proficiency. The problem is that only a few students in any one classroom are ever going to be at that exact level at the same time. All others will be either bored or lost. And this gets to the crux of what is wrong with the current educational system. It is a one-size-fits-all proposition. Sure, there are different grade levels but they are based on age, not ability.

Therefore, our revolutionary technology must redefine "education" from "one size fits all" to "every size is available to all." This is not a simple proposition. We cannot simply throw students into a library with internet access and expect them to naturally find the right material for them to learn what they want or need to know at any given time. There is simply too much content available and it is essentially a disorganized pile as far as a young mind is concerned. The enormity of the chore is overwhelming. You are more likely to get small fires than any real learning. On the other hand, there are simply not enough trained teachers to individually guide each student on their own learning path. Again, there is simply too much material out there to choose from, too many methodologies for teaching that particular material, and too many variations in student interest for any one person to keep track of what material should be presented to each student next. There are barely enough teachers to provide one for every 30 students in this country. Not to mention all the children with no teacher at all in less developed countries. This is where technology can step in. It is possible for computer software to test students to determine their interests and abilities as well as track changes in them over time. Based on this information it is possible for software to choose just the right material to present to each student at just the right time. Naturally, this will require material that is highly organized and coded for all these different variables. Although this kind of software and material does not currently exist, it is possible to do. The teacher is then left to do more of the things that only a human teacher can do. Things like motivating students to want to learn and guiding them in a much more general way to ensure that students don't focus their personal learning too narrowly or avoid important subjects as some may tend to do.

For such a computer-based-education system to work it must also follow sound educational psychology principles. It must be designed around the way that people actually learn. Again, there is no need to take a one-size-fits-all approach. Many theorists have many different ideas on how people - and particularly children - learn. Usually a teacher will decide on a particular philosophy and adhere to it throughout their entire career. Software does not need to be so single-minded. Multiple versions of content can be created that teaches the same things but from different perspectives. It can even take many different perspectives into account simultaneously when choosing material to present to a student. A student may be in Piaget's Formal Operational stage of development while still being a person who learns better when an authority figure explains something to them in no-nonsense terms as proscribed by Vygotsky. A student may need motivation to continue with a difficult topic and so may need rewards as described by behavioral theorists, but may also need scaffolding built for them to better understand the material at hand as suggested by cognitive theorists. Many students learn best when they construct the knowledge from project-based experiences but can only be expected to "construct" accurate models in their mind if they already have a solid foundation of knowledge based on drill and practice. Therefore the content must be coded and tagged to reflect all these different aspects of educational psychology rather than simply choosing one to the exclusion of the others.

There is one educational theory, however, that must be adhered to throughout for this software system to be effective. Unfortunately this is the theory that seems to be given the least attention within the educational community. Some textbooks refer to this as brain-based or neuronal learning. Simply put, it is learning based on how our brains actually work at a cellular level. The brains of all animals from the lowly sea-slug to humans work in essentially the same way at the most fundamental level. They remember what is necessary for survival. What is deemed necessary for survival is chosen based on the frequency with which it is experienced. This has been proven to be true at a biochemical level within brain cells. When signals are presented at a synapse within a certain time after a previous stimulus, then chemicals build up in that area which reinforce the growth patterns of that synapse and cause it to stay there. When the signals are not repeated then the chemicals dissipate, the synapse recedes, and that memory is lost. What this means is that it is not enough to teach a student something once and expect them to retain it for any reasonable period of time. That material must be repeated over and over with increasing time period between repetitions until that time period is effectively the rest of the students life (or for however long they desire to remember the material). Unfortunately, that pattern is not set in stone and varies by student and difficulty of the material. It would be impossible for any teacher to calculate exactly when is the best time to repeat previous material, even if they only had one student. It is also impractical for a teacher to ask just the right questions at just the right times over the length of time necessary to build solid memories. And, no, questions on a final exam are not enough. However, it is entirely possible for a computer program to do such a thing. A student's personal learning system can repeat material that was originally presented years earlier and in just the right form to reinforce that learning today.

Where does all this leave the teacher? Are they left out of the equation? Not at all. However, only those teachers who are willing and able to make the transition from lecturer to mentor will thrive in the new system. Some may also say that many districts cannot afford more than one computer per classroom let alone one per student. They are likely buying the wrong computers. Students do not need computers capable of editing video in order to learn. XO laptops, from the One Laptop per Child project, cost only $199 each and are more than adequate for most educational content. There are even computers available for only $12 in some countries that can be used to deliver material in this form. Given the high cost in both time and money associated with training a new teacher, and the incredibly high turnover rate, it is far less expensive to provide each student with an adequate computer. Simply put, it is impossible to produce enough teachers to educate all the people in the world but it is entirely possible to mass produce enough computers to do the task.

So, to sum up, my philosophy is that educational technology will only ever be an evolutionary change in a system that no longer meets the needs of students until that technology reaches a new and revolutionary stage. That technology must be able to instruct each student individually while relieving the teacher of the burden of tracking each individual student's progress. Then the teachers will be free to do what they really do best, encouraging and mentoring students in a more general way towards their individual learning goals. Using technology in this way, rather than simply to augment existing lessons, will also free up more good teachers while weeding out those with less motivation and enable us to educate everyone in the world.


This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.