Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Advances of Online Learning

While distance learning has a long history, online learning fits into the history of the internet.  In the 1980s, Tim Berners-Lee conceived the idea of a public network.  By the 1990s, the internet had been created and was being used for education on a small scale.  It was in this decade that the Java language was conceived and developed, based on the concept of WORA (write once, run anywhere).

Java's release in 1995 meant that online learning could use applets embedded in web pages to provide a highly interactive experience to users.  Naturally, this capability found its way into education.  Widespread use of Java in education was hindered by poor infrastructure in schools.  Internet connections were low-speed and often intermittent. Computers were frequently over five years old and could not even successfully host the Java virtual machine.  Many school connections to the internet were at speeds of just 96 kbps because high-speed internet was not available geographically or was too expensive and perceived as too unimportant for schools to adopt.

Despite these obstacles, a few pioneers began to develop forward-looking learning applications for schools.  Among these was my own company, Smart Science Education Inc. (then Paracomp, Inc.).  Our goal was and remains simple:  provide inexpensive access to excellent science learning through the medium of the internet.  We demonstrated our first version to a school in California in 1999.

The Smart Science® system includes a number of breakthrough ideas, some unique, some invented elsewhere more or less simultaneously, and some adapted from existing sources.  Important among these are:

  1. Device-agnostic software.  Then, Java was the basis.  Today, HTML5 provides that capability.
  2. Storage in the cloud.  Students can start their online lesson one computer and finish it on another, possibly quite different, computer.  Instructors have access to all student work.  Student data can be mined for insights.
  3. Real experiments.  Simulations were examined in detail and found lacking in the crucial aspects of good science education.  Only real experiments can deliver a true understanding of science.
  4. Hands-on measurement.  Nearly every online science system delivers data to students already complete.  Students push a button, and the data appear.  Students do not interact to obtain their data.  Forcing student to manually take each and every bit of data involves them in the experimental process and provides true ownership of the data by the student.
  5. Full learning scaffold.  Merely delivering experiments does not provide a complete learning experience.  Students must be prepared mentally for the experimentation.  They should make guesses as to the outcome of the experiments to engage them in the process.  They must be asked about it afterward to ensure that they were paying attention.  Finally, they have to be asked to write about what happened in their words to cement the learning in their minds.  They also may be asked to extend the knowledge that they have gained.
  6. Online learning support.  The system must provide background material, support for answering questions, vocabulary, historical context, and more.  In this way, the system ensures that every student can learn to mastery.
  7. Responsive interface.  When students take a data point, they should see the effect immediately.  For example, a mark should appear on the data collection frame, the data might appear in a data table, and a graph should reflect the new datum just collected.
This list could be extended, and these few ideas would become many.  The above should suffice to demonstrate that this is a learning system unlike others.

The above list represents the best of online science learning.  Each of the items in the list has benefits for the learner.

© 2016 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.

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