Tag Archives: online

“Just in Time” Learning

“Just In Time” Learning

by Richard White


“‘Hybrid classroom?’ Seriously? What effect could Internet use possibly have on student learning in my classes?”

I’m SO glad you asked. I have data on that. I’m in the process of running an experiment.

I teach physics, a subject that has some reputation as being a little tricky to understand sometimes. Typically, teaching physics works something like this:

  1. I present material in class: discussions, lectures, demonstrations, sample problems.
  2. Students go home, try to do assigned homework problems, and get stuck.
  3. Students come back the next day with questions, and I spend time in class helping them clear up their misunderstandings.

It’s a time-honored process, and one that works on some levels. “Struggling with the material” is something that all learning requires, as each of us figure out how to fit new ideas into our previous understanding of the world. Constructing that new knowledge requires effort, and it’s absolutely part of my job to assist students in that process.

After 15 years of teaching physics, thoughI came to realize that there was a problem with the current homework system. Ater 15 years of teaching physics, I figured out that often, students were getting waylaid by relatively trivial difficulties, usually a problem-solving technique, or a strategy, or a “trick” that we’d discussed in class and that they hadn’t quite learned how to apply. It wasn’t that they had absolutely no idea of how to solve the problem—they just needed a little push, a little hint on what to do next, and the answers to the odd-numbered problems in the back of the book weren’t enough.

I had clear data that the students were getting stuck, based on the number of students missing at least one assignment, and—for those students—the number of homework assignments they were missing.

I made what I thought was a generous offer: the homework solutions were available in my office so that students could come in during office hours to take a look at them… but that didn’t really help them at night. At night was when they were working on the problems. At night was when they needed the help.

So I made the solutions available online.

It was a simple step, really, and I fully expected that a lot of the problems with “incomplete and missing homework assignments” would go away. I made sure to communicate the fact that these solutions were available for students to use in helping their progress after they’d attempted a problem; these were not to be copied. But there was that risk.

I’d hoped that the homework scores would improve, and improve they did:

That’s not much of a success story there, of course: “give students who haven’t been turning in homework the answers, and they’ll turn in more homework.” Great headline.

Here’s where things get interesting, though. Students both years took the unit test, with the following results:

Test scores went UP. Way up. On unassisted assessments of their learning, students demonstrated that their understanding of the material had improved by a whopping 10%, because (I believe) they were able to get some assistance with their homework when they were doing it, and not hours or days after the fact.

Of course, it’s well-known that the WWW is a great place for a motivated student to explore and learn. See the Wall Street Journal’s Turning Kids From India’s Slums Into Autodidacts for some interesting examples of this. Money quote:

Education, though, feels like one of those things that has to be top-down: There has to be a teacher and a taught. But plenty of people educate themselves. Is it possible for everybody to be an autodidact, now that knowledge is so accessible online?

The premise of the article is so radical that most classroom teachers may not feel that it has any bearing on what we do day-to-day. But my ongoing experiment has convinced me giving people access to new tools to guide their studies—even something as mundane as homework solutions— can have a powerful effect on the learning experience.

There are other things we can do as well. More about that next week.

Playing Well with Others… and Charging for It



by Richard White

We’ve already discussed opening up your classroom content to the world, and what the advantages and risks might be there. There were three events in the last week that reminded me of what an interesting process this has the potential to be.

One of the first was an email that I finally got around to answering, a courteous email from a colleague previously unknown to me in the east.

…I happened upon your most excellent site and was wondering if you’d be will to share your materials with me.

I really like your practice tests and presentations and was wondering if you’d be willing to send the originals to me (it’s hard to use the PDF’s) as well as the answers…

So now I’ve got to put my money PowerPoint slides where my mouth is. I don’t know how much time I’ve got for an open-ended collaboration with someone–I can’t be the only one here who feels like I’m running just to stand still–but it’ll be interesting to see what comes of this.

The second thing that happened makes me wonder if giving “my stuff” away for free just makes me a great big sucker. The New York Times published this article, Selling Lessons Online Raises Cash and Questions, reporting on how some teachers are making money on the side selling their lesson plans to other teachers. I was a little surprised by some of the figures in the story–tens of thousands of dollars made selling lessons for one teacher–and I have to admit to more than a little curiosity about the specifics here: What do these lessons actually look like? Don’t teachers have the capability of creating their own lessons? What teacher has the discretionary budget to purchase sight-unseen lesson plans in hopes that they might satisfy some need? And perhaps most significantly, will someone pay me $30k+ for my stuff? Because, you know, I don’t have a problem with that.

Apparently there were a few people who did have a problem with that, in the letters to the editor after the article’s publication. As my tech director points out, however, when teachers tutor students in the evenings, we certainly don’t expect them to have to do that gratis. And if that’s the case, then why would we expect them to give away content that they’ve created for free, particularly when those lessons were created–as they almost always are–on the teacher’s own time, at home?

Finally, a conversation with my school director today wandered into the topic of “students producing original work,” and whether it wasn’t perhaps a bit naive on the part of teachers to expect that student X this year is going to have something new and exciting to relate on, say, “Macbeth,” given all the research and thinking that has already been devoted to its study. This directly led to some consideration of the New York Times article: if we expect original work from students (whatever that may mean), might we not expect something similar from teachers? Don’t we want something more from teachers than someone to stand at the front of the room, clicking through a PowerPoint presentation? And what does it say about your capabilities as a professional educator if you have to rely on someone else’s material for inspiration?

Perhaps you see the straw man here. Educators–indeed, professionals of all types–don’t work in isolation, and aren’t expected to. Opening up discussion of all kinds–sharing of research, discoveries, materials–benefits all concerned, and at its best, has the potential to help teachers improve their craft, and students improve their understanding of the material. Indeed, at most of the schools I’ve worked at, an informal electronic archive of resource materials is kept for some classes, including:

  • PowerPoint presentations
  • videos
  • worksheets
  • labs
  • independent projects
  • rubrics
  • syllabi

So yeah, sharing and collaborating is an important part of professional development, and I don’t see anything wrong with charging what the market will bear, if that’s what you choose to do.

Anyone want to buy a lesson on Circular Motion?! :)