Sunday, September 13, 2009

Using Adaptive Programs to Teach Math

It is my position that math education must be as individualized as possible. However, it is impossible to do this in classrooms with 15 to 30 kids. This is where adaptive computer software fits in. My daughter has been using Stanford University's Education Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY) since December 1, 2008. Things went well with math , so we enrolled her in the English track this past May. The results have been outstanding, and I believe many other children could benefit from the system. In fact, I am convinced that a slightly slower pace would make EPGY suitable for kids at many different levels of cognitive development.

EPGY's math program -- at least the highly gifted version -- is probably a bit too fast for normal kids. It aims to cover K through 6th at a recommended rate of 2 grade levels per 2.5 quarters (approximately 7 to 8 months or nearly a full school year). My daughter has moved much faster because numbers and logic are one of her strengths. There are three elementary school courses:
  • K through 2nd grade
  • 3rd / 4th grade
  • 5th / 6th grade
However, EPGY continues through advanced undergraduate mathematics. This could allow an accelerated learner to go through the bulk of an undergraduate math degree before entering college.

Acceleration, adaptability, and early introduction of "advanced" concepts are key features of EPGY. The strong emphasis on acceleration is supported by decades of research showing that gifted children learn faster and make deeper abstract connections than the population within two standard deviations from the mean IQ. Adopting an accelerated curriculum need not lead to early college admission, but it provides a way out of monotonous concepts such as arithmetic so more abstract topics can be tackled early and in great depth. In practice, acceleration works well with gifted children they require fewer drills than normal children. This opens access to increasingly sophisticated material earlier than would be possible otherwise.

Adaptability is single, biggest reason why I love EPGY and why systems like it should be become part of the mainstream education system. The online platform tracks progress across six different strands:
  • Number Sense: Integers
  • Number Sense: Decimals and Fractions
  • Geometry
  • Logic and Reasoning
  • Measurement
  • Data/Statistics/Probability
A student could be at different levels in each strand. However, all strands must "graduate"to the next grade simultaneously. For instance, if a student completes the statistics strand one month before the others, the system increases the number of non-statistical questions until all strands make it to the next grade. The system adapts the difficulty and number of questions in a given topic according to the student's progress. Hence, every single student moves at a different speed and through a unique set of problems. The system's goal is to ensure comprehension and proficiency in as little time as possible. I find that the system works best when the student works with an adult to review difficult material. Additional explanations, exercises, and discussion can reinforce the learning process so the student moves as quickly as possible through the material. The most beautiful part of the EPGY system is that it requires zero homework. Because teaching happens through short lectures and the material is learned via exercises, there is no need for homework. Learning happens by doing. EPGY offers virutal classrooms as well as access to and feedback/guidance from very capable instructors. If EPGY were integrated into traditional classrooms, very little homework would be required. This would free up valuable time for reading, playing, and just relaxing.

I love EPGY's early introduction of "advanced" concepts. Ideas such as variables, equations, positive/negative numbers, proper survey design methodologies (i.e. avoiding leading questions, etc.), and statistical concepts surface as early as first and second grade. Early introduction could eliminate the shock suffered by many middle school students when confronted by these topics. Proper teaching techniques allow young children to understand what these things mean and how to use them. By the time second grade ends, variables and simple linear equations are second nature to EPGy students. I don't believe that the concept of variables is any more abstract that multiplication itself, but I have very little data to support my hypothesis (i.e. my daughter is my entire population). However, I believe that many children could handle at least some of the concepts if taught using appropriate techniques. Regardless of one's position on the early introduction of advanced concepts, some should be presented as early as possible. Some students will not understand what is going on, but many are likely to benefit greatly.

It turns out that I am not the only one who thinks that adaptive software has a place in "traditional" classrooms. EPGY conducted studies in California (click here for PDF of study) to determine the effectiveness of EPGY's variables as a predictor of performance on CST (i.e. California Standards Test). Clearly, the purpose of the study was to determine if there was a statistically significant correlation between performance in EPGY and CST. However, it was very instructive to see the impact the program had on Title I students. The bottom line is that the overall population sample benefited greatly. Furthermore, because EPGY maps into California standards, there would few, if any, legal repercussions if a school adopted EPGY. Finally, EPGY offers a school-wide option to use EPGY, as well as grants and financial aid for students with modest resources. This all means that there is little reason to avoid using computerized, adaptive systems, and EPGY is an excellent option.

I would advice parents of gifted children to look into EPGY (click here for the program's website). If money is an issue, apply for financial aid. Some homeschooling charters like the Sky Mountain Academy give you as much as $3,000 toward curriculum materials, and EPGY is one of the approved curriculum providers.

As always, I hope you find this useful.


Mary said...

I don't like bursting the EPGY bubble, but we had a bad experience with both the math, reading and language arts software last year.

First, the technology is so antiquated you become a personal friend of the technology support person. I believe since our time, they now have included a tutorial. But, we encountered wrong answers due to software bugs and then no one was able to remove the wrong answers from my son's reports.

Because no one could fix the problem and I have a technology background anyway, I decided to just start a new account for him. I came up with the resolution when they couldn't. Then we started the whole grade over again; encountered still more bugs.

If you use most any other software, companies devote financial and technical resources to it. I didn't find that so with EPGY. It was seriously like using COBOL programming from the 70s. It popped so many windows, it literally brought my modem down. That was another nightmare. Software today is user friendly, customer oriented, sometimes colorful with adequate reporting for parents and effective teaching for the user. There were NO reports to demonstrate to me at any given time how much further we needed to go in order to compete a course. They were simply not available.

If you were to compare Rosetta Stone software from a technology, training, customer appealing perspective with no regard to its difference in subject matter....Rosetta Stone would win hands down. It teaches, it trains, it's fun to use, it has adequate reporting, it does what you pay for with great support. Whether it's foreign language, math, reading, etc...that's what software teaching programs should do. What else would you be paying for?

As for the language arts, we didn’t encountered bugs, but the font was so small it was way too difficult to read. As well, the audio sounded like it was recorded in someone's basement. Furthermore, it was dry and boring.

The "free" accompanying reading program had books with content way beyond that for a gifted child. I know, I checked every one on Amazon during a whole evening. Much of the subject matter related to parental death, racism, smoking, political views, etc.

As a side note, we were using 4th grade math, 3rd grade LA. My son was 5.5 yo at the time. Still...nothing was geared for a young gifted child. And isn't that what the software is about...working for the gifted?

I'm sure there are plenty of people who use EPGY, and believe me I am not a quitter. We tried tirelessly to use it, repeatedly, until the frustration level was so severe for both my son and me...that it concerned me I would turn him off to on-line teaching altogether. I also was disturbed by their lack of financial resources devoted to a re-write of the system when they in fact were collecting, (and continue to do so) a lot of money for their programs.

Like everyone else, I wanted the name, the reputation, the product...but from my experience the reputation of this program is built on the name of the school, not the application whatsoever. As I said, I'm sure others found it okay. But, software bugs, inaccurate reporting, the inability to fix problems, lack of definitely NOT okay in the year 2009. Perhaps in the 70s or 80s...but not this day and age of technology.

We switched to Aleks Math and use to accompany it. It's not perfect, but it’s not antiquated either.


Pablo A. Perez-Fernandez said...

As noted above by one of our readers, there are bugs in most computer-assisted systems. I have seen anecdotal evidence of some people experiencing problems with EPGY, but my family's experience has been quite good. The only exception happened a few months when the system entered a loop due to a software upgrade. Other than that, the platform has been bug free for us.

I would like to note that there are alternatives to EPGY. You may want to check out the Center for Talented Youth at John Hopkins Univerty. The Center is led by Dr. Julian Stanley, one of the world's foremost authorities on gifted children.

The point of the blog post was to discuss the benefits of computer-assisted, adaptive systems as a tool to individualized instruction.