How was school today?

On: September 18, 2014
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About Sameena
A reading maniac, a social media enthusiast, and a chocolate worshipper. Not necessarily in that order! :)


“Jeremy hasn’t finished his Math assignment – and it’s not for the lack of trying. Math has been especially difficult this year. The concepts of Speed, Distance and Time seem incomprehensible to him. All his other friends seem to understand the concept quite easily. Was something wrong with just him?”

The issue is not unique to Jeremy alone – all students have faced this at some point. The struggle is not because the concepts are complex. It’s because each individual’s ability to understand and apply the concepts is different. Sometimes an average traditional teaching methods do not suffice. Teachers may need to devise ‘individual’ strategies to make sure every student understands. But in classrooms that are full beyond capacity, this is humanly impossible. So what’s the answer?

Personalised Study Plans of course! Through online digital platforms that assist teachers and students to approach learning in a customised way suited to their requirements. (MacNeill, Campbell, and Hawksey)

Some of the most popular platforms to do this are:

Knewton – an education technology company that personalises digital courses so every student is engaged… Knewton figures out what each student knows and how that student learns best, then recommends what to study next.”

MasteryConnect works with teachers and educators largely. A collaborative platform that connects schools across USA, and “makes it simple to share and discover common assessments and resources, track mastery of standards, and provide built-in grading tools to save teachers’ time.”

Gooru builds free and open technology to personalise learning for teachers and students. Teachers can find, remix, and share collections of web resources on any K-12 topic. The apps provide tools to customize content and track student progress.”

Duolingo is a platform that helps people learn foreign languages for free. The lessons are customised according to the learner’s native tongue and speed of learning.

Platforms such as these seem like the magic potion we have waited for. A host of educational institutes and business organisations use them to make learning more effective. And this is possible by the power of Big Data.

These platforms build a generic infrastructure according to international standards, and share it with students. As students wade their way through these courses (which are a mix of study materials, videos, games, quizzes etc…), technology tracks their progress. Data is captured real-time and the platform makes real-time adaptations according to the learner’s capacity. Thus every learner’s experience of the platform is different.

These platforms also make teachers’ lives easier. They offer them tools to grade assignments and keep track of students’ individual progress. The advantages of such a technology are diverse, but this technology also comes with some critical questions:

1. Is this technology making our teachers redundant?
Are they reduced to being just facilitators? Remember the time when your teacher brought new concepts to life through stories? Now that this role is taken over by a machine, what happens to physical interactions? Well, a technical answer would be that teachers will don new roles. They will need to become more adept at incorporating ‘the digital’ in their teaching methods. It is a fair ask, but maybe in future, there may come a time when children may not know what the joy of listening to a story is.

2. How safe is it to track every minute activity of a student?
Data “leaks” and theft are as commonplace as pickpocketing today. In this article for Forbes, Jordan Shapiro argues about how we are over-reacting to the fear of data misuse – as most of it is already available through social and other online platforms. But these learning platforms are like a one-stop shop! The author seems to assume that mainly advertisers would be interested in such data. What he may have missed is the fact that most criminal organisations today, harvest and thrive on such data. Do we have a mechanism to deal with such a threat? (Kitchin and Lauriault)

I think that while personalised study plans sound like a great idea, we need to tread with caution. This is a technology that will transform education by leaps and bounds, but the threats attached are too serious to ignore. I think before we go ahead in making such a commitment, solid guidelines and regulations need to be in place, to make sure that a technology with the right intentions remains faithful to that intent.

And when we meet the balance, then students like Jeremy will be skipping their way to school eager to learn something new.


1. MacNeill, Sheila, Lorna M. Campbell, and Martin Hawksey. “Analytics for Education.” Journal of Interactive Media in Education 0.0 (2014): n. pag.

2. Kitchin, Rob, and Tracey P. Lauriault. Kitchin, Rob. SSRN Scholarly Paper. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, July 30, 2014

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