Idea of the day: using e-books to learn about learning tells me that the Kindle is the hottest holiday gift this holiday season.  And not long ago, several law professors had a lively discussion of law e-textbooks on a prominent law blog.  It seems that, ready or not, widespread use of e-textbooks are just around the corner.

To be sure, traditional paper textbooks will not disappear immediately, but e-textbooks will surely gain more popularity as prices for e-readers fall, technologies become perfected, and more publishers make textbooks available electronically.

I must admit that I am not yet enamored by e-readers, and do not own one.  I prefer the texture, the weight, the craftsmanship of real books.  I love certain publishers just because I like the designs of their paperbacks, and a beautiful book cover always sends a little shiver of pleasure down my spine.  To think that a new generation of children will be weaned on a screen and never know the loveliness of paper makes me a bit sad.

Nonetheless, lately I have gotten more excited about the prospect of e-textbooks when I realized that e-readers might be used — indeed, is probably already being used — to track the reading habits of its readers and to generate data and trends.

To average adult readers reading for pleasure, the idea that their reading habits may be meticulously tracked by a machine might seem like an enormous invasion of privacy.  But collecting such data may be indispensable to educators who are trying to understand effective learning behavior.

Most of the data that we collect about education measures the output of the learning process.  We test student knowledge in standardized, nationwide or state-wide exams that are given periodically, and then analyze the test scores generated by these exams to determine how well the learning process has succeeded.  But e-readers and similar devices can generate enormous amount of data about the learning process itself.

What type of data might be collected?  The possibilities are virtually endless.  The e-device might track how much time a student spends per day reading, what he reads, the speed at which he reads, the amount of time he spends reading particular pages, etc.  If, as I believe would inevitably happen, such devices would come equipped with quizzes and problem sets and exams, students can also be tracked based on how long they spend doing a particular problems and, of course, their score.

There is a bonanza of information that researchers could use to study learning behavior.  But the tracking could be used not only for academic purposes, but also as a way for schools and teachers to ensure that students are completing their homework.  Many employers already do a form of this type of tracking by, for example, requiring their employees to take an on-line training program that consists of powerpoint slides with periodical questions to ensure that the content of the slides are being read and understood.

There are a few well-known problems in education that researchers have long puzzled over.  Take, for example, the problem of the racial achievement gap.  Why do children of different races perform differently in standardized exams even when one accounts for other factors, such as socio-economic background?  Elsewhere in this blog, I have argued that we have an unhealthy focus on race, and that other, even wider achievement gaps should trouble us more.  But it is undeniable that the racial achievement gaps exist.  Learning more about children’s learning habits might give us insights into this and other puzzles.

Of course, understanding how students learn is not the only or even the most important goal.  Through better understanding of how people learn, educators can figure out ways to improve the way students learn and the way teachers teach.

Does all of this sound Big Brother-esque?  Perhaps.  But like it or not, retailers, advertisers, and website developers already do very similar things in order to understand and track consumer behavior.  Information about the amount of time a shopper spends on a webpage, the types of links that he clicks, the search criteria that brought him there, are all meticulously tracked and then fed into sophisticated programs.  It is time that our educators take advantage of these tools, for the sake of our students.

What is wrong with paying children for good grades?

cashI admit — I find the idea of paying children for good academic performance really distasteful.  If I listened only to my intuitions, I might even denounce such “learn and earn” programs that are being piloted in some school districts around the country as immoral.

But why?  Is my reaction rational?

As a society, we already offer plenty of financial rewards for good grades in the form of merit or academic schoalrships.  The requirements for those programs seem perfectly legitimate and do not set off any moral alarm bells.  This suggests that it is not the monetary reward that I find troubling.

There are some obvious differences between a merit scholarship and the learn-and-earn programs.  Merit scholarships reward long-term effort and not individual grades.  They are usually given to older students while learn-and-earn programs are sometimes given to middle or even elementary schoolers.  Merit scholarships usually reward something “above and beyond” what average students can achieve, while learn-and-earn programs reward more basic things like attending class.  Finally, scholarships are usually competitive.  Learn-and-earn, as the name implies, works like an entitlement.  If the student gets the grade, then he or she will have “earned” the money.

Merit scholarships and learn-and-earn programs simply have different goals.  Scholarships reward a proven track record of success and achievements above and beyond that of an average student.  Because of their remoteness and uncertainty, they don’t function very well as incentives for learning.  In contrast, the reward in learn-and-earn programs is usually immediate, tangible, and discrete.  It does a much better job at incentivizing the behavior that these programs are designed to encourage.

This is why we often see dramatic results in such programs.  But this is probably also precisely why we are troubled by the ideas of such programs.

Almost all opposition to paying cash rewards for good grades comes from the argument that it creates the wrong incentive to learn.  Learning should be an end in itself.  It should bring reward and joy all on its own.  It should be a wonderful process of discovering the world around you, and the world within you.  it should be motivated by only a love of knowledge.  It therefore corrupts and debases the whole process if learning is motivated by the promise of cash.  This is why some commentators have called such programs “briberies.”  My distaste for cash payment for students comes precisely from this kind of romanticized vision of what education should be.

But I think this argument has two flaws: it’s unrealistic, and it sets up the wrong dichotomy.  First, both children and adults learn for various and complicated reasons: for approval, for social status, for better opportunities of career and job, and, yes, for money, at least the prospect of earning more of it.  Obviously not everyone, even the successful students, learn out of a pure love of knowledge.  Why are those goals okay and learning for pure cash, not?

Second, although it does seem better to learn out of a unquenchable thirst for knowledge than to learn only for the promise of cash, that is often not the choices that educators say they have.  The choice they face is between students not learning at all, and learning, grudgingly but effectively, out of an incentive for cash.  Indeed, the schools that have piloted the learn-and-earn programs successfully usually had students from poverty-stricken neighborhoods, absent parents, and rampant crime problems.  To demand that these students learn only out of a love of knowledge or be left behind in failure seems equally distasteful.

Given those realistic options, should we still insist upon our romanticized version of education?  You decide.

Idea of the day: longer and more school days

school-bus-topThe AP reports that the Obama administration is proposing a longer school year and longer school days.  Children in other nations, says Obama and the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, spend up to 30% more time in school.  America needs to align itself with the international norm.

As someone who spent all of her elementary school days and part of the middle school in China, I can attest to the astonishment that my 12-year-old self felt when I first came to the States and discovered that a normal school day was over by 2:30 pm.  In China, I have often stayed in class until 7:00 or even 8:00 p.m.  My memory of 5th and 6th grade involved going to school in the dark and coming home long after dark.  By comparison, the American school schedule, as well as the content of its classes, seemed like child’s play.

The long 2.5 or even 3 month summers were also a novelty to me.  In Beijing, the school year was out in mid-July, and resumed in early September.  We had at most a month and a half of summer vacation.

Personally, I think the change is long overdue.  President Obama hit the nail on the head when he called the current American school calendar an outdated one based on the “agrarian calendar.”  The only surprise, for me, is how long it took for people to catch on to this fact.

Obama justified his proposal in terms of catching up with international standards and making American students competitive against students in other (Asian?) countries.  But his proposal has an additional benefit: narrowing the achievement gap between students of different socio-economic classes.

Just yesterday, my friend and I talked about Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers (which I still have to read), a book that, as I have since learned, is really about education.  My friend mentioned the well-known study that Gladwell cites in his book by Johns Hopkins sociology professor Karl Alexander about “summer learning loss.”  Put briefly, the Alexander study shows that in Baltimore Public Schools, low-income students actually learn more during the school year than their middle- and upper-middle-class classmates, but they fall behind during the summer while their richer peers gained more ground.  Gladwell concluded in his book that although the conventional wisdom is that we must “improve” the inner-city schools, school itself is likely not the problem.  Too little school is.

If Gladwell and Alexander’s points are correct, increasing the length of the school year and the school days will not only make American students more competitive on the global market, it will help eliminate the advantage that richer students have over their poorer counterparts and make our education system more equitable.  Seems like a worthy goal to me.