Tuesday, April 23, 2013

LearningCurve, busted

[The correct answer is C: my patience.]

From an educational publisher: “Students love LearningCurve because it allows them to study using a game-like interface and master material in a less linear fashion than simply reading and re-reading.” That’s a sample LearningCurve question above.

I tried LearningCurve’s demo activity yesterday. Was I studying? Hardly. Was it game-like? I felt no fun. I read the questions (about, of all things, memory) and schemed the correct answers as quickly as I could. One was seventy: I picked it as the most reasonable choice of four — not too high, not too low. Seventy what? Couldn’t tell ya. Seventy letters or numbers or words that someone with a Russian name was able to memorize. Another correct answer: ninety, ninety percent of slides that someone showed. People could recognize ninety percent of 250 of them after some period of time. Who showed the slides? I dunno, some guy. All I was after was the right answer. I got every one of them. So much for mastery.

That leaves “less linear,” which seems to me an optimistic way to characterize the element of mindless, loop-the-loop repetition that makes LearningCurve feel miserably regimented. By the end of the demo, I was typing the same answer to different forms of the same damn question again and again — a question I’d been getting right all along. I would much rather have been reading and rereading something, anything, else.

And speaking of reading and rereading (or “simply” reading and rereading): when did they become subject to criticism for being “linear”? Yes, word follows word, and sentence follows sentence, because that’s how words and sentences work, even the words and sentences that form the rudimentary paragraphs of LearningCurve’s questions. But flipping among scattered passages in, say, a novel, offers far greater freedom of movement and far greater opportunities for complex thinking than LearningCurve’s dentist’s chair. (Drill, baby, drill.)

If this blog post were a LearningCurve activity, you’d now be reading the following message: “You’re more than half way through with the blog post!” Yes, LearningCurve feels like a race to get it over with — another way in which it’s different from a genuine game.

I just discovered by chance the following passage in an excellent though painfully dated book, The Lively Art of Writing (1965). Lucile Vaughan Payne now sounds downright counter-cultural in her insistence on education that makes room for invention and self-discovery:

Too often students let themselves become machines, ingesting the information their teachers offer them and then feeding it back, like ticker tape, in the form of rote recitations and answers to examination questions. But a student is no machine when he writes an essay; he is a human being — judging, evaluating, interpreting, expressing not only what he knows but what he is. Thus every attempted essay is a kind of voyage toward self-discovery.
Judging, evaluating, interpreting; reading, rereading, writing: they are the stuff of genuine education. It’s a sad sign of the times that it is necessary to say so.

[I will grant that a student for whom a test looms is likely to move through a LearningCurve activity more deliberately than I did. That student would be, I think, even more miserable. LearningCurve, however, has testimonials to the contrary.]

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