Friday, September 26, 2008

Technology Again Promises to Save the Day

Because technology is the secret to improving education, I had the opportunity to join the vice provost and other university bureaucrats at a webinar (sales presentation) about Aleks, the latest white knight that will solve all of our problems and will finally get our matriculated students to successfully complete degrees within six years.

Or, at the very least, it is the perfect alternative to our homebrew placement test. Instead of our own unenforceable placement test, we can use an unenforceable commercial test. Students who placed into Intermediate Algebra on a statistically validated assessment instrument would then sign up for Engineering Calculus on our retro registration system.

I am a bit skeptical of this entire endeavor. Just yesterday I got an email from the clicker company saying that I need to delete one of my students from my roster in their software because their registration process accidentally assigned two students in my class the same ID number meaning that their clickers won't work. We will ignore for now that this glitch is a symptom of unacceptably sloppy programming on the part of the clicker vender (ID numbers are given out in order. Increment after issuing each one.) and will instead think about this: The clicker grade counts for 10% of the class grade. We are in week #6 of the term. It has taken until now for the student(s) involved to call tech support to figure out why their clickers aren't working?

Since I've been here, I have used WebClass, EduSpace, iLrn, and WebAssign. They all suck. The students have trouble signing up. The students have trouble entering their answers correctly. (Yes, I know, they should know order of operations, but they don't. And yes, I realize that their claims that they don't need to know calculus because they could have a computer calculate things are undermined by their inability to enter functions in a way that computers understand. But, in any event, the way answers are entered generates much frustration.) Setting things up is very annoying and horribly time-consuming. In part this is because to reach a maximum market, every product has every feature that has ever been requested. But this means that I have to wade through a zillion settings about how many of what types of attempts students get on the problems.

Since Aleks has a free trial version, I'm thinking of telling the students in the Calculus Circus that they can earn some trivial number of bonus points by successfully signing up, completing the practice test, and learning one topic. If my students can't figure it out for extra credit (which is, as you know, more precious than regular credit), there is absolutely no hope for the system working.