Slow progress on the learning curve

8th November 1996 at 00:00
Angela McFarlane takes a hard look at the latest attempt to help children to master the three Rs. If only there was a quick, cheap, infallible way to teach all children the three Rs. This is a holy grail which some believe can be achieved through the use of Integrated Learning Systems (ILS).

These are essentially large banks of tutorial and text exercises held on computer. Current products concentrate on exercises in maths and language skills. The order in which students tackle the material is controlled by a management system which also records their achievements.

There is an on-going evaluation of the effectiveness of ILS systems which has already published two substantial reports and is now entering its third phase. Anyone interested in ILS should read the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) publications.

Naturally the findings of a three-year study, carried out in a wide range of schools and considering a large number of variables, cannot be summed up in a few paragraphs. However, one message has come through loud and clear: there is massive variation in performance, as verified by independent testing. Of the systems evaluated only pupils using the maths component of the American SuccessMaker product showed consistent learning gains, and these were impressive.

The United States is the home of ILS which has been made available in the UK through Research Machines. It is one of the biggest revenue earners in the US and was the first across the Atlantic. However, it has now been joined by its rival, Jostens, whose Learning Expedition product is being distributed by Heinemann.

This is the first time an educational publisher has ventured into ILS in the UK. The current product, like SuccessMaker, shows its cultural origins all too clearly but Heinemann is promising extensive localisation. This will be expensive if it is done thoroughly.

Heinemann is also aiming for a 100 per cent match with the various curricula around the UK, which will require some new material. Presumably it is confident that there will be a significant market for these materials in the UK. In the current phase of the NCET evaluation, three schools are using Learning Expedition.

It is never easy to get an accurate feel for extensive software, and this is especially so where the volume of material is large and the content very diverse. Given that the only meaningful results with ILS, in the UK and elsewhere, have been in maths, I decided to concentrate on those materials, although reading and language skills are also available.

The Learning Expedition resources are reasonably extensive, and there is a good match with the maths curriculum. However, the exercises themselves are visually unexciting and repetitive. For example, the unit in Measuring Angles which I worked through, used only one context, pinball. This meant all the graphics were visually identical, and if that context did not help me, too bad. Given the importance of context to children's learning, this has to be a missed opportunity.

Also worrying is the fact that the on-screen protractor is calibrated to a five-degree division, but I was required to measure accurately to 10, which is contrary to what we should be teaching children about measurement and accuracy, both in maths and science.

Units on multiplication suffered from the universal problem of ILS, which is that the child must perform the calculation to a standard rubric; alternatives which give the correct solution are not allowed. This naturally goes against the flow if the objective of a number curriculum is to build an appreciation of the many relationships between numbers and their sums and products.

So first impressions are that this is not software to die for. But that is also true of the systems which had impressive learning gains in the NCET study, so will this system do marvellous things for children's numeracy?

Unfortunately, so far, the UK studies have not been able to produce a list of features which differentiate the effective ILS from the rest. There is, however, one very important difference between ILS products which may hold the key. Let us be generous and assume all ILS systems have equally good content (a dangerous assumption), the key then is the management system. This is the software which determines the exercises children get when they log on to the system, and it keeps track of their scores, which it reports back to the teacher.

In the most advanced systems, the management software determines which exercises a child gets, choosing from a vast range according to the mastery shown by each child. No two children get the same set of problems, and each session offers material from a range of topics, not just endless essentially identical sums. Teachers can intervene if necessary, for example, to exclude a strand or topic. It is this type of ILS which has proven effective.

The alternative is that the teacher alone determines what the student does. This is usually from a smaller range of materials and with less scope for differentiation. Other than making them do the units in a unique order, it would be impossible to determine individual work plans for each class member. This is the model that the Learning Expedition system uses. It is also the model used by the systems which have yet to prove effective.

Effective or not, ILS is not cheap. The Heinemann product costs Pounds 7,085 for the maths, reading and language skills units for 15 workstations. If a school is considering investing the necessary thousands of pounds, it should take full advantage of the independent evaluation reports before spending its precious budget.

* Heinemann stand 36 NCET stand 11

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