Tracking each click of a pupil's mouse

18th April 2014 at 01:00
Makers claim software allows truly personalised learning

Imagine being able to follow and interpret every one of your students' computer keystrokes, every mouse click and every hesitation, even when you are not in the same room. This may sound as if it is straight out of the mind of George Orwell, but it is in fact the latest technology due to be launched in British and European classrooms.

The system, already widely used in the US, is designed to give teachers an insight into the understanding and performance of their pupils. It was developed for use in higher education but quickly became popular in the public school system, with millions of students now using the technology.

They log in to the system and carry out their work as normal; meanwhile, the program monitors their every action. It sends detailed feedback to teachers about which questions individual students struggled with, and whether they hesitated to answer or made multiple attempts.

The technology has been hailed by its creator, Knewton, as the start of truly personalised learning, changing the face of "one size fits all" education and helping to tailor teaching to students' individual needs. To others, however, it is akin to Big Brother, prying ever further into pupils' behaviour, adding to teachers' workloads and promoting the notion that students should be constantly monitored.

But Charlie Harrington, who heads up Knewton's London office, dismissed the concerns, stating that the technology was a textbook that "learns how students tick".

"We want to interpret every bit of data that we can obtain," Mr Harrington said. "In some cases these are simple multiple-choice questions. But what's really interesting is when we start talking about interactive simulations - and increasingly publishers are making game-based simulation content - where we're tracking every keystroke, or every place they click. So if there is an educational game where they are hesitating for a moment, to us that's an important bit of information."

The idea is that by personalising courses, "every student is engaged and no one slips through the cracks", Knewton has said. Mr Harrington believes that, far from constantly assessing students, the program allows schools to test children less frequently because data is constantly provided.

Miles Berry, board member of ICT subject association Naace and principal lecturer in computing at Roehampton University, London, welcomed the use of such technology, which he said would provide the kind of detailed feedback used regularly in industry.

"This is one of the first products which applies to education the sort of analytics and data-mining that's been commonplace in retail and financial services for a while now," Mr Berry said.

"Enabling teachers to make better use of finer-grained assessment data makes sense. But, that said, education isn't just about interactive learning objects. Learning through discussion and creativity remains as important as ever. I'm not sure that these products yet quite capture the richness of such approaches."

Bernard Trafford, headmaster of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, said that the average teacher was still some way off harnessing such technological advances.

"I think there is a danger of information overload," he said. "Unless it is presented in a very simple way, teachers could easily end up drowning in data. There is a danger that we are almost forgetting about teaching and learning.

"None of us would want to stand in the way of such technology, but you just need to look at the number of interactive whiteboards that are still being used simply as projectors to see there is still a way to go."

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