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Overcoming the home environment is proving challenging

educational softwareA recent NY Times’ article on how students using educational software at home in virtual schools are lagging their in-school peers is worth exploring.

According to the New York Times only 27% of virtual schools have students that achieved “adequate yearly progress,” the key federal standard set forth under the No Child Left Behind act to measure academic progress. By comparison, nearly 52 percent of all privately managed brick-and-mortar schools reached that goal.

This disappointing outcome for Internet schools combines two known phenomenons:

  1. Educational software has been a disappointment.
  2. At home programs generally have a spotty track record.

Reasons for the lagging performance of home-based educational software

Most home-based learning software is content oriented, and it’s efficacy is questionable because it of “click through” — students can click through the material by making a series of attempts, whether they know the material or not.  While software makers work hard to avoid this, the alternative is a student who spins his wheels session after session in the same section.

Second, working at home on any kind of program, let alone less than compelling educational software is always a challenge. This is because of uneven compliance (daily attendance and task completion) and sometimes, incorrect execution that goes undetected by the software provider.  There are a number of software programs designed for at home use, and they share this same difficulty — poor compliance.

The main culprit cited in the article, and described in other reporting also, is the expansion in staff to student ratio common in these schools. While this is true, the distractions of the home environment present a major challenge regardless of the teacher to student numbers.

Lessons For Gemm Learning About Home Compliance

Gemm Learning provides online cognitive brain training and reading software at home with remote oversight.  Sounds a lot like a virtual school, but in two important respects we are different:

  1. Our software is adaptive — students cannot click through.  The only way to make progress is to make a series of consecutive correct responses.  This is possible because the software is exercise software working on processing and memory skills, as opposed instructional software using content. The second phase of Fast ForWord uses natural learning principles — discovery and absorption of language structure and reading comprehension skills, again not instruction that can be clicked through.
  2. Our remote supervision is intense.  This is why Gemm Learning was developed — to provide this high level of daily scrutiny so that these reading programs could be done at home.  How successful have we been here?  Our “compliance rate” ranges from 85-90% — this compares to a 60-65% rate experienced by most schools, including the school studies that show those great Fast ForWord outcomes.

These are early days for Internet schools, and for educational software.  We fully expect software makers to move to a more natural learning approach to limit the impact of click through, and Internet schools will find the right balance of student-staff ratios and profit.