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Influencing the education ecosystem with personalised-adaptive learning technology

By Taniya Bajaj, Malcolm Spence and Madeleine Eastwood 

The global learning crisis 

The 2018 World Development Report warned of a global learning crisis. More children than ever are enrolling and attending school, but for too many children turning up at school does not translate to meaningful learning.

In rural India, for example, enrolment rates exceed 95% but more than half of grade-five children are unable to read at the second-grade level; and nearly three-quarters of students in grade three could not solve a two-digit subtraction such as “46 – 17.” Without a fundamental rethinking of current approaches to education, it’s going to take another 100 years for children in developing countries to reach the education levels achieved in developed countries.

Edtech is not a silver bullet

While the use of Edtech is held up as a promising opportunity, there is enough evidence to be cautious. The OECD shows there is no link between country level spending on ICT spending and 15 years olds abilities in maths, science and reading. First among the reasons is what World Bank’s Michael Trucano calls ‘dumb failure’ – just dropping technology into schools and hoping for magic to happen. Then there are misguided attempts to use technology to improve monitoring of teachers with little concern for genuine accountability. And lastly are those innovations which seek to replace rather than augment the one thing which genuinely makes a difference – teachers. Indeed, one review of learning interventions concluded that those programs where computer assisted learning substituted for other lessons were more likely to produce negative outcomes.

Yet there is cautious optimism as to the potential of technology to personalise learning to the needs of each student. There is now compelling evidence that children learn at varying pace, each child has a unique learning trajectory. Multiple studies across the world have shown that teaching students at the right level is the most effective approach to closing learning gaps. In practical terms, this means that classroom (plenary) instruction has to be continually complemented with personalised instruction in a continuous sequence of plenary, assessment and remediation.

But in a low resource environment, with a large classroom and a wide diversity of student learning levels, it is impossible for a teacher to manage this. There is a growing body of evidence that computer assisted personalised learning solutions may be the most promising approach to address this challenge. A review of dozens of randomised controlled trials involving Edtech found that in nearly all of the 41 studies which compared pupils using adaptive software, with peers who were taught by conventional means, the software-assisted pupils received higher scores.

The GIF-backed Mindspark program’s influence on the education ecosystem

At the forefront on the use of such personalised adaptative learning in developing countries is Mindspark. Developed and deployed in India by Educational Initiatives, Mindspark draws on a database of over 45,000 questions to finely benchmark the learning level of every student and dynamically customise the material being delivered to match the level and rate of progress made by each individual student. This leads to significant improvements in maths and Hindi – a two fold increase in maths score and 2.5 increase in Hindi test scores for those using Mindspark over four and half months relative to those who do not. This boost to learning outcomes far exceeds those realised through comparable interventions.

Since 2017 GIF has been supporting Educational Initiatives to build on this evidence and take Mindspark to the next level. Our funding enables Educational Initiatives to undertake a “process discovery” for the introduction of Mindspark to 80 schools and children of grades one to eight across four districts of Rajasthan. As a result, some state governments in India have initiated steps to procure and implement personalised adaptive learning solutions in public schools. The Government of Andhra Pradesh, for example, is in the process of implementing personalised adaptative learning solution in 2,600 schools covering nearly one million children.

This month, a research team led by Karthik Muralidharan and Abhijeet Singh, and supported by the RISE programme, revealed second year results from a trial carried out in government schools with 6,500 children in Rajasthan on the Mindspark program. The results track students over an 18 month period and were found to be significant, with consistent absolute positive results regardless of starting ability level, gender or grade. The solution is cost-effective when compared to government spending on business-as-usual schooling. The program is still fine-tuning the operations associated with time-table integration of classroom teaching.

In addition to the results expected from the final three-year results in another 18 months’ time, our ambition is that the insights Educational Initiatives glean from Mindspark can be packaged for others to make use of. A Science of Learning Library will act as a repository of information on foundational concepts and skills. It will enable student learning, by explaining the most common procedural and conceptual errors made by children, the incidence of errors among different groups of children, and the most effective remediation content. For example, children often say that 3.27 is greater than 3.3, or 4.56 is greater than 4.9; the reason is that they are seeing the “27” and the “56” after the decimal points as being larger than the “3” and the “9”, an error known as “whole number thinking”. Mindspark will pick up on this and other patterns of errors and recommend specific remedial exercises customised to each child’s diagnosis. Our vision is that the Science of Learning library can equip teachers, researchers, policy makers and EdTech innovators with crucial insights on how children learn, and support the uptake and development of new means of averting the education crisis.