Volume 22, Number 12 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | August 7 - 13, 2009

Downtown Express photos by Jared T. Miller

I.S. 131’s new summer school program uses computers for games, math drills and to schedule more individual student instructional time throughout the day. The program was set up by Joel Rose of the Dept. of Education, below.

Learning with computer games at Chinatown summer school

By Jared T. Miller

The School of One doesn’t much resemble a traditional classroom. Teachers pair off with students, and tutor them under banners playfully titled with New York City landmarks; a group of students watches as a teacher explains a lesson by projecting a laptop onto the whiteboard in front of them; and most strikingly, most of the students are teaching themselves by playing computer games.

A pilot program launched July 9 by the Dept. of Education, the School of One is an effort to “re-imagine the traditional classroom,” said Chancellor Joel Klein, who toured the program two weeks ago. The Dept. of Education chose I.S. 131 in Chinatown as the testing ground for the program, which is currently only a math-focused summer school program for 90 sixth-grade students who volunteered to participate.

Using technology developed specifically for the program, the School of One aims to make teachers more efficient and offer students a greater variety of learning methods. It does so in several ways: Analysis of each student’s educational strengths and weaknesses as well as their personal likes and dislikes leads to an individually crafted teaching style for each student. Individualized monitoring of students’ progress allows lessons to move at the students’ pace, compensating for quick learners as well as those who require extra help. And in many cases, most of the instruction can be done on a laptop available to each student.

“The question that I had always asked myself is, ‘If I was only working with a small group of students, what would the rest of the class actually be doing?’” said Joel Rose, chief executive for Human Capital at the New York City Dept. of Education and founder of the School of One. “I never really had a good answer to that question — at least not one that wouldn’t require eight hours of preparation.”

Rose’s answer struck him last year when he was visiting a New Horizons Learning Center. In the South Florida branch, there was a sign — “Choose Your Modality,” — hung at the entrance. The center, which specializes in technical training for adults, offered several of the “modalities,” or teaching situations: live instruction, at-home learning, and mentored one-on-one learning. Rose spent the following summer months writing and planning the foundation for what now resides inside a converted library in I.S. 131. The program cost about $1 million to implement, though Rose explained that the majority (nearly $900,000) of the cost was for infrastructure and software that will be reused as the program expands.

At the beginning of each school year, all of I.S. 131’s students are assigned laptops from the “I Teach/I Learn” program, making the school an ideal candidate for the technology-heavy School of One. Teachers hope to continue some elements of the program in the coming school year.

Students have a similar choice of how to learn best. Based on personality surveys as well as educational assessments taken prior to the beginning of the program, students are paired with what suits them best. Like the goal of any school, students are fit with schedules that match their learning ability; but the personality profile, which asks questions about likes, dislikes, and hobbies, helps pair students with the right kind of learning method. A student who plays sports regularly and a student who enjoys art classes, for instance, would likely have different schedules. Schedules are displayed on a screen at the front of the room, changing throughout the day for each student. Rose compares it to an airport flight screen, in terms of its visibility and organization.

As a result, the early stages of the program have shown significant learning progress for the students involved (which is monitored by the computerized algorithm that sets their schedules and receives their grades on daily assessments). A “handful” of students, according to Rose, are attending the program because they are behind or having trouble with the material they had recently learned. The system constantly adjusts for their progress, only advancing to the next lesson after the current one has been completed satisfactorily. Conversely, Rose noted that several students have been advancing rapidly through the material; the students, who will be entering seventh grade in the fall, are nearly finished with the seventh grade math curriculum.

”It’s a good problem to have,” Rose laughed.

The system creates a similarly favorable situation for the teachers involved. The program, which is led by four teachers, four graduate students from New York University and two high school interns, appears at first glance to be self-sufficient. The majority of students play games on their laptops; Math Score offers students a chance to solve problems in a more traditional fashion, whereas Dimension M resembles a “first person shooter” video game, where the student must answer math questions to rack up virtual trophies and prizes for their efforts.

“A lot of this technology is just tricking a television generation into learning,” said teacher Matthew Miller, who teaches special education at the school during the academic year. He said he rarely hears complaints of “I can’t do this” from his students, who appear to be more motivated by the difference in educational technique. But for Miller, the efficiency of a computerized curriculum is key.

“What’s better than an assessment a day at the end of every day, already graded, already locked in for me?” Miller said. “Everything that computer’s doing is an hour and a half, two hours of work for me after school at night, every night. I think it’s a great trade-off.”

Miller’s schedule is already created for him the night before, determining which students will need help when. The algorithm internalizes the results of the day’s assessments and matches that with the student’s progress and preferred learning style. Miller’s day consists of coming in half an hour before his students, preparing for lessons and adjusting for any problems that might occur, and either monitoring progress or teaching face-to-face throughout the day’s four class periods.

Miller says he’d like to incorporate parts of the technology into his academic year curriculum. Though the program is still only planned for the summer, Rose said he planned to analyze the results of the program, and if they are favorable begin planning for introduction of the School of One’s math curriculum. He said he hoped to do so by this coming January. For Miller, incorporating the technological focus at the heart of the School of One is most important.

“Think about it — we’re so bombarded by extreme amounts of media,” Miller said. “Here we are putting, traditionally, photocopies and black and white books [in front of students]. It’s just not gonna last, in my opinion.”





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