Sometimes expert teachers just aren’t an option

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Dec 11, 2015

One of the clearest findings from education research is that teachers are the single greatest in-school factor that affects student achievement. But how do we improve access to quality teachers in developing parts of the world where trained and experienced teachers just don’t exist?

Educational Initiatives, a privately-owned company in India that develops and administers large-scale assessments in private and public schools in India, faced this question when it decided to pursue a social initiative aimed at serving some of India’s most disadvantaged children. In 2011, the company set up five learning centers in densely populated communities in South Delhi to provide elementary school-aged Indian children with instruction in math and Hindi. But in launching these new centers, the company found that it would be practically impossible to find educated adults to serve as teachers at the centers given the level of poverty in the surrounding communities.

To address this problem, Educational Initiatives developed a blended-learning model for the centers that could operate without a strong pool of teachers by taking advantage of instructional expertise encoded in learning software. In 2009, the company had built an online-learning program called Mindspark using research on how children develop cognitive understanding of various subjects. For example, the Mindspark team found through their research that there are seven common misunderstandings with which students often struggle when learning about two-digit decimals. Using this research, the Mindspark developers built the software to ask each student questions to identify which, if any, of the seven misunderstandings were holding up that student’s learning. After identifying the culprit misunderstandings, the software provides students with instructional coaching to help them work through their particular misconceptions. By building this type of pedagogical expertise into the software, Educational Initiatives’ learning centers could rely largely on the software to provide students with basic instruction. In circumstances where expert teachers are not available, relying on software for instruction is more than good enough compared to the alternative of having nothing at all.

Although the centers don’t depend on expert teachers to provide instruction, adults are still a critical part of the centers’ learning model. When hiring teachers to staff its centers, the company seeks out people who would be effective motivators. As Pranav Kothari, Educational Initiatives’s vice president of Mindspark Centres divisions, said:

Learning levels in India are extraordinarily low. … Based on the size of its population, India needs seven million teachers if it is going to educate all of its students. India does not have seven million people who can teach advanced math, but it does have seven million nice people who like to work with kids. … Children come back [to our centers] every day because they like their teacher, they feel loved, and they are recognized for their efforts. That’s something only humans can do.

Software, such as Mindspark, is still a long way away from being able to replicate the skills and expertise of an experienced teacher. As Kothari noted, software cannot provide the same quality of support and encouragement as a caring adult. Additionally, although the software can go a long way in developing students’ understanding of facts, concepts, and basic skills, expert teachers with strong pedagogical and content knowledge are still essential for helping students learn to think critically and apply their understanding at deeper levels.

Nonetheless, in the unfortunate circumstances where students lack access to education we also find promising opportunities for innovation. As the theory of disruptive innovation illustrates, innovators who address areas of nonconsumption—where demand for performance is low because the alternative is nothing at all—have much more freedom to experiment with new approaches and develop new solutions from the ground up. Then, as they improve their models over time, they are often able to come up with entirely new ways to meet traditional performance expectations while also offering other benefits that are unavailable in traditional approaches such as increased accessibility, affordability, and customizability.

The Mindspark Centres’ provide a compelling example of a new model that combines smart software with guidance from caring adults to create new learning opportunities for disadvantaged students. As Educational Initiatives works to scale and improve its model, we will be anxious to see the improvements it makes in order to serve its students better—such as increasing the instructional rigor of the software or bringing expert teachers into the centers virtually. In time, Mindspark Centres may prove to be comparable in quality to traditional schools, while also offering affordability and personalization that traditional schools are unable to match. For this reason, we suspect that the blended-learning solutions that will prove most disruptive to traditional instruction in the long run may already be taking root amidst educational nonconsumption in the developing parts of the world.

Mindspark is supported by Central Square Foundation, Porticus and Tech Mahindra Foundation.

Update 5/18/16: A new randomized pilot evaluation of Mindspark, conducted by J-PAL South Asia from September 2015 to February 2016, has found that students are making substantial gains using this model. According to the preliminary study, Mindspark students are growing 2.35 and 2.85 times the rate of their non-Mindspark peers in math and Hindi, respectively. This is promising data for blended learning, and we hope to see more studies like this in the future for other programs from across the field.

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.