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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Vocabulary Site Shows How to Tailor Online Education

The recent excitement about online learning has mostly been focused on the power of technology to distribute and democratize education. At the forefront has been the rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which have been magnets for attention and investment.

But the other potential of computing in education is less about reach than depth. That is, the ability to tailor learning experiences to the skills, strengths and weaknesses of individual students. The goal has been pursued for decades, but it is within reach now because of the increasing ease in handling large amounts of data and steadily improving tools from the field of artificial intelligence like machine learning.

An intriguing example, some educators say, is Vocabulary.com. The vocabulary-building Web site went up in 2011, open to the public. It has received enthusiastic reviews and awards, attracting users who have answered questions 60 million times. That user information goes into improving the system and adding to the site’s continually growing collection of more than 100,000 vocabulary questions. This works much as Google uses the billions of search queries by users and tracks their responses to refine its search engine.

Having grown and matured, a version of Vocabulary.com was introduced to the education market last month, with online dashboards and graphic tools for teachers to track the progress of individual students in real time.

Educators who are familiar with Vocabulary.com are impressed by the technology. It is a sign, they say, that real progress is finally being made in computer-assisted education â€" at least in the domain of learning words and their meaning.

“Vocabulary.com is a good example of what is becoming possible and the direction we should be heading,” said Lee Ann Tysseling, an associate professor of education at Boise State University. “We’re seeing the blooming of good academic ways to use computers. It builds on good academic theory and not just what’s easy to program.”

For years, educators say, computer-aided learning amounted to the equivalent of digital flash cards and other rote drills. By contrast, Vocabulary.com has a variety of sentences, typically several for a given word. So if a person misses a definition, the same word may come up in a different sentence, several questions later.

The goal is to nudge each student ahead, according to his or her level of knowledge, delivering questions that are challenging, not too hard or too easy.

“The crux of this is the adaptive technology, a system that works with the student and grows with the student,” said Sandra Schamroth Abrams, an assistant professor in the school of education at St. John’s University.

Vocabulary.com is built by a New York start-up, Thinkmap. Vocabulary.com is its second word-data product, following Visual Thesaurus, an interactive dictionary and thesaurus, which presents words, definitions and related words in animated graphics. The Canadian province of Alberta, for example, has licensed Visual Thesaurus for 600,000 students.

Michael Freedman, co-founder and chief executive of Thinkmap, declined to disclose the pricing for Vocabulary.com in the education market. He said the per-student cost would be “a fraction” of the cost of vocabulary textbooks and workbooks that schools buy. The main market, he said, is middle school and high school students.

Thinkmap’s executive producer for Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com is Ben Zimmer, a linguist, lexicographer and author, who wrote the “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine after William Safire. Of Vocabulary.com, Mr. Zimmer said, “The technology makes it possible to create a dynamic learning environment that is personalized to the individual.”

On its Web site, Vocabulary.com declares, “Our magical technology models your brain.” It is intrusive, in a way, a kind of real-time educational surveillance. My colleague David Streitfeld wrote this week about teachers’ ability to monitor the use and study habits of college students using digital textbooks. A dean at Texas A&M said, “It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent.”

These digital forays into education may hold a larger lesson in the debate about privacy and online monitoring of behavior. If the user sees a benefit, it’s called personalization. If not, it’s surveillance, a word with a very different connotation.