Closed-loop Education
© 4 Jun 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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How many brains are needed to facilitate learning?


Humans like trends and fads no matter the discipline. One of the current trends in education is toward automated instruction. Recorded lectures, interactive problem sets with automated feedback, automated grading programs for larger assignments, the use of forums and video chat to facilitate inter-student interaction… the one thing all of these share is less instructor-student interaction.

Teaching and (elementary) Control Theory

Control theory models many systems with a simple pair of black boxes. In one box we put the thing we are trying to control. In the other box we put the thing that is trying to control it. When I drive a car, I am in the controller box and the car, the road, the laws of physics, and most everything else is in the “‍world‍” box. If I drive blind, accelerating and turning based on a pre-determined sequence, I’m what’s called an “‍open-loop‍” controller. If I instead react to what the car does in response to my actions I’m a “‍closed-loop‍” or “‍feedback‍” controller.

Let’s now consider a few models of teaching. The “‍controller‍” is the teacher and the “‍world‍” is the student; the goal of the teacher is to have the student think in a particular way.

The communication I’m engaged in right now is open-loop. I create this post, you read it. Information flows from me to you, with no feedback The comments field at the bottom of the post does allow feedback of a sort, but not in time for me to adjust the inputs I’m giving you. .

Tutoring is closed-loop. The instructor speaks, the student responds, the instructor sees and (hopefully) reacts to that response, etc.

Lecturing can vary on the open/closed spectrum. Some lecturers are little more than performance textbooks: animated, even exciting, but not even sensing (let along reacting to) student understanding. Others are large-group tutoring sessions, where students can drive the class by providing the same kinds of feedback they do in tutoring sessions.

Automated classrooms introduce a third black box. From the instructor’s view, it’s open-loop: content is created without interaction with the student. From the student’s view, the best of it is closed-loop: the student interacts with the course content, and it behaves differently depending on what the student does.

How Many Minds?

Let us assume for the sake of argument that open-loop instruction is inferior to closed-loop instruction I sometimes doubt this, personally preferring to learn most of what I learn in an open-loop way. But that’s a topic for another post. . This assumption seems to be backed up in the general feel that small classes are good, that tutors are worth more money than textbooks are, etc.

What is not so clear is this: can the advantages of closed-loop instruction be codified and wrapped up in an automated tutor? Can I create a database of student feedback and proper responses large enough to do as well as a human? Do I need two minds in the loop, or is one mind (the student) and one tool enough?

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