Saturday, August 30, 2008

Online, Adaptive, Database-Driven Software for Math


The best metric for an instructional program is (time to proficiency)/(cost) for each student. The instructional method must be matched to the student and situation for the fastest time. Any particular method will not be a match for all students. A set of instructional delivery systems must be available to allow student choice and/or matching.


Without question, the product with the best time/cost ratio for reluctant learners is ALEKS. Its secret strength is its fairly terse, text-only help. It forces students to bring themselves to the problem first in order to solve it. This is also its weakness. An educator may believe that more instructional depth and variety is needed for students. Please note that this may be more of a cultural bias than a research-driven result. For example, video instruction may be more engaging, but does it bring the student to a specific problem. In other words, are bells and whistles truly helpful or merely sales features?

Apangea's structure offers the most robust math learning system for an independent learner. It's design has online instruction, supplemented by an automatic avatar (similar to the animations that arise in Microsoft Office) that offers help when the software system senses student difficulties. When difficulties persist, a real human, currently based in Pittsburg, comes online to help the student. This is unique, because it allows students to work without teacher support and it does allow students to obtain a more robust proficiency than ALEKS. The actual quality of its instruction has not been determined by me.

It is useful to see that ALEKS at $40 and Apangea at $130 are the two quality extremes of the same spectrum. Other products try sell similar features at lower costs and need to be offered when students reject ALEKS/Apangea or when budgets are unavailable.

Specific Choices

Carnegie Tutor offers much of Apangea's design sans the avatar and remote human intervention at a much lower cost. Carnegie joins ALEKS and Apangea in having the best artificial intelligence systems for adaptive, data-driven learning. iPass offers a limited course offering, basically just Algebra Readiness, but it is the product that exists in the middle of spectrum, because it uses constructed responses as does ALEKS.

The I Can Learn system is primarily purchased when a large grant is available and annual costs must be minimized. It is a school-based system only and not for at-home use. APEX Learning, which our district enjoys and I support, isn't a great method of delivering math instruction, because it doesn't adapt to student struggles. Its feedback design isn't appropriate for math considering its cost. Apex is better for high content courses, such as World History or Biology. It offers a consistent interface to all courses, which simplifies both student and teacher management chores.

SmartMathPractice (Planetii) and XLPrep can be thought of as competitors to ALEKS, both are adaptive at $20 each. Their weakness is that they use multiple choice. Please note that multiple choice inherently slows the time-to-proficiency in an adaptive system because guessing must be dealt with by having students complete more questions. Guessing gives false positives. This cannot be mitigated, CAHSEE's sub-categories being classic examples; although SmarthMathPractice and BrainX try by including a student's belief in his or her own knowledge into the software's decision-making.

Almost all of the other products, such as StudyIsland, are variations of XLPrep, or vice-versa. They offer more immediate help than ALEKS on the displayed page of the problem, but their multiple-choice nature hinders learning.


Apangea should be tried with an independent school's higher achievers and, possibly, as a strong prep course for a student attempting to enter seventh grade Algebra or eighth grade Geometry. As a learning community, we need to try it and determine its fit and appropriateness.  The software provider claims that it's best market is actually in alternative ed.

Supplemental Opinion

In my experience with reluctant learners, they must be allowed to skip instruction and do problems until they exhaust themselves and are emotionally ready to accept instruction. ALEKS and SmartMathPractice are superb under this scenario and iPass horrible. XLPrep and RevolutionPrep (CAHSEE) immediately provide short instructional help after a failed problem. Some students prefer this. More stable students will read/watch delivery without having to fail first; in other words, their maturity allows them to use the types of software that appeal to educational buyers. Please re-read the second paragraph above.

1 comment:

OrangeMath said...

From Mark Stefanik of Apangea:

Our program is specifically designed for very low-performing, highly at risk students.

For instance, we are working with the LA County Alternative Ed program. Their students are performing exceptionally well – 100% passed CAHSEE after only 8 weeks on the program. LACOE is so happy, they are extending the program throughout the ENTIRE Alt Ed program, countywide.

Nearly ALL of my clients in CA are either continuation schools, alternative ed, or adult ed – or we are working with either special education or students who are more than 1 or 2 grade levels behind.