Posts Tagged ‘technology’

Teaching language to a machine

October 5, 2010

We posted last week about the Children of the Code Web site, and noted that reading is such an incredibly complex task that it’s not notable that some students struggle with reading, but rather miraculous that any of us can read at all. Computers are good at breaking down complex tasks like forecasting weather – could they be any good at learning language and reading?

Today’s NY Times describes a computer program under development at Carnegie-Mellon University called NELL (for Never Ending Language Learning). NELL is attempting to learn by acting not like a computer (computers are generally very good at following rules – for example, learning to play chess – but lousy at more nuanced tasks), but like a human being.

Researchers working on NELL cited an example of the following two sentences:

The girl caught the butterfly with the spots.

The girl caught the butterfly with the net.

A human reader inherently understands that girls hold nets, and girls are not usually spotted. So, in the first sentence, “spots” is associated with “butterfly,” and in the second, “net” with “girl.”

“That’s obvious to a person, but it’s not obvious to a computer,” Dr. Mitchell said. “So much of human language is background knowledge, knowledge accumulated over time. That’s where NELL is headed, and the challenge is how to get that knowledge.”

But if a computer is using a hierarchy of rules self-developed rules to resolve ambiguity in language, what happens if it gets a rule wrong?

When Dr. Mitchell scanned the “baked goods” category recently, he noticed a clear pattern. NELL was at first quite accurate, easily identifying all kinds of pies, breads, cakes and cookies as baked goods. But things went awry after NELL’s noun-phrase classifier decided “Internet cookies” was a baked good. (Its database related to baked goods or the Internet apparently lacked the knowledge to correct the mistake.)

NELL had read the sentence “I deleted my Internet cookies.” So when it read “I deleted my files,” it decided “files” was probably a baked good, too. “It started this whole avalanche of mistakes,” Dr. Mitchell said. He corrected the Internet cookies error and restarted NELL’s bakery education.

The researchers behind NELL (and other projects that are attempting to teach computers to attack language as humans do) cite the possibilities for improved natural language search (where searching returns answers to questions, rather than just lists of relevant Web sites) as a positive outcome of their research. One hopes as well that as we train a computer to think like a human we gain additional insight into how humans think and learn, with the potential to improve learning for our children.

Take a break!

October 2, 2010

Taking a break while working on the computer is good for both adults and kids. Screen breaks help prevent eye strain and reduce repetitive stress injuries. And for kids working intensely on challenging programs, screen breaks can improve focus and attention.

A few tips from Kids Health:

  1. Give your eyes a break. Focus on something across the room or out the window. This activity gives your eyes a rest from focusing on the computer screen.
  2. Get up and move around. Go get a drink of water or stand up and stretch. Kids can do jumping jacks and march in place.

Adults can also try screen break software. You can purchase this or find free downloads. Once loaded on your computer, the programs remind you to take a break at different intervals. Some even recommend stretches you can do in your chair.

Technology in the classroom

September 25, 2010

Last week’s NY Times Magazine was dedicated to the interface between technology and education. As purveyors of computer-assisted learning, we were naturally intrigued.

The Times’ included a history of technology in the classroom that starts with the Horn Book, a wooden paddle with printed lessons that was introduced circa 1650, and ends with the iPad (a 21st century Horn Book of sorts), which the Times speculates may replace the textbook. Along the course of history was the chalkboard (1890), the pencil (1900) and Liquid Paper (really? technology?) (1960).

The use of technology to assist with learning is obviously not new. And since the time of the Horn Book, educators have probably wondered whether technology would, at some point, replace them at the front of the classroom. Recent developments in online learning are certainly challenging the traditional nature of how we learn.

Thirty years ago, we wrote papers out by hand. Today, students can type them and submit them by email. Technology has improved the efficiency of this process, but it hasn’t really changed the nature of the process itself. A program like Fast ForWord, improves learning by using technology to accomplish something that wasn’t previously possible. For example, for students who struggle to accurately process brief consonant sounds in English, the program acoustically modifies the short and soft consonant sounds to make them more pronounced. You and I can’t do this. (Try it. Say the word “cat” slowly. It comes out “C-a-a-a-a-a-t”, and all you’ve done is make the vowel sound longer.) But with an algorithm applied to digitized speech, the Fast ForWord program can isolate the consonant sound, make it louder and longer. And then it can present the modified sounds in thousands of precisely adapted trials that ensure that each student is challenged appropriately to promote learning.

Technology in the classroom is great. And learning to navigate technology is a life skill. But when it comes down to using technology to promote learning in new and different ways, programs like Fast ForWord stand out from the crowd.

Speech recognition, mobile apps help build reading skills

June 18, 2010

This week’s eSchool News (free registration required) reports that while reading scores have remained relatively flat for the past 40 years, there’s renewed hope that technology might provide a breakthrough and help struggling readers.

The article caught our eye because it highlights Reading Assistant, a program from Scientific Learning that Be Amazing Learning recently began offering. Reading Assistant uses speech-recognition technology to create a virtual reading tutor for students, identifying areas of difficulty like mispronunciations and hesitations and providing students with the necessary support. The program also automatically calculates fluency rates (a process that would otherwise be performed one-on-one with a teacher), which correlate highly to comprehension.

Jacky Egli, executive director of Bridges Academy in Florida, said she’s used Reading Assistant for about two years and is constantly amazed by the confidence that students build using the program. Bridges, a private school for students with disabilities, focuses on helping students close the academic gap. “You see changes by January or February. Reluctant readers are becoming more confident readers,” she said.

We’re pretty firm believers in Reading Assistant, so we weren’t particularly surprised to hear the vote of confidence in the program from Bridges Academy. But we were a little more intrigued by the new research into the opportunities afforded by mobile technology:

An April paper, written by Nian-Shing Chen, Daniel Chia-En Teng, and Cheng-Han Lee and presented at the 2010 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) International Conference on Wireless, Mobile, and Ubiquitous Technologies in Education, looked at the attempt to integrate the strengths of mobile technology into paper-based reading activities to enhance learners’ reading comprehension.

“While conventional print text provides very limited information in fostering learners’ comprehension, integrating mobile technology with paper prints is a possible way to offer learners essential content-related resources to make sense of the text,” they wrote.

And, as parents of young children who are constantly begging for a turn with our phones, we were particularly interested in a PBS study that showed that students who download mobile applications to their smart phones can boost their vocabulary significantly within just a few weeks:

The study found that vocabulary improved as much as 31 percent in children who played with the Martha Speaks Dog Party app, based on the popular PBS Kids’ television series Martha Speaks, about a dog who eats a bowl of alphabet soup and gains the power of human speech.

Technology doesn’t replace reading instruction, but technology programs like Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant can be effective interventions for students who are struggling with reading because they are highly adaptive and offer a systematic and individualized approach to addressing reading problems. As new technology-based reading interventions come on the market critical consumers should continue to seek out research-based options. The Fast ForWord programs, for example, are based on over 30 years of university-based research into language acquisition and brain plasticity. And the programs have been the subject of hundreds of studies in a wide variety of settings. (We’ve got links to many of these studies on our Web site).

Be Amazing Learning now offers Reading Assistant to develop reading fluency

April 6, 2010

Be Amazing Learning now offers Reading Assistant from Scientific Learning. Brought to you by the same people who developed the highly effective Fast ForWord programs, Reading Assistant is a scientifically-based intervention  that combines advanced speech verification technology with the latest reading science to help students strengthen their reading fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

Using research-validated speech verification technology, Reading Assistant “listens” to a student as he or she reads aloud. Monitoring for signs of difficulty, the program intervenes with assistance when the student is challenged by a word. Students re-read passages several times to build automaticity, and are assessed to determine their level of comprehension by skill.

Reading Assistant

Reading material in Reading Assistant contains highly-illustrated selections grouped in topical clusters, many with a science or social studies theme. This organization helps students build a body of knowledge and also read common vocabulary in different contexts. The content is divided into four grade bands:

  • K-3: Contains selections that relate to young reader’s interests and experiences while building world knowledge and vocabulary. Drawn from authentic contemporary, classic, and multicultural literature, the selections include a variety of genre, from rhymes and predictable fiction to nonfiction.
  • Grades 4-5: Contains selections that relate to the independence and broadening interests of upper elementary students. Drawn from authentic contemporary, classic, and multicultural literature, clusters include a variety of genre—fiction, historical fiction, jokes, poetry, folktales, and biography—and range in reading level from Grade 1 to Grade 5.
  • Grades 6-8: Contains selections that relate to middle schoolers’ interests as well as topics from science, social studies, and literature standards. Drawn from authentic contemporary, classic, and multicultural literature, clusters include a variety of genre—fiction, personal narratives, jokes, poetry, eyewitness accounts and journals, expository nonfiction, and biography—and range in reading level from Grade 2 to Grade 5.
  • Grades 9-12: Contains selections that relate to adolescents’ interests as well as topics from science, social studies, and literature standards. Drawn from authentic contemporary, classic, and multicultural literature, clusters include a variety of genre—fiction, personal narratives, jokes, poetry, eyewitness accounts and journals, expository nonfiction, and biography—and range in reading level from Grade 3 to Grade 12.

As with the Fast ForWord programs, Be Amazing Learning continuously monitors student progress, customizes instruction, and helps motivate students. Our detailed reports pinpoint student learning needs with in-depth analysis of comprehension skills and strategies as well as level of thinking.

Reading Assistant is appropriate for students who have completed programs in the Fast ForWord Language or Fast ForWord Literacy series, or who simply need help developing fluency. It can be run concurrently with programs from the Fast ForWord Reading series.

Call today for more information about how to incorporate Reading Assistant into your summer!

Building Math Fluency

April 6, 2010

In its report “Foundations for Success” (2008), the National Math Panel emphasized the importance of developing automatic recall of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts in order to adequately prepare for algebra and beyond.

FASTT MathTo help students develop this math fact fluency, Be Amazing Learning is excited to add the FASTT Math program to our stable of programs. FASTT Math uses the research-validated FASTT system (Fluency and Automaticity through Systematic Teaching with Technology) to help students develop fluency with basic math facts.

Each student undergoes a brief assessment to uncover fluency gaps and to establish a baseline of fluency. Then, FASTT Math automatically differentiates instruction in customized, 10-minute daily sessions.

FASTT Math ensures that all students, regardless of their fluency level, build the long-lasting fluency they will need to tackle higher-order math.

At 10 minutes per day, FASTT Math is a great add-on to the Fast ForWord programs. Call us today at (800) 792-4809 for more information about how to incorporate FASTT Math into your summer!

Baby Robots?

July 12, 2009

Can scientists build a “baby robot” that, like a child, learns as it goes and plays well with others? July’s Smithsonian magazine profiles Project One, a “wildly ambitious effort to crack the secrets of human intelligence. It involves, their grant proposal says, ‘an integrated system … whose sensors and actuators approximate the levels of complexity of human infants.'”

As the article points out, we have been able to develop robots that effectively carry out a wide variety of tasks, from building cars to playing the violin. And through a process called “supervised learning” (the “laborious analysis of spoon-fed data” such as a smile-detection system that “learns” by being shown tens of thousands of photographs of smiling and non-smiling faces) we can train robots to respond to humans. However, supervised learning isn’t how babies discover their world.

“If you want to build an intelligent system, you have to build a system that becomes intelligent,” says “Giulio Sandini, a bioengineer specializing in social robots at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa. “Intelligence is not only what you know but how you learn more from what you know. Intelligence is acquiring information, a dynamic process.”

This is the goal of Project One:

The robot baby will be able to touch, grab and shake objects, and the researchers hope that it will be able to “discover” as many as 100 different objects that infants might encounter … and figure out how to manipulate them … The subtleties are numerous; it will need to figure out that, say, a red rattle and a red bottle are different things and that a red rattle and a blue rattle are essentially the same.

Javier Movellan, a psychologist at UC San Diego and the director of the school’s Machine Perception Laboratory, was also involved with the development of RUBI, a robot designed to test interactive computing applications in the classroom. Interestingly enough, we first learned of RUBI at a talk given by Dr. Paula Tallal, one of the creators of the Fast ForWord programs, in which she emphasized the criticality of timing in language. RUBI, she said, also showed how important timing was in developing human interactions. The initial RUBI responded fractions of a second too slowly to the toddlers it encountered, and the children disengaged. However, when the researchers sped up the interaction time to approximate how quickly humans respond to sensory input, the children developed a relationship with RUBI.

In RUBI, the Smithsonian article says, Movellan developed a robot that humans can love. The goal of Project One is to develop a robot that can love humans.

The project is not without its skeptics, who doubt that a “baby robot” will tell us much about how humans learn. For example. Ron Chrisley, a cognitive scientist at the University of Sussex in England cites the fact that infants develop physically as well as mentally as they grow:

“To mimic infant development, robots are going to have to change their morphology in ways that the technology isn’t up to.”

And besides, says Chrisley, Project One is going at things all wrong by focusing on things like realistic human features. After all, “Human beings learned to fly when we mastered aerodynamics, not when we fashioned realistic-looking birds.”

Still, any new insight into how children learn to observe and reflect their environment will be welcome in the field of learning. And Project One’s robot won’t need diaper changes and could probably be programmed to make its bed and clean up its room without nagging…

Using computers to teach

March 17, 2008

When I was a kid, we used to get sent to the library in groups to listen to a story playd on a tape (or more likely a record player). Then we were given a ditto sheet (ah… remember ditto sheets? That smell?) with questions to answer about the story we had just heard. And that, in a nutshell, was “education technology.”

There has been a major push in the last decade to wire schools and classrooms. Connect them to the Internet, load them up with donated computers, etc. But most of the content delivered in this way isn’t much more than what we got from the record player and the ditto sheet, only it’s slightly more interactive and delivered over the Internet or from a CD-ROM.

Fast ForWord is one product that is different because it’s not just using the computer do something faster or even more efficiently than it could be done without the computer. It’s using the computer to do something that’s not possible without the computer. From the delivery of modified speech stimuli to the thousands of precise, adaptive trials, Fast ForWord isn’t just using a computer to deliver content more efficiently than a teacher; it’s delivering brain-changing exercises that a human being flat out can’t deliver. No that, to me, is real education technology.

And as a bonus, by increasing students’ memory and attention skills, Fast ForWord actually sets kids up to better absorb the content delivered by great teachers.


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