Tuesday, January 23, 2018

IXL: Caveat Emptor & Personalized Misery

As the computerized version of personalized [sic] learning continues to gather steam, we can anticipate increasingly aggressive marketing. Remember-- you don't win in a free market by having the best product, but by having the most effective marketing.

Marketing for these algorithm-driven software packages of mass-produced custom education belongs to a special class of marketing-- marketing that is designed to sell a product to people other than the actual end users. If your not sure why that matters, imagine if you didn't buy the car you drive, but it was purchased for you by parents. Or if the grocery shopping for your house was done by your children. How would that affect the way those products are marketed? Education has always suffered from this problem-- teachers get stuck using products that are purchased by district administrators who will never have to actually work with them.

So we get products with ridiculous levels of puffery, like this software that claims to be in 70% of all US districts. And we get a variety of other claims that are either beside the point (like software that will make the administrator's job easier, but will add more fruitless labor for teachers).

Edubiz marketeers can smell the sweet green chum of tax dollars in the water. I'm not arguing that all sharks should starve to death, but more than ever, part of an admistration's job to separate the predators from the pedagogy, to distinguish between baloney and steak. And that means paying attention, doing de diligence, and taking care of their homework.

Here's a good example.

IXL has been in the algorithm-selected digitized worksheet biz for many years, all the way back to 1998 when they were selling Quia Web, a sort of web learning platform. Nowadays, their pitch is perfectly suited to the computer-centered personalized [sic] learning crowd:

IXL helps students excel! With thousands of topics in math, language arts, science, social studies, and Spanish, there's always something new to explore. IXL sets a new standard for online learning, offering unlimited algorithmically generated questions, real-time analytical reports, and dynamic scoring to encourage mastery. Released in 2007, it has since become the world's most popular subscription-based learning site for pre-K to high school. With more than 7,000 unique and challenging skills to master, IXL offers a dynamic and enjoyable environment suitable for any learning style. Students who use IXL are succeeding like never before.

IXL's algorithm can "generate" worksheets and kick out "analytical" reports on the road to "mastering" skills, and if you start to browse, you see that IXL meets the usual standard of measuring only those things that can be measured with computer-scored questions. We'll get back to the dynamic scoring in a bit, but "succeeding like never before" is a bold piece of puffery, lacking any indication whether that's a good thing or a bad thing (Trump is a President like never before, but I'm not sure that's great news).

The content is unimpressive. Skills are pushed way down into lower levels. The 11th grade language set focuses on mechanical items that can be drilled with computerized bubble questions, but because its focus is on Things That Can Be Computerized, the material about reading and writing is largely inadequate. But this will always be the problem for any computer-centered education delivery system-- if you are delivering your "product" through a garden hose, you will severely limit what "product" can be delivered, and software is a hugely limiting delivery system.

IXL has a whole page of "inspiration" on its site, and as is usually the case, this is not so much aimed at telling teachers "this is how this will help" as it is aimed at telling superintendents "this is how much your people will like it" or "this is how much easier your job will be" or even "at last you can slap this in teachers' hands and stop worrying about whether anything's being taught or not." It stresses being "data driven" because that brings tears of joy to every administrator who dreams of sitting in their office and managing their district by scanning screenloads of data. There are videos, including a couple of teachers who make the usual self-incriminating endorsements ("Before this product, I didn't know what the hell was going on in my classroom, but now I look at these cool data screens and I'm totally on top of things.") And we are reassured that for students this is just like a computer game, and they just can't wait to play; this sort of claim always reminds me of my own students, who generally are super-excited and obsessed with a new phone app for about two weeks, after which they lose all interest. Gamification is a fool's game.

IXL has a page devoted to its privacy policies which include the usual sort-of-reassuring language (we will not disclose any of your personal identifiable information except when we have your permission or, you know, other stuff) mixed in with not-at-all-reassuring language (if someone buys us, along with all your data, we'll tell you it's happening, but otherwise all bets will be off).

But overall, when one peruses IXL, there's nothing much to alarm the average human. The materials are neither more nor less crappy than the collections of publisher-created worksheets that we used to get with a textbook series.

But there are other places to look for information about IXL.

Meet Common Sense Media.  This is a website based in San Francisco that is "dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in the 21st century." They're big on tech and tech-related reviews, and they are sponsored by many of the usual suspects-- Bezos Family Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates, the Hewlett Foundation, the Broad Foundations, and many more of the same.

The review section of Common Sense takes an amazon-style look at many products and services, and the folks there have a few things to say about IXL. The reviews stretch from 2013 until 2017. There are 108 parent reviews, and 314 kid reviews. Here's a sample of some of the kid review headlines:

Do not try it! Will make your kid(s) cry!

Don't use it.

IXL is evil.

If you hate your kids...


Haha People think this helps kids? Ahaha.

If you think you're going to achieve something, something else will smack you back down.

Who thought this was a good idea?

Well, maybe these are just the complaints of frustrated children and teens who just couldn't quite cut the mustard, who are just bitter because this website dashed their delusions of awesomeness. Maybe more rational adult voices will give us a better picture...

Poor learning website

Worst website ever

Don't waste your money


Won't LEARN math; instead How to take Tests

Yeah, the adults all hate it, too.

There seem to be a couple of recurring complaints.

One is that the program is expensive, and like any good monetized piece of internet software, it makes its money with a steady drip, drip, drip of charges. So there's that.

But what draws the most loathing and anger is the non-teaching high-penalty dynamic scoring system. A student is supposed to earn her way to a score of 100 to qualify as a confident master of the particular skill. But as the student gets closer to that 100-point threshold, the penalties become fiercer. People repeatedly tell of being in the 90s, missing one comma or decimal point and being booted down to the 80s or 70s. And as one parent notes, "it doesn't teach you what you did wrong like a human would."  Parents and students also note that the program is very repetitive, and therefor very boring. But the frustration seems to be the most-reported emotion.

What most comments point toward, but don't really address, is the focus on gathering points. Almost none of the reviewers talked about actually learning skills or concepts, but discussed working through the program as a matter of generating the right answer in order to earn more points. Learning? Who cares-- personalized [sic] algorithm-selected mass-custom worksheet drill is about repeating the steps, jumping through the hoops, pressing the lever to get a piece of cheese. If you think a rat that has been living in a Skinner Box for months is no a well-educated rat, then using a program like this will make sense to you.

Of course, none of this appears in the happy, shiny world if IXL marketing, and if the person making the purchase decision makes no attempt to find out how the program actually works, or how people who have actually used it (that weren't selected by IXL's marketing department) feel about it, then it's more bad news for the people who actually have to use it.

This is how bad personalized [sic] learning via algorithm-selected mass-custom worksheets gets. It's a terrible way to educate actual live human beings.

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