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Many-to-One vs. One-to-Many: An Opinionated Guide to Educational Technology

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

There are many horses in the educational technology race. Which ones are worth betting on?

Education is in some respects one of the most stagnant of all major industries. A farmer from 150 years ago would not comprehend a modern farm. A factory worker from 150 years ago would not be able to function in a modern factory. But a professor from 150 years ago could walk into a classroom today and go to work without missing a beat.

Is this about to change? Many entrepreneurs and commentators believe so. Here, I offer my own assessment of the prospects for technologies to revolutionize education. This essay will explain why I label various technologies as winners, losers, and magic bullets in the table below. My opinions are not based on exhaustive research. They are based on my experience both as a high school teacher and as an entrepreneur.

My evaluations are based on whether I view these technologies as supporting a model of education that is one-to-many or a model that is many-to-one. The latter is the model I prefer, as will become clear in the rest of this essay.

Don’t Believe the Hype

One of the most-hyped ideas in the past year is MOOCs, or massive open online courses. The idea is that the most prestigious universities will create online versions of courses that are open to anyone. Last year, for example, Stanford offered a course in artificial intelligence that attracted tens of thousands of students. One of the professors for the course, Sebastian Thrun, then left Stanford to found a start-up called Udacity, which will use the MOOC model.

Stanford's MOOCs appear to benefit two disparate groups of students, one nearby and one far away. The nearby group consists of students who are on campus (Stanford, in this case) and prefer taking a MOOC to attending a live lecture. The other group consists of students nowhere near the campus, often in underdeveloped countries, for whom the MOOC provides a unique opportunity to attend a course run by a major university. Even though they cannot earn a Stanford degree this way, the distant students obtain valuable knowledge.

Well over 90 percent of the students who sign up for an MOOC do not benefit. Most do not finish the course, or even get very far into it.


We should not be surprised that MOOCs do not benefit most of those who try them. Students differ in their cognitive abilities and learning styles. Even within a relatively homogenous school, you will see students put into separate tracks. If we do not teach the same course to students in a single high school, why would we expect one teaching style to fit all in an unsorted population of tens of thousands?

An online course that has been designed at Stanford is likely to best fit the students who are suited to that particular university. The other beneficiaries are likely to be students who have the right cognitive skills and learning style but happen to be unable to attend college in the United States.

The attempt to achieve large scale in college courses is misguided. Instead of trying to come up with a way to extend the same course to tens of thousands of students, educators should be asking the opposite question: How would I teach if I only had one student? Educators with just one student in their class would not teach by lecturing.

Teaching Tablets and Beyond

To put this another way, I believe that the future of teaching is not one-to-many. Instead, it is many-to-one. By many-to-one, I mean that one student receives personalized instruction that comes from many educators. To make that work, technology must act as an intermediary, taking the information from the educators and customizing it to fit the student's knowledge, ability, and even his or her emotional state.

A famous science fiction example of many-to-one teaching comes from Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. In the novel, Stephenson imagines a girl with a teaching tablet that uses multimedia stories and conversation to provide her education. Sometimes, the stories are delivered in real time by actors who appear on the tablet.

Stephenson published his novel about ten years before the iPad popularized the tablet form of computing. However, anyone reading The Diamond Age today would surely imagine the girl's teaching aid as having enough similarity to the iPad to merit a patent lawsuit from Apple.

Although I do not even own an iPad, I am optimistic that tablets can be winners in education. It strikes me that a tablet can replace anything students carry today in their backpacks, other than lunch. You can read your textbooks in electronic format. With the right app, you have a scientific calculator. With another app, you can have a day planner, and it is easy to imagine enhancing such an app so that teachers can access it to add assignments and reminders.

Adults may be troubled by the absence of a keyboard on tablets. However, I would observe the following:

—The touch-screen interface is more engaging. My prediction is that websites, in order to become more tablet-friendly, will adapt by doing away as much as possible with interface elements that rely on a mouse and keyboard.

—The automatic programs that guess which words you are trying to type are rapidly improving, as are speech recognition tools. Both of these developments diminish the value of keyboards.

Adaptive Textbooks

The road to truly effective online social learning is going to be long and hilly.

I am optimistic about tablets in large part because I believe that a magic bullet in educational technology is the adaptive textbook. By that, I mean an electronic textbook that adjusts to the cognitive ability and learning style of the student. Adaptive textbooks will query students in order to make sure that they understand what they have been studying. They will also respond to student queries. Adaptive textbooks will implement the many-to-one teaching model.

A glimpse of what lies in store can be found at the Inquire Project, which describes “an iPad app that combines the popular Campbell Biology textbook with a knowledge representation and reasoning system that answers students’ questions about the material.”

The developers of this prototype conducted an initial controlled experiment. In this small trial, students who were given the app performed better on subsequent assessments than students who were not given the app.

I should point out that the education field is notorious for experiments that work in single, small trials yet fail to replicate elsewhere. However, at the very least, the results from the Inquire Project suggest that this is a path worth pursuing further.

In any case, the days of the traditional, passive textbook are numbered. Eric Kean, an energetic math professor at Western Washington University, singlehandedly created, an online textbook that teaches algebra using active learning.

Educators are excited by the possibilities created by moving a textbook to the tablet format. Imagine a history book that includes timelines and maps that a student can touch to either zoom in or pan out, audio and video clips, as well as the sort of two-way questions and answers used by the Inquire Project.

Games and Videos

In contrast to my enthusiasm for adaptive textbooks, I put educational games in the “loser” category. Let me hasten to point out that I believe that games can be useful teaching tools. I would say the same thing about rap songs, jokes, art projects, and other departures from “chalk and talk.” In moderation, and when they fit well with the subject at hand, these more creative teaching tools can improve students' motivation as well as their ability to recall basic concepts.

The reason I put games in the “loser” category is that there are too many companies in the “gamification space,” as venture capitalists call it. Many young people in the tech field are avid game-players and would-be game developers. They really want games to be a big deal in education. Many have a dream of taking the effort out of learning by turning it into a game. I have my doubts about the possibilities for effortless learning. I think that the gamification idea deserves a lot more skepticism than venture capitalists have been giving it.

Another idea that has attracted venture capitalists’ interest is online social learning. Inspired by the fact that students learn from one another, companies are adding chat spaces or other tools that are designed to bring peer-aided learning to distance education. In my view, the challenge is more complex than the entrepreneurs in this field are willing to acknowledge. I do not believe that educators fully understand the process of social learning in the classroom. We do not know exactly what factors make the difference between a classroom where students are of significant help to one another and one where students provide little assistance or even hold one another back. If and when we are able to isolate those factors, trying to reproduce them in an online environment may or may not prove cost-effective. The road to truly effective online social learning is going to be long and hilly.

Adaptive textbooks will query students in order to make sure that they understand what they have been studying.

I am mildly optimistic about videoconferencing. In fact, ever since AT&T tried to promote the videophone in the 1960s, videoconferencing has been an underperforming technology. The problem is that seemingly minor issues, such as the fixed position of a camera or transmission delays of only a few tenths of a second, can create major problems with the experience. With the advent of Skype and Google+, ordinary individuals are able to set up videoconferences easily and at little or no cost. And companies like Double Robotics are trying to solve some of the subtle problems that are holding back videoconferencing. The ultimate potential is for an individual teacher to be able to meet with students, either individually or in groups, wherever they might be—allowing education to be free from dependence on any physical campus. If nothing else, think of guest speakers for whom travel would become optional.

I am also mildly optimistic about what Salman Khan of the Khan Academy calls “flipping the classroom”: Have the teacher record lectures that the students watch at home, thus freeing the teacher to use classroom time for more individualized instruction. I am only mildly optimistic about this because I think that the larger goal should be to eliminate the one-to-many lecture model altogether.

Smart boards and clickers can make classrooms more engaging. However, I am pessimistic about them because I think they, too, are tied to the one-to-many teaching model. It is not clear that they fit in with the many-to-one approach.

Independent Certification

Finally, there is the concept of independent certification. I believe that education is more rigorous when assessment is separate from teaching. If I teach a course and I also grade the students, then I can pass students who are not really learning. This sort of biased assessment also can take place at an institutional level.

The lack of independent certification contributes to grade inflation. In fact, it contributes to a broad lack of accountability for results in the field of education.

Independent certification could serve to break up the “credentials cartel.” Today, you cannot get a degree simply by demonstrating mastery of the required topics. Instead, you must pay to have your knowledge certified by an accredited institution. This is what enables colleges to keep raising tuition prices regardless of whether they are providing better education.

If we do not teach the same course to students in a single high school, why would we expect one teaching style to fit all in an unsorted population of tens of thousands?

Independent certification would require something like the Honors Exams that I took my senior year at Swarthmore College. These exams were designed and administered by professors from other institutions, based on syllabi provided by the Swarthmore professors. This approach inverts the process of standardized testing. Instead of Swarthmore professors teaching to the test, the outside examiners tested to what the professors claimed to be teaching.

Independent certification is not really a technology. However, one can imagine technology playing a role in making it possible. The Khan Academy has an interesting idea of trying to find out which sorts of test results predict a student's ability to answer other questions. This could lead to an assessment process that is more reliable and cost-effective.

There are many horses in the educational technology race. The ones to bet on are adaptive textbooks and independent certification.

Arnold Kling is starting his twelfth year teaching high school students, primarily the subjects of AP statistics and AP economics. He has been an economist and an entrepreneur.

FURTHER READING: Kling also writes “The Economics of Pepco,” “Checks, Balances, and Audits,” and “Why We Need Principles-Based Regulation.” Michael M. Rosen says “Lights, Camera, Crazy!” Andrew P. Kelly asks “Online Courses: Opening the Ivory Tower?” and discusses a “Small Step for Quality Control” with Mark Schneider.

Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group

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