Sunday, November 04, 2007

A human in the loop

Astronauts fix ripped solar wing

Sometimes, there's just no substitute for real "hands-on" problem-solving.

We have become masters of automation. Since the beginning of the Industrial Age, it's been all about faster and cheaper. Since people are slow and expensive (especially in space) that means getting people out of the loop. The more we can turn the work over to the machines, the more work can get done.

Until something goes worgn.

Machines are far better than people at performing pre-programmed tasks with precision. Star Wars - the 1977 pre-digital-effects original (a purist, I refuse to call it Episode IV) - could not have been made with human camera operators. But when the machines break down (as they always do), people must step in to fix it.

It's the same with learning. We can design all sorts of systems that automatically mold themselves to the student. We can create algorthims to diagnose and adapt to a specific "learning style", or anticipate a learner's probable errors and stand ready with remediation at an atomic level of detail.

But there will always come a point when a student steps off the design document.

It doesn't happen with every student, but a dollar gets you a doughnut it happens with every "automated instruction system" if it has enough users. Eventually, a student comes up with a question the designer didn't anticpate.

As the old pre-PC "Little Rascals"put it, "Now what, Buckwheat?"

But if we can put a human being back into the loop - someone who can interpret the lost look, the six-days-without-logging-in pattern, the forum post that is so clearly off-track - then we don't have to analyze the content to death.

Just build an additional component into the sysem: a teacher, a tutor, a peer mentor. (If you call them "a network of organic, analog feedback devices" you might even be able to get grant money to pay them.)

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