## A Response To The Founder Of Mathspace On The Costs And Benefits Of Adaptive Math Software

September 22nd, 2014 by Dan Meyer

Mo Jebara, the founder of Mathspace, has responded to my concerns about adaptive math software in general and his in particular. Feel free to read his entire comment. I believe he has articulated several misconceptions about math education and about feedback that are prevalent in his field. I’ll excerpt those misconceptions and respond below.

**Computer & Mouse v. Paper & Pencil**

Jebara:

Just like learning Math requires persistence and struggle, so too is learning a new interface.

I think Mathspace has made a poor business decision to blame their user (the daughter of an earlier commenter) for misunderstanding their user interface. Business isn’t my business, though. I’ll note instead that adaptive math software here again requires students to learn a new *language* (computers) before they find out if they’re able to speak the language they’re trying to learn (math).

For example, here is a tutorial screen from software developed by Kenneth Tilton, a frequent commenter here who has requested feedback on his designs:

Writing that same expression with paper and pencil instead is more intuitive by an order of magnitude. Paper and pencil is an interface that is omnipresent and easily learned, one that costs a bare fraction of the computer Mathspace’s interface requires, one that never needs to be plugged into a wall.

None of this means we should reject adaptive math software, especially not Mathspace, the interface of which *allows* handwriting. But these user interface issues pile high in the “cost” column, which means the software cannot skimp on the benefits.

**Misunderstanding the Status Quo**

Jebara:

Does a teacher have time to sit side by side with 30 students in a classroom for every math question they attempt?

[..]

But teachers can’t watch while every student completes 10,000 lines of Math on their way to failing Algebra.

[..]

I talk to teachers every single day and they are crying out for [instant feedback software].

Existing classroom practice has its own cost and benefit columns and Jebara makes the case that classroom costs are exorbitant.

Without adaptive feedback software, to hear Jebara tell it, students are wandering in the dark from problem to problem, completely uncertain if they’re doing anything right. Teachers are beleaguered and unsure how they’ll manage to review *every* student’s work on *every* assigned problem. Thirty different students will reveal thirty unique misconceptions for each one of thirty problems. That’s 27,000 unique responses teachers have to make in a 45 minute period. That’s ten responses per second! No wonder all these teachers are crying.

This is all Dickens-level bleak and misunderstands, I believe, the possible sources of feedback in a classroom.

There is the textbook’s answer key, of course. Some teachers make regular practice of posting all the answers in advance of an exercise set, also, so students have a sense that they’re heading in the right direction and focus on process not product.

Commenter Matt Bury also notes that a student’s classmates are a useful source of feedback. Since I recommended Classkick last week, several readers have tried it out in their classes. Amy Roediger writes about the feature that allows students to help other students:

… the best part was how my students embraced collaborating with each other. As the problems got progressively more challenging, they became more and more willing to pitch in and help each other.

All of these forms of feedback exist within their own webs of costs and benefits too, but the idea that without adaptive math software the teacher is the only source of feedback just isn’t accurate.

**Immediate v. Delayed Feedback**

Most companies in this space make the same set of assumptions:

*Any*feedback is better than*no*feedback.*Immediate*feedback is better than*delayed*feedback.

Tilton has written here, “Feedback a day later is not feedback. Feedback is immediate.”

In fact, Kluger & DeNisi found in their meta-analysis of feedback interventions that feedback *reduced* performance in more than one third of studies. What evidence do we have that adaptive math software vendors offer students the *right* kind of feedback?

The immediate kind of feedback isn’t without complication either. With immediate feedback, we may find students trying answer after answer, looking for the red x change to a green check mark, learning little more than systematic guessing.

Immediate feedback risks underdeveloping a student’s *own* answer-checking capabilities also. If I get 37 as my answer to 14 + 22, immediate feedback doesn’t give me any time to reflect on my knowledge that the sum of two even numbers is always even and make the correction myself. Along those lines, Cope and Simmons found that *restricting* feedback in a Logo-style environment led to better discussions and higher-level problem-solving strategies.

**What Computers Do To Interesting Exercises**

Jebara:

Can you imagine a teacher trying to provide feedback on 30 hand-drawn probability trees on their iPad in Classkick?

[..]

Can you imagine a teacher trying to provide feedback on 30 responses for a Geometric reasoning problem letting students know where they haven’t shown enough of a proof?

I can’t imagine it, but not because that’s too much grading. I can’t imagine assigning those problems because I don’t think they’re worth a class’ limited time and I don’t think they do justice to the interesting concepts they represent.

Bluntly, they’re boring. They’re boring, but that isn’t because the team at Mathspace is unimaginative or hates fun or anything. They’re boring because a) computers have a difficult time assessing interesting problems, and b) interesting problems are expensive to create.

Please don’t think I mean “interesting” week-long project-based units or something. (The costs there are enormous also.) I mean interesting *exercises*:

Pick any candy that has multiple colors. Now pick two candies from its bag. Create a probability tree for the candies you see in front of you. Now trade your tree with five students. Guess what candy their tree represents and then compute their probabilities.

The students are working five exercises there. But you won’t find that exercise or exercises like it on Mathspace or any other adaptive math platform for a very long time because a) they’re very hard to assess algorithmically and b) they’re more expensive to create than the kind of problem Jebara has shown us above.

I’m thinking Classkick’s student-sharing feature could be very helpful here, though.

**Summary**

Jebara:

So why don’t we try and automate the parts that

canbe automated and build great tools like Classkick to deal with the parts that can’t be automated?

My answer is pretty boring:

**Because the costs outweigh the benefits.**

In 2014, the benefits of that automation (students can find out instantly if they’re right or wrong) are dwarfed by the costs (see above).

That said, I can envision a future in which I use Mathspace, or some other adaptive math software. Better technology will resolve some of the problems I have outlined here. Judicious teacher use will resolve others. Math practice is important.

My concerns are with the 2014 *implementations* of the idea of adaptive math software and not with the idea itself. So I’m glad that Jebara and his team are tinkering at the edges of what’s possible with those ideas and willing, also, to debate them with this community of math educators.

**Featured Comment**

Mercy – *all* of them. Just read the thread if you want to be smarter.