Thoughts from Technology Article

In the article I am reading for my review of a technology article1, the authors discuss a web-based system they have developed to help students learn to program in Java.  As part of this system, a pool of potential assignments with different levels of difficulty are created by the teaching staff.  Only three of these potential assignments are given to each student.  These assignments are based on an evaluation of the student’s ability: If the student appears to be more comfortable and/or proficient with Java, then they are assigned more difficult exercises.  The goal of the team is to keep students working in their Zone of Proximal Development, so they are attempting to avoid the problem that often comes with assigning the same task to every student – that task is likely to be either too hard or too easy for some of the students.

The PADS [Personalized Assignment Dispatching System] sometimes assigned very difficult exercises for advanced students (SA responded to this).  These exercises required more time to complete than the simple exercises.  Hence, the advanced students needed to spend more time completing the assigned exercises than other students.  They thought it was not fair.  Although we did not focus on the assessment mechanism in this study, it remains an important issue to have a fair assessment mechanism when each student is assigned with the exercises of different levels of difficulty. (pg 218)

This issue of fairness seems to be pretty complex.  The students in this study were first year undergraduates.  They were all computer science majors, and so one would think that it would be safe to assume that they had intrinsic motivation to learn the material.  If the system as designed enabled students who were capable to move beyond where some of their other peers were working, why should they object?  The authors go on to suggest that if a student is given a very difficult assignment their workload be adjusted.  Is the time factor the only important one here?  Students in AP classes don’t seem to complain that their work is more difficult than their classmates in non-AP classes.

Even if it is the case that students were simply objecting to the extra time involved, and not to the difficulty (as the quote suggests), why is an extra time commitment a problem?  In my experience, in any class with a project component, there are students who, motivated by their interest in the subject or desire to learn generally, go beyond the minimum time and effort requirements in the level of work they produce.  The difference here is that this is something they freely choose to do, while the students in the article find themselves in this situation whether they’d like to be there or not.  Could this be the problem?  Not that extra time was involved, but that the students didn’t have any say in the matter?  Perhaps the system could be adjusted to make a third assignment optional.

What about the students that don’t fall into the “advanced” category.  Does this system of classification prevent them from moving beyond the middle- or lower-level exercises if they prove capable of learning quickly?  Should their initial performance determine to what extent they’ll be able to learn during the entire class?  If the system is not flexible enough to allow this movement, that would seem to be a serious flaw.

I find myself wondering, too, whether or not “fairness” is something that ought to guide teaching.  I do believe that we should strive to make sure that all students learning a minimum set of skills.  But should there be an upper limit?  We don’t do this in any other aspect of our society that I can think of, so why would we attempt to limit learning?

I don’t really know how I would answer a lot of these questions, and I think that even if I had an answer now, that might change over time.  I wanted to get some of my thoughts down so I can come back later and see if I’d made any progress.


1 Li, L.-Y., & Chen, G.-D. (2009) A Coursework Support System for Offering Challenges and Assistance by Analyzing Students’ Web Portfolios. Educational Technology & Society, 12 (2), 205-221.


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