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NewsOct 5, 2018

Improving speed, quality of homework assistance

WPI and Lesley’s Center for Mathematics Achievement to partner on $744,317 National Science Foundation grant.

Hilary Kreisberg and Brittany Gonio
Dr. Hilary Kreisberg, left, and Brittany Gonio of Lesley University’s Center for Mathematics Achievement

Our Center for Mathematics Achievement has teamed up with Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) to develop an online tool that will use “machine learning” to facilitate middle school teachers in helping students with their math homework in a more timely and effective manner.

Using a $744,317 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Lesley’s Center and WPI will create a tool that supports the infrastructure of Open Educational Resources (OER), such as the popular Open Up Resources (authored by Illustrative Mathematics) and EngageNY curricula. This tool, called the Dialogue Reinforcement Infrastructure for Volitional Exploratory Research — Soliciting Effective Actions from Teachers (DRIVER-SEAT) could help teachers save time while increasing the quality and timeliness of "formative assessment" (homework) assistance.

The tool will be woven into ASSISTments, a free program developed by WPI computer science professor Dr. Neil Heffernan to give students feedback on their homework and help teachers see how their students are performing individually and as a class.

Next-level homework help

DRIVER-SEAT will be powered by technologies employed by Google’s Smart Reply, which uses machine learning to let users send predictive or “suggested” human-like messages when responding to an email, rather than spending time on crafting their own. It’s a fast and effective way to respond to students’ online homework questions when teachers lack the time to provide detailed feedback.

As part of the project, which is under the direction of Heffernan and WPI computer science professor Dr. Jacob Whitehill, teachers will use a prototype to create a library of approved messages that they can choose to send to their students. Based on a student’s performance, three appropriate responses will be suggested, just like with Google’s Smart Reply. Teachers will still have control over which messages are shared with students, rather than letting computers send automated responses directly to their students.

For example, if a student rushes through an assignment, the computer might suggest a message that says, “I see it only took you 30 seconds to solve this problem. The average time for students in our class was 4 minutes and 20 seconds. Please take your time.”

Or, if a student did well on a homework assignment, the teacher might select, “It looks like you really learned a lot from this homework. Good job on putting in the effort early on because it looks like it paid off by the end.”

For this to come together, Dr. Hilary Kreisberg, Lesley’s Center for Mathematics Achievement director, will train and coach the teachers on how to use the tool and provide effective feedback in mathematics. Assisting her is the Center’s program coordinator, Brittany Gonio, who serves as DRIVER-SEAT’s program manager, coordinating the meetings and trainings between Lesley and WPI.

“OER are the next generation of curriculum for teachers — they are easily accessible and free,” Kreisberg explains. “School districts all over the country are beginning to transition to OER, and it’s important that scholar practitioners and educational researchers work now to enhance the user-experience.

“We can make them even better if we develop automated feedback that students can receive immediately to inform their problem-solving process. This will help teachers use instructional time more effectively instead of spending the first 10 to 15 minutes of class reviewing homework,” Kreisberg says.

Teachers in charge

But she emphasizes that DRIVER-SEAT is driven by teachers.

“We believe teachers should remain in the driver’s seat, despite how far technology will go,” she says. “This tool allows teachers to remain in full control.”

In contrast, WPI’s Heffernan says, many education technology products can exacerbate achievement gaps.

“The highly motivated students succeed with them, but the lower-knowledge students don’t,” he says. “This is not about using artificial intelligence to talk to students. It’s about helping teachers help their students.”

Dr. Cristina Heffernan, part of the husband-and-wife team that created ASSISTments, echoes Kreisberg’s sentiments.

“We need to let teachers do what they’re good at, which is talk to students, while we let computers process all the data and present that to teachers in a way that makes sense for them,” she says.

The team is recruiting teachers of sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade mathematics who are using ASSISTments to receive funding to write feedback messages for their students in response to their homework. For more information, email Brittany Gonio at mathachievement@lesley.edu.