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Alum changes schools with ‘thinking computers’

Monday, September 24, 2007

Computers can come in handy when learning math, but they usually aren’t the main teaching source. Steve Ritter ’85, however, is relying on computers and using cognitive science to develop educational programs to help middle school students learn math, starting with pre-algebra and up. The program Cognitive Tutor, which Ritter has worked on for 15 years, is now incorporated into the curriculums of more than 1,300 schools around the country.

“I think the (Cognitive Tutor) program has been really successful for a couple reasons, partly because of the technological aspect, but also because of a growing awareness that the schools need to be better,” Ritter said.

Ritter graduated from Brown with a degree in cognitive science before getting a doctorate in cognitive psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. He initially studied computer science with a pragmatic aim in mind, he said. “I first took computer science freshman year, and I ended up taking another class second semester because I’d heard that you could get a good summer job if you had two computer science classes.”

At Carnegie Mellon, Ritter studied and worked with John Anderson, a professor of psychology and computer science, on the ACT-R project using the ACT-R computer language to create a computer model of human cognition.

In order to make the findings on how people learn more applicable to everyday life, Ritter helped devise what would become Cognitive Tutor.

“The primary origin of the Cognitive Tutor approach was building a model of the way students think,” Ritter said.

The original research group working on the program was composed of researchers with backgrounds in cognitive science and computer science. None of them had any formal background in education, Ritter said, but the group was focused on applying cognitive science, in particular, to solve problems in education.

The research group started its work in 1992 at Carnegie Mellon. The opening of the project required research into schools as systems, how students are impacted by their school environment and the teacher-student dynamic. “To create the program we did a lot of intensive research. We were looking to understanding what types of things teachers and students had issues with ­- also the whole social and political environment at schools,” Ritter said.

Based on the results of this research, the group decided to focus on individual student-oriented software that tailored itself to the student’s level of understanding, Ritter said.

During the development phase, Cognitive Tutor garnered interest from schools around the country. Word of the program got out through research papers and conferences, and schools asked to try the program, Ritter explained. During the development phase there were 75 schools around the country testing the program, he said.

In 1998, the research group was spun off from Carnegie Mellon and was incorporated to form Carnegie Learning Inc. The research group faced challenges as it moved out of the laboratory. “Starting a company was far harder than we had thought for all the reasons you hear about but don’t believe,” Ritter said. “We had a good product and knew that, but there were a whole bunch of aspects of business that we didn’t understand.”

Though there had been interest in the group’s research throughout its existence, schools were still wary of computer-based curricula, Ritter said. Even during the late 1990s, schools were often unwilling to incorporate such a technologically dependent program, though recently, schools have become more accepting of such programs, Ritter said. “The schools are catching up, even though it’s still unusual to have tech-focused curriculum like this, it’s not unheard of, and teachers don’t fear it anymore,” he said.

Though implementation of a software-based curriculum is a recent phenomenon, schools have been relying on educational software to supplement traditional curricular education since the early 1980s, said Walter Domeika, a teacher and math coach at the Academy of Information Technology and Engineering, a magnet school in Stamford, Conn. Domeika’s school has been testing the Cognitive Tutor program for two years. “We had a math program in the 1980’s but it was a straight ‘drill-and-kill’ program, whereas this uses real-life problems and is a lot more advanced technologically,” Domeika said.

The Cognitive Tutor program is used by many different kinds of schools, from high-end private schools to low-end public schools, Ritter said. “As a whole, we focus on schools that need the most help. Our biggest customers are large inner-city districts such as Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles.”

The Cognitive Tutor program has distinct benefits for students, Domeika said. “Most of the time, teachers can’t give feedback to all the students, but the computer rewards them quickly for getting the problems right. It gives them individuality,” he said. Domeika added that using the software “takes away a lot of the fear in asking questions.”

The company is still developing the software and looking at expansion into other educational fields, Ritter said. “The key unique aspect of what we’re doing is looking at problem solving, and there are aspects in all courses that can be structured like problem solving,” he added.

There are still obstacles, however, for the type of computer-based learning that Ritter champions.

The program is effective for some students, Domeika said, but “is it the answer to everything? Probably not. But it does give certain types of students a step up from where they were before.”

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