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Q&A: Customized Education from DreamBox Learning

Educational Technology

DreamBox Learning, Inc. is an education technology company that was founded in Bellevue, Washington in 2006. Since 2009, the company has produced an online product that helps students learn math based on three basic components -- an adaptive and intelligent learning engine, a challenging curriculum, and a learning environment that motivates students to advance their studies.

In order to do this, the company's product is designed to respond to students' answers to questions and, with every click of the mouse, evaluate how students are advancing. Based on the users' level of learning, the program adapts its lessons to meet students where they are -- and advance when they advance.

As a result, elements of the lessons -- such as the pacing, sequencing, level of difficulty and number of hints that students receive for each question -- are adaptable for every student who uses the DreamBox Learning product. This gives students the opportunity to learn at a pace that suits them -- instead of a one size fits all experience that a student may not respond to.

Teachers around the country give DreamBox Learning's platform high marks and, as a result, the platform has won more than 20 education and technology awards.

In the following Q&A, Patti Smith, the company's vice president of marketing and product management, explains the current state of the education technology industry and the role that DreamBox Learning is playing in it.

What contributions has your company made to educational technology?

DreamBox Learning's intelligent adaptive learning platform represents a new class of education technology because of its ability to individualize instruction both within and between lessons. The platform captures every decision a student makes while working within the system and dynamically adapts and individualizes instruction in real time. In fact, the platform captures, analyzes and responds to over 48,000 pieces of data per hour, per student. The result is that DreamBox Learning provides millions of individualized learning paths, each one tailored to a student's unique needs.

How have your company's contributions made a difference in educational technology and in the learning outcomes of students?

Like the recommendation engines that drive many consumer applications today from movies to music and shopping, intelligent adaptive learning actually "learns the learner." In other words, this technology learns about the user through use and adapts appropriately based on user behavior. In addition to collecting data about right and wrong answers, this new technology actually captures the strategies student use to solve problems.

Further, intelligent adaptive learning can recognize if the student is solving problems optimally. When teachers leverage this technology, they are able to deliver individualized instruction regardless of class size and the diverse learning levels of the students. The real-time responsiveness of this technology is what teaching professionals have been seeking for decades. Just as the surgeon relies on modern technology to provide first-rate care for patients, teachers find that adaptive technology provides an unparalleled level of personalization, allowing them to see into a child's level of comprehension and misconceptions and provide the scaffolding needed to move her to the next level. This approach protects against advanced students getting bored and struggling students getting frustrated. All students get the level of instruction they need when they need it.

What would you say is the current state of educational technology?

Much of the education technology on the market today represents an extension of traditional textbooks and traditional learning approaches and reflects a fixed path for all students through the learning. This is not good enough for today's students or teachers who experience a highly individualized world outside of the classroom and is not sufficient to move the needle on improving the quality of education for children.

What are the current challenges in the field?

As the number and diversity of students in classrooms grow, it is increasingly urgent that schools shift away from the ineffective factory model that requires all students to spend 180 days in a classroom and learn the same curriculum at the same rate regardless of skill level. More and more states are loosening seat time policies for matriculation, and leading edge schools and districts are now developing new school models to support a mastery learning paradigm that is focused on learning outcomes and is both age and grade agnostic.

How do these challenges affect the education system and student learning?

We are constantly learning and evolving in our quest for a better solution or approach. This quest has led us toward broader adoption of blended and virtual learning models. To be effective, these models must have rigorous learning tools, use motivational elements such as game mechanics to engage students, and collect critical data continuously and in real-time. These new learning models recognize and address the challenge that children learn in different ways and at different rates. It helps teachers be more effective and supports their goal to maximize every minute of instruction. It fosters persistence, proficiency and mastery, thereby building confidence and shaping critical thinkers.

What trends have you observed in the educational technology field?

Education technology is primed to step into this gap and enable individualized and mastery learning in which students have flexibility over pace and path during the learning process.

How will these trends affect education as a whole?

The call for mastery learning raises questions around statewide assessments. State tests are designed to evaluate student learning according to a fixed set of standards for a given grade. What happens to the assessment system if students are no longer regulated to learn topics according to a calendar? How then are schools evaluated and compared across the district or across the state? Thanks to the groundbreaking work going on within virtual and blended learning schools, school systems are beginning to have solutions to address this challenge.

What are some important historical milestones in education technology?

In addition to innovation accomplished through virtual and blended learning programs, the growth of the charter school movement has given pioneering education technology like DreamBox Learning the opportunity to be implemented in creative instructional models that have led to significant learning gains for students.

What are currently the most important areas/ideologies in educational technology?

Increased student ownership of the learning process introduces what we refer to at DreamBox Learning as an educational "X factor." New tools that enable online learning communities, online collaboration, and of course, individualization through intelligent adaptive technology introduce a high impact motivation that encourages students to persist through challenge, then progress toward mastery. This student-driven ownership can dramatically impact learning outcomes for every student.

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