Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Interview with James Caras, Sapling Learning: E-Learning Innovators Series

Science education online is often a hit or miss affair, and it is difficult to develop an instructional strategy that both engages the learner and incorporates effective assessments at higher levels of difficulty. Welcome to an interview with Dr. James Caras, Sapling Learning, who focuses on science education.

1. What is your name and connection to elearning?
Dr. James Caras. I am the Founder and President of Sapling Learning. I have been developing online instructional technologies and media for higher education science for over 17 years--ever since the NCSA Mosaic Web browser first became available.

2. What is Sapling Learning? What is the content? How does it work? Where can people access it?
Sapling Learning is a leading provider of engaging and interactive online homework and assessment software. The learning software can be accessed anytime through a Web browser, and delivers question-based assignments to students, providing them with real-time tutoring when they need help in the form of hints, feedback specific to misconceptions a student has, and detailed solutions. Sapling is focused on higher education science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), but also will roll out solutions for other problem-solving disciplines such as economics. For instructors, our software provides automatic grading and detailed performance statistics, saving them time and increasing the transparency by which they can gauge their students' progress and ability.

3. Who are you trying to reach and what are your goals?
Sapling's goal is to increase the quality of STEM education through adoption of our software by higher education faculty. Besides the quality of our content and software, we are accomplishing this because we help drive down the cost of educational materials to students, and promote student engagement through rich interactivity and immediate instruction when students struggle. If this country is going to be successful and competitive in the 21st century, we need bright people to have access to tools that remove barriers to understanding STEM concepts and promote their interest in science and engineering.

4. What is your elearning philosophy?
You can't fill a closed mind. Students are open and receptive to instruction if they are engaged with a problem and therefore open to receive information on how to solve it.

5. How do you see the future of m-learning evolving? What's the next breakthrough?
Sapling Learning has spent a lot of time thinking about this. Mobile learning is actually very different than learning at a computer, if you include phones, iPods, and other single-hand-held devices as the hardware for delivery of eLearning software. I don't include the iPad in this category. Students will not do scientifically rigorous homework on a cell phone. These devices are much better suited to other forms of learning that are more "quick-click" oriented. Memorization exercises like flashcards are perfect for the phone, as are drag-and-drop diagram labeling. Multiple choice quizzing as well. Video delivery for instruction is a good use of mobile devices. But as far as working through the equations and calculations of a multi-step physics problem, tutoring a student through each of those steps, or asking a student to perform a virtual experiment, you need a much larger screen.

Breakthroughs are not the most pressing need for the evolution of m-learning--the current bottleneck is standardization. Online learning delivered through any device needs to be relevant to the discipline being studied. For STEM e-learning, there is a need for rich interactions such as drawing molecules or graphs, or performing virtual experiments. Rich interactions such as this benefit tremendously from Flash and Java, yet these are not fully supported on all mobile devices.

HTML5 is no answer because it is far from a standard, lacks easy-to-use and robust development environments, and has tremendous compatibility issues. All of these significantly drive up the costs of development and support, as well as degrade the user experience. Since student grades depend on Sapling's software being bullet-proof and widely compatible, we take these considerations very seriously.

6. Please recommend 2 books (can be fiction / non-fiction / technical)
I recently read two books that I enjoyed a great deal. For fiction, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. For non-fiction, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

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