With summer break just weeks away, parents scrambling to find options to keep young learners educationally engaged needn't look far. ALEKS, a web-based learning program started by cognitive scientists at UCI, is gaining popularity in markets from kindergarten to college as a great way for students to fill skill gaps in math and science.

The online adaptive assessment and learning software program ALEKS – short for Assessment and LEarning in Knowledge Spaces – reached a milestone as student users topped one-million for the year. That number is only expected to grow as the corporation recently launched an iPad and tablet version of their software. Now, students who use the program in class or on desktops can take their learning on the road, to the beach or home for the summer months.

“There are a lot of reasons why a student may struggle in certain subjects including teacher readiness, textbook inadequacies, reliance on standardized testing,” says Jean-Claude Falmagne, UCI cognitive sciences research professor, ALEKS founder and chair of the company’s board. “ALEKS is unique in that it addresses each of these concerns. It can serve as a competent teaching assistant, using content written by university faculty and Ph.D.s. Instead of being a standardized, one-size-fits-all test, it assesses precisely each student’s current knowledge state, finding out exactly what they know and, more importantly, are ready to learn.”

Students and instructors from California’s universities, community colleges and K-12 school districts to inner city school systems in Detroit and home schooling parents in Ohio have reported improved grades, knowledge retention and course completion rates after implementing ALEKS as a supplement to their curriculum. ALEKS can also be found in university classrooms at Purdue, Illinois, Wisconsin, Penn State and many others where it is helping students develop baseline knowledge needed for pre-calculus, college algebra and general chemistry.

The program is an integral part of UCI’s classroom and online algebra and pre-calculus courses. The online versions have reached more than 1,000 students through UCI's summer session and are currently available as MOOCs on Coursera. They have also been selected to receive American Council on Education (ACE) credit and are being considered for adoption by other universities.

“ALEKS is one of the first and most effective adaptive learning aids for students,” says Gary Matkin, UCI continuing education, distance learning, and summer session dean. “We are pleased to be able to be a leader in adaptive learning using ALEKS.”

The program’s success is attributable to its use of topic-level assessments that determine exactly what students know and are ready to learn. While seemingly simple to the user – students complete a quick pre-assessment to help place them – the process is quite complex and means finding knowledge data points among a vast number of possible combinations. It’s a process Falmagne and his collaborators have perfected over the past 30 years.

Applied research
A cognitive scientist-turned mathematician, Falmagne began working on the mathematical foundation of ALEKS in the early 80s in collaboration with the Belgian mathematician Jean-Paul Doignon. The software programming took shape in 1994 with the support of a large National Science Foundation grant.

Using an initial 25-30 question assessment, the program uncovers the exact combination of concepts a student already knows about a given topic in math or science. These mastered concepts form the student’s current knowledge state. From there, the program knows exactly what concepts the student is ready to learn and provides an ideal, customized path for the learner to progress. As students work through the material, they are continually reassessed and their routes remapped to account for increased mastery of new concepts.

“ALEKS uses this knowledge to make learning more efficient and effective by continuously offering the student a selection of only the topics he or she is ready to learn right now, building student confidence and learning momentum,” Falmagne says.

Students can retake a lesson as many times as they choose or skip to a different topic as needed.

Over the years, the company has amassed an extensive amount of data about student learning, information which has been used to continually fine-tune the underlying algorithms that provide better learning paths for each student.

The work has proven wildly successful; the probability that a student succeeds at learning a concept ALEKS offers them as “ready to learn” is estimated at higher than 95%. Falmagne is using this data to rewrite a new Algebra textbook that is more closely aligned with how students actually learn.

University partnership
Working with UCI’s Office of Technology Alliance, Falmagne received licensing in the late 90s to develop his adaptive learning program into a multi-million dollar software company. The privately-held company is based out of Irvine and has grown to employ roughly 150 mathematicians, engineers and sales personnel – 40 of whom were hired in 2012 – with space to house 100 more.

In 2012, the partnership brought in $500,000 in royalties to UCI.

“Based on knowledge of how people learn, ALEKS has developed one of the few online education programs that is truly individualized to each learner and that can be used either as a classroom assistant or for individual study,” says Barbara Dosher, social sciences dean and cognitive sciences Distinguished Professor. “This is a wonderful example of the transfer of basic research to solve the high-value problem of enabling strong mathematics and science education that meets the student at their current level of knowledge.”

Among ALEKS’ employees are a handful of alumni from UCI’s graduate program in mathematical behavioral sciences as well as a former chemistry professor. They are the brains behind the scenes working to constantly check, revise and author new content and improve assessment algorithms to keep ALEKS accurate. A former UCI Russian language instructor fluent in four other languages is also on staff and several other UCI faculty assist with content creation. ALEKS is available in both English and Spanish.

Nicolas Thiery, chief technology officer, came to ALEKS as a masters level engineering intern from France. He went on to obtain his Ph.D. at UCI.

“The availability of the mathematical behavioral sciences program at UCI and the research questions raised through the application of ALEKS were ideal to pursue a Ph.D.,” he says.

“At ALEKS, we’ve received very positive feedback over the years, from parents of kids with learning difficulties progressing through the curriculum to adult learners who wished they had had ALEKS when they grew up. But the best motivation has been to see how ALEKS could be used widely to provide more accurate formative and mastery based assessments, since that's an essential step toward improving learning outcomes.”

Falmagne agrees: “Our approach may go a long way in solving the problems that we have in educating our students.”

Check out ALEKS online for more student success stories and subscription information for young learners.

-Heather Ashbach, Social Sciences Communications
-photo courtesy of istock



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