Good Read: How Computerized Tutors Are Learning to Teach Humans

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Author Annie Murphy Paul, who writes our Learning Smarter column, writes about a free online tutoring system that attempts to emulate human interaction in this weekend's New York Times Education Issue.

The creator of the tutoring program comes to a conclusion: "'Let computers do what computers are good at, and people do what people are good at.' Computers excel in following a precise plan of instruction. A computer never gets impatient or annoyed. But it never gets excited or enthusiastic either. Nor can a computer guide a student through an open-ended exploration of literature or history. It’s no accident that ASSISTments and other computerized tutoring systems have focused primarily on math, a subject suited to computers’ binary language. While a computer can emulate, and in some ways exceed, the abilities of a human teacher, it will not replace her. Rather, it’s the emerging hybrid of human and computer instruction — not either one alone — that may well transform education."

Over the next few months, Heffernan videotaped Lindquist, who taught math to middle-school students, as she tutored, transcribing the sessions word for word, hoping to isolate what made her a successful teacher. A look at the transcripts suggests the difficulties he faced.

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