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When I was a high school student, one of my teachers made an interesting prediction:

“Students of the future will simply check in at a computer station, put on some headphones, and learn independently without the need for a traditional classroom teacher.”

I don’t recall how seriously I took this hypothesis in the late 1990s, but with the introduction of the ALEKS (say it like the name Alex) math program at Mount de Sales, the words of that teacher seem to have been somewhat prophetic.

So, what is ALEKS?

In its second year at Mount de Sales, the ALEKS (Assessment Learning in Knowledge Spaces) program is a self-paced, online platform used for our Algebra 1 and Advanced Algebra courses, as well as certain others. Each of these two courses is divided into more than 300 individual topics, such as “absolute value of a number” or “factoring a difference of squares.”

Students receive an overview of the topic from the computer and then must solve a series of consecutive sample problems correctly. Incorrect answers to a problem could require a student to solve a greater number of additional problems correctly to “convince” the computer that they have learned the concept.

In most weeks, students are expected to learn at least 12 topics and to spend at least 5 hours logged into the system. They also must take a computer-generated test and they will be assessed on their long-term mastery of topics at the end of each quarter.

Courses in ALEKS: Advanced Algebra, College Algebra, Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Business Math, Accounting Principles-Sole Proprietorship, Accounting Principles-Corporation, Statistics, AP Statistics, College Statistics, SAT Prep, Pre-Algebra, Prerequisites for Algebra 1, Geometry

The ALEKS program as used on the iPad.
The ALEKS program as used on the iPad.

What’s the advantage of this approach?

Since students come to the course with different backgrounds and learn at different rates, a natural outcome of this format is that in most class periods, different students will be working on different tasks. My role as an instructor is not to lecture on a single topic to the entire class but rather to circulate among the students and provide one-on-one assistance with whatever issue a particular student happens to be facing at the time.

A primary advantage of the ALEKS program over a traditional math class is that students are able to work at their own paces. In fact, in a recent survey I administered to my students, this was one of the most common examples of positive feedback I received and the students like this format.

A student taking a math test using ALEKS.
A student taking a math test using ALEKS.

How do high-achievers respond to ALEKS?

In a traditional math class, high-achieving students may not benefit much from repeated demonstrations of sample problems or from explanations of homework problems that they have already solved. In an ALEKS class, advanced students are able to proceed at a pace more consistent with their ability level. For example, a student in one of my current classes may very well complete all of the first semester’s topics before the close of the first quarter. If he continues at this pace, he will have the option of getting a head start on an entirely new course this school year.

What about students who need assistance?

For students who struggle with math concepts, the ALEKS program can help pinpoint their difficulties by withholding credit for learning a topic; the instructor is available to assist.

I have found a great disparity in the degrees to which students make the effort to use me as a resource during class. An instructor is challenged with the responsibility of seeking out students who may be less inclined to solicit the assistance they need on their own.

Can ALEKS be used at home?

Certainly! ALEKS is a K-12 learning tool and could be used at home during the summer to reinforce math skills learned and to prepare for the challenges of next year. Because the program is computer-based, this will replace those summer workbooks parents buy and kids hate!

Mount de Sales students can receive credit for a math class even before the next school year has begun!

Is this the future?

Time will tell whether the instructional scenario envisioned by my high school teacher ever comes to pass. I certainly hope that I will be past retirement age if it ever does.

Are teachers needed?

YES! They are needed and valued. The ALEKS program, at least as used at Mount de Sales, is not a complete realization of his prediction. Rather, it uses some of the benefits of technology in an attempt to improve the educational process but, as our ALEKS representative suggested when first introducing the system to our department, does not deprive our students of the helpful presence of a teacher.

Students do receive assistance from their instructor when needed.
Students do receive assistance from their instructor when needed.

Check out ALEKS:

By Jeff Dobias, Upper School Instructor in Algebra, Geometry, and Advanced Algebra