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By Gabrielle Russon, Orlando Sentinel (TNS)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Tiffani Harper’s online homework seemed to have a mind of its own. It knew that she learned best by watching videos and detected what topics she struggled to grasp.

“It’s teaching me the best way to study,” said Harper, 32, a UCF student from Sanford.

Harper’s nursing class is part of a growing pilot program that uses cutting-edge technology to personalize online homework for students. The University of Central Florida is one of a handful of schools in the country using the adaptive-style learning for several online courses, school officials said.

At a school as large as UCF — one of the biggest in the country with 63,000 students enrolled — the program is especially important, they said.

“It personalizes a learning experience for a student who could potentially be in a large class. It won’t feel large. … They get the help they need,” said Thomas Cavanagh, who oversees the university’s online learning. “It’s a really nice way to mitigate the size issue.”

As part of the class, assistant professor Julie Hinkle monitors the students’ online homework to see where they need help and detecting where they succeed or fail. The software even tells her how much time Harper spent studying — eight hours and 22 minutes for one recent section.

Armed with that knowledge, Hinkle might change her lectures for her students in class or send out emails and hold more office hours for her online-only students.

The material itself can change, giving students more review when they get problems wrong. The homework also adapts to fit learning styles.

One day, for instance, Harper watched a YouTube video of a doctor explaining a complex chemistry lesson on a kidney disorder. Others might learn better if they read a text or look at a diagram.

So far, some psychology and nursing classes are part of the adaptive learning pilot, but Cavanagh said it will expand in upcoming months to include certain math classes and the final two years of a bachelor’s degree in applied science.

So far, UCF has invested about $37,000 on the software, training and startup costs for the pilot, which began last school year.

“For some of the basic courses or technical degrees, I think it makes a lot of sense,” Cavanagh said. “If we’re serious about student success, I think we have to look at it. It’s sort of incumbent on us to try these kinds of experiments and see if they work.”

But he also acknowledges the pilot program isn’t a natural fit for every class, like English, where there is no easy computer logarithm to score essays.

On a recent day, Harper sought refuge in a cubicle in the quiet room at the UCF College of Nursing.

She is a college student who experienced life before she ever arrived on campus by joining the work force, getting married, becoming a mom.

But when her husband’s grandmother was dying, Harper saw the tenderness of how a hospice nurse put Chapstick on the sick woman’s lips, and how the nurse cared enough to explain the dying process to the family. That motivated her to enroll in nursing school.

In the quiet room, Harper started her online homework by answering a question about how much she knew about the kidneys in the human body.

“A reasonable amount,” Harper clicked, remembering her previous anatomy class.

That was the starting block. From there, the homework could generate easier — or more difficult — questions, depending on the student. If she got one wrong, there could be more readings, more diagrams, more videos that Harper could study on her laptop screen.

Like anything in education, students take away what they put in.

“I’d rather get it wrong than a lucky guess because I want it to teach me the material,” Harper said.

The online homework was a first taste of the material, but the stakes were not that high. If Harper got it wrong, she could go back and try different questions to improve her score or study more before her exam.

“Well done!” flashed on her screen as Harper answered a question right and moved to the next part.

©2015 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Tiffani Harper, a nursing student at the University of Central Florida, takes notes as she demonstrates her Personalized Learning web courses at UCF on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

 

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