SpacedEd: simple, free, formal, worthwhile

In the beginning of the year, I decided to experiment with a simple learning technology developed at Harvard Medical School. Called SpacedEd, the free, cloud-based software doles out a couple of questions at a time every other day. Two minutes and you’re done. Great for basic drill.

I talked with Duncan Lennox, co-founder and CEO, who told me SpacedEd lived up to its motto, Online Learning Radically Simplified. Duncan and I swapped eLearning history stories; he’s not a newbie. The SpacedEd approach is predicated on a set of core principles:

    Short Repeated Bursts: Because it uses a regular schedule and an adaptive algorithm, learning can be delivered in small amounts that can take as little as 3 minutes a day.

    Push Learning: The learning comes to you on a regular schedule. You don’t have to remember to do it or set aside large chunks of time.

    Adaptive: The daily content adapts based on past performance automatically to drive long-term retention while requiring less time.

    Immediate Feedback: Once a question is answered, detailed educational feedback is provided. Users are also given performance data (their course progress and performance relative to peers) which feeds their addiction to the course.

I wrote 16 multiple-guess questions and invited readers of this blog to give it a whirl. To-date, 173 people have enrolled. 16 of these provided feedback, usually including a one- to five-star rating.

Normally, you wouldn’t expect me to give formal, push, multiple-choice methods a second look, but sometimes people have to master explicit facts. This is a relatively painless way to do that. I enrolled in a few other SpacedEd programs and rapidly picked up what I needed. (Granted, it was frustrating. You don’t have to be a designer to construct a SpacedEd course and sometimes it shows.)

As the course progressed, I changed and clarified questions based on participant feedback. Sometimes people learned more from the discussion than from the question itself. Here’s all the feedback to-date. I’ve removed names but everything else is intact.

Current rating: 07/16/10
For a Free course, this offers a glimpse not only into Learning, but into the strengths and weaknesses of the SpacedEd approach to learning. The value of the course comes more from the discussion than the specific questions and answers. Also, I think that the Feedback on the answers evolved and became more robust and useful with the course’s development. Given that the course is limited to 16 items, you shouldn’t expect to learn a whole lot about learning. But, what Jay accomplishes in those 16 questions is reasonable for this medium.

Current rating: 06/28/10
I love the delivery method. The questions are relevant to the career of Instructional Designer.

Current rating: 06/15/10
I think the author of this program ‘Learning about Learning’ is asking questions that reflect his own specialist knowledge/interest, rather that trying to enhance the understanding of those who engage with the program.

Current rating: 06/12/10

Current rating: 06/01/10

No star rating on 05/23/10
Zero stars. A self-indulgent melange of random factoids that began and ended in a wasteland of so what? I learned nothing worth learning about learning.

n 05/04/10
a few too many “who did what” questions – not bothered about who came up with an idea – moe interested in the idea itself. But an interesting intro to spaceded learning

Current rating: 04/04/10
I enjoyed this course and learned quite a few new insights. Some questions are asking for factual knowledge and a bit US-centric, but apart from that, I’ll recommend this course to anybody interested in learning about learning.

Current rating: 03/30/10

Current rating: 03/13/10
This course was an interesting first experience with this particular implementation of the SpacedEd concept. I am favorably impressed with the SpacedEd idea and believe that it has an exciting future, particularly in the emerging area of mobile learning (which some are now calling “mLearning”). Thanks to Jay Cross, the course author, for taking the time to develop the questions and monitor student responses and comments.

I still have questions about how practical and influential this form of learning can be. This course consisted of 16 questions which, while interesting, were not deep enough, individually or collectively, to generate any Ah-ha moments that will influence my professional practice or general learning behavior. My experience with SpacedEd so far suggests that it is an effective way to introduce and reinforce certain facts, but it is not yet clear to me that it has the power to impact students at a level that will alter their subsequent behavior.

To explore this further the two simplest paths, in view of the technology demonstrated on the SpacedEd website, are: 1) add more questions and/or 2) formulate questions that have a more explicit link to a deeper understanding of the subject or an improved practice. (Which of these would depend on the objectives of the course.)

Another idea that occurs to me, which may be possible with the current technology with some enhancements, would be to incorporate a more immersive student experience than simply answering multiple choice or true/false questions. If questions could be designed along the lines of simple case study simulations with the opportunity for multiple answers that lead to different outcomes and feedback to the student.

I’m still questioning how powerful this very simple Q and A model can be. I plan to try out some other courses and, possibly, develop a course of my own. Now that I’ve experienced one course as a student, it would be very interesting to “walk a mile” in the instructor/designer’s shoes to see the SpacedEd concept and this implementation from that vantage point.

Current rating: 03/11/10
What I like most about this course: The author is continuously improving the quality of the questions and answers, and is responsive to the ongoing (and often energetic) discussions.

Current rating: 03/07/10
Nice way of learning although the emphasis was more on actual facts (and a bit US-centric) and I expected a bit more Focus on activating questions that focused on real understanding of the subject. But Jay: thank you for offering this experience!

Current rating: on 02/22/10

Current rating: 01/31/10
An enjoyable course on some of the core aspects of learning with some excellent discussion by the author and participants.

Current rating: on 01/31/10
NLP is ‘snake oil’?: OK, where’s the research to prove that categoric assertion.

Time after time, I repeated what I’d stated in the introduction, that this was intended as an experiment to test SpacedEd, more than a learning experience. As you can see from the comments, many chose to overlook the technology and complain that the questions were not relevant or fair.

The criticism kept on coming despite my comments that sometimes you do have to know who did what just to establish your credentials. In the field of “learning about learning,” the topic at hand, wouldn’t you expect someone to be able to identify Gloria Gery, George Siemens, and the PLATO system? Geez. I’m not ready to lower my standards on these.

Making mistakes makes participants angry. My explanation that this is when they will learn the most didn’t go over well with some participants. (Like those who want to critique the questions or the questioner instead of the methodology.)

The Learning About Learning course is still open at SpacedEd. If you take it, pay attention to the dialogue, not the multiple choice items. I spent less than an hour coming up with the initial questions; they are not that deep.

My bottom line is that SpacedEd is cool for conveying explicit information that can be boiled down to a limited number of options. It’s simple. It’s useful. It’s free. I will suggest my clients experiment with it.

Too simple? Take some of the SpacedEd courses for med students!

One thought on “SpacedEd: simple, free, formal, worthwhile

  1. Sharon Hartle

    Dear Jay,

    I enrolled on your SpacedED course after reading this blog, and although I was sceptical about this question answer approach I can see that as a memory jogger it might be a good thing. Of course, your questions are very well designed…

    I’m going to try to make my own course now to see how to fit it into the overall learning process. I was thinking that as it’s summer at the moment a lot of people are off on their holidays so a jog every two days might be a good idea to keep motivation levels up.

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