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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Virtual Tutor Changes Elementary Education

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Photo by By Alexis Will
Kausalai “Kay” Wijekumar

Battalion news reporter Shannon Steidel spoke with Kausalai “Kay” Wijekumar, director of the Intelligent Tutoring System Grant Project, to discuss her $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to continue the development of educational software.

THE BATTALION: What is the Intelligent Tutoring System?

 

WIJEKUMAR: We show [children] how to select information that’s important from the text, trying to encode it in their memory, how to make a really strong, well-associated memory structure from the text, and we do this using something called “The Text Structure Strategy” … We’ll give a passage to a child to read, and we’ll explain to the child that there are signaling words or linking words that actually tell them that different types of text structures are being used. So for example the first passage is a comparison, and the title contains the word “different,” and as soon as you see the word “different,” you know that something’s being compared because that’s a signaling word for the comparison text structure. We try to take advantage of that memory structure, and they use it in their reading comprehension, so that’s usually the interaction involved.

THE BATTALION: Where is this going to be used?
WIJEKUMAR: Right now in the United States, more than 60 percent of children in fourth and fifth grade have difficulty reading and understanding content, and that number is much higher in high poverty areas. Reading and being able to understand is not only needed for classroom work, but also for lifelong success. If you’re a police officer, you’re going to have to read and understand, if you’re a doctor you have materials that you need to read and understand. Everywhere you turn in real life, you’re going to have to read and understand. Children who are unable to comprehend texts are at a significant disadvantage as they go through high school.That means they’re not going to be successful, or they’re much less likely to be successful, in high school and even less likely to go on to college, if they don’t have these basic comprehension skills. If we could step in and help them in 4th and 5th grade, then we can probably set them up for success as they’re going to middle school and high school. That’s why we are very keen and we find it to be very important and an urgent problem to be solved.

THE BATTALION: When did this program start?

WIJEKUMAR: We started in 2001. My colleague developed the precursor to this in 1975 when the five structures were identified, but 2001 was when we decided to build the Intelligent Tutoring System. Because of my background in computer science, I actually created the first generation of the Intelligent Tutor myself. We developed the first generation in 2001, and we did a small test from 2003 to 2007. Every time we run these things we find huge improvements in kids reading comprehension. Then we took it to a large scale and we actually did a large-scale randomized controlled study in three or four states and we did that from 2008 to 2013. Again, every time we would run it, we would find that the kids would get so much better at reading and comprehending. When we were going through [the testing] we saw a lot of interest from high poverty schools, especially because a computer system can overcome problems like when teachers frequently leave their jobs, and high poverty schools are one of the places that have a difficult time retaining teachers, they have high teacher turnover. The schools are very keen on using the computer system because the computer system can provide high quality instruction for the kids without fail. Overall, it’s really important for us to take this to high poverty schools in this next round of testing.

THE BATTALION: Can you share some examples of the impact the tutoring system has made?

WIJEKUMAR: The kids improve in their ability to summarize, their ability to remember more information, there’s actually a teacher who we worked with last year who came back to us and said “The majority of the kids, who learn about thirty lessons, still remember things from the first and second lesson that were done at the beginning of the year,” because the memory structures are much, much stronger than the way [schools] show them how to remember.

THE BATTALION: What else can it do?

WIJEKUMAR: I moved here from Pennsylvania, from Penn State, and now we’re starting off in Texas. We have two other versions of the software now available to schools, one is a version which allows children to see and hear some of the words in Spanish, or the sentences in Spanish. It’s great in a place like Texas where there are high numbers of children who speak Spanish and are transitioning to English in the classroom and they might need a little help. We’ve built the software to now help kids who are spanish speakers. We’ve also built a version to help kids improve their writing, and it’s designed to help kids with persuasive writing, and now they’re also doing informational writing.

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