How a Math Algorithm Could Educate the Whole World — for Free | Po-Shen Loh

How a Math Algorithm Could Educate the Whole World — for Free | Po-Shen Loh

August 30, 2019 100 By Ronny Jaskolski


About three years ago I became the national
coach of the United States International Math Olympian Team. I was very happy for a day thinking this is
very interesting. But the next day I started to think that maybe
I should do something with this. And I decided that I wanted to focus not only
on training an elite group of students but trying to do as much as I could to boost the
baseline mathematics capability in this entire country. Unfortunately I had no money, no connections
and only one person. So the only thing I knew was mathematics,
algorithms and this probability and network theory. So after thinking for some time I actually
came to an idea which was based on using these core mathematical areas that I’d been working
with to actually build a solution for education that could be delivered for free on every
smart phone. This is actually the project I’m working on
right now called Expii. Our principle is that actually you could turn
that smart phone into a virtual tutor which automates what a person would get if they
hired a tutor. It wouldn’t be as good as a tutor, but it
could get very close. And if you could deliver a free almost tutor
on every smart phone in the United States you might solve equity problems, you might
be able to allow everyone, even if they live in a different ZIP Code, to be able to access
this tutor, which previously had only been accessible to people who are quite wealthy. Because today the cost of a tutor is in the
$30 an hour, $20 an hour, $50 an hour depending on how you look at it. If you can reduce that to zero dollars an
hour you would actually open up this accessibility to everyone. If we realize that what we’re trying to build
is this virtual tutor then you actually, again, can start to conceptualize well knowledge
happens to be all of these concepts linked together in this network. Then the problem becomes if you have this
network how do you mathematically analyze where a person should go next? That can be done by using probability and
statistics to find new ways to measure how much each person understands about each concept. Statistics, because the way that one would
measure this is by asking them questions. The experience someone has is they indicate
what they want to learn and then the system starts to pitch questions at them, questions
that they would need to know how to answer in order to understand what they claim they
want to understand. As the questions come, based on people’s responses
to the questions, the system adjusts the difficulty of the questions and where the next questions
come from in the same way that a human tutor adjusts their line of questioning based on
whether a person is successful or not successful at the previous question. If the student reaches a point where they
are hopelessly confused, meaning they don’t know how to do this question at all, then
the system suggests that maybe they could read some explanations. As you can see it turns the lesson flow upside
down. It’s not that the class comes first and then
the homework and then the exam, the first thing that comes is the exam essentially followed
by these practice problems, which adapt to you, followed by the class for anything that
you don’t know. The idea is that this should cure boredom
at the high end and also cure confusion at the struggling end. I actually started this with a brilliant Carnegie
Mellon undergraduate student and then the two of us built this system together. But when you start with no resources you need
to think of ways to actually generate all of this content in a way which doesn’t cost
enormous amount of resources. And we took inspiration from Wikipedia. Our system aggregates all of the questions
and explanations that anyone in the world might want to contribute, uses voting like
a website called Quora in order to find out which content is strong, and uses statistics,
the algorithms, to figure out what questions are easy and difficult. So actually in the end it turns out that it
sucks in all of this content, it licenses it all with the creative commons license like
Wikipedia and then puts it all across on a platform that anyone with a smart phone can
use. So as we keep developing these mathematics
and algorithms our goal is actually to deliver free education to all of the world using a
system that self-organizes in the same way that mathematics self-organizes from its basic
assumptions.