The Machines Are Taking Over

Annie Murphy Paul
September 14, 2012


Quick summary:

The New York Times profiles husband and wife team, Neil and Cristina Heffernan, and how they are addressing the achievement gap through a computer program that can mimic the individualized feedback of a human tutor.‍ After closely watching his wife’s tutoring sessions with math students, Neil was convinced that the only way to close the persistent “achievement gap” was to offer universal tutoring — to give each student access to his or her own Cristina. While hiring a human tutor for every child would be prohibitively expensive, the right computer program could make this possible.

He incorporated many of these tactics into a computerized tutor, which became the basis of his doctoral dissertation. When he was hired as an assistant professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, Heffernan continued to work on the program, joined in his efforts by his wife Cristina. Together they improved the tutor, which they renamed ASSISTments (it assists students while generating an assessment of their progress). Years after Heffernan first set up his video camera, the computerized tutor he designed has been used by more than 100,000 students, in schools all over the country and worldwide at the time of this article’s publication.

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