Friday, August 21, 2009

Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces (TOS Review)

In short, ALEKS.

ALEKS is an online mathematics learning environment. You pay for a subscription for a month, six months or a year, and you can use it as much or as little as you like in that time (I think each student can only be working on one course at a time, though).

The courses offered range from Grade 3-12 and beyond, including geometry, accounting, business math, calculus, statistics, and upper-level science courses. This isn't a game-based system, although there are some games and a multiplication table drill activity; and it isn't video learning; the work and explanations are on the screen (in English or Spanish), and you work out the problems and type in the answers. ALEKS assesses you, teaches you the parts you don't know, retests you, and sends the results on to whoever has your "teacher account" (for homeschoolers, that would be the teaching parent).
ALEKS is a Web-based, artificially intelligent assessment and learning system. ALEKS uses adaptive questioning to quickly and accurately determine exactly what a student knows and doesn't know in a course. ALEKS then instructs the student on the topics she is most ready to learn. ALEKS can provide you with the instruction and support that you need to homeschool your children in mathematics for grades 3-12. ALEKS offers highly-targeted, individualized instruction from virtually any computer with Internet access, making it a comprehensive and mobile education solution for your children.--ALEKS website
I needed Mr. Fixit's help downloading an ALEKS plug-in for our computer (and we also had to update our Java). I received a registration form for each Squirreling and myself (we were all allowed to try it out for a month). Registering each child was simple, although I somehow ended up with four different teacher's accounts and passwords.

I signed myself up for Accounting, started the assessment, then remembered how much I don't like Accounting and switched to Middle School Geometry. I went through the initial assessment (which required some paper-and-pencil figuring as well as online work), worked through some of the lessons, and re-learned a few things I'd forgotten--adding a bit more colour to my pie.

Once I had a bit of practice with the online tools such as the compass and ruler, I did all right--it takes a few tries, though, if you've never used online manipulatives before. I think younger students might need some help getting used to the tools.

The only other person here who really tried out the program was our Apprentice, who will be doing grade 12 Ontario math this fall and wanted to see what the Algebra II program was like. Here are her comments:

Overall I really liked it. I thought the pie thing was pretty neat and I liked how it just didn't give you all the lessons straight up front; it actually blocked some lessons until you're ready to do them. There were pieces of the pie I couldn't click on, because the topic would build on another topic. I thought the assessment was way too long; I know why it was that long, but it was very unreasonable. I was on ALEKS for several hours, and it never asked me if I wanted to review, and it never asked me to do a test. There were a lot of buttons along the top (for things like test and review), but I never really found out what they did. So I found it overall very intuitive, but maybe it was a little too intuitive. As far as the teaching and theory goes, I would love to use that for math if I was being homeschooled. It might be nice to supplement with if you're studying for an exam or in the summer; it was nice for me to review a bit over the summer, but I wouldn't have time to use it along with my regular math.

Back to Mama Squirrel: Learning with ALEKS isn't a noisy, bells-and-beeps sort of thing--ALEKS doesn't talk out loud to you or play background music, at least not at the levels we tried if your computer's in the schoolroom, one student could use it without disturbing others. You don't have to be on for any particular length of time or for a whole lesson; if you have to quit, even in the middle of the initial assessment, ALEKS remembers where you were when you log back in.

I like the variety of courses--even with the differences in Canadian math teaching, I think you could find courses that would suit most learners. I like the fact that you can switch courses easily--it's not like ordering the wrong-level textbook and having to mail it all back. I think it would be a great option for some kids who learn very quickly (it would save their parents having to buy more math books too soon).

Is it an effective way to learn math? I don't have any way of assessing that, based only on our family's limited experience with the program. I know ALEKS has gotten many positive reviews from other users, so you might want to read some of those, especially from people who have made it their main math program over a longer period of time. It looks to me like a good way to find and fill in gaps in learning, especially for students who are "all over the place" or who seem to be between grades. I don't know if I'd want ALL a child's math work to be on the computer, but I think that, used in combination with hands-on activities and some written work, it could be a good way to learn.

Things I'd like to see: more of a welcoming interface for new users, particularly kids. There are tours and videos on the ALEKS website, but that's not exactly what I'm saying...I'm thinking of my kids who are used to logging on to their Webkinz pages, getting their mail and so on before they go off to take on jobs and pet care. It can be a bit daunting when the first thing you're hit with on a new program is a screen demanding that you answer, right away, a whole bunch of questions on things that you may not be very good at yet. It would be sort of nice to, somehow, get to play a little bit and get to know ALEKS better before you take the test, especially if it's your first experience with the program.

I wonder also whether a voice option would be helpful for students who have difficulty reading the written instructions and explanations. (If this already exists and I just missed it, please correct me.)

The biggest reason that I can't consider ALEKS right now for our family is the cost. A popular middle-school math package would cost me about a hundred dollars Canadian, the same as six months' worth of ALEKS. (And I can't really afford that this year either.) I'm not saying that it should necessarily be cheaper, or that it's not worth the money; it's just that, for many homeschoolers, paying around $150 for ten months' worth of computer math time is probably stretching the budget too hard. But if you have high school students, gifted students, or other learners with special needs, it might be worth it.

A subscription to ALEKS for an individual student is:
$19.95 per month
only $99.95 for 6 months! (Six months for the cost of five)
only $179.95 for 12 months! (Best Deal: You save $59.45)
More than one child in your family? We have a
family discount
--ALEKS website

You can get a three-hour free trial on the website, which is probably enough to give you the idea. But as a reader of of this blog, you can try it out for free for a month, which is a great deal, and if you're motivated, you could probably get through a whole course in that time.

Visit ALEKS for 1-Month Trial

For more ALEKS reviews from this year's Homeschool Review Crew, click here.

Dewey's Disclaimer: This product was received for purposes of review only. No other payment was made.


Beck's Bounty said...

We looked at this program too, but it was simply cost-prohibitive. So instead, we selected a computer program called Quarter Mile Math, buying all 3 levels. And so far the Cherubs have really enjoyed it and appear to be reaping benefits in the way of stronger skills and understanding -- and I have also enjoyed the fact that it is "paid for". I suspect that the Homeschool Marketplace is quite a lucrative spot, with dollars and dollars to be gained by marketers of anything "promising", most esp in the areas of Math and Science, which seem to be the areas homeschool teachers have the most concern. Thanks for sharing this review ! (BTW - we use inexpensive earphones during the use of the computers in our school room, so as not to disrupt other students and also so as not to drive Momma batty with bleeps, clicks, and chatting voices. HA !)


Mama Squirrel said...

Quarter Mile Math is also on the TOS review schedule for this year--I'll be posting about that later on.

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