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Harvard Online Learning Technology Licensed by Spaced Education

Harvard University has signed an exclusive licensing agreement with Spaced Education for a new online learning technology that was developed and used at Harvard Medical School. The method, also called Spaced Education, was developed by B. Price Kerfoot, associate professor of surgery at the medical school. It uses a simple question and answer format, delivered in short daily bursts to the learner and backed by a proprietary algorithm that adapts the content based on how an individual performs.

"Our early studies showed that traditional online learning generates only limited long-term retention of knowledge and is poorly accepted by learners," said Kerfoot. "To address these problems, we incorporated two research findings from the field of psychology (the spacing effect and the testing effect) into a new method of online learning based on a question and answer format."

The approach has been tested in 10 peer-reviewed randomized controlled trials led by Kerfoot.

Among the results:

  • A 50 percent increase in clinical knowledge in a study of 480 physicians;
  • A 38 percent increase in learning efficiency due to adaptive algorithm (compared to non-adaptive
    method) in a study of 62 medical students; and
  • Preferred three to one over Web-based teaching modules among a group of 724 physicians.

Certain courses have also changed behavior of participants. For example, in a study of 95 primary care providers inappropriate cancer screenings decreased by 26 percent, a significant potential reduction in cost and patient anxiety.

"In contrast to the standard 'binge-and-purge' approach to online education, Spaced Education presents content to the learner in small packets, which are repeated over spaced intervals of time to improve long-term retention," said Kerfoot. "We now combine this with an adaptive algorithm which customizes the content and spacing on an individual basis until a learner has achieved mastery of the material. Initial trial results have been extremely encouraging."

Spaced Education has developed SpacedEd, a new Web site that currently offers 24 different sets of learning questions. Topics cover the silly--"Fantasy Football 101"--and the serious--"Core Urology for Medical Students." Subscribers receive their courses in a simple question and answer format, delivered on a regular schedule via e-mail, the Web, or a mobile device.

The company will market its software service to individuals, educational institutions, course providers, and other organizations that want to offer courses based on the Spaced Education methodology.

"Dr. Kerfoot's innovative learning method has been proven to increase retention and change behavior. It is ideal for today's social and increasingly mobile online world, and represents but one example of a variety of timely research initiatives being advanced across our campus, benefiting society and researchers alike," said Isaac T. Kohlberg, senior associate provost and chief technology development officer at Harvard's Office of Technology Development.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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