School & District Management

Frontiers of Digital Learning Probed by Researchers

By Benjamin Herold — May 05, 2015 8 min read
A student uses a simulation game called MEteor at a science center in Orlando, Fla. The game uses the principles of “embodied cognition” to teach planetary physics.
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Academic researchers have begun formally examining the latest frontiers in educational technology use.

Their focus: studying how emerging technologies that facilitate new types of hands-on student learning impact teaching, learning, and classroom engagement. They’re also looking at tech-enabled instructional practices that provide new windows in children’s mental problem-solving processes.

“We are exploring new territory,” said Michael Tscholl, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He recently helped conduct a study of MEteor, a “whole-body, mixed-reality immersive simulation” funded by the National Science Foundation in the hope of improving students’ grasp of commonly misunderstood concepts in planetary physics.

Other research presented recently at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, held here April 16-20, examined “connected gardening,” the use of digital-tablet screen-casting technology to plumb students’ often-invisible strategies for solving math problems, and the push to get children creating their own digital learning games.

What follows are descriptions of four different researchers’ explorations of such new uses of ed tech, as presented at the AERA gathering.

Merging Physical Movement and Virtual Understanding

Most students harbor fundamental misunderstandings about how forces such as gravity and acceleration operate in outer space, said Michael Tscholl, the University of Wisconsin researcher.

That’s because their beliefs about physics tend to be based on their experiences in their own bodies, he said. A 7th grader living on earth, for example, needs energy and force in order to move. But the opposite is true for an object in space, which, once launched, will continue moving forever, until a countervailing force provides the energy to stop it.

For decades, Mr. Tscholl said, teachers have tried to overcome their students’ misunderstandings around such concepts by having them manipulate symbols on paper, or on computer screens.

But now, he said, that approach is often regarded as ineffective. A superior strategy, some researchers believe, would encourage educators to embrace “embodied cognition,” in which students are provided with opportunities for physical activities specifically designed to get them moving in ways that will help them to learn new ideas—and to unlearn some of what they already (incorrectly) believe.

For example: MEteor, a room-size “simulation environment” that calls to mind a space-age version of the popular arcade video game Dance Dance Revolution.

In MEteor, planets and other space objects are projected on the floor and walls. The students must predict the trajectory of an object moving through space by physically moving along the path they think a meteor (projected on the floor) will travel. Laser-scanning technology tracks their movements, offering real-time feedback on whether their predictions are correct. Based on that feedback, students adapt their beliefs about scientific principles, then adjust their movements to reflect what they are learning.

In an experimental study involving 113 middle schoolers, the students who used the simulator (as opposed to a desktop-computer version of the same task) demonstrated greater gains in their understanding of physics concepts such as gravitational acceleration.

They also were significantly more engaged, concentrated better on the task at hand, and reported a greater sense of feeling like a scientist themselves.

And they had more fun.

“What is quite clear is that students are scared of symbolic representations,” Mr. Tscholl said. “We are trying to achieve something really big.”

The study is currently under review for publication.

Designing a Novel Way to Peek Inside Students’ Mathematical Thinking

Researchers at San Diego State University and the University of California, Davis, are conducting an ongoing study of how educators can use “screen-casting” to capture multilayered records of students’ thinking while they are attempting to solve math problems.

Many teachers already use screen-casting technology to capture the work displayed on digital devices and create lectures and tutorials for their students.

But researchers at San Diego State University and the University of California, Davis, believe formative assessment could be an even more powerful use of such technology. One potential use: getting students to create a multilayered record of their thinking while attempting to solve math problems.

Such an approach could help teachers “go beyond determining whether students correctly solved the problem, to understand why students solved the problem the way they did,” wrote Melissa M. Soto and Rebecca Ambrose in an as-yet unpublished paper, presented at the research conference.

To test these beliefs, Ms. Soto and Ms. Ambrose are conducting an ongoing study. During an early experiment, 10 students in grades 3-6 in California and Florida were asked to solve several multiplication, division, and fraction problems using an app called Explain Everything. The children generated screencasts of their problem-solving processes. They also recorded themselves as they verbally explained their work.

The researchers observed and interviewed the students, then analyzed the resulting data and the student screencasts using an original rubric. Their focus was on determining whether the students’ verbal explanations of their thinking reflected the problem-solving strategies they actually used, and whether those strategies led to a correct solution.

Particularly noteworthy, Ms. Soto and Ms. Ambrose wrote, were those instances when “students’ thinking went astray, or when their verbalizations and notations did not align.” One student, for example, incorrectly solved a word problem that required division. By reviewing the screencast of the student’s work in conjunction with her audio-recorded narration, the researchers were able to ascertain that the student had used a sound problem-solving strategy, but made an arithmetic error caused in part by her haste to finish quickly (and thus demonstrate that she was “good at math”).

Without the screencast, the authors wrote, “it would have been difficult to pinpoint where exactly the mismatch took place, and it could have been incorrectly concluded that [the student] did not understand the problem from the start.”

Expanded use of screen-casting for formative assessment, Ms. Soto and Ms. Ambrose concluded, has “the potential to transform the learning environment by allowing teachers to gain more insight into their students’ mathematical thinking.”

They hope to submit their study for publication later this year.

Blurring the Lines Between Playing and Making Digital Learning Games

Over the past two decades, dozens of research studies have concluded that there is educational value in having students create and develop their own video games.

Now, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the College of Charleston, in South Carolina, are working to synthesize that research into a coherent theoretical framework in support of “constructionist gaming.” Their hope is to influence the growing “serious games” movement, which to date has focused primarily on the development of games for, rather than by, students.

“We need [to] embrace a broader agenda that recognizes that opening access and participation in serious games is not solely a matter of making better games for learning, but allowing students themselves to make the games they would like to see and play,” write Yasmin B. Kafai and Quinn Burke in a paper presented at the AERA meeting.

From commercial video games that allow users to alter their avatars’ experience, to the open-sandbox world of the hugely popular Minecraft, which includes both a “play” and a “create” mode, the world of digital games offers a wide variety of opportunities for students to create, make, and modify digital worlds.

Such work, in both classroom and informal settings, has been demonstrated to help students increase their knowledge of both coding and academic content. In one study, for example, 4th graders who developed digital games to teach fractions to younger students better understood both fractions and the computer programming language Logo than a comparison group of students.

Constructionist gaming also involves valuable opportunities for collaboration, Ms. Kafai and Mr. Burke wrote. They cited the online communities that have sprung up around such tools as Scratch (a student-friendly computer-programming language) and Arduino (small, inexpensive microprocessors that can be programmed like a computer).

And making their own video games also offers students new outlets for creative expression and new opportunities to critically examine popular media, the researchers contend.

Ms. Kafai and Mr. Burke are currently working on a book, Connected Gaming: What Video Game Making Can Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, that is to be published by MIT Press in fall 2016.

“For children in the 21st century, encountering video games is no longer a novel experience in and of itself,” they write in a draft of the book’s introduction.

In order to take serious gaming to the next level, the authors suggest, educators need to provide students with “a dual sense of being both ‘player’ and ‘maker.’ ”

Gabriela Salgado, left, and Richard Salgado Silverio, 4th graders at Brunson-Lee Elementary School in Phoenix, Ariz., compare visual growth markers from their garden plot using real-time environmental data. Arizona State University researchers are seeking to establish a network of school-based, ‘connected’ gardening sites in southwestern states.

‘Connected Gardening’

Through iPads and sensor-based “probeware” technology, along with a new curriculum and student-run gardens, researchers at Arizona State University in Tempe aim to help 4th graders become practicing scientists.

Their “connected gardening” initiative allows students to design and develop their own garden plots, then operate technology that provides a constant stream of real-time data about soil-moisture levels, sunlight exposure, temperature, and more.

In a related set of classroom lessons, students also learn about data visualization, data analysis, and plant-growth cycles—skills and information that allow them to adjust the design and operation of their gardens as they go.

Through qualitative research methods, including observations, interviews, and analysis of student work, assistant professor of learning sciences Steven J. Zuiker and graduate student Kyle Wright concluded that such “cyber-physical systems” hold great potential for increasing student engagement and use of scientific practices.

“Typically, garden-based learning has involved very discrete lessons, or powerful after-school programs unrelated to the curriculum,” Mr. Zuiker said in an interview.

But the “connected gardening” approach allows for interdisciplinary, project-based instruction, he said. It also “brings the classroom outside the school, with the potential to link with the community.”

The researchers are seeking to establish a network of school-based connected-gardening sites in Southwestern states.

Their paper has been accepted for publication in the academic journal Interactive Learning Environments later this year.

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2015 edition of Education Week as New Research Probes Frontiers of Tech Learning


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