Federal Effort Aims to Transform Learning Technologies

By Sean Cavanagh — January 03, 2013 8 min read
Visitors to the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh and staff members work on projects in the museum’s "Makeshop" earlier this week. A project funded through the National Science Foundation is exploring the potential for "maker spaces," like those hosted by the museum, to improve student learning.
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Can online graphic novels help teenagers cope with difficult social situations? Are 3-D technologies a tool for helping English-learners acquire language skills outside traditional educational settings? And what about the potential for mobile apps that let students manipulate on-screen images with their fingers to help them learn fractions?

A federal program, still in its infancy, is supporting research that seeks to answer those and other questions by wedding partners that often operate in isolation—educational technology and scientific research on learning—with the goal of transforming teaching and learning in schools.

The federal government has been funding projects focused on technology and education for decades, and it has backed research on cognition in many forms. But the relatively new program, called Cyberlearning: Transforming Education, is the National Science Foundation’s attempt to create a space within the agency devoted to supporting research on advanced learning technologies. Such technologies are generally defined as tools that help people connect directly with what they’re learning and provide them with new opportunities to acquire knowledge in ways that would otherwise be out of reach.

“What we want to do is have one program that will be looking at the future of learning technologies—the next generation,” said Janet Kolodner, an NSF program director who is guiding the cyberlearning effort. “Some of [the projects] advance the technology itself. Some of them advance ways of using technology and the integration of technology within other technologies, and in new kinds of learning environments.”

Spawning Ideas

The agency, with headquarters in Arlington, Va., hopes the research will help spawn new technology products that can benefit schools, Ms. Kolodner said, but it is also seeking to back projects that will increase scientists’ and educators’ understanding of technology’s capacity to enhance student learning.

Since the cyberlearning program was launched about two years ago, it has awarded grants worth about $30 million for projects focused on an eclectic array of ideas and technologies. All of the projects funded by the cyberlearning program—about 50 so far—are expected to be grounded in scientific theories of learning, and learning with technology, specifically.

Technology changes constantly, and the digital tools that get used in classrooms are no exception. For that reason, the program’s greatest potential will come in its ability to produce research and designs that can spawn myriad new technologies and ideas, rather than any single product, said John Black, a professor of telecommunications and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Mr. Black is receiving funding through the cyberlearning program to examine the potential of using mobile applications to teach fractions, and specifically whether “embodied cognition”—the idea that learning is enhanced when people can feel or perform an activity, rather than just watch simulations of it—can help improve student learning. His project plans to use narratives, characters, and math content from “Cyberchase,” a math-focused TV show.

The importance of research that aspires to produce breakthroughs in technology and education and how it can be used is not always evident to the public, because the results of those projects can take so long to germinate, Mr. Black noted.

“It’s much easier to recognize the value of things that are a little bit beyond what we’ve already done,” he said, “as opposed to radical things.”

Projects Evolving

The task of setting the cyberlearning program in motion has belonged primarily to Ms. Kolodner, who came to the NSF on loan from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Ms. Kolodner, a professor of computing and cognitive science at the university in Atlanta, is well known in the world of educational technology and cognition, having published extensive research in that area and having served as the founding editor-in-chief of the Journal of the Learning Sciences. She originally signed on for a two-year term at the NSF, but then reached an agreement with the agency to extend her oversight for an additional year.

Paula Kislock and her grandson, Cooper Wilson, 5, work with electric-based projects in the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh's "Makeshop" earlier this week.

One project financed through the program, being led by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, seeks to produce classroom breakthroughs through the creation of a “learning dashboard,” a system that uses a statistical and cognitive model to record and compute how well students have learned particular skills, and provide them and their teachers with instant feedback on what they’ve learned and what to do next. The system was developed by Marsha Lovett, the director of the university’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence, and Christopher Genovese, a professor of statistics at the university.

The dashboard allows students to connect to it through any instructional device, meaning they could use personal computers, smartphones, tablets, and other technologies to complete assignments and practice exercises and take quizzes. The system is designed to work across all academic subjects, with teachers and others adding information on how academic content relates to the skills they want covered.

The system goes beyond the capabilities of many existing interactive-technology devices, which churn out information for teachers about students’ performance in class, in that the learning dashboard uses scientific principles to provide in-depth information on the extent to which students have actually grasped content and where their understanding is weak, Ms. Lovett explained. The funding from the NSF—about $500,000 over three years—will help the researchers expand the system.

Another project will examine whether technology and other approaches can be integrated within “maker spaces”—informal environments created in museums, community centers, or even garages that allow people of all ages to design, build, or tinker with projects—to improve student learning. Those projects could focus on almost anything, from car repair to electronics to welding.

The researchers hope to develop something akin to a “cyber-enabled critique tool” that would allow students using maker spaces to work with a broader community and refine their work based on feedback from experts, and allow researchers to understand how that learning can be transferred to other math and science skills, said Erica Halverson, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is co-directing the effort with Kimberly Sheridan, an assistant professor of educational psychology and art education at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va.

The researchers are working with a number of maker spaces around the country, though the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is the site for their design experiments.

“The ethos of ‘making’ has been around for a long time,” Ms. Halverson said. Her project, she said, focuses on “elevating making to a level where we see the value of these spaces, in terms of the skills and abilities we want our students to have.”

Measuring Success

Government has played a leading role in underwriting research aimed at producing breakthroughs in science in other areas, and that’s a good approach, said Jon Baron, the president of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, a Washington-based nonprofit group that seeks to improve the effectiveness of publicly funded programs by applying rigorous standards of evidence for what works to them.

Government research often has “spillover benefits” for the development of new ideas and innovations in the public and private sectors, Mr. Baron said, including the development of commercial products.

Over the past decade, there has been an increasing emphasis on applying scientifically rigorous tests to education products and programs, through randomized control trials and other methods of study that have been more commonplace in medicine and other fields. Applying rigorous standards to what amounts to early-stage or cutting-edge research, such as what emerges from the NSF cyberlearning program, is difficult, because it takes time to know whether new technologies have improved student learning or advanced scientific understanding, Mr. Baron said.

But he argued that small-scale studies could be done of initial concepts and products that emerge, to gauge whether there’s preliminary evidence of positive results.

Ideally, a project “is set up to produce evidence about whether products work or not,” Mr. Baron said. For early-stage research, “they would identify which are the most promising of the technologies developed.”

Ms. Kolodner said she agrees that small-scale studies are a more realistic option for evaluating the projects funded through the cyberlearning program than larger-scale randomized trials, which she says are unlikely to yield insights about when and how, exactly, new education technologies could be used effectively.

As the research on the various learning technologies accumulates, how will innovations emerge from the project to reach educators?

Ms. Kolodner said the NSF is working to establish a “cyberlearning resource center,” to distill and disseminate the research from the program for educators, curriculum specialists, researchers, and others.

“Taking these things into the world” and into schools brings many challenges, she said. “There are adoption issues, there are learning issues, with respect to those who have to make it work.

But the science agency’s vision is “to fund things that have the potential to make a real difference in populations that are reached in terms of learning,” Ms. Kolodner said, “and in the depths of understanding of people in the general population.”

Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as Federal Effort Aims to Bridge Ed. Tech., Learning Sciences


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