Delving into Digital Learning

November 12, 2013

Carnegie Mellon University will open the world’s largest database on student learning to the public in an effort to identify best practices and standards for using technology in the classroom, the university announced on Monday. To support the open-access initiative, the institution will form a council of higher education leaders, education technology experts and industry representatives to distribute the data and guide the conversation.

The initiative is named in memory of Herbert A. Simon, the prolific Carnegie Mellon scholar who was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1978.

Carnegie Mellon President Subra Suresh said the Simon Initiative will build on the work taking place at the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center -- including research partners such as the Open Learning Initiative -- and the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation.

Looking beyond the initiative's lofty proposals, the announcement outlines four major goals: sharing rich data globally, helping teachers teach, accelerating innovation and scaling through start-up companies -- which Carnegie Mellon has proven adept at -- and improving residential students' educational experience.

“Now is the right time to bring all this together in a new and unique way, and also tie it to developments all around the world,” Suresh said. “Technology has enabled delivery of content in a very powerful way, in a scalable way around the globe in a bottomless fashion to large numbers of recipients, but as some of the people engaged in this from the outside have pointed out, one of the areas where collectively as a community we need to do more work is make sure that ... the learning outcomes are appropriately enhanced and quantified.”

The Science of Learning Center, known as LearnLab, has already collected more than 500,000 hours’ worth of student data since it initially received funding from the National Science Foundation about nine years ago, its director Ken Koedinger said. That number translates to about 200 million times when students of a variety of age groups and subject areas have clicked on a graph, typed an equation or solved a puzzle.

The center collects studies conducted on data gathered from technology-enhanced courses in algebra, chemistry, Chinese, English as a second language, French, geometry and physics in an open wiki.

One such study showed that students performed better in algebra if asked to explain what they learned in their own words, for example. In another study, physics students who took time answering reflection questions performed better on tests than their peers.

Much of the data is already publicly available, Koedinger said. Monday’s announcement therefore has more to do with extending an invitation to researchers across the world to analyze and contribute their own data and collaborate on creating a common format that will make future data useful to scholars in any field. That work will set up a more substantial announcement in January, he said.

“I think that the important point here is that we are announcing the availability of it,” Koedinger said. “We’ve been quietly doing it, and now we want to make the world know that it’s available.”

Suresh, former director of the National Science Foundation, will chair a Global Learning Council to promote that effort. The council includes a broad sample of the different blocs within higher education.

“That also takes it to a higher level, because it's not that we are trying to push one particular view or one product -- we want to work collectively to develop metrics and best practices that everyone benefits from,” Suresh said.

Among the members are Mark Nordenberg, chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh; Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize-winning Stanford University professor; Hunter Rawlings, president of the American Association of Universities; Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities; Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and Tan Chorh Chuan, president of the National University of Singapore and chair of the Global University Leaders Forum of the World Economic Forum.

Massive open online course providers will be represented by Anant Agarwal and Daphne Koller, co-founders of edX and Coursera, respectively. Google, Kaplan, Microsoft and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will also supply their own members.

“We could think about a dozen others to invite, but we needed to start somewhere,” Suresh said. “It doesn’t mean others who are not part of the group won’t be consulted.”

The council does not yet have a set agenda, and neither have its members decided how often they will meet. Suresh said the group plans an informal teleconference in the coming days to lay out some of its priorities.

“We didn’t want to prescribe what the council should do before the council will meet,” Suresh said.

The council’s inaugural members used Monday’s announcement to highlight some of the topics they hope to debate in the coming months. Rawlings, whose organization represents 62 top research universities in North America, said he is interested in establishing standards for high-quality online education.

“I think the main thing is to try to develop some standards for evaluating online education, and perhaps eventually some metrics for how one measures the value of online pedagogy,” Rawlings said. “I’m concerned that there won’t be any quality control. It’s very easy for potential students to be misled, because it’s moving so quickly.”

The Simon Initiative has already received the federal government’s blessing. In a statement, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, “Advances in learning science and technology offer transformative potential in education and training nationwide, supporting the work of excellent educators to address longstanding issues of equity and accelerating the country’s return to educational leadership.” Duncan added the Carnegie Mellon’s efforts “will advance this vital conversation.”

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