Learning Science

Many people would agree there is a need for radical change in education. There is no shortage of ideas, technologies and research, but despite this what you often see in a twenty-first century classroom is not radically different from what you would see in a nineteenth century classroom. Even with online education, which would seem a radically new approach, the available models are often constrained by that with which instructors are already familiar.

Education is still largely dominated by methods of instructional design and teaching practice that are rooted in pre-internet thinking. Technology is often used to augment, rather than redefine the existing models. There is still a sense that many content-heavy courses should be taken before students can engage in more practically oriented courses. Assessment is still dominated by letter grade based on a broad non-standardized level of attainment in a course.

Learning science has been seen as the research field to help overcome these constraints and provide evidence-based models for more effective forms of learning. Learning science has its roots in cognitive psychology and initially was primarily focused on understanding learning processes in individual humans. More recently it has expanded to cover interests in areas such as learning environments, instructional methods, and the impacts of technology. It could be argued that it has not expanded quickly or broadly enough to cope with the rapid development of new technologies and the need for better models of teaching and learning support.

I think it is important to point out that when we think of learning – we tend to think of it in the context of formal learning in schools. I would say that there are three intersecting domains of life-long learning. In each of these areas there can be formal (e.g. courses) and informal (e.g. conversations with other learners) methods of learning. The study of the intersections of these areas and between the formal and the informal is the first area that needs more attention from researchers.


Over future posts I will highlight other areas where learning science can be expanded and improved.


Following up our showcase event last month we now have a colloquium series of excellent speakers.

Val Shute is a professor of education at Florida State University.  While many people talk about 21st century learning, fewer talk about the need for a 21st century assessment to go with it. Dr Shute’s work around the idea of stealth assessment is a good example of new work on thinking about assessment.

Amy Baylor is currently a program officer at the National Science Foundation and talked about her work on designing virtual humans for teaching and learning. The reactions are not always what you might expect.

The good news about our colloquiums is that we are now able to record them. So rather than me describing more about the work, please visit the links above and view both these talks.

Following up on the last post here is a video of the showcase showing the energy of the event:

Abstracts, posters and videos of many of the presentations are now available here.


2nd ASU Learning Innovation Showcase

This time last year, we launched the ASU learning Innovation Showcase to demonstrate innovative work in teaching and learning occurring at ASU, and to connect the participants in new collaborations (see Feb 2016 entry). The event garnered great reviews and we promised to do it again on a larger scale. You can see by some of the pictures below that that is what we achieved. On January 11, 2017, we filled a ballroom with seventy-six diverse presentations, and had visitors not only from the ASU community, but external visitors from community colleges, libraries and museums.


In addition to our institute’s labs and support services, this year we were joined by a number of associated centers for research:

The Institute for Humanities Research and the ASU Library  were also co-sponsors of the event. I was particularly pleased to see librarians taking an active role in promoting teaching and learning. Having previously worked in a school of library and information science, I know the role of the librarian is fast evolving along with the changes in technology. Librarians are very qualified to help faculty innovate learning in the digital age.

The list of presentations is available here. The list will be updated soon to include abstracts, posters, and some videos.

Beating the Heat

Summer is not the best time of the year to visit the Phoenix area, but this month we had another two speakers in our colloquium series brave the 110+ temperatures to visit us.

Dr. Sae Schatz is the Director of the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative, which is an organization that is seeking to redefine the future of education and training in the military.  The military like many other organizations is facing a situation where operational environments are more complex, fluid, and technology rich; while at the same time staffing levels and available training time is being reduced.  It must come up with more innovative and technology-based ways to support education and training.

Established in 1999, the ADL was in its early days occupied in developing SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model), which is a technology that allows the interchange of learning content between different technologies.  It thereby enables content reuse and lego block like building of new online courses.  It has since branched out into many areas of research and development (see  ADL research) and Dr Schatz’s talk entitled “A Vision for Future Learning Technology and Science” provided a good overview of both the ADL’s current work and future plans.

Dr. Neil Heffernen  from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute braved a record setting heat to present a talk entitled “Research Findings from ASSISTments: A Collaboration of Multiple Universities to make Learning Research Easier”.

ASSISTments  is both a means of providing online tutoring to students that gives immediate feedback on homework assignments and a means to collect and analyze data on what tutoring strategies are working.  It has proven effectiveness and is now a platform on which other scientists can access data for research purposes.  It enables randomized assignment to new tutoring interventions in order to scientifically test their effect on learning.

This New York Times magazine article provides an overview and history of ASSISTments.



Over the last two months we have had three excellent speakers visit our institute.

Dr. Mary-Ann Winkelmes, Coordinator, Instructional Development and Research, University of Nevada, Las Vegas gave a presentation titled: Recent Findings: Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.  The concept of transparency involves testing the language used in course assignments to ensure student understand how and why they are learning course content in particular ways. This is not always as explicit as instructors think.  Dr Winkelmes reported on studies of courses that demonstrated better transparency produces learning benefits, particularly for first-generation, low-income and underrepresented college students. This relatively easy intervention has the potential to increase underserved students’ success, especially in their first years of college.

Dr. Adam Gamoran, Ph.D. President, William T. Grant Foundation gave a presentation titled: The Future of Educational Inequality: What Went Wrong and How Can We Fix It? Dr Gamoran outlined an unfortunate trend. At the turn of the millennium racial inequality was being reduced though economic inequality was holding steady. Since then the trend in racial inequality has slowed and the trend in economic inequality has not improved. The William T. Grant foundation has a clear and concise mission statement: “Supporting research to improve the lives of young people”. Whatever the causes, many agree that education is a key part of the solution. And I was glad to learn that ASU has more researchers working with the foundation on educational research than any other university.

Dr. Mark Brown, Director, National Institute for Digital Learning, Dublin City University (DCU) gave a presentation titled:  The Digital Learning Revolution: Exploring the Gap between Rhetoric and Reality. DCU has a transatlantic partnership with ASU. The slides for this are available on slideshare. In this talk Dr Brown touched on an issue I have previously covered in this Blog, which is that technology is often over hyped in education. This was balanced by an outline of the problems, opportunities and value of higher education, which technology (in association with new learning strategies and research) can potentially help with.

In addition to the talks, all of the speakers spent time meeting with people at ASU and from this we anticipate new research collaborations emerging.

We have one more speaker coming in June – Dr Sae Schatz the director of the Advanced Distributed Learning initiative. The ADL basically supports and coordinates R&D that will help redefine the future of training in the military.

Design Science

Last month I was an invited speaker at the 4th Annual Education and Technology Forum at the Mayo Clinic. The title of my talk was the importance of Design Science for Improving Education. The words science and design are not often used together, with design more often being associated with art, as in fashion design, interior design or graphic design. My first task was to explain why “design” was a more general activity that all humans do, it is not just about making things look good or artistic.

I gave the example of Personal Information Management (PIM) where people evolve their own designs for their information spaces at work. Once we see that design is a general human activity, we can then consider how we scientifically study the processes of design. There are two paths we can go down here. We can evolve our own approaches based on an informal design process and hope they work. Or we can systematically observe, measure and compare different approaches to show which ones are more effective and/or efficient. In other words, we can take a scientific approach to determining how to improve design (whatever the domain).

Among the many things researchers have founds studying PIM is that there are two main approaches: filing and piling. The illustration below shows a mixture of both approaches where papers important to the faculty member are piled into separate categories, but there is also an informal filing using shelves and post-it notes. This is a system that evolved through the person thinking about different possibilities, and arranging things to suit their idea of how things might work best for them. They may have used a different system in the past, made changes over time or borrowed ideas from seeing how others approached this problem.


The illustration above is in a sense a theory of how best to organize an information space. One that can be tested against other theories. Researchers studying this space can test how fast it is to find a given piece of information in the design. They can test how easy it is to construct, learn, maintain and use the specific design compared to others. Computer researchers are very interested in this specific domain to help them design better tools for facilitating organization and access to digital information.

This Google Tech Talk by Manuel Perez-Quinones is a good overview of a design science approach to personal information management:

Design processes can be informal and idiosyncratic, like the above example, or highly formalized and collectively determined like the ones that are described in textbooks of design-related disciplines (e.g. engineering, architecture). The US has been the pioneer in developing what is akin to an engineering discipline for the design of instruction. In the field of instructional design [see instructional design central], researchers study different process models, tools and methods used to develop instruction. From this they have developed formal systematic approaches to instructional design, similar to those found in other design-related disciplines. Instructors in higher education often have no training in formal approaches and develop their own idiosyncratic approaches. Many institutions have found that they can obtain better quality instruction by employing instructional designers to educate and support their faculty in the design process.

A brief introduction to instructional design can be found here:

Learning Innovation Showcase

One issue I have to deal with in my new job at Arizona State University (ASU) is learning about existing work and looking for ways to connect it. There is a famous quote from the early days of the field of knowledge management:

“If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.” Lew Platt, CEO, Hewlett-Packard

I was reminded of this when finding out about various innovations in teaching and learning occurring at ASU. If only ASU knew what ASU knows.  As a result, the institute I now lead organized the ASU Learning Innovation showcase. I asked all the Deans at ASU to nominate people in their units who they thought were doing innovative work. I did not define “innovative” or set restrictions, given I wanted a diversity of things on show. Out of over eighty nominations we had fifty people agree to showcase. The work was showcased over a two-hour period using a posters and demos.


Many who attended remarked upon the variety of work on show and many were able to find new collaborators or others interested in applying the innovations to their own teaching. You can see a list of the presentations and more photographs of the event here.

Given I often promote active learning; I am glad that the event created an atmosphere of active learning among the participants. If we had adopted the more usual conference format only a handful of people would have been able to show their work and the level of participant interaction would be restricted to a few questions in between presentations.

We are now planning a similar event for next year, only on a much larger scale and in the spirit of the ASU design aspiration of being social embedded, we intend to involve not educators from the local community. So look out for ASU Learning Innovation Showcase 2, January 11, 2017.

Innovation is a constant theme at ASU: