Meet Chad Lane

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CIRCL perspectives offer a window into the different worlds of various stakeholders in the cyberlearning community — what drives their work, what they need to be successful, and what they think the community should be doing. Share your perspective.

Chad Lane

Chad Lane is an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science of Teaching and Learning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was formerly Director of Learning Sciences Research at the USC Institute of Creative Technologies.

What drives your work?

I am simply curious about why and how learning works. I view these as critical scientific questions of our time and am passionate about research that addresses them. Visiting schools and interacting with young learners also fuels this passion. When I am lucky enough to spend time with kids, I have a three part message: Curiosity, Passion, and Knowledge. I try explain the “Dweckian” message that being smart is not innate – it is about a desire to engage in sensemaking and cultivating motivation. I also want to give students a big picture for where they’re going and think ahead, even if they may not be very good at it. Like all of us sometimes, kids can sometimes reject an idea outright, like saying they don’t like science––but they don’t realize how vast science truly is! There may a topic coming next week that they find amazing.

But back to the question – working around and with passionate and creative people, including co-workers, collaborators, and kids is a huge boost that fuels what I seek to do. In the last few years I’ve decided to focus on informal settings highlight the joy of learning, rather than the desire to simply get a good grade. Science and math surround us, and I feel like informal settings can do a great deal to highlight that fact. A little help navigating these ideas could go a very long way and I think technology can be a big part of that. As an example, one of my partners is Western Center Academy (WCA), an innovative middle school in Hemet, CA. One half of the building is a natural history museum and the other half is a school. They embrace technology, integrate its use with natural history, bring a DJ to the school during lunches on Fridays, and welcomed us to run studies. This school is so successful, they are expanding slowly to include high school classes so kids can stay a full 6 years.

What would you like policy makers (e.g., Congress) to know about your work?

Education and technology research is terribly misunderstood. It is so bad that congressional reports on wasteful spending seem to simply include anything with the word “virtual” in it. This represents a profound misunderstanding of the world in which we live, in my view. Learning is a scientific problem and is being addressed in a scientific way. Just as in biology, chemistry, and physics, you have to get down into the details in order to really make progress, and people reviewing the work also need some level of expertise (would a typical congressional staffer be qualified to review microbiology proposals?). I am just asking for basic humility on their part and an openness to improving education by being willing to support innovative, creative, and meaningful research.

For example, researchers are working to understand what strategies from the entertainment industry work the best to draw people in (like a great movie or tv show), and understand how we can leverage those tactics to improve learning experiences. We should not resist looking to entertainment because of some outdated belief that school should not be “fun”, and I worry this is the attitude sometimes. I don’t promote the idea that we should treat students as consumers of entertainment (with the expectation of “entertain me”) – certainly education does not have to be a constant stream of stimulation and fun. Anyone who has spent 10 or more minutes watching a kid play a game knows it is not “all fun and games” (ask a middle schooler to explain minecraft sometime – it is like work!). So although education is a messy problem with weird politics injected into at every turn (e.g., common core), but learning itself is fundamental––it is a human thing and we need to keep it as a top priority.

What are you struggling with now?

Working in the intersection of many fields of study is always a challenge. I do work on computer science, AI, psychology, affective computing, natural language processing, and more. Being able to focus on solvable problems is sometimes a challenge. The upside of interdisciplinary work is that you have more tools and approaches available to work on problems, but the downside is that you also have to confront the entirety of the problems based on these different perspectives at once.

For example, Virtual Sprouts is an NIH-funded project to teach gardening and healthy cooking to children in underserved areas of Los Angeles (and beyond). We have to balance education, behavior change, gardening, and nutrition, and put it all up against the realities of building a system, testing it, expanding it, and preparing it for use in studies. It is hard to make everyone happy and you need a flexible, understanding team in order to allow progress. We have that with Virtual Sprouts, thankfully, but it took time to cultivate and you need special people. This is one of my goals as I transition to the School of Education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, with a joint appointment in Informatics and the Beckman Institute. My aim is to create a home for interdisciplinary-minded students who are interested in building educational technologies, evaluating them, and pushing the learning sciences forward.

What should the cyberlearning community be doing?

This question is difficult to answer because there are already so many great things happening in cyberlearning. My opinion on the future is that we should continue the bridge-building and connection-making aims that NSF has already laid out. We need interdisciplinary scientists, and we need schools that abandon the arbitrary lines of formal versus informal learning. In the end, we just want people who enjoy learning and actively engage in it; schools cannot and should not shut down curiosity.

Cyberlearning projects already seek to do much of this, so hopefully the trend will continue. I like to highlight thinking about the future in the frame of James Heckman’s work, an economist from the University of Chicago. He has analyzed the impact of early intervention programs and has shown that the payoffs of focusing on noncognitive skills at an early age is profound. In particular, pre-K programs that promote coping, grit (the ability to persevere through and feel confident in your ability to solve a problem), and stress reduction translate into improved academic performance, more stable marriages, less crime, and increased college attendance. Cyberlearning needs to do more in this area and go beyond achievement in schools as a primary measure, I think, as do all educational technology funding agencies. This is a big deal, I think, and work along these lines will allow us to move the scientific understanding of learning forward and improve our quality of life all around.

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