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.
Emma Mercier is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois. Her research focuses on the relationship between social interaction and learning, with a particular focus on collaboration and computer-supported collaborative learning in classrooms.
(Read Emma’s full perspective below, or watch video excerpts from the interview, which took place January 27, 2015, at Cyberlearning 2015.)
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m an assistant professor in the Department of Curricula and Instruction at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I was born and raised in Ireland, and I have an undergraduate degree in Psychology from Edinburgh. I came from the UK about 18 months ago where I spent four years working on a project looking at multi-touch tables in classrooms. My PhD work was at Stanford, and I went particularly to study collaborative learning, and got involved with one of Shelley Goldman’s projects looking at designing technology for classrooms. So I started looking at the collaborative groups in those classes, and actually got really interested in how do we create technology with teachers to make learning better happen in classrooms and thinking about how best to support teachers and students in sort of high-tech classroom spaces. I was also very interested in the design process—the computer scientists and education students all working together to build something with the teacher.
What is the focus of your research?
My research focuses on social interaction and collaborative learning, particularly collaborative learning with technology-so computer-supported collaborative learning. I’m particularly interested in learning in classrooms and thinking about how device ecologies in a network of devices in a classroom can support teachers and students engaged in collaborative learning activities.
Can you share some theories or frameworks that help inform your work?
So, my work is inspired by ideas around social constructivism, and really thinking about how students learn through social interaction with each other—with our peers, with our teachers—and how do we create environments to allow that to happen. So drawing a fair amount on the work of Vygotsky and Piaget obviously, and then a lot more recent theories about collaborative learning and what makes for a successful collaborative group.
As someone who both designs and conducts research, what are some things to think about when designing collaborative learning environments?
The design process of collaborative learning environments is an incredibly complicated one I guess is a place to start. I really think about, and I’m trying harder and harder to think how do we take into account the individual learner, the interaction between the group—the between-group interaction and the whole classroom. So there’s these multiple levels of interaction going on at any one time, and then of course if we add technology on top of that—and I’ve been working a lot with multi-touch technologies, so we’re also designing the human-computer interaction side of it.
So it really is taking it piece by piece—what is the individual student doing? What is the interaction—how is the learning happening through social interactions? And what sort of interaction do we want the tools to support? How do we want them to be prompted to talk to each other? How do we want to scaffold their interactions? How do we want to limit them? And then what sort of tools can we create that allow a group to go from, “I’m working in a group,” to “I want to share this idea to the whole class,” or “I want to move the content that one group are working on to another group.” So how do we actually make it easier for teachers to move between small group and whole class discourse? But it really starts with taking apart the moment-by-moment interactions, and where do we start with that?
Can you speak to how tools that support classroom collaboration change the collaborative process?
So, tools that support classroom collaboration have a range of potential for changing how collaboration occurs. There are the basic tools. There’s something like a multi-touch table, which will—I’m sorry it really is not a basic tool, but the technology that a group are working around is going to influence how they collaborate. So if I have a multi-touch table that all my students can touch and interact directly with and have equal access to the content, their form of interaction’s going to be different than if they have to negotiate who gets to use a single mouse on a traditional PC, or who’s going to get to see the screen if they’re looking at a tablet.
So your choice in technology is going to influence how the group can interact. But then there’s the potential to actually either build into the software ways of supporting the groups or ways of constraining the tasks so that they either have to agree on something before they can move forward within a task, or they have to engage in—or it has to be collaborative problem solving—everyone has a different piece of information. So there’s sort of task design and software design that’s going to influence what’s going on in the group. And then I really think there’s a potential for thinking about how teacher tools can influence collaborative learning and classroom tech.
And we actually help teachers understand what’s happening in a group at any one time, and how they should intervene. We know that when teachers intervene appropriately, it’s most useful for groups, but we don’t really know a whole lot about how to get teachers—how to inform teachers about the appropriate intervention.
So, are the tools that you’re designing for research purposes, or are they also for helping the teacher?
I’d really like to create tools that would help teachers make decisions in the classroom space. So some of the work that we were doing in the UK was pulling on really basic data the students were working on. They were creating mathematical expressions, and the teacher was getting on her iPad, flagged whether or not they were correct or incorrect.
So they could then very quickly move into a space where they said, “Oh, this students keeps making the same mistake.” Or in one situation that the teacher was working with her students, and she had set up the task so that they couldn’t use addition or subtraction. They were writing mathematical expressions, and she’d given them the number of 13 to create mathematical expressions for.
So they just had multiplication and division, and so she was very quickly able to see that they were stuck. And then, actually end up having whole class conversation, and she brought all the students into a conversation, say, “Well, how would you make 13 if you can’t subtract or add?” So using—the students were talking, but they weren’t creating any expressions, and that’s how she was able to see that there was something going on that needed her input.
What are you most excited about in your current work?
It’s really exciting to see ideas that you’ve worked on, designs that you’ve done, actually come into play and be used by teachers, and have the kids be excited by it. Particularly after the first twenty minutes of, “Oh, my goodness, this is really exciting technology,” and when they actually get into—engaged in a learning experience, or when you finally say, “Okay, you’re done with this task,” and they go, “Oh, we want to keep going.” It’s like, it’s math—you don’t really want to keep going. So that’s the point—that’s the goal of the whole thing, to get kids engaged in really complicated activities, to the point that they forget that they’re doing something they think they don’t want to.
When you visit a classroom and see good things that are happening in it, what’s it look like?
So, I’ll talk about a classroom that I was in recently, and it’s unusual for me—it’s a classroom of first graders—they were little kids. And this teacher has been doing some really, really interesting work integrating technology into her literacy classes, and allowing the students to have a lot of autonomy in what they do.
So these children move—they know it’s literacy time—they move in small groups from—they’re working with an iPad doing spelling activities with one of those projection devices attached to an iPad. They’re sitting in the corner listening to somebody read books from a piece of technology, and so they’re listening to the computer read to them, and following along, and then they’re going off and they’re drawing pictures about it.
There’s another group in the corner who have digital pens, and they’re writing. The teacher has recorded a series of sentences on the pens, so the students pick the pen that is appropriate for them; they listen to her voice and they write away. So you walk into this classroom, and the teacher’s moving about and helping the student who needs help. But there’s this sort of incredible sense of autonomy for these first graders, doing what they know they need to be doing and practicing reading at the level that they need to be reading at.
If you had ten million for a new research center in cyberlearning, what questions would you want the center to focus on?
And if I had ten million for a center on cyberlearning, I think I would be really interested in thinking about how we can take the technology that we’ve been working on for the last—I don’t know how many number of decades—and working with teachers to think about how to implement it in classrooms at a big scale. Really, one-off activities are great, but how do you turn this into a curriculum? How do you turn this into a set of activities that teachers can implement? How can we actually create change in classrooms? You walk into many classrooms today, and they have technology that’s not really being used in any different manner from what you would expect. So it’d be really interesting to see what it would take to gather all the work that we’ve done and implement it on a larger scale.
If I could advance cyberlearning in one big way, I would want to spend a lot more money on it, in that space between the work that we do designing, researching, and actually implementing it in classrooms. We’re not creating products in a lab. We’re doing research, and we’re finding very cool ways to help students learn. There’s a big space in what has to happen before it’s actually valuable at a wide scale. So I think that’s what I would do.