Meet Eric Hamilton

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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.

Eric Hamilton

Eric Hamilton is Professor of Education at Pepperdine University with joint appointment in Mathematics. His recent work to establish a network of STEM-related Collaborative Media Making Clubs in the U.S. and 3 other countries is described in his 2017 Showcase Video: International Network for STEM Media Making, and builds on the work featured his 2016 Showcase Video: Teacher Creativity at the Intersection of Content, Student Cognition, and Digital Media. Eric is a former NSF division director, researcher in the development of innovative learning technologies, and mathematics and computer science teacher.

Tell us about your most recent project. What is its big idea?

We’re building and researching an International Network for STEM Media Making and Student Participatory Teaching through an NSF-funded AISL grant, in a collaboration between Pepperdine University and the New York Hall of Science. The project is building and studying a network of STEM-related after school Media Making Clubs in the U.S. and in three other countries: Kenya, Namibia and Finland. The media produced by the students (ages 12-19) focuses on STEM topics and is intended to help other students become enthused about and learn the science. Our research questions look at knowledge formation in digital maker spaces and in the impact of participatory teaching, virtual networks, and intercultural, global competence. You can learn more about the project at the IC4 Project site.

How did you get started in cyberlearning?

I was on the mathematics faculty at Loyola Chicago in the 1980s and 1990s, finishing a PhD at Northwestern under Dick Lesh. I taught a Saturday class at Northwestern for advanced eighth graders from the Chicago Public Schools. Students were allowed into the class if they were in the upper 5% on math scores, but there was actually tremendous variance within that group. The same 2-3 students always had their hand up. The others didn’t because they knew the top kids would answer the questions. It got me thinking: Wouldn’t it be great if I could see what each of them were each doing at one time, from anywhere in the class. I could communicate directly and privately with students who were struggling, encourage and guide those excelling, and make sure no one mentally dropped out of classroom learning because they did not know how to start. The idea was all about making thinking visible. We came up with this idea of having the students write their ideas on screens. That required pen-based input, but the field was barely in its infancy. It also required network output algorithms that would allow multiple streams of form simultaneously in front of a viewer. I had a Macintosh, but there was no software that would do that.

But Microsoft had published the BIOS code for their operation system. It didn’t know much computer science, but I learned enough assembler and C to code and create a software system that let multiple people write on a single screen and see what each other was doing, from different locations. Now, students could ask questions, and see each others questions and answers if the teacher allowed it. Or they could be anonymous. Now, the kids in the back don’t have to shy away because another student has the answer, I could see what the kids were doing! I patented it in the early 1990s in the US, Germany, Canada, England, and France (see Computer system instructional delivery and method, U.S. Patent 5176520, now expired). Need-driven problem solving is the mother of invention.

It was amazing to me that you could use technology to do this kind of collaborative screen sharing, what you see is what I see. After MS-DOS gave away to Windows, and while I was at NSF, NSF funded a small research project for me to develop and test it for Windows. Pen computing was a new thing in the early 90s, but the production model never worked.. Teachers would go wild over the idea and our demos, but the technology infrastructure wasn’t there. You can’t really predict what is going to succeed and what is going to fail in the digital age, of course. Pen-based computing won a new lease on life with the advent of the Tablet PC operating system fifteen years ago, producing a more stable infrastructure and a community around pen-based computing and these screen-sharing ideas .

For the rest of my life after that, I never entered in a class without realizing how great it could be if I could see what everyone was thinking. That was the beginning for me. That a cybertool could induce so many levels of profound change in teaching and learning proved an irresistible draw.

You’ve worked with many partners. What does that bring to your projects?

I learned long ago that there is a benefit to not being as smart as others around me. When I was an undergraduate and masters student at the University of Chicago, I discovered that not being brilliant in math – a good way to describe my more able peers – gave me a better sense of understanding the process of learning mathematics. To learn to think mathematically, I had to learn to think about mathematics. That made me a more effective math teacher.

There’s an analog here: If you’re not the smartest researcher there is, then you need to rely on other people. And you find out my that others see exciting things that you don’t – and vice-versa. I seem to specialize in things where I am at best modestly capable. In addition to my unspectacular mathematics ability leading to effective mathematics teaching, our projects elicit peak experiences by teachers in their professional creativity, even though I am not especially imaginative – at least not in the way I see imagination in others. I have won awards for collaborative leadership, even though people rightfully know me as shy or reserved. My life has been graced with opportunities to help correct the disgrace of exclusion of women and ethnic groups in science and engineering, even though i was steeped in the culture of that exclusion and misplaced privilege growing up. In each of these areas, partnerships have reshaped my competencies. Partnerships expand our ability to participate deeply in things we aren’t otherwise able to experience.

Many of your partners are teachers, some of whom you’ve brought to Cyberlearning conferences. How was that experience?

We’ve brought buddies to Cyberlearning convenings on three occasions (Israel Ramirez in 2015, Traci Garff in 2016, and Zach Mbasu in 2017). It’s been a remarkable experience for everyone. Our projects are relational, and all of our project work relies on trust. Bringing a teacher to an activity with so much intellectual capital – like the Cyberlearning convenings – builds good will, a shared experience, and a sense of being appreciated.

The buddies I brought to the convenings ate up the experience. For example, Israel is an enormous intellectual asset and lives the spirit of the projects he has worked in since 2010. He is a teacher in Las Vegas, and energizes his students with a dynamic intelligence and authentic care. At CL15, he participated in the Shark Tank. The buddy program gave him a sense of resolve and professional self efficacy in collaboration with researchers; he experienced that he sees things that others don’t see and can contribute. Traci, a graduate student, was a Shark Tank judge at CL16. In 2017, we brought Zach, a gifted teacher and one of the Kenya’s leading mathematics educators – CL17 contributed to him and will benefit his future and the impact he will have in east Africa.

I feel that CIRCL has carried out and administered the buddy system well in the three years I was involved. It turns out that SRI and CIRCL have always met my expectations, which is a great thing to say about any organization that is so connected to one’s professional life and development.

It was an interesting struggle to decide who to nominate for the buddy program. Reward was one aspect, as was professional readiness – will the buddy lock in with what others are doing? Are they talkative enough to contribute? Are they observant and thoughtful? And is it manageable? Coordinating an international visitor (like Zach) was a challenge, but worth it. I shake my head in admiration whenever I work with him, and felt privileged that he could join us this year.

Back to your current project: if it succeeds, how could learning be transformed?

We focus a lot on socio-affective. A big theme of our work involves kids helping each other and inventing together. Help-giving strengthens cognition on multiple levels. And the digital makerspace tools we use enable entirely different levels of creativity. Combine tools with kids helping each other and taking on the role of teacher in creating content: That’s what gets me up in the morning. Two key words in our current project title are “participatory teaching”: Kids taking on teaching in a structured way. It changes how they see content, how they see teachers, and how they see learning. If you combine helping people with learning, then instead of being in class to do well on a test, you instead are learning to help yourself and others succeed. The result can be transformational.

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