Meet Janet Kolodner

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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.

Janet Kolodner

Janet Kolodner is a former program officer for the NSF Cyberlearning Program and former Regents’ Professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Tell us about how you want people to know who you are.

After 30 years on the faculty at Georgia Tech, I spent 4 years at NSF where I had the privilege and honor of helping researchers in the Learning Sciences and implementers of learning technologies and games to think about what the future of learning technologies could be if we take into account both the affordances of technology and what is known about how people learn. I helped people to think through their good ideas and make them better; I helped people forge partnerships across disciplines and areas of expertise; and I was able to fund some amazing projects. My goal, now, is to work towards changing the public imagination about the roles learning technologies can play in fostering learning, and even more importantly, change the public imagination about what education can be. I’m taking this year to figure out how to get started doing that.

What’s your vision?

I want to see the power of everything that we’ve been learning in the learning sciences and through the Cyberlearning program and other programs at NSF really impact the world. I envision more systematic and masterful use of active kinds of pedagogies in school, more connections between in and out of school activities, learning technologies being used well to support those activities, learning technologies being used to help learners productively pursue their passions, and learning technologies being designed and used to help youngsters learn important life skills from their everyday experiences. I want to see every citizen have a chance to become a productive and active citizen in our democracy. I want to see responsibility for supporting learning to be shared, in the best possible ways, between learners, teachers, peers, parents, mentors, and technology.

To make that happen, we’ll need more researchers focusing on integrations and not just individual pieces. Right now, most researchers focus in particular areas such as scaffolding for learning, expressing arguments, helping people build models, immersion in scenarios, and so forth (that’s what academics rewards). So we’ve created a lot of really nice technological pieces. But to make an impact on the world, we need to think too about how to integrate the pieces into wholes and how to integrate those wholes into the lives of learning environments, learners, and communities.

How do we do it?

First, we need to take an integrative approach to moving our technologies and approaches from research to practice; rather than making the individual projects that come from research robust, we need to work toward integration of technological functions on platforms, design those platforms so that they support and encourage good pedagogy, and use the platforms to implement well-crafted curriculum units. This will require involving a broader circle of participants in our efforts than we are used to. Second, when we think about integrating technologies, we have to think beyond technical interoperability. I suggest we aim towards the kinds of integrations that support learning in targeted disciplines and domains and that are appropriate to particular populations of learners; for example, an integration might include tools needed to do history inquiry at the middle-school level, and a different integration would include tools for elementary school history; a different integration would be appropriate to middle-school project-based science, and some variation of that would be appropriate for middle-school engineering; an integration of tools with similar functions but that easily supports more sophisticated reasoning would be aimed a high-school biology and a different one at chemistry and a different one at environmental science. And perhaps a completely different set of tools needed to help youth learn pro-social behaviors or healthy living practices. Third, we need to make sure these integrations support having experiences that afford learning as well as reflective practices needed for sense-making and putting understanding into action.

Tell me some questions that this community ought to be asking itself more often.

I wish the community were working more as a Big Science community — a community of scholars aiming toward achieving a set of big goals together rather than simply as individuals pursuing individual interests. We need more building on each other’s work and taking into account what others have shown. Ideally, more of us will engage in design as a first-class research activity, not only in the context of proposals they send to the Cyberlearning program at NSF but as a primary approach to research. In Design-Based Research, iteratively designing a product (e.g., technology, approach, curriculum unit) and aiming toward new understandings of how to design for, foster, or assess learning are equally important activities. Optimally, researchers engage in three types of research in parallel — iteration toward a minimally-viable product, new understanding of learning processes and how to foster or assess learning, and guidelines or principles for designing and productively using new similar products. I see the learning sciences technologies community as both a Big Science community that coheres around important questions of how people learn and a Big Design community that works collectively to build a better future.

As you work toward your vision, who would you like to work with?

I’m pretty good at envisioning what’s possible, but I do that really well along with others — others who know particular technologies or pedagogical approaches or content better than I do. So I will be putting together advisory teams to help with imagining and designing. But changing the public imagination about what’s possible with technology and what education might be will require far more than imagining possibilities and putting them in place. It will require raising money, communicating what is possible in ways that capture the public’s imagination, choosing the right venues for demonstration and involving people in those venues in design activities, and more. I’ll also want advisors on those things. I’m not thinking that every researcher is going to quit their position at a university to come work on a set of integrative, disciplinary platforms, but I would like to have the best people with the best imaginations help determine what to focus on, advise about how to proceed, and think about how to communicate to the public. And, of course, I’ll need to work closely with co-leads who know fund-raising, communication, and implementation better than I do. I’d love to know who wants to be involved and who anybody thinks might be good partners in this endeavor.

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