Meet Jere Confrey

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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.

Jere Confrey

Jere Confrey is the Joseph D. Moore Distinguished Professor of Mathematics Education at North Carolina State University. She directs the SUDDS team in building new learning maps and related diagnostic assessments to support personalized learning.

Learn more about Jere’s work in her CIRCL Project Spotlight on Learning Trajectories for 6-8 Rational Number Reasoning.

What are you working on now?

The Scaling Up Digital Design Studies (SUDDS) project. My SUDDS team’s work on learning maps (with a foundation in research on student thinking) helps teachers to create personalized learning resources for students in middle grades math in a coherent way. It supports flexible grouping based on students’ choices, paths, and performance. I think it is a new genre in, creating expansive flexible digital learning systems (DLS).

We emphasize the scaling-up part of SUDDs because design studies have been known to be rather small-scale and oriented heavily toward theory generation. Having spent a couple of years as Chief Math Officer at Amplify building a middle grades learning curriculum, I learned a couple of things about methodologies for scaling up both in terms of the design process and the product’s usability.

What things have you learned about methodologies for scaling up?

One is the value of using methodologies from industry, such as agile approaches to prototyping and design, in the development of curriculum. These days, in design, you have many more interdisciplinary teams. People have to understand each other, and yet keep moving the task forward across a pretty complex organization. We actually operate the same way in generating and doing academic research and building new software on the campus now. When we’re prototyping something new that we’re building, we’re constantly bringing in groups of kids and teachers in short cycle design studies, where they’re in for anywhere from a week to maybe 2-3 weeks, a couple hours per day. We try out materials with them, doing rapid prototyping, and we video-record, seeing how they are reacting to prototypes, and conducting these ongoing short-cycle studies that then allow us to immediately take that back to the work to think about the implications for research, software design, and the instructional theories we’re working on. And asking, “how do you fold that back into the ongoing design process that we’re engaged with?”

Another quality is that it’s much more contemporary to put something out when as soon as you have a reasonably workable version and then iterate, iterate, iterate. The saying is “fail early, fail often.” Academics aren’t used to that because we still function in a culture that tends to emphasize ownership of an idea, and believe I need to bring my idea to fruition before I release it into the hands of others. We do that in some formal publication or presentation. This is somewhat contrary to a design that says what you really need to do is understand your users and let them partner with you in a flexible way to influence the direction of your work as you go; that is, using user stories and real user input.
Another change from my experience in industry is that In the academy, we’re also not adequately preparing our students on how to work using work-flow tools (like Trello, Asana, etc.) that support fast, iterative work. With these tools, you can break down activities and assign tasks, you’re constantly reporting where you are, and you’re talking back and forth in the tools about changes. We start everyday with a stand-up using HipChat on what our goals are for the day and what we accomplished the day before. It keeps us accountable to each other and informed of changes in direction.

How do you work with teachers?

We work with teachers in a couple of ways. One is called Teacher Connect, which is a web-based things where we’re trying to get teachers to sign up to be early adopters and to give us feedback. The other is called a Teacher Innovation Partnership, where local teachers come in and we’ll ask if they can find topics on the learning map, does it makes sense the way its written. We also share with them materials on the web that we know are really good materials so that we both get value out of the interactions. I also hired a full-time teacher who is part of the project and runs the workshops and has done a profile with you that explains these ideas more completely.

What do you think the cyberlearning community should be doing?

To really realize cyberlearning, we need to do our work differently than traditional ways of working in the academy, and that includes a well-rounded team of people who are full time. Besides working closely with teachers, we also have a full-time psychometrician who is working alongside in the design so that we’re thinking through the measurement issues as we go, and we have a full-time visual designer who does our wireframes and works with the learning design team and the software engineers to make sure that things work in consistent ways with up-to-date user experience and user interface design principles.

When I was running a multimillion digital curriculum development project in industry, I missed research. While we’d have an ongoing groups of students come in for short-cycle design studies, market pressure and scheduling deadlines made it very difficult to pursue the research implications in a deeper way. At the same time, people in the academy can benefit from market perspective and user perspectives. If you can’t make it work in real-world settings, it can be beautiful but it won’t change the nature of the learning experience for students. The choice shouldn’t have to be between academic research and large-scale publishing. We need partnerships. We are seeing a small community thriving entrepreneurs who are really doing incredibly innovative things, like we saw at Cyberlearning 2015 and Theo Watson’s Connected Worlds work. We need to help people learn how to work with their technology transfer departments and support entrepreneurship with their faculty.

What would you like policy makers to know about your work?

Solutions to our educational challenges will have to include partnerships in which teachers are provided increasing opportunities for professional growth and ways to make their work more efficient and satisfying. Teachers need a professional development system of learning. We can’t continue to depend on trying to find money to pay teachers to come to workshops and teachers having to choose between earning summer money and doing professional development. It’s not a sustainable state for improvement. And Individualized learning and instruction that strips out interactions among students will not provide as much growth as you are seeking.

Also, policymakers need to give the new standards a chance to do their work, and to understand that knowing how to revise standards will become more clear when you have standards-aligned assessments that tell you what’s problematic and what’s not. One way to reduce the politics and ideology in the debate about standards is to get to the point where there’s data and those data can be used to inform those discussions.

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