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.
Mark Warschauer is a Professor of Education and Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and Associate Dean of UC Irvine’s School of Education. He is founding editor of Language Learning & Technology journal and was recently appointed inaugural editor of AERA Open.
How did you get started in the field of Cyberlearning?
I was always interested in computers, and I have always been interested in learning. I was a psychology major as an undergraduate and took a number of computer science and information science courses. I got my Master’s degree in English teaching and was teaching abroad, in the early nineties, when I started to get more interested in the internet and in academic research in the field of learning. I was flabbergasted by the internet and by how much potential it had for language learning and teaching, for literacy development, for professional networking among educators, how much potential it had for research in general. I entered a Ph.D. program in Second Language Acquisition at the University of Hawaii, where I focused all my research on the internet and language and literacy development for diverse learners. I started doing research and writing for teachers and other educators; one of my first books was called Email for English Teaching, and I later edited or authored books called Virtual Connections and Internet for English Teaching. I continued to do more academic research on the topic and over time the scope of my work has expanded from second language learning to language and literacy more broadly, to the field of learning and educational reform incorporating STEM and other fields.
What are you passionate about? What drives your work?
I was an activist when I was younger, including being a community organizer for the United Farmworkers Union. I have always felt very passionate about injustice, equity, diversity, social inclusion, and about increasing people’s life opportunities. Now I am passionate about trying to carry out research that can lead to new types of educational products and approaches that can create more opportunities for social inclusion of diverse learners – both in the United States and around the world.
What interesting revelations or insights are emerging from work you are currently engaged in?
I have a graduate student – Veronica Newhart – who is doing her research on the use of telepresence robots for children who have serious medical conditions that keep them from going to school. These are children with cancer, serious heart disease, awaiting heart transplants, in some cases they have immune deficiencies, etc. Traditionally, the solution has been to send a teacher to their house once a week. That obviously has its limitations and cuts them off from the kinds of productive social interaction that are important not only for their education but also for their health. Telepresence robots are essentially a type of a computer screen on a stand with wheels (see, e.g., http://www.vgocom.com/remote-student). The unit is mobile and can be controlled by the student so that the student can, via remote control from their home computer, virtually move around the classroom and join small-group discussions, go out with their friends on recess and lunch, or participate in extracurricular activities after school. We have done a series of case studies on these robots and it’s really been remarkable to see the impact of the telepresence robots on some of these children’s lives. This also has strong personal interest for me because I have a son with Down Syndrome. Until about twenty or thirty years ago, kids with Down Syndrome were pretty much excluded from the educational system. For very different reasons, kids with serious medical conditions have also been excluded from the educational system, which has had a really negative effect on their lives. So, this new research and development work is creating opportunities to include them.
Another big issue we are grappling with is that new digital media provides so many opportunities for expanding and opening up education, but the challenge is figuring out how to make it work and how to make it work in a highly interactive fashion. Some things, like MOOCs for example, are reaching huge numbers of people but have yet to have the kind of fully interactive pedagogy that allows the same kinds of engagement in a big online class that you find in a small, face to face seminar. We have several projects we are currently working on that are trying to take advantage of new technologies and make them more interactive, make them more inclusive, and make better use of the data that comes from them to inform instruction. For example, we have a research project where we have developed software that can analyze all the writing that all the students do in a school district in a single year. It allows us to analyze what the patterns of writing and revision are, what the patterns for collaborating are, and what are the various patterns related to improvements in learning outcomes for the students. We would like to expand on this work to build dashboards that teachers can use and analyze their students’ writing, not only on those dimensions, but also in terms of how students are developing lexically and syntactically.
Are there particular areas that you would like to see the cyberlearning community mobilize around, in terms of research and translating outcomes from the research into practice, in order to impact the field at large?
The educational data sciences are a critical area. There has been some progress in this area with the formation of the Educational Data Mining Society, and there are other clusters of people doing work in this area. But it still feels somewhat isolated from my point of view. A lot of the best work in this area is being done in computer science or cognitive science, but when we are thinking about the whole field of education and educational research, I think that there is a lot of work to be done in the computational social sciences. Also, we need to be thinking about ways that nontraditional forms of research – research aside from traditional qualitative or quantitative paradigms – can aid our understanding of learning. Part of this work involves thinking at the practitioner level about the kinds of tools we can develop that will help school districts make use of the vast amounts of educational data they are dealing with. It is very important to get these inter-disciplinary communities – whether from computer science and cognitive sciences, other disciplines, educational researchers and teachers – to talk to each other and to work together to seriously address the challenges related to the field of educational data sciences.
You are one of the inaugural editors for the new AERA Open journal. Tell us more about this initiative.
I have had a long time interest in open-access publishing and in bridging the digital divide. When I first was involved in my Ph.D. in the mid-1990s some online journals were first starting up. I think people saw online journals as very new and innovative, but not necessarily as high quality. I saw it a little bit differently, which was that there are a lot of very positive features of online journals – we can review things faster, we can get them published faster, we can make them freely accessible to people around the world, and we can include links and other information to make the research much more transparent. And we can still do a very high quality job. I founded a journal called Language Learning & Technology, which quickly rose to being a very rigorous, high impact, peer reviewed journal that also had some other features of online publishing. Over the years, I have also been involved in other editorships.
As my research was shifting to broader educational topics, the American Educational Research Association (AERA) started a new journal called AERA Open and put out a call for editors. I applied and was selected as Editor in Chief. Unfortunately, a lot of the AERA journals can only publish twenty or so papers each year, and they have to be very selective. They try to choose papers that only show significantly positive findings and that cover very narrow areas of terrain. With AERA Open, we hope to have high standards, and be able to publish as many articles that meet those standards, with a particular emphasis on interdisciplinarity – getting neuroscientists talking to cognitive scientists, talking to computer scientists, talking to economists and anthropologists, educational researchers – all the communities that are involved, for example, in cyberlearning. We are already getting lots of submissions, and we want to get more quality submissions and especially from the cyberlearning community. We are also welcoming the types of papers that are often not welcomed in other venues. For example, papers that have precisely defined null findings are important to publish because things that do not work but are measured well are as important and useful as things that do work. We are interested in replication studies, in meta-analyses, all the things that rigorously shed light on learning processes and outcomes, even if they do not fit into other traditional journals.