EXP: Digital Lofts: Online Learning Environments for Real-World Innovation

PIs: Matthew Easterday, Elizabeth Gerber
Northwestern University
Award Details

In this Cyberlearning: Transforming Education EXP project, researchers focus on developing the civic innovators of the future. To become civic innovators, learners must gain experience tackling complex, ill-structures design challenges that are not easily solved by a single individual within a fixed time frame. Such education is challenging, and these researchers take advantage of Web 2.0, crowdsourcing, badges, and social media to design means of supporting the learning of young engineers as they tackle civic problems. Supporting learning from design and complex problem solving activities includes providing support for successfully solving problems and achieving goals as well as providing support for reflecting on those experiences to grasp the collaboration and communication skills and begin to learn strategies and tactics for innovating. The Digital Loft being designed for this purpose includes facilities for identifying peer experts who might collaborate on new problems, assigning expertise badges to make it easy to identify potential experts, extracting key design principles from design and problem solving cases and illustrating and indexing them in a case library that is made available as a resource, helping participants identify when they need instruction, and providing means of finding appropriate mentors to provide necessary help. Research focuses on the identifying important characteristics of the human-machine learning ecosystem that promote successful design and problem solving, successful learning, successful innovation, and sustainability of the infrastructure. The research will produce empirically-grounded principles for designing Digital Lofts for civic innovation education and advance understanding of the roles that digital badges, crowd-sourcing, learning by cases, design practice, and social networking can play in promoting innovation learning. Research and development is being done in the context of Design for America, a multi-university collaborative focused on promoting civic innovation among undergraduate engineering students.

There is an urgent need for educating civic innovators who can solve our greatest societal challenges. This project explores the feasibility of a Digital Loft for supporting such education. In such a learning environment, engineering students at the undergraduate level participate in addressing community issues together with both local students and participants in other locations who are solving problems in their own communities. Software tools support the kinds of interactions between student engineers that are needed to promote success and learning and the creation of shared resources that will allow participants to build community knowledge that will help them become better innovators. Research addresses issues in the design and integration of several software functions for successfully promoting innovation education.

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