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.
How did you get started in cyberlearning?
There’s sort of 3 answers; I’ve always been interested in technology since I was a youth. It was very clear when I first got involved with computers that the potential they had for learning was really intriguing. The unlimited possibility was clear from early on, from experimenting with basic programming or wiring up speech synthesizers to speak words back in the early days of the Apple II. As I continued through into physics in graduate school at the University of Oregon, I brought my technology background to the work I did in physics research and modeling.
Computational modeling was creating a new realm of science: it was clear that real change could happen, fueled by computers, in domains like physics. Computers were active meaningful tools for scientific exploration, and in fact opened up realms of discovery that wouldn’t be possible in other ways. I remember modeling chaos in physics classes; I spent a summer in Chicago modeling Antarctic ice sheets and doing finite element models of those and recognizing that you could could create and retrace histories that were mapped on to ice cores using fairly simple computational models, but the power a simple model was really strong.
I brought all that along when I got into teaching, and recognized that the endeavor of learning science was not very removed from the endeavor of scientific discovery. In fact, in good teaching and learning, the line is almost nonexistent. The real problem is being able to provide a situation where learners can encounter the kinds of phenomena that they need to discover in a way that is accessible and controlled and still authentic. That is the core issue in constructivist science education. As a learner, you need to be put in a situation where you can dive in, explore and discover new things, and discover them with relevant science concepts at the fore — and do it across a big enough variety of domains that you’re learning science. We don’t want to have to lecture about several things and you learn one by experiment because that’s the one we can do in the laboratory right now.
It was clear that technology had a real role there, and that models were important. But they were all just at the cusp of converging at the point. I was using computers in the classroom, teaching high school physics and chemistry in Maine, where they had laptops early on, and working with students to do a lot of data collection with probes and sensors. I began to realize there were professional, authentic computational models that were starting to become accessible with the kind of computers students had in the classroom. I wanted to bring out particulate models, and there’s only so much you can do with BBs in a balloon and an overhead projector. Some molecular models became available, and I used some of those in the classroom. Later, as I got into professional development for science teaching, the availability of such models increased. So I began to bring in or tools for teachers, and helped them start thinking about models for both studying phenomena and opportunities they could open up for assessment.
It became clear that the gap between real science and classroom science was only as large as you chose to make it. All of that led me to initially discover the Concord Consortium, as I was looking for exemplary resources to help people understand how you could do assessment and learning using technology effectively. I began to collaborate, and eventually joined Concord.
In 10 years what will people remember about the work you’re doing?
The hope would be that people will realize that inquiry and discovery are available for anybody and everybody, and that technology can help bridge the gaps that would otherwise make that complicated. There are a number of places where people may already realize that, but not as strongly as it might be. Probes and sensors are useful, and many people know you can use models and simulations. But I think that there is still a large degree of realization to be had about the fact that in a huge variety of domains, you can use technology to come very close to phenomena and make independent discoveries. The joy of learning by doing in science is truly accessible, and I think the work we’re doing at Concord really exemplifies the work across the board in a lot of ways.
What do you think the cyberlearning community should be doing?
I think the exciting thing that is happening now is that we’re at a different stage now of possibility for educational technology. The early phases that I was describing, or were happening as I was just waking up to them as a youth, were points where anything was possible but it was all still kind of wild west. The kind of possible and probable didn’t really connect in the same way as they can now. Now we’re in a place where there’s not only 10 times as much possibility of technology because of its advance, but also the critical mass of people, resources, and infrastructure for technology development — and a critical mass of understanding about learning as it associates with both technology and with science and STEM domains — that let us move to a different stage in the possibilities for what can happen.
There have been communities all along, and they have been important. I think the cyberlearning community now is one that can really embrace this triangle of factors. By having people who understand and appreciate technology possibility and also have connections to the research on learning and the potential for making small discoveries turn into big changes for society, we’re able to approach things in a different way than we could before. We understand there is really a path to make significant change with the things that we’re doing, and we’re building on a real wealth of knowledge there that wasn’t before. This lends a different tone and a sense of urgency to what we’re all doing. As a result, the community has the potential to be vibrant in different way than in the past. It’s clear there is transformation is happening to learning at scale in the world and that there is enough understood about how technology can help that and how learning happens that the transformation can be real and substantial and backed by the knowledge and technology we have.
For all of those reasons, I think that the cyberlearning community is especially important rigt now. We’re at a tipping point where we can really move these ideas into action. Ideas are moving into action whether we’re part of it or not. If we aren’t part of it, then any ideas might move into action that seem interesting, but not necessarily the ones that are substantive or supported by the research or that use technology in the best way possible. I think that’s the call to action for the community: We need to understand what the right new challenges are and also take the knowledge and understanding that we’re developing as a community and disseminate it to the right places where it can make a substantive, real difference. That requires understanding of that by the community and the right kind of supports and channels. And that’s a real challenge: Figuring out how to make the right kind of transfer in the right kind of ways, how to foment the best change, and how to further theory and practice at the same time. It’s easy to miss parts of that.
What would help accelerate the cyberlearning community?
I would like to see support for robust shared understandings of the high leverage places that can make the most critical differences, and concentrate our work on those.That’s one thing that is important, because it’s easy for things to end up as boutique discoveries and investigations on people’s idiosyncratic tracks of intrigue. That’s not necessarily bad — it can be good for opening up new lines of inquiry — but it doesn’t necessarily lead to coherent movement forward. So I think some kind of continually centralize consensus on critical paths to follow is important. That’s sort of in the research and thought leadership domain: What should we all be working on right now.
I think the other side has to do with technology tools and infrastructure and building blocks. That’s side is not always clear. In the grand sense, there could be some real movement made forward if there were some shared infrastructure and technologies that the majority of researchers and practitioners could adopt and move forward. It’s complicated to think about how to make that both practically created and mutually supported because of the need for innovation in different people’s work, and because there hasn’t been the persistence to support shared infrastructure across time. That needs to be done in ways that transcend individual investigations and even individual organizations. It’s hard to get that kind of resolve together, especially from funding agencies. I think that there are definitely strands that could help. I often find myself trying to identify what shape the things take that would help best. Is it building blocks, is it patterns, is it platforms, or other kind of technology infrastructure? It’s not always clear.
There’s probably a third side that has to do with social infrastructure. I think CIRCL does a good job of buoying up the tribe, as it were. It’s not always clear what e;se would make that even stronger. I think it’s possible that there are other kinds of social and intellectual infrastructure that might accelerate the work even more, whether it’s bringing people together in certain ways or just helping collate and move ideas forward, providing a real essence for the kinds of partnerships that are needed, which are probably the ones that aren’t well supported by funding and people’s orientation at universities.
Multi-institutional partnerships are needed, as are lines of work that are measured in decades or half-decades, not years. We don’t have that right now. We don’t have the ability to gather at a grander scale and push forward grand ideas that could be pushed forward right now. Because of that, we end up in the 1-2 year timeframe of innovation that is neat, but doesn’t always lead to lasting differences. The ability to have the right group, scope, and the desire to take on things that are bigger, isn’t there yet. We need the Xerox PARC of 2017 for educational technology. We need the best folks in a room with bean bags for a decade. For all of the startup goodness and amazing thinking we have right now, I don’t know that there are groups or orientations that are able to make that right now. We need the right mix of vision and coherence that we can orient people around in slightly bigger ways, and coordinated enough so they can chew away at different parts of the problem.
What would you like policy makers to know?
What is important and not always recognized is that the spirit of innovation that in manys is celebrated in the country — and that we base so much of our heritage on — is one that is fueled by the combination of possibility, enthusiasm, and potential of the moment. When we’re thinking about how we create that right combination in the generations of today in the realm of science and engineering and mathematics, we do as we’re taught. There will always be an exceptional few who are able to transcend circumstances they are in, and see vision and make it happen. But the ability of learners to surprise us all is sort of unlimited, but not usually unlocked. If we end up creating situations where kids who are learning don’t have the chance to recognize that the questions they are asking are things they can investigate themselves — and are valid and interesting — then we’re limiting ourselves to the people who are naturally asking those questions and may not be doing it in one place or another. But if we make clear in the foundations of the way that we teach and learn that the world is something to be discovered, and your questions are as valid as somebody else’s, and the tools are all around you — and if not, you can make them — what that does is send a very different message to the generation that is learning now. The new things that are being created in the world are the ones that are there, and the ones that aren’t are the ones you’re going to make and discover and find. That’s not just what learning is about, it’s what living is about. And if we’re not creating an educational system, the conditions, and opening up tools and paradigms and approaches and make that the fabric of everybody’s learning life, then we’re extinguishing flames all over the place. That’s the opposite of what we all want.