Meet Cynthia D’Angelo

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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.

Cynthia D'Angelo

Cynthia D’Angelo is a professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois, passionate about advanced technologies for learning!

How did you get started in cyberlearning?

I have been working for some time on cyberlearning, since my dissertation work in graduate school at Arizona State University and before the term “cyberlearning” was in common use. I was involved in developing and testing a physics game, called Surge, with funding from the National Science Foundation under Award Number 0822370. I have always felt passionate about using different technologies for learning in K-12 classroom settings. Simulations and games clearly have the potential to help with increasing motivation and engagement, and can give students an experience from which to draw upon later in an applied setting. I also worked on a meta analysis of simulations for learning, and how to create game-based and simulation-based learning experiences for students, mostly in STEM contexts. My more recent work has been focused on utilizing student speech data in face-to-face collaborative settings to better understand what collaboration looks like and to begin to develop tools to support teachers in making pedagogical decisions.

What should the cyberlearning community be doing in order to support games and learning?

It’s important to note that most games are not self-contained enough to be successful without systems of support. The cyberlearning community should be thinking about how their projects can be used in a typical classroom, in addition to an ideal setting so that games can have a bigger impact on learning. For instance, the developed games should be scaffolded well to support student conceptual understanding, followed up with pre and post discussions guided by a teacher, and most importantly proper professional development should be offered so that teachers have a wide range of tools available to them to support the best possible implementation of the new technology and support their students in learning through that experience.

One concern of mine is that there are so many “cyberlearning games” available that are just modified versions of games not originally intended for education or designed with a specific learning objective in mind. As a result, it is very difficult for an educator to know whether these games are leading to learning gains or even if the game is possibly leaving students with alternate conceptions or misconceptions. Games for learning should be designed in ways so that the game mechanics are closely tied to the learning objectives; this will increase the likelihood that educators will be able to make valid inferences from gameplay about what students know or can do.

What would you like policymakers to know about cyberlearning?

Infrastructure is a huge barrier. Many of the cyberlearning projects are not feasible in a typical classroom or are not feasible at scale at this moment. We should ask questions like: How can this be used in a typical classroom at different levels? Are there other options (e.g., lower bandwidth version, lower cost of technology) in order to implement this in a classroom? Can the physical space of a classroom support this cyberlearning project? We need secondary systems in place in case servers are overloaded, so that learners can focus on learning and not troubleshooting technologies during technology-focused class time. We also need to focus on professional development for teachers so they can utilize the technology as it was designed and receive the support they need to then in turn support their students. Lastly, there is a need for changing classroom culture to make it a safer space that allows for students to fail and then learn from that failure. I am hoping that games can be part of the shift that helps change this culture.

What do you think is one of the challenges with doing cyberlearning research?

I’ve been thinking a lot about interdisciplinary research lately and the challenges inherent in undertaking that kind of work. One thing that I have found is very important to do early on in a new partnership across disciplines is to sit down and have a serious discussion about the different values, commitments, and goals of your research and of your field in general. Almost all interdisciplinary work requires some amount of compromise across the disciplines, whether it be through modifications to data collection procedures or methods, or choices made during the analysis phase of work. If all sides are not clear in why you and/or your field values certain things, it will be difficult to find common ground and have a clear sense of shared purpose and goals.

For instance, when I was working with speech researchers, they would have preferred to have the subject sitting in one position and using a high quality microphone at the same angle the entire time in order to get the best quality recording for analysis. However, the subject in this case was a classroom teacher and it was important to me to let the teacher walk around the classroom as they would normally. I explained why this was a crucial aspect of the data collection and, at the same time, understanding the importance of the highest quality recording we could get, we all worked together to find a solution that would meet as many of our shared criteria as possible. Understanding where everyone is coming from and why they have made certain choices can help the team move forward together.