June Ahn

Meet June Ahn

Back to Perspectives

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.

June Ahn

June Ahn is an Assistant Professor in the College of Information Studies with a joint appointment in the College of Education, at the University of Maryland, College Park.

How did you get started in cyberlearning?

The first grant that I received as a junior professor was in the NSF Cyberlearning program. In that project, called Sci-Dentity, we partnered with inner city middle schools in Washington, DC. We started with the hypothesis that engaging young adolescents in science fiction and new media projects could help them develop an interest and identity towards STEM. We partnered with middle schools and ran an after school program for 3 years, and a big success for us was that some students stayed with us for 3 years, from 6th to 8th grade. We grew with them, we designed the program with them, and we also collected data about their development as they went through middle school. That got me kickstarted in the community, particularly looking at how childrens’ practices with new media relate to their STEM identity development. We presented a poster on this project at the 2014 Cyberlearning Summit.

What we’re doing now is writing up in-depth case studies of individual learners over the entire 3-year period. We’re particularly interested in linking our work to other scholars around the country. For example Philip Bell has done work around socio-material practices and cultural pathways in STEM. I’m really influenced by Flavio Azevedo’s work about lines of practice or how learners become interested in something like a hobby that brings them deeper into disciplinary practice. I’m also inspired by the folks with the HIVE network who are looking at how learners create pathways between different learning experiences and how that gets them deeper and deeper into an academic interest.

Our data is actually pretty similar to those types of projects and I think as a learning sciences community, we’re articulating a better sense of how learners can create pathways over their lifetime. I think that has really important policy implications, because we typically think about learner pathways as “go to elementary school, go to middle school, go to high school, make sure you take algebra, make sure you get into college, major in a STEM field, go get a career”. We think about pathways as these milestones, but I think the learning sciences community is starting to show people how those pathways are actually very complex social and cultural processes that happen over time. Those findings are going to really fill in the holes that we have in terms of how we think about pathways in STEM.

What is your most recent insight from your project about cyberlearning?

What was really apparent to us was that technology was not a driver of students’ identity development in our Sci-Dentity project. When we used technology to connect with our learners in personal ways, that drove their sustained engagement, commitment, and their excitement to keep going; it wasn’t the shininess of the technology that drove them for a 3-year period. They might have been interested in a technology for a short term period, but it was really when we used technology to help them connect with us as teachers and partners in personal ways, that’s what really sustained their learning.

On a related note, we have another project where we let children share the things they are interested in, via a social media tool. We found that we as teachers could use what they shared to connect their learning in personal ways. The biggest insight that we found was that when we think about something like social media, it’s not really about “should we use Facebook or Twitter with learners”. It’s how can we allow learners to share what they’re thinking about, and then how can we orient all the actors around them in the system – their parents, their teachers, their after school coordinators — to notice those artifacts and then engage in productive dialog and discussion to keep promoting their learning across contexts.

That led into our next cyberlearning project that just got funded this past year, ScienceKit for Science Everywhere. What we’re doing is outfitting a cohort of students in an inner city neighborhood with mobile devices and our social media tool, and they’re sharing the things that they wonder about every day. We’re also designing public displays that will be interactive that go in the school, the church, the library, or other places. And then we’re working with adults and actors in the neighborhood to notice those artifacts and talk to the kids as they see them in these different places.

What are you struggling with now?

Our next challenge is at a community level. Can we facilitate that deep personal connection between people and bridge childrens’ learning across contexts? How parents talk to their kids about learning is very different than how the teacher or pastor or after school facilitator does it, and so our project with this new Cyberlearning grant is figuring out how do you coordinate that. We’re carefully designing a small ecosystem with a cohort of learners, a science teacher, and an after school coordinator that we’ll iteratively expand out to include the parents, and then more of the public, through a design-based research process.

In my own work on community-level social technical systems, what becomes apparent is that everybody has different interactions, motivations, and constraints. When we as learning scientists start to scale out a great cyberlearning idea that was well designed in a little bounded system of study, we often hit that ceiling where it doesn’t quite work the way we wanted it to. That’s also a question that I’m particularly interested in: How do we facilitate the implementation of new cyberlearning innovations when they are “released in the wild” to the communities and school systems that we care about? Our current theoretical frameworks are a little bit limited. Often we frame it as the schools just aren’t doing what we want them to do, or the teachers aren’t implementing with fidelity.

What I think is really happening is that the school has its own rhythm and it’s own culture and constraints, whether it be from accountability or financial constraints. We need to work through and understand those constraints, and then align them well with our cyberlearning innovations. This is an idea that learning scientists have been talking about for a long time – for example, Barry Fishman and others on aligning innovations with systems, and activity theory is important in understanding a situation. I think it will always be a constant struggle for us as learning scientists. We’ve done a good job of imagining and innovating and showing efficacy of lots of new tools and ways of learning and teaching. I think the next step is to really take seriously how we implement this in communities. This is what I’m struggling with now, and I think it’s taking me more and more into the realm of folks who look at policy and policy implications.

You recently presented to the Maryland legislature. What did you talk about and how did that go?

I had a chance to present some ideas about online learning in the K-12 education sector to legislators in my state. What I wanted to impress upon them is that we often think about online learning in a limited way. Our frameworks for online learning are: We can put all this content online and get a lot of eyeballs on the content and a lot of students enrolled in a course. There are a lot of proclamations about how that’s going to disrupt and revolutionize our education system. But I think it’s important for policymakers to understand that this framework is limited, and if you’re making policy from that framework it’s going to be somewhat disastrous.

When you start expanding online learning, you might be expanding just a particular type of pedagogy that might not work for some students. You might be creating lots of governance and equity issues. For instance, we’re finding in my research that some students who choose K-12 online schools have a lower prior academic achievement history or come from lower SES households. Consequently they might be the least suited to be independently learning online. They might be the students who actually need the most personal connections and most face-to-face support. These kinds of issues are what policymakers should really understand if they’re trying to make policy to expand our use of technology in certain ways.

So that was the presentation to the Maryland state legislature, which segues into what I think policymakers need to know, and a challenge for the learning sciences community. Often policymakers who are not well versed in education research may still have the framework of learning as achieving content outcomes. We kind of chip away at that notion. For example, the new Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards have been created by very thoughtful people thinking about things like disciplinary practices. But ultimately our policy and accountability systems are still focused on content and skill-based outcomes. That flies in the face of my earlier work and other people’s work that looks at the affordance of personal connection, identity, interest, and those factors that we need to develop in students that ultimately lead to deeper success.

As a learning sciences community, can we articulate the richness of learning in a way that policymakers will understand – and also show outcomes? Right now we’re steering a huge ship called the Education System, and it’s all steering toward content and skills. We know as the learning sciences community that that’s not the only thing that’s vital.

When we had a chance to talk it through, this deeper conversation about learning made sense to policymakers. But you also have to be willing to deal with politics a bit: There were representatives of different companies that run online learning, teacher unions, and other stakeholders at my presentation to the legislature. What’s important for learning scientists who are engaging the policymaker community is to also value and take seriously the concerns of different stakeholders, and figure out how to mediate that conversation. The cynical perspective is that politics is terrible, everyone’s got their own special interests, and everything breaks down. That definitely can happen, but another perspective is that if we think about politics as everybody bringing their motivations to the table and then having a discussion, that’s where policy happens. And that’s a conversation that is a little bit harder to have when you’ve got your researcher hat on and you want to only talk about the research.

That was the eye-opener for me: I had to amend my research message, align it with the viewpoints of different stakeholders, and show them the value of the research to what they care about. That’s a complicated, nuanced thing. The activities that we’ve done in CIRCL, like meeting with our representatives, give us more exposure and practice just doing that. Having that personal connection and seeding ideas with policymakers is really valuable and can have a big impact.