Meet Tamara Clegg

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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.

Tamara Clegg

Tamara Clegg is an associate professor in the College of Information Studies and the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership and at the University of Maryland. She co-directs the Youth eXperience (YX) Lab at the College of Information Studies. Tamara’s work focuses on developing technology (e.g., social media, mobile apps, e-textiles, community displays) to support life-relevant learning where learners, particularly those from underrepresented groups in science, engage in science in the context of achieving personally relevant goals. She seeks to understand ways such learning environments and technologies support scientific disposition development. Tamara’s work is funded by the National Science Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Studies, and Google.

How did you get into cyberlearning?

When I went to graduate school, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted my research focus to be. I had just gotten a bachelors degree in Computer Science from North Carolina State University and I was a new Computer Science Phd student. Soon after arriving at Georgia Tech met Janet Kolodner, Amy Bruckman, and Mark Guzdial, and began to see the work that they were doing in the learning Sciences, and it brought back memories of when I was young and wanted to be a teacher. I had abandoned that dream through high school and college, but as I took classes in the learning sciences I began to see that it could be the perfect integration of my love for technology, math, and pedagogy. I was excited to see that I could design technologies, understand how people learn, work with children and other learners and I was hooked!

What can we learn from your work with youth in a community, connecting neighborhoods, and reaching new audiences?

My career has focused on my passion for working with youth and other learners at formative stages of life and helping them to find life-relevant connections to science. Often, when educators and designers think about learning we focus mostly on schools, as they are indeed a hub for learning. But when we focus only on school contexts, we miss a lot of the really rich and powerful ways that children are learning outside of school. When we begin to focus across the contexts of learners’ lives, however, we expand the range of educators in a learners’ life. Parents, caregivers, after-school facilitators, librarians, mentors, community volunteers all become facilitators of learning in ways unique to their roles in learners lives and the contexts they interact within. So this work has been really exciting because it enables us to work with informal educators, to work with parents, and to work with teachers — and to bring them all together in these really cool ways with new technologies.

I am passionate about working with low socioeconomic communities, where deficit perspectives of learners’ opportunities and potential are common. However, our work with youth in low-SES community contexts has shown that there are rich opportunities for learning in the spaces of all learners lives and technology can play an important role in illuminating those opportunities and helping facilitators, educators, and community members see these connections and build on them with learners in new contexts. For example, in our Science Everywhere project learners use a social media app to capture and share science across the contexts of their lives. Children take pictures of cooking at home, soccer and basketball games, or their family’s home construction projects and through their posts, they relate these everyday life experiences and activities to STEM learning they are doing in school and in after school programs. However, we’ve found that technology alone is not enough. Often learners capture photos and share science in ways that don’t show the science connections they are making. But we’ve found that practices such as discussions with family members, mentors, or teachers can bring out the rich connections to STEM learning children are making. Our work puts forward important ways we can leverage tools like social media and large community displays to illuminate children’s science learning experiences and build upon them. We are currently working on an analysis that shows ways adults dispositions about science shift as they interact with such technologies in their communities and ways this impacts children’s STEM engagement and learning across contexts.

How is cyberlearning transforming how you do your work in neighborhoods?

Technology is enabling us to offer new identity opportunities for learners. It enables the learners to actually engage in rich learning contexts and then showcase that to their peers, parents, mentors and teachers, who often may not see them in these other realms. It gives us the opportunity to share more than a verbal experience. They can share videos, photos, drawings, and real-world artifacts from the experiences that they’re having so that they can bring in these contexts more fluently and effectively. Technology can also ope the door to new types of life-relevant learning experiences children can have. They can leverage sensors, wearables, augmented and virtual reality, maker spaces and much more to capture data in their everyday life, from their physical activity to their environment, and they can then create new experiments, investigations, and tools to help them solve problems relevant to their daily lives.

I am inspired by researchers like Joe Polman, who enables youth to create infographics in their own neighborhoods or to sense and explore data about their pets, and Nichole Pinkard’s Digital Youth Network where inner-city youth are directed to learning resources throughout their communities on a large scale. There are other researchers who have longitudinal programs that are really getting youth active and engaged in their communities and in learning in powerful ways for promoting identity development. Cyberlearning enables these new types of engagement opportunities for learners, helping them to have more agency than ever before in exploring their interests and deepening their learning. But it has also facilitated, as in the case with work such as Nichole’s, the development of large-scale infrastructures that expand learning opportunities to those who previously did not have them. Further, analysis of learners’ interactions with these technologies better enables us to assess and understand their learning (e.g., through stealth assessments and learning analytics) in ways more closely connected to their learning than traditional assessments have been.

How do you see your work contributing to transformation in 10 years?

I see my work helping us to get a picture of what learning looks like, what identity development looks like, and what identity development happens without having to pre-impose traditional tests and formalized assessments on learners, teachers, and facilitators. I would like for our Science Everywhere technology and other technologies that I’m building to really capture the essence of what learners are doing, and what learning is happening over time, in really authentic ways that we can look back at later and see progressions of development.

I also see my work helping us understand how to design technologies such that they reveal this information in meaningful ways to people who can better use that information and promote children’s learning. For example, how can we can design technologies so that teachers can see these out-of-school experiences that children have, and their development, in meaningful ways that they haven’t seen before?

What you could share with other researchers about working with people across different boundaries and trying to draw everyone together?

I think there’s a lot of power in working in interdisciplinary spaces. And there are the ways that Cyberlearning has transformed my work, like helping us to see the importance of building these interdisciplinary teams. Cyberlearning has always pushed that as something that we should do, and it really helps us to see the different types of expertise that we might need on a team to push learning forward and push technology forward in these new directions.

The interdisciplinary collaborations that I have are so much fun and the abundance of new ideas and creativity that comes out of these collaborations are unparalleled. But there are also challenges of working across disciplinary boundaries, like the language used and the differing values across disciplines. The new approaches, ideas, and insights are well worth any challenges inherent in the work though. To me, the important thing about such collaborations is effective communications and deep involvement of interdisciplinary collaborators through a project. My collaborator, Jon Froehlich and I learned this early on working on our BodyVis Cyberlearning project where we designed live physiological sensing and visualization tools. I have learned so much from Jon’s core HCI and Computer Engineering perspective. But we both saw the difference when one of us took the lead on a paper or part of the project without real investment of the other. Over time we learned ways to really be involved throughout the different processes of a project even when it seemed like it was a part more oriented to one of our disciplines than the other. We developed mechanisms for engaging one another even during those parts that seemed “less relevant” to one of us. In general, the research teams that I work on are very interdisciplinary, but we talk a lot about the values that we have, and how those values can come together and connect to envision the future. This has been and continues to be one of the greatest joys of my work.

Do you have any final thoughts or perspectives you’d like to share?

The Cyberlearning convenings have been always been a place for generating ideas and digging deeply into topics. This community is invaluable for sparking new directions in transforming education and learning and empowering the next generation of learners.

(Watch video excerpts from an interview that took place January 27, 2015, at Cyberlearning 2015, below.)