Cyberlearning Community Report: Executive Summary

Cyberlearning researchers envision and investigate the future of learning with technology. As of summer 2017, the Cyberlearning and Future Learning Technologies (CFTL) program of the National Science Foundation (NSF) had made 279 research grant awards. In addition, several hundred other NSF research projects have cyberlearning themes. Many of these cyberlearning projects are in the exploratory stage or aim at capacity building, consistent with the goal of expanding frontiers. These projects typically do not aim to produce market-ready products or prove efficacy. Rather, the early results are often proof-of-concept designs, along with relevant theoretical insights and advances in methods.

Although specific research questions vary, in general the cyberlearning community is united around several fundamental questions:

  • How can students use their bodies and minds to learn what will be important in the 21st century, such as collaboration, scientific argumentation, mathematical reasoning, computational thinking, creative expression, design thinking, and civic engagement?
  • What advances in computation and technology are needed to design, develop, and analyze innovative learning experiences?
  • How can learning with technology expand access, equity, and depth of learning across diverse people, institutions, and settings?

In their approach to answering questions like these, cyberlearning researchers express several commitments. Cyberlearning researchers are oriented toward a technical and educational horizon approximately 10 years in the future. Cyberlearning researchers believe that involving diverse people and perspectives in the early stages of research and design enables them to address equity issues. Cyberlearning researchers believe that learners develop their knowledge, skills, and identities across settings — not just as students in formal classrooms. Cyberlearning researchers believe that a good way to explore how people learn is by designing innovative technologies that incorporate findings from the learning sciences and experimenting with those designs in real-world settings. A way to better understand learners is to enable them to express themselves through making, programming, constructing, and inventing. Finally, the cyberlearning community aspires to be at the forefront of convergent science, an emerging approach to research that integrates different types of expertise and findings from multiple disciplines to address problems. Two key disciplines that researchers synthesize are the learning sciences and computer science.

Cyberlearning research is design research. Project leaders aspire to create general designs (sometimes called genres) that go beyond what is possible in today’s products and illuminate visions of how learning can be enhanced with technology in the future. The authors of this report summarized six emerging genres:

Community Mapping Using mobile, geospatial tools for learning in context at the scale of a neighborhood, community or city
Expressive Construction Computing as a creative literacy, focusing on students’ expressiveness, ability to represent STEM ideas, and sharing of emerging understandings.
Digital Performance Spaces Immersive, participatory, social investigations of simulated scientific phenomena that appear to be occupying the entire space of the classroom
Virtual Peers and Coaches Agents that use verbal and nonverbal communication to establish rapport with a student and thereby support engagement in explaining STEM concepts
Remote Scientific Labs Students control real scientific equipment at a distance, learning about science with authenticity and support
Collaborative Learning with
Touch Interfaces
Expanding collaborative learning via multitouch interfaces on tabletop, tablet and mobile computers

The authors also highlight how cyberlearning researchers are advancing methods to study and improve these learning designs, in particular:

Multimodal Analysis Integrating multiple streams of data, such as audio, video, eye gaze, sensors, and clickstream data
Analytics for Assessment Measuring student learning as they use games and other online experiences to inform teachers and increase learning across different types of experiences
User- and Community-
Centered Design
Engaging users and community members in the design process to make learning tools more attractive, useful and effective

These six design and three methodological innovations do not comprehensively summarize the research and development advances occurring throughout the cyberlearning portfolio, which includes projects that span the spectrum of lifelong learning and address learning of topics in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and beyond. The full community is supported by the Center for Innovative Research in Cyberlearning, which seeks to amplify research impact, broker connections among projects, broaden participation in the work, and facilitate collaboration among cyberlearning researchers to tackle bigger issues than any single investigator or project can make progress on. More information on cyberlearning projects and the community is available at the CIRCL website.

Although the majority of projects have an exploratory or capacity-building focus, cyberlearning projects are already making an impact. In 2016, cyberlearning research was featured at a White House symposium on educational technology and in the US National Educational Technology Plan. Videos about cyberlearning research have received more than 55,000 views across 145 countries, and CIRCL collaborated with other resource centers on two annual video showcases of NSF-funded research that together attracted about 50,000 participants. And scientists are publishing findings about how students can learn challenging content with the support of emerging technologies – findings that are needed to guide the future of learning technology. One example of many findings discussed herein is that students learn more from games when bridging activities connect implicit learning with the game to formal, explicit classroom instruction – a connection that can be made stronger when learning analytics measure student progress in learning from their actions in the game.

Cyberlearning researchers strongly value the unique emphasis in these NSF awards on forging paths for computer scientists and learning scientists to work shoulder-to-shoulder on problems that are challenging and important to both expertises – and most projects are not only forging such relationships, but also training graduate students for future participation in convergent science. The authors observe a strong potential for increased impact in the future as cyberlearning engages with four of NSF’s themes for the future: Harnessing Big Data, Exploring Human-Computing Frontiers, Increasing Inclusion of All in STEM Learning, and Strengthening Convergent Science. Strong commitments to equity, innovation, multidisciplinarity, and designing for the future are creating opportunities for the cyberlearning research community to provide essential design, methodological, and theoretical insights that will guide the future of learning with emerging technologies.