Ambitious Mashups: History & Timeline

History of the Cyberlearning Program

At the beginning of our expert panel meeting for this reflections process, we asked panelists to tell the group about their experience with the Cyberlearning program and what they imagined it would be. We learned about their perspectives on the program at the different points in which they played a role in its development. Together, their comments told the history of how the program was created and how it evolved over time.

CIRCL Timeline

Before there was a Cyberlearning program there was another collaboration between NSF’s Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) and the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR) called Advanced Learning Technologies (ALT) that ran from 2005-2009. Prior to ALT, there were other initiatives in learning technologies such as “Learning and Intelligent Systems” and “Collaborative Research in Learning Technologies (CRLT).” With the advocacy of NSF from both directorates, including Haym Hirsh, John Cherniavsky, Amy Baylor, Elizabeth Vanderputten, and Ken Whang, and under the leadership of assistant directors Jeannette Wing (CISE) and Joan Ferrini-Mundy (EHR), funding was secured from Congress for what was newly referred to as “Cyberlearning.” In 2010, a Task Force on Cyberlearning and Workforce Development was commissioned to gather information from researchers from a number of different fields about what NSF could do to create a 21st Century workforce that would be cyberinfrastructure savvy. This taskforce produced a report1 which included many recommendations, one of which was:

We recommend support for research in cyberlearning. The NSF should devote significant resources to research and development in cyberlearning, exploring meaningful metrics for assessing the needs and progress of all learners by the learner, educator, and others, and the learning impacts of cyberlearning resources and opportunities. A solid body of professional research evidence and development work is needed before cyberlearning tools can be effectively implemented across the learning spectrum, maximizing positive impacts while minimizing unintended consequences.

Starting in 2011, NSF created a new program specifically to fund Cyberlearning research. Janet Kolodner was asked to lead it. “When I first heard about the program, I thought it was simply about technology for online education, and that didn’t interest me so much,” said Kolodner. “But then I learned Jeanette and others had more in mind and that they wanted to give me a chance to make it interesting.” Kolodner drew upon her experience as faculty at Georgia Tech and editor of the Journal of the Learning Science to create a program, which became Cyberlearning and the Future of Learning Technologies (CFLT). A solicitation was created encouraging the submission of proposals for innovative technology projects that explored how learning theories played out in educational contexts. The program funded design projects that represented multiple disciplines and technologies that were more exploratory than many of the projects funded by other NSF programs. The program also looked to produce findings that would generalize beyond the particulars of the current exploration. In 2013 the Center for Innovative Research in Cyberlearning (CIRCL) was established to support this new community of interdisciplinary researchers.

In 2014 Kolodner left NSF and Christopher Hoadley, a rotator from New York University, became the lead program officer for CFLT. The program continued to encourage design projects that focused on big ideas in learning theory. Hoadley also made an effort to bring together the cognitive science, computer science and learning science communities, recommending that researchers crafting proposals for the program read the latest research in all of these fields as well as the design field and use that to inform their projects. “We needed to center on design,” Hoadley said, “not only rigor and theoretical ideas, and not just a kitchen sink of ideas. We needed designs that would really help us to build knowledge and understanding of the technological possibilities that would become available in the future.” There was less of an emphasis on research that produced scalable, generalizable results and more encouragement to explore challenging ideas and advancements in designing coherent innovative integrations of technology, computer science and learning theory.

In 2016 NSF came out with their ten Big Ideas for investment, which had a major influence on the emphasis given to many programs, including Cyberlearning. The Big Ideas that had the most relevance for Cyberlearning were INCLUDES—with its focus on systematic approaches to broadening participation in the STEM workforce—the Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier, Convergent Research, and Harnessing the Data Revolution for 21st Century Science and Engineering. Senior advisor for the Cyberlearning program, John Cherniavsky, was particularly interested in this last idea. “I came to the program from a long background in new computer science advances,” said Cherniavsky. “As I came on board, big data and learning analytics were areas of research that were accelerating rapidly. One of my main interests is in tools, and thus Cyberlearning expanded to include analytic tools that would become important parts of the designs of future technologies for learning.”

Also, in 2016 Hoadley finished his rotation at NSF. Because Cyberlearning is a cross-directorate program funded primarily and led jointly by CISE and EHR (with collaboration from Directorates for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE) and Engineering (ENG), the directorates decided to have co-program leads from both CISE (Tatiana (Tanya) Korelsky) and EHR (Amy Baylor). “The field of Cyberlearning had strong foundations built on the fantastic ideas and contributions from Janet, Chris, John and CIRCL when Tanya and I took over to co-lead the program,” said Baylor. “Unfortunately, the budget had been significantly cut, and we focused on honing the specific, differentiated value of this program. Many existing programs in EHR were already funding educational technology implementation projects. We focused Cyberlearning on exploratory projects that were risky, ambitious, and that innovated in both the learning and computer sciences, which was important for our partnerships with CISE and ENG.”

Also, during our time, the NSF Big Ideas were developed by the NSF Director Francis Cordova, and NSF used that opportunity to challenge the field and connect Cyberlearning to one Big Idea in particular, “Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier.” These led to increased visibility of the program across the Foundation and facilitated a larger budget.” The name of the program changed to Cyberlearning for Work at the Human-Technology Frontier. In addition, to emphasize the innovative and experimental nature of the program, the new iteration only funded exploratory projects, rather than supporting a range of exploratory, development, implementation and scale up projects, as other programs do. “We really focused on exploratory work as an important nexus for computer science and learning scientists to come together,” Korelsky said. “We wanted to understand how technology affected the learning process; especially with very novel technologies. We emphasized a midsized project with a budget big enough for both a computer science and a learning sciences graduate student to be engaged together.” Even though the program continued to fund cyberlearning research in all areas (not just in the context of work), Korelsky also noted that having “work” in the program title led to fewer proposals being submitted. The ones however that were submitted were high quality and used innovative approaches to connect learning with workforce preparation through technology integration.

Now with new NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan replacing France Cordova, there will be new areas of research that he will want the directorates to pursue and those priorities will certainly have an impact on the Cyberlearning program. However, the program’s particular strength in bringing diverse disciplines together to create innovative ways to support learning will likely continue to be valued by the larger NSF community. As one of the original advisory board members, Daniel Edelson stated, “Talented experts in non-education fields often develop innovative ideas for improving education. Where the Cyberlearning program has done an exceptional job is in helping innovative newcomers to develop partnerships with learning scientists to develop theory-informed designs and to investigate how those designs support learning.” Since the program’s founding it has been able to adapt to new trends and priorities while maintaining its core value of building knowledge within educational programs informed by learning theories. This adaptability is a testament to the ingenuity of the community of researchers that the Cyberlearning program and CIRCL have cultivated and supported and will continue to support into the future.


1 Task Force on Cyberlearning and Workforce Development (2011). A Report of the National Science Foundation Advisory Committee for Cyberinfrastructure.