Learning Sciences Institute tackles practical problems in education

Editor's Note: Part of the Learning Sciences Institute, the Center for Games and Impact will celebrate its official launch Oct. 26.

There’s a sense of urgency at the new Learning Sciences Institute (LSI) at Arizona State University, a feeling that there’s no time to waste. Researchers are moving into scarcely completed office space in Payne Hall while others conduct experiments in local K-12 classrooms, gearing up to tackle challenges in American education.

American students are falling behind on international tests. High school graduation rates bump along at 70 percent in Arizona, below a dismal national average of 75 percent. The 180-day school year in the United States is the shortest in the developed world.

“Everyone here is driven by a practical problem in education,” said Steve Elliott, LSI director and Mickelson Foundation Professor of Education. “Many children struggle to learn to read. We have to educate a more diverse population than ever before. We’re handicapped in having only 180 days in a school year, so we have to be more effective in the way we teach.”

The LSI was created a year and a half ago to bring together interdisciplinary teams of researchers at the university – in disciplines such as education, computer science, psychology, mathematics, English, multimedia, speech and hearing – to focus their efforts on helping teachers by discovering how to improve learning.

Scientists are using technology to determine how people learn, analyzing the type of reading instruction that suits different learners, creating tools and techniques that have the potential to impact how people of all ages learn. At last count the institute had 15 projects worth $19 million under direct management, and 53 affiliated researchers had another 20 projects worth $45 million.

The LSI provides an array of research support services from proposal preparation and budgeting to offices and lab space. One of its key advantages is the ability to work with researchers from other disciplines in the same space.

“The trick is to draw people from different fields, to interact and share ideas,” said Elliott. “This has been an opportunity to build from scratch a free-standing institute which is conceptually like the Biodesign Institute, not housed in any college. This is new thinking. It takes teams of people to do this kind of research, and they need to be here, with a place to talk and interact.”

LSI attracts diverse faculty

Robert Atkinson, an associate professor in computing science and educational technology, measures students’ level of engagement with different learning exercises by having them wear a neurosignal wireless headset similar to a crown. Using this device, he can tell how they process classroom materials and gain insight into how to organize more engaging lessons, using game-based learning, interactive tutoring and simulations.

Director of the Personalized Digital Learning Initiative Center, Atkinson wants to create adaptive systems that can meet the unique learning needs of individual students, allowing them to master content at their own pace and tailored to their learning goals and interests.

Down the hall are the research lab and programming studio for the Center for Games and Impact, where Sasha Barab and his team are working to unleash the potential of computer and video games to drive meaningful learning as well as social impact.

Helicopters occasionally fly down the hall as designers cut loose on their breaks, but the work is serious stuff.

Barab, the Pinnacle West Presidential Chair in Teacher Education and a senior learning scientist in the LSI, is internationally known for his work in developing the education game “Quest Atlantis.” The game has allowed more than 70,000 middle school students worldwide become virtual scientists, reporters, engineers and even astronauts as part of their regular school day.

“Rather than lecturing to students about topics like erosion, water quality and pH levels, we immerse them in a video game where they are working to determine why fish are dying,” said Barab. “Students get to ‘try on’ the role of scientist and see themselves as potentially having that future.”

A growing body of research is highlighting the enormous potential of games for learning and social impact. Barab's research and design work has helped pioneer the education and games movement, evolving into a multimillion dollar studio working in collaboration with industry partners to develop new products, services and models for learning.

Both Barab and Atkinson are tenured with the Mary Lou Fulton Teacher's College, and Atkinson has a joint appointment in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering in the Ira A. Schools of Engineering.

Carol Connor joined ASU this fall from the Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State, where she earned wide acclaim for her work on the links between young children’s oral language and reading skills. Winner of the President’s Early Career Award, she has developed software to assess children’s reading and language skills and recommend specific types and amounts of reading instruction.

Now a psychology professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, she also does work on learning disabilities and the classroom learning environment. She brings with her a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to study 4th and 5th grade achievement.

“I came to ASU because of the opportunity to work with others who are interested in technology,” she said. “It’s impressive that even in an economic recession, ASU is growing and building. You have a vision that’s very exciting.”

Danielle McNamara was recruited to ASU a year ago from the University of Memphis, where she was director of the Institute for Intelligent Systems. The creator of two computer assisted learning programs designed to advance students’ writing and reading comprehension, she joined LSI because of the prospects for collaboration.

“At ASU I have access to a deeper pool of potential collaborators who do exciting things,” said McNamara, who is in the Department of Psychology and is affiliated in engineering and educational technology. “And the educational system in Arizona is more open to innovation than in Tennessee.”

This year her research team is testing her Writing-Pal program in almost a dozen local schools, tracking results of the intelligent tutoring system that provides writing strategy instruction through online lessons that include game-based challenges and automated feedback, with interface from the teacher. 

“We are learning more and more about what technology can do,” she said. “It can’t replace teachers, but it can help and support them.”

ASU educational technology program one of top in U.S.

ASU was featured recently in the New York Times for a technology-enhanced developmental math course that has significantly improved student success. The course brought together researchers, practitioners and entrepreneurs to solve the challenges of funding cuts, a growing student body and the need to retain more students. Elliott had a role in designing the evaluation of the course, which was developed by Knewton learning technology company in collaboration with ASU math and online faculty.

ASU’s educational technology program is ranked one of the top programs in the country, by the Educational Media and Technology Yearbook. Its graduate program is ranked second worldwide.

According to President Michael Crow, Arizona is a leader in innovation in K-12 education through technology. One of the highest concentrations of educational technology companies in the world is in Phoenix, Tempe, Scottsdale and Chandler. Crow believes that as we move to individualized learning, the largest technology sector will turn out to be educational-related technology.

ASU faculty and other researchers at the LSI are actively contributing innovations to this technology sector, at the same time advancing research that impacts learning.

For more information on the LSI go to lsi.asu.edu.