Research-based tech helps education get smart

illustration of computer tech

Arizona's education system has significant room for improvement. Researchers at ASU are finding innovative solutions through new technologies.

Illustration by Joseph Raiton


Sixty-six percent of fourth-graders in the U.S. could not read at grade level in 2013, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress. In 2012, the Organization for Economic Development ranked U.S. 15-year-olds 27th out of 34 countries for mathematics, 20th in science and 17th in reading. And yet the U.S. spends more per student than the other countries listed.

It’s not hard to find a slew of statistics about the state of American education, and the consensus is generally not positive. Many policy makers have focused their improvement efforts directly on K-12 schools. However, universities that educate teachers and conduct research on learning can also be innovators that transform our educational system.

The challenge of educating our population is compounded by rapidly changing technology, global competition, and growth in population size and diversity. The people and companies that came together during the 2015 ASU + GSV Education Innovation Summit are searching for new and creative ways to move education into the future, facing all these challenges and more.

Arizona State University President Michael Crow participated in a number of interviews and panels during the summit to discuss some of the ways ASU is working to transform higher education. One project that he mentioned is ASU’s new partnership with Starbucks, which aims to help get more people into college.

The president isn’t the only one at ASU working for change, however. The university supports numerous innovators and researchers who are looking to transform education through new, research-backed technologies, including the following examples:

Literacy unlocked

Learning to read is one of the biggest challenges of childhood. It’s also a key indicator of future success. Reading proficiently by the end of third grade is an important milestone, because that’s when students shift from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn. Children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than their proficient peers.

Carol Connor, a professor in ASU’s Department of Psychology and a senior learning scientist at the Institute for the Science of Teaching and Learning, wanted to know what it would take to get all children reading proficiently by the end of third grade. Through research supported by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Education, she found that individualized instruction is the key to teaching successful readers.

Her work is the basis of Learning Ovations, a start-up company led by Carol Connor and CEO Jay Connor. The company helps teachers implement the research findings through the A2i technology platform. A2i “links language and literacy assessment results to recommendations for specific amounts and types of reading instruction [for individual students] through evidence-based algorithms,” according to the company website.

The platform uses assessments that are already given in schools. This means that teachers don’t have to give extra assessments to use the technology. The software also helps teachers track students’ needs, provide personalized lesson plans and monitor students’ progress.

Carol Connor worked with researchers at Florida State University and the University of Michigan to develop and test A2i in several schools and school districts. The results to date are remarkable; in classrooms using the Learning Ovations platform, 94 percent of students learn how to read by the end of third grade, compared with the national average of 34 percent.

The Connors have been working with SkySong, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center, to refine the business side of the company. SkySong is a mixed-use development that houses more than 70 companies from around the world along with ASU programs that support entrepreneurship and economic development.

“If ASU as a university saw the value of third-grade reading improvements, SkySong, as a focus on innovation and entrepreneurism, saw how they could help the business side of it through introductions, support and engagement with lots of different connections within the community,” Jay Connor said.

In October 2014, Learning Ovations received a $1.05 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The funding will help the Connors strengthen A2i and prepare it for large-scale implementation.

Jay Connor said Learning Ovations is a model for how research that starts in the university can have an impact on the wider community. It’s the proof point for ASU’s vision that “we can have profound quality of research and we can really bring it to our communities.”

Concept mastery

Adaptive Curriculum is another educational technology company based at SkySong that is working closely with ASU. The company builds math and science software and technology for classroom use in grades 5-12.

What differentiates Adaptive Curriculum is its focus on concept mastery and interactivity, rather than a “drill and kill” approach, according to CEO Jim Bowler. For example, one lesson lets students observe and interact with a Ferris wheel to learn about sine curves and how they work outside the classroom.

To make sure its lessons are as accurate as possible, the company collaborates with scientists and mathematicians at ASU. It also works with ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teacher’s College to develop lesson and implementation plans that help teachers effectively use the technology.

Bowler said ASU has been an important part of Adaptive Curriculum’s development over the past several years, both as a partner in helping to develop products and by providing an enjoyable environment at SkySong.

"Right from the top, Michael Crow has always been supportive, the members and teachers of the school of education have been very helpful, and we've gotten great support from the SkySong management,” he said. “It's a good community to be in.”        

Game for change

Both Jay Connor and Bowler mentioned several trends they’ve seen in educational technology. Bowler noted the rise of tablets as a learning platform. Jay Connor mentioned the “gameification” of learning. In his opinion, this is an area that really hasn’t lived up to its potential.

Many educators and researchers have tried to leverage the power of games, he said, but “haven’t thought of what that power is.” This has led game developers to start with the “wow” instead of with the educational or social impact they want to achieve. The result can be simply “adding pictures and sound and movement,” Connor said.

Sasha Barab, a professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and executive director of the Center for Games and Impact, is working to change that. He and his colleagues at the center start by ensuring that the first part of the game to be developed is its impact goal.

“The game is a tool. The goal is the impact,” Barab said.

The ecosystem is also very important for creating games that are effective in the classroom. How is that game integrated with the school environment? Are the teachers being taught how to use it effectively? These are essential questions that must be answered to create a game that can live up to its potential.

And there is a lot of potential.

In a game, students “actually can have agency,” Barab said. They can discover they matter because of their academic abilities. Games can create experiences that cut across virtual and real life and allow students to become engaged with material on a deeper level. How much more illuminating is it to learn about ecology by playing a mystery game where you’re an environmental activist trying to discover the culprits behind a mass fish die-off than it is to learn it from a textbook? This is the premise behind “Mystery of Taiga River,” one of the educational games featured on the Center for Games and Impact’s website.

In addition to researching and testing games, the center offers teacher education programs as well as “impact guides” to a variety of popular games. The guides provide players, parents and teachers with tools to understand play, inspire reflections and stimulate transformation. For example, a guide to World of Warcraft explores effective collaboration, while the guide to Civilization explores diplomacy.

“Games can foster a different kind of learner,” Barab said. In particular, they can foster learners who are uniquely suited to the challenges of a high-tech, fast-paced 21st century.

“Technology will transform education,” Jay Connor said. “I actually think there's the potential that within 10 years’ time we won't talk about how bad our education system is.”

Written by Erin Barton, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.