Carnegie Mellon University studies tech's impact on learning

Initiative will head effort to bring together leaders, form standards

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Carnegie Mellon University has announced the creation of the Simon Initiative, which focuses on how technology impacts learning.

Named after Herbert Simon, the late Nobel laureate and CMU professor, the initiative is the first concrete example of CMU president Subra Suresh's goal of bringing together areas of excellence in the university.

The announcement made Monday comes during the inaugural week for the new president, who took the reins in July and will be formally installed at an investiture ceremony at 3 p.m. Friday at Carnegie Music Hall.

Inaugural events are scheduled Thursday and Friday, including a symposium at 4:30 p.m. Thursday in McConomy Auditorium on "New Paradigms of Teaching and Learning," which will include some of the technologies that are part of the Simon Initiative.

As part of the initiative, CMU has created a Global Learning Council, aimed at pulling together leaders from academia, industry and technology to help develop standards and best practices for the use of technology in education.

It draws from a wide variety of approaches, ranging from Massive Open Online Courses, which are free online courses, to computerized instruction that adapts as students demonstrate what they've learned or haven't learned.

In a news release, Mr. Suresh said, "The world is experiencing an educational revolution, but there has not been sufficient effort to date to address the fundamental question: Are students using these technology platforms really learning successfully?

"Carnegie Mellon has been studying how people learn with technology since the 1950s; working together with our council colleagues, our goal is to create guidelines and best practices that ensure academic rigor and successful learning for students worldwide," he said.

Mr. Suresh will chair the council, which will include University of Pittsburgh chancellor Mark Nordenberg; Daphne Koller, Coursera co-founder; Anant Agarwal, president of edX; Alfred Spector, vice president of research at Google; Anoop Gupta, distinguished scientist at Microsoft Research; and Tan Chorh Chuan, president of National University of Singapore and chair of Global University Leaders Forum of the World Economic Forum.

The council also includes Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of American Association for the Advancement of Science and member of the National Science Board; Peter McPherson, president of Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities; Hunter Rawlings, president of Association of American Universities; Andrew Rosen, chairman and CEO of Kaplan; Suzanne Walsh, deputy director of postsecondary success at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and Carl Wieman, Nobel laureate and professor of physics and education at Stanford University.

Another part of the Simon Initiative builds on data that are being collected by the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center, which is known as LearnLab and is a collaboration between CMU and Pitt.

LearnLab has received more than $40 million from the National Science Foundation since 2004 and has one year left on its grant.

The Simon Initiative will include efforts to share those data widely, to make it possible for others to contribute more data and to link to other data sets.

The data so far come from more than 200,000 students in K-12 and college who used computer learning that gave them feedback and instruction as they worked in a variety of disciplines, said Kenneth Koedinger, professor of human computer interaction and CMU director at the LearnLab.

Using those data, researchers were able to pinpoint areas that instructors might not realize are difficult for students.

"We look for patterns in the data that suggest places where there are big bumps in the road toward learning," Mr. Koedinger said.

Overall, according to the news release, the goals of the Simon Initiative are to share rich data globally; help teachers teach; speed up innovation and scaling through startup companies; and improve learning on campus.

Mark Kamlet, CMU provost and executive vice president, said, "The different parts link to one another in ways that are very mutually reinforcing."


Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

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