Perspective: 20 Years of Innovation: Looking Back and Looking Forward
The past 20 years at the Concord Consortium have seen educational technology history in the making. When we started out in September 1994, Yahoo! and Netscape were both only months old, and it would be nine months before Amazon.com would launch or Sergey Brin would first show Larry Page around the Stanford campus, a new friendship still years from forming Google. The Web may have been in its infancy, but in 1994 the Concord Consortium’s founding staff had already been transforming STEM learning through technology for decades. And despite everything we’ve done over two decades, we’re just getting started.
Since our earliest days, we have been igniting large-scale improvements in teaching and learning through technology. Our pioneering work has taken shape in five main strands.
Probes and Sensors
Over 30 years ago Bob Tinker traveled the country with a demonstration of homegrown probeware and an early computer. He opened people’s eyes to how technology could bring new dimensions to hands-on science learning—spawning a new industry. Prototypes from our labs directly inspired the motion detectors and fast-response temperature sensors now common in science labs worldwide. Today, five major global companies produce probeware specifically designed for education, and a million students use educational probes and sensors every year.
Though it’s hard to imagine, online learning was a novel and groundbreaking concept back in 1996. That year, two separate grants birthed a revolution—we began the first program for online professional development and we planted the seeds for a full online school. These would combine a few years later in the Virtual High School, the nation’s first online high school. Teachers and students in 48 countries and 30 states are now part of VHS annually, and online education overall enriches the lives of millions of students each year.
Modeling and Simulation
We recognized early on that computational modeling and simulation make it possible to learn about the many STEM concepts that are too small or too large or that happen on timescales too long or too short to examine directly in the classroom. We created the first multilevel genetics model 20 years ago and built research-grade computational chemistry algorithms into our Molecular Workbench software a decade ago. Today, the dragons from our genetics simulations populate learning games and online learning environments, and Molecular Workbench has transformed learning through more than a million downloads in 150 countries. Our work in modeling and simulation has expanded to enable exploration and experimentation in practically all STEM subjects, including engineering and design.
When we realized the power of modeling and simulation for learning, we understood that students’ use of these tools could be equally powerful for understanding their learning. We began collecting and analyzing log files from models in 1999, remotely identifying patterns of student engagement and investigation as they experimented in our online environments. Our exploration of the potential of models and simulations for performance assessment presaged the fields of educational data mining and learning analytics that are rapidly broadening today.
Powerful computers are now ubiquitous in the form of smartphones. Twenty years ago, we saw the earliest signs of this wave as the first mobile computers came on the scene. We recognized the value these devices held for STEM education as we made the first connections between probeware and mobile devices in 1995. Today, smartphones have enough computing power to run our complex molecular simulations and have incorporated ever more probes and sensors as integrated parts of the package. We continue to explore new ways that these devices can help transform teaching and learning.
These strands have continued to bring about new ideas and innovations since our founding, and their promise continues unabated. At the same time, the rapid expansion of technology, devices and capabilities is opening up broad new possibilities for education, which we are actively exploring.
Collaboration is an essential component of the process of learning, as students work in groups to come to new understandings. It is also an essential skill for today’s interdisciplinary workplace. While collaboration mediated via technology has long been an established area of research, the transformative possibilities technology enables are just becoming widely available. We’re taking advantage of this as we help students build circuits together across time and space, and design collaborative museum exhibits and mobile games to better understand how these technologies can help students work together to improve understanding and develop vital skills.
The possibilities that open-ended modeling, simulation and design environments offer for assessing the practices of science and engineering are still largely untapped.
Today, data we collect as students design with Energy3D software generates regular breakthroughs in understanding the process of engineering design. We’re also using the power of our CODAP data exploration environment to provide deep insight into how students use and learn with data. Other projects are applying the same principles to circuit design, genetics learning, Earth science simulations and much more, employing automatic analysis of student writing, deep mining of student interaction patterns and intricate statistical modeling to forge new methods and understandings.
As data from student use of models, simulations and other online environments become available for assessment, they naturally also become available for the purpose of feedback to improve student learning. Through recent and upcoming work, we’re exploring how feedback can help improve and encourage student learning, scaffold students as they undertake science and engineering practices and provide useful data to teachers to better inform them and enhance their interaction with students.
Extending and Tracking Learning
As technology becomes widespread, it has finally become truly possible to engage in learning at any time and in any place. Our Learning Everywhere initiative, an international, multi-institution effort, is aimed at expanding and tracking learning across diverse informal and formal settings. Museum visitors will be able to enhance their experience with an exhibit through complementary mobile games and virtual environments that pick up where the exhibit left off, permitting their engagement and learning to continue at home or in school or after school settings. Analytics on their use of materials will contribute to our research understanding of how to bridge formal and informal learning.
Mixing and Integrating
Finally, the evolution of technology places us in a position where we can start to look beyond individual components and begin exploring what happens when they become integrated. Our Mixed-Reality work is identifying how learning changes when probeware and simulations are wired to each other for a multisensory experience. Through InquirySpace, we’re building platforms and examples that combine models, simulations and probeware with data exploration. And our new Building Models project extends this further by helping students build and examine models and their data to better understand system dynamics.
The Internet-based technological revolution is entering its second phase. Our new focus areas reflect this transition from initial technology development to a new stage of mixing and high-level integration. This will undoubtedly offer new opportunities for innovation as well as surprises. We plan to stay at the forefront of revolutionary digital learning for science, math and engineering, and we can’t wait to see what the next 20 years brings.