Somewhere in a university lab, a research subject is being slid into a brain-scanning devices to try to better understand how humans learn and retain information. It may seem a bit like science fiction, but research like this is taking off around the world. And in recent years more of the findings are making their way onto campus, in the form of new teaching practices.
That has Matthew Rascoff, associate vice provost for digital education and innovation at Duke University, excited about the possibility to make wide-scale improvements in how colleges teach.
“From a teaching and learning perspective, this is a golden age,” he says. “We know more about how people learn than we ever have in the past.”
EdSurge sat down with Rascoff last month at a meeting of a group called Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners, or HAIL, held at Southern New Hampshire University. He painted a picture of where he sees campus innovation going, and talked about how his new digital tools can navigate issues around protecting student privacy and avoiding algorithmic bias.
EdSurge: Is the idea of academic innovation catching on at universities? After all, colleges and universities are not known for changing quickly.
Matthew Rascoff: I think we have turned a corner to some extent. We’re getting a lot more inbound interest from faculty and administrators who want to do projects that they’re motivated to do, and they’re looking for help, support, inspiration, partnership and experience that comes from our team.
I also see it in the broader discussions of higher ed. There’s an exciting set of changes and movement that’s going on around us, and it is very stressful on leaders and institutions as we’re clearly experiencing this moment of change. But it also means there’s a lot of opportunity. You see that in the private sector, in all of the startups that are being funded to build new models. You see that in the public sector in institutions that are just launching programs like Louisiana State University. And you see it in nonprofit universities like Duke and our peer institutions where there’s just this new motivation, support, collegiality and collaboration that doesn’t require any teeth pulling.
So what’s an example of one of those requests from professors to do something innovative?
One thing that we’re seeing is a move from what I call the “early-adopter faculty” who were our mainstream for years. Those who were inherently, intrinsically interested in the use of technology in the classroom. And we might provide iPods, or later iPads to classes to support some experiment that an individual might want to do.
The new pattern is we now have associate deans and deans—leaders of schools who are in positions of power—coming to us and saying, “Can you help us launch a new hybrid or online program? Can you help us figure out an alumni engagement strategy that uses learning as a means of keeping our alumni engaged wherever they are throughout their lives?” And that’s a shift, I think, from the early adopter into the mainstream.
What you’re saying goes against the popular perception of higher ed as this place that’s not changing.
There is an incredible mismatch in the rhetoric about higher education that you read about in the newspapers and the actual change that I see happening everyday inside institutions. And it’s actually one of the most frustrating things for me to read in an editorial or a newspaper, and it’s also both from the left and the right right now. I see what’s happening on the ground, and see the pipeline of programs that are going to be launched in a few years, and that’s very motivating and very exciting. And then you pick up the newspaper and it’s such a doom and gloom story about higher education.
I think we’re doing such a bad job of telling our story right now. There are definitely some necessary reforms, and don’t get me wrong, I think some big changes are necessary, especially in the education finance system. But from a teaching and learning perspective, this is a golden age. We know more about how people learn than we ever have in the past.
There are more opportunities and products and services to translate that knowledge about how people learn into new learning opportunities that are flexible, that are global, and that serve different kinds of learners than we ever have in the past with different kinds of credentials and different learning experiences. There’s just a flowering of innovation that I see happening as an insider in this field, and I love it. I wish the broader public and the broader community could see a little bit of that world, that insider perspective.
What are some of these programs that you’re alluding to? What does it look like this new kind of exciting innovation world that you see blooming?
One perspective that we bring comes from what we call educational research and development. The idea there is that we learn in labs valuable information about how our brains work, and how learners work in communities and in social contexts. And we can translate that knowledge into new kinds of learning experiences, new designs that benefit from what we know about who we are at the fundamental level. And there’s just so much new knowledge that is being created on a weekly basis from, for example, FMRI, brain neuroscience, and the science of how people learn from the biological perspective that can be applied readily into the classroom.
So it’s a whole body of research that is kind of making progress on a weekly basis that we can translate with the right system in place, to take those discoveries and turn them into applicable, usable strategies. And that’s the kind of translational challenge that we face in education, where we need to take those discoveries that are being published in the journals and turn them into products that build on them … and then see, how does that play out in the classroom? And I see this more data-driven, more evidence-based approach taking off that translates that basic science into classroom interventions and educational reforms. And we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of that.
Just to ground it a little bit, can you give an example?
We have an R&D project at Duke called Nudge, which uses one of the earliest findings in learning science called the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, and applies it to a text-based system to help students improve retention of their knowledge. The Ebbinghause Forgetting Curve basically showed that people forget things on a predictable basis, and if you can remind them of things that they learned at specific points in that forgetting curve, you can help lock in their knowledge for the longer term.
What we built was basically a system for [sending a text message] that just asks a quick question about something you learned in class at a specific amount of time after the class. And we now have research that shows that students improve their performance in a class by several percentage points just using this intervention. That’s open-source technology that we built at Duke.
What do students think of that? It almost sounds like quizzes that can happen anytime, anywhere.
It’s not a quiz. There’s no grade, and you don’t even have to get the answer right or wrong. It doesn’t actually matter if you get the answer correct from the perspective of the learning benefits. It’s just the jogging of your memory that helps lock in that knowledge and code it into your brain. And in fact there’s no point in grading something like that. So it’s more about applying the learning science to help our students retain more of their knowledge and get more learning benefits.
For more of this interview, including Rascoff’s views on how online education is changing, listen to the podcast version.