NSF Funds Research on Learning in Online Networks
September 29, 2010 - Virtually anywhere you look, technology is transforming the ways Americans are working together. Businesses make use of cooperative supply chains, scientific researchers coordinate large-scale projects online, and websites like Wikipedia turn to far-flung contributors who collaborate on content.
Meanwhile, for the American education system, it’s business as usual. Few schools are taking full advantage of the new opportunities created by large-scale, decentralized networks – with the result that all too few students are fully prepared for productive online collaboration.
Young people may be online 24-7, but even as they share and remix, text and tweet, all too few are mastering the kind of computational thinking essential to participation in the networked world. Few know how to organize cooperative activities online (crowd-sourcing) or how to develop computational creations (animations or simulations).
Joined by colleagues at MIT and Harvard, Penn GSE Professor Yasmin Kafai will investigate how participation in decentralized networks can transform what we learn, how we learn, where we learn, and who we learn with.
The project, formally called “Collaborative Research: Preparing the Next Generation of Computational Thinkers: Transforming Learning and Education Through Cooperation in Decentralized Networks,” recently received $2,200,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Cyber-Enabled Discovery and Innovation grant.
In addition to Kafai, the project team includes Mitchel Resnick, John Maloney, and Nathalie Rusk (all of the MIT Media Lab) and Yochai Benkler (Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University). Also working on the project are are Deborah Fields, a postdoctoral fellow, and Quinn Burke, a graduate researcher, both at Penn GSE, and Andrés Monroy-Hernández, a research assistant at the MIT Media Lab.
The project’s experimental testbed will be an NSF-funded learning network called Scratch.mit.edu, developed by Resnick and Kafai in a previous NSF grant. Released in 2007, Scratch is now a vibrant online community with more than 500,000 registered designers, where young people have uploaded over one million programs with interactive stories, games, animations, and simulations.
Scratch members share, discuss, and remix one another’s projects – and, in the process, learn core computational concepts. With its emphasis on design-based activities and self-organized cooperation, Scratch is an ideal environment to study the type of cooperation found in commons-based peer-production environments like Wikipedia, Linux, and other open-source communities.
For this study, the research team will develop a new infrastructure for the Scratch community – Scratch 2.0, which will enable people to author, share, and remix projects directly on the web.
Using a combination of experimental and ethnographic methods, the research will then examine which design features lead young people to cooperate in virtual organizations and to increase voluntary peer contributions and assistance. As Kafai explains, “We expect our findings will contribute to the design and understanding of more effective virtual learning environments – and, moreover, ones that engage a broader population of students.”
Programming environments like Scratch, she explains, have already been shown to attract a more diverse range of students to the field of computer science. For example, when Harvard instructors added Scratch to the introductory computer-science course, they saw a sharp reduction in the number of students dropping the course and a marked increase in the retention of female students.
Just as the Scratch’s multimedia features helped demystify computer programming to the Harvard students, expanded cooperation opportunities will, the research team hopes, attract even more – and more diverse – students to the field and expand our understanding of how peer learning and teaching can contribute in learning communities.
Kafai, a learning scientist who teaches in GSE’s Learning Science and Technologies program, has expertise on children’s learning as designers of games, simulations, and virtual worlds. She collaborated with colleagues from the MIT Media Laboratory in the design and study of the Scratch environment.
Media contact: Jill DiSanto-Haines at 215-898-4820 or firstname.lastname@example.org