Baker cooks up new Center for Learning Analytics

November 30, 2016

There has been a revolution in educational data mining over the past few years – and new frontiers in adaptive or personalized learning are rapidly opening up. This is according to Penn GSE Associate Professor Ryan Baker, whose research is situated at the bleeding edge of technology and learning.  Baker researches how students use and learn from educational games, intelligent tutors, simulations, and other kinds of educational software. These changes present new challenges and opportunities for teachers, students, and researchers.

Ryan S. Baker, Penn GSE
Dr. Ryan Baker

Baker joined the faculty of Penn GSE this past August in the school’s Teaching Learning & Leadership division. A recent transplant from Columbia’s Teachers College, Dr. Baker was lured by the collaborative culture across the University of Pennsylvania and the ability to take an interdisciplinary approach to his work.

With generous support from the Provost’s office, as well as federal funding, he has established the Penn Center for Learning Analytics (PCLA) and serves as its founding director. The Center conducts research on both state-of-the-art online learning environments and traditional classroom instruction, investigating what approaches and methods can best enhance student long-term outcomes. Dr. Baker is particularly excited about Penn’s pioneering spirit for online learning and the University’s efforts to create the next generation of MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. 

“Dr. Baker’s research provides essential insights to drive the next generation of online learning, using innovative data and analytics to improve how students learn online,” says Provost Vincent Price. “Penn is proud to be at the forefront of online learning, and I am confident that his Penn Center for Learning Analytics will lead the critical next stages of its development. I am delighted to welcome him to Penn and look forward to working closely with him in these initiatives.” 

Baker’s newly launched center, in addition to its MOOCs expertise, will also be a campus-wide resource to students, staff, and faculty in the arena of technology and learning in general.  Dr. Baker will work closely with Penn’s Open Learning Initiative, not only as a “data czar” mining vast data sets from the university’s edX coursework, but in developing best practices with tech-based or online learning initiatives.

PCLA uses a blend of large-scale and small-scale research methods, from analytics and data mining to ethnographic and field observation methods, to study learning and engagement. Current projects include work to predict undergraduate success, work to develop training simulations that automatically adapt to military cadets’ frustration, research on new mixed-methods approaches that inform field observers and interviewers about inflections in student affect and self-regulated learning behavior, and analysis of student behavior in educational software across cultures.

Penn was among the first universities in the world to use MOOCs to open its doors to online learners, as one of the four founding university partners of the Coursera platform. In 2015, Penn’s Open Learning Initiative deepened its investment in the space with a partnership with nonprofit learning platform edX, to launch PennX. The University continues to add to its online offerings via both Coursera and edX.

Dr. Baker developed a strong affinity for computers at an early age. He began unpaid internships at the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory when he was 14 years old. At age 15, he was offered a paid job and given a choice of what area he wanted to work in. He was particularly interested in the work that the laboratory was doing around educational software – and this early choice inspired his academic path.

As a third-year doctoral student, Dr. Baker found himself doing long hours of fieldwork in the classrooms of a Pittsburgh suburb cataloguing student engagement in classroom learning. About three weeks in, he decided that he might just have a better approach. He invented a way to automate data collection through a technological solution that has now been adopted in four countries. 

While at Teachers College, he decided the best way to understand fundamental challenges and solutions for MOOC learning was to teach a MOOC himself. His “Big Data and Education” course has run twice and been accessed by almost 100,000 students. His newest iteration of the course comes to Penn in the spring through PennX. Over the next three runs of the class, Dr. Baker will integrate the GIFT intelligent tutoring system – a platform that builds greater adaptability and support into the course. The platform, which has adaptive sequencing to respond to learners’ needs, marks, to Baker’s knowledge, the first time this technology has been adopted in a MOOC.

To maximize what Baker calls Penn’s “incredibly rich body of data on online learning,” he will be partnering with other institutions (currently he is also working with the University of Edinburgh), with the goal of understanding and increasing the power and possibility of online learning experiences.

Over the next few years, Dr. Baker hopes to gain a better understanding of how we can use our growing body of knowledge to develop tools that are more sensitive to individual learners, and begin to understand the behaviors connected to not only current success or engagement but the long-term trajectories of learners — and what findings hold across MOOCs.

“Education research has not taken full of advantage of the scope of data out there to create replicable highly rigorous, and predictive models in the world of phenomena such as online learning, and I’m excited about the possibility of contributing towards that. We have so much data already on MOOCs, and I’d like to see educators be able to take advantage of it more. Because of the University’s investment and supportive stance, I’m particularly excited to be collaborating with my new colleagues at Penn.”