June 16, 2024

Empirical Educator Project/CMU Updates

Author: Michael Feldstein
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As promised, I’m returning to Carnegie Mellon University’s announcement of the $100 million contribution of tools, software, and content to support the democratization of learning science, as well as the relationship of that contribution to the Empirical Educator Project.

Just that first sentence shows how much meat there is yet to be put on the bones. “Contribution?” “Democratize learning science?” What does all that mean? These are fair questions. Jeff Young has some good reporting up at EdSurge that connects some dots on what’s public so far. I’m going to do my best to explain why the answers are not yet as clear as they might be, when and how they will be come clearer, and then give some reminders of past conversations here on e-Literate that provide some breadcrumbs leading in the direction of where all this is going. There will be more news in the press that will drop on Wednesday, followed by some more analysis by me on Thursday. From there, the story will build in pieces, through the Empirical Educator summit on May 6th and 7th, and afterward.

Let’s start with the big picture. Carnegie Mellon has been a pioneer in various types of theoretical and applied educational and cognitive science research—which is now fashionable to roll up into a ball and call “learning science”—for decades. While their work often doesn’t get the publicity it deserves, the breadth and depth is astounding. I’ve had the privilege of visiting a few times and taking deep dives.1 There are very few institutions in the world that are in their league in terms of the scope of what they do.

The university made a decision to take a lot of their work product—over $100 million worth, in fact—and make it broadly accessible to the academic community. Honoring this commitment in a real and practical way is…hard. Very, very hard. It’s about more than just releasing the source code to software, which is hard enough to do right in and of itself. This is about making science—not just the output but the practice—accessible and useful to non-scientist educators. On top of that, the components of the contribution were not all designed together as a single software platform. They consist of many research projects, developed by different teams and that may be more loosely or tightly related to each other. Imagine if a top research laboratory decided to turn itself into the Smithsonian Institution, making itself a hands-on science museum accessible to everyone without dumbing itself down. That’s not exactly the goal that Carnegie Mellon’s Simon Initiative has set for itself, but its’ the same spirit. It’s incredibly ambitious and not easily imagined, much less described in a single press release.

In fact, doing this well is itself going to take some empirical experimentation. And that’s where the partnership with the Empirical Educator Project comes in. Carnegie Mellon had already offered to host this year’s summit on May 6th and 7th. I’m honestly not sure how long they’ve been mulling over this idea of the giant release, but at some point they came to the conclusion that we would be good pilot partners for their effort. This week, we will be describing our high-level approach to our pilot design for helping to make CMU’s contribution accessible. And not just CMU’s contribution, either, since EEP is based on the premise that many academic institutions have innovations to contribute if only we can get better at sharing them. The scale of CMU’s contribution has given us an opportunity to challenge our assumptions about how we should be going about this work. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

As I said, more details while emerge in the coming days, weeks, and months, first as we learn how to tell such a big story and later as we learn from the grand experiment as it unfolds. For now, I want to leave you with two video playlists. The first is a set of interviews of Carnegie Mellon faculty that I recorded while visiting a few years ago. At the time, I had no agenda other than to capture their individual and collective views on “learning science” and its relationship to classroom teaching. The second is a set of interviews from participants after the first day of the first EEP summit. Taken together, I think you will see why there is a good fit.

CMU interview YouTube playlist.

EEP interview YouTube playlist.

  1. When I say deep, I mean deep. See, for example, https://mfeldstein.com/can-there-be-microscope-of-mind/.

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