Training teaching’s technologists

HCII’s newest master’s program gives students in-depth experience with the latest educational tools and techniques

Martina Pavelko

It’s an eclectic group.

There’s a master violinist who, as an intern, designed industrial training courses for workers building cars at China’s Dong Feng Motor Corporation.

There’s a Stanford University graduate, fluent in Italian, who taught chemistry and physics at Pittsburgh’s Ellis School.

There’s a mechanical engineer who researched decision-making in complex systems for Singapore’s Defence Medical and Environmental Labs.

There’s a high school special education teacher, who, as an undergrad majoring in accounting and information science at SUNY Oswego, developed online courses.

And there’s a software developer with an information and communication technology degree from India’s DA-IICT, whose resume includes a graphic that shows how many hours he devotes to daily tasks.

These are the Carnegie Mellon University graduate students who make up the Capstone Project team for the new Master’s in Education Technology and Applied Learning Science, or METALS, program. The inaugural class enrolled in fall 2013.

A 12-month professional degree, METALS is offered through SCS’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute and the Dietrich College’s Psychology Department.

“METALS will help build learning engineers,” says Michael Bett, associate director of the master’s degree program, which is only the second in HCII. “These students will graduate being able to use evidence-based research to develop curricula or courses for companies that say, ‘This is the best process for going forward,’” he says.

The interdisciplinary program is an outgrowth of the research conducted by the NSF-funded Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center, better known as LearnLab. METALS includes faculty from human-computer interaction and psychology, but also has electives from other parts of campus. It’s intended to give students the tools necessary to design, develop and implement advanced teaching and training methods, using the latest technologies and techniques.

“It’s an extremely unique program,” says Mark Potter, the high school special education teacher. “It’s cutting edge, and we are learning the latest learning sciences research and using the most recent educational methodology.”

The METALS program also melds with CMU’s recently launched Simon Initiative, a university-wide effort, named for the late Herbert A. Simon, to accelerate the use of learning science and technology to improve student learning. “Part of the Simon Initiative’s goal is to emphasize student-learning outcomes, and we want to create students who can go out into the world and to other universities and companies and design solutions and technologies that greatly improve student-learning outcomes,” says Ken Koedinger, professor of human-computer interaction and director of the METALS degree program.

At the heart of the METALS degree is the 32-week Capstone Project, which gives students the opportunity to work with a real corporation and get first-hand experience from the process of researching and developing a new product.

This team’s client is BloomBoard, an EdTech company that provides an online growth-development platform for K-12 educators. It recently expanded from Silicon Valley to a second office in Pittsburgh.

Their assignment is to explore ways to help build professional learning communities for teachers, in an effort to improve results in their classrooms.

“Engaging talented CMU students, especially those with such a strong focus on education, was a priority from day one,” said Tony Bellino, who runs BloomBoard’s East Coast operations. “The METALS students continue to exceed our expectations and we couldn’t ask for a better team.”

Just a few weeks into the Capstone Project, in early February, the students were meeting with Koedinger and John Stamper, an HCII systems scientist. Sitting around a conference table in Newell-Simon Hall in early February, their laptops open and a Google Doc projected onto a pulled-down screen at one end of the room, the students were in the early stages of their project.

They meet with faculty twice weekly throughout the spring semester to stay on top of the various aspects of their project, which includes reviewing the latest published data on professional teacher development, preparing for (and conducting) field research, interviewing BloomBoard customers and potential users, and analyzing competitors’ programs.

At this early February meeting, they were discussing their plan for exploratory research: the phone and contextual interview questions; the algorithm for coding responses; and the targeted audiences, a mix of urban and rural and pubic and private school teachers throughout the United States. Hearing the plan, Koedinger reminded the students of the importance of pacing the different phases of the project. “Your plan is very ambitious, and I hate to discourage you from being too ambitious, but you may need to narrow your focus,” he says.

Stamper and Koedinger offered numerous suggestions on interviewing during the 80-minute meeting, such as the importance of coding their interviews for later retrieval, spot-transcribing the contents, asking questions that elicit stories, rather than “yes or no” answers, and tracking compelling quotes.

“They’ve been a great help, because none of us have worked in this capacity or have had industry experience before,” Potter says. “They’re there to guide us on the questions to ask, which research methods work best, what people we should be talking to.”

Koedinger says the process for developing a new educational product is rigorous. “The students do field research in the spring, where they go around talking to customers or new potential users of the product,” he says. “By the end of spring, they’ll create a highly professional document that reports on what they discovered and what their design ideas for the new product are. Over the summer, they’ll do repeated interactive designs of that software product that’s been through cycles of improvement.”

It’s that rigor that attracted Martina Pavelko, the Stanford University alumna, to the METALS program. She was uninspired by the traditional master’s in education programs offered by other universities.

“I wanted something that was a little more forward-looking, a little more technically driven,” Pavelko says. “METALS is very practical and recognizes the realities of a really technological world, where there are more devices in a house than there are family members.”

Koedinger calls the approach of HCII’s Capstone Project courses “unique, even within Carnegie Mellon.” Other universities have programs involving corporate sponsorship, says, Koedinger, but HCII’s $80,000 participation fee insures higher levels of involvement from industry participants. On the METALS project, BloomBoard staff work closely with their student team, including three face-to-face meetings during the eight-month project and weekly videoconferences.

In addition to the METALS’ Capstone Project, there are 13 other projects currently going within HCII’s other master’s program, the Master’s in Human-Computer Interaction, Koedinger says.
Does the experience pay off for industry partners as well as students? Koedinger thinks so: “In the end, our corporate sponsors will get a product that’s not far from what they’d get if they hired a consulting firm for $200,000."

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Linda K. Schmitmeyer is a freelance writer and editor and teaches at Point Park University’s School of Communications. |