Brain, Body, World
Ivon Arroyo and colleagues innovate ways to support teachers and students using embodied learning, AI, and game design.
By this point, we're all familiar with remote learning. Students can learn anytime, any place, with an internet connection and a smartphone. But remote learning is far from the cutting-edge of educational technology these days.
For Associate Professor Ivon Arroyo and her team of researchers in the Advanced Learning Technology (ALT) Lab, the most interesting questions about learning unfold at the crossroads of the physical and virtual. Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, game design, and mobile technology, students are now able to experience the physical classroom as a digitally mediated space, one that works in harmony with the content they study on computers, tablets, and phones, in addition to physical materials and school spaces.
It all ties back to embodied learning, a concept that describes using the body and physical movement to interact with—and learn within—your environment.
"Ideas aren't just in the mind," says Arroyo, who shares a faculty appointment between the College of Education and the Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS). "Intelligent behavior emerges from the interplay of the brain, the body, and the world around us."
In Arroyo's case, embodied learning is the ideal counterpart to her other passion: inventing new technologies that support science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning. She views K–12 learners much like theater students who learn lines of dialogue and choreographed movements at the same time. For Arroyo, the connection between cognition and motion is plain to see.
"Most kids are very active and need to move while they learn," she explains. "I like to address the needs of different people while they’re learning, and be faithful to their cognitive, social, and affective realities and needs to best develop and grow."
Arroyo's drive for innovation stems from the network of colleagues she has worked with at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and UMass Amherst, notably Beverly Woolf, a research professor and emeritus faculty member in CICS. Arroyo has received a number of grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support her research, including two NSF Early-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) grants, which fund radically exploratory work that is "untested" but has "potentially transformative" impact on research ideas and methods. Currently, Arroyo's funding support totals upwards of $1.1 million.
"Intelligent behavior emerges from the interplay of the brain, the body, and the world around us." — Ivon Arroyo
In the ALT lab, Arroyo and her team of researchers dream up ways to enhance STEM learning. One of the projects they have been steadily refining for a few years is WearableLearning. Students fasten a smartphone to their wrist and then open a web program loaded with STEM activities and fun, active games. What makes this program unique is its fluid design and how students interact with the phone, physical materials, the environment, and other students. When students get stuck, the WearableLearning games provide them with customized feedback, prompts, and words of encouragement. Students are also able to play the role of gamemaker and design their own activities.
The WearableLearning curriculum itself gets students out of their seats and up on their feet, moving around the classroom to work with their peers, discover, discern, discard, build or measure objects, and even compete in group-based challenges.
In one WearableLearning game, students are prompted to identify different shapes after being provided clues about their color, number of sides, and geometry. They then race to another location in the room, collect the designated shapes, and return to their home base, where they assemble a puzzle. This experience is exhilarating, both for the students engaged in the activity, and Arroyo's researchers, all of whom take detailed notes about what they observe.
"What we've found is that students don't give up right away," says Krishna Chaitanya Rao Kathala, a first-year doctoral student in the College of Education. "Through this embodiment approach, we've realized that kids get better ideas. Playing games also engenders more collaboration between them."
Learning-through-gaming also helps children maintain their focus on content they may perceive as uninteresting. By deemphasizing the fact that students are learning at school, games help students make stronger connections—and build new knowledge—through learning activities rooted in play.
Considering that the average American adult spends roughly 4.8 hours per day using mobile apps, Arroyo's WearableLearning curriculum meets children where they already are—immersed in a world where everything is accessible on the go. For "digital natives," technology is omnipresent. Keeping this in mind, Arroyo's team leverages technology to ensure the educational playing field is leveled.
"Our work is important because these tutoring systems can provide high quality instruction at a low cost," says Boming Zhang, a graduate student member of ALT's software engineering team and a second-year CICS doctoral student.
Unlike other forms of academic research, educational technology (EdTech) is optimized for scaling up. Apps can be quickly accessed and downloaded by vast numbers of users, and they can operate on a range of devices like tablets and smartphones. Allison Poh, a second-year doctoral student in CICS, is part of the app development team tasked with translating WearableLearning’s current format (a web application) and programming a standalone app that can be downloaded to an Android device.
"By building technologies that allow for embodied and collaborative learning we are giving young students the opportunity to become fully involved in their own, and each other's, learning processes." — Allison Poh, CICS doctoral student
In economically depressed school districts, programs like WearableLearning can supplement the educator workforce. Thanks to innovations in artificial intelligence and adaptive tutoring, software can analyze the type of support students need in real time, and offer personalized guidance for solving problems.
"These technologies won’t replace teachers," Arroyo insists. "It's as if they multiply and multiplex the teacher into twenty to help support individual students and provide valuable information and analytics to the teacher through Dashboards so that they can understand how to support their students better."
MathSpring, another software program developed by the ALT lab and the Center for Knowledge Communication (CICS), uses artificial intelligence (AI) features to support students preparing for standardized tests in math. When students get stuck on a problem, they can ask for hints, watch videos, and request to see fully worked-out example problems. MathSpring can even analyze student faces using computer vision to determine when they get distracted and go-off task; the program also tracks students' effort when they give up solving a math problem. MathSpring provides an option for educators to enable a cartoon avatar who empathizes with the student, trains their growth mindset, provides messages of support, and encourages students to ask for help.
This all has the effect of reducing "math anxiety," says Injila Rasul, a doctoral student at UMass Amherst and the ALT lab's data analysis expert. According to Rasul, mathematics is often branded as a challenging, even scary, academic discipline. This characterization is problematic, she notes, because math skills are invaluable to broadening students' career options. It is all the more important, Rasul adds, to make interventions in school districts with high percentages of students from historically marginalized backgrounds.
"Had I been taught in a way that was playful, that was less fearful, I think I would have had a much better journey through the world of math," she said. "That's something I want to personally correct for."
Both the College of Education and CICS share mission statements focused on justice for the common good. These commitments are carried through into every aspect of the research and design process. Francisco Castro is a postdoctoral research associate with CICS and is the ALT lab's engineering manager and research scientist. At weekly software development and research meetings, he interfaces with other members of the research team to define pathways for moving ALT's technologies forward.
When designing learning technologies, "Which questions should we be asking? Why—and to whom—do they matter?" is one of Castro’s mantras. When computer science addresses the why of technological innovation, the answers can often lead to establishing best practices in the field, he said.
A prime example is the intersection of capitalism and technology development. New devices, apps, and services are created to make money, generate advertising revenue, or collect user data.
"Different technologies can offer many services and benefits to people, but we also have to be cognizant of the harms that they can cause," Castro notes. "We should be constantly and consistently reflecting on our goals. What harmful practices are embedded?"
Cost is one factor that the ALT lab addresses head-on. WearableLearning and MathSpring are both available to teachers at no cost. But there are also cultural considerations. Rather than exporting a singular educational technology designed in Western contexts and assuming that it will work for all learners, Arroyo and her team are hard at work evaluating whether or not their curricula works in international classroom settings.
In 2019, Arroyo traveled to her home country of Argentina for two and a half months to study whether WearableLearning and MathSpring are equally beneficial to students in Spanish-speaking settings. These efforts proved successful and were well-received by students and their teachers.
"It was very special for me to bring learning technologies that we have created at the lab to my native country," says Arroyo. "It's a different reality there, and in the developing world in general; for instance, there are a lot more students per teacher, more students per computer, among others. It helped me understand that it's possible to localize these learning technologies and respectfully bring them to other cultures, who may have different values, priorities, and other cultural differences."
"Our goal is not just to build the systems, but to be aware of the applications. We want to be sensitive to culture, place, everything." — Krishna Kathala, EDUC doctoral student
In the summer of 2022, Sai Gattupalli, a doctoral student in the College of Education, traveled to Telangana, India, to conduct an additional research study on WearableLearning’s portability. He facilitated a week-long curriculum for 83 students in 6th and 7th grades, focusing on gameplay and game-creation activities. The enthusiasm among students and instructors alike was a welcome sight, Gattupalli said, because STEM literacy wasn't prioritized in the curriculum that he engaged with as a child. His experience attending a public school in India centered on text-based lessons that lacked opportunities to practice computational thinking, creativity, and problem-solving in general.
"Due to the fun and active-learning nature of WearableLearning, we received an amazing and positive response from both the students and school staff," he said. "At present, we are analyzing the collected data, and we are hopeful that we will find interesting insights into how learners' culture influences their game designs."
Gathering data sets outside of New England ensures that if the ALT lab distributes its educational technology beyond the US market, it will be culturally responsive to learners of all backgrounds.
One of the unifying threads of Arroyo's work is designing innovative technologies that recognize the importance of empathy. Whenever her team visits a local classroom, the researchers take note of the "messy data" contained in student comments, questions, and anxieties.
"I feel directly connected with the community as I go about promoting and advocating for STEM education, especially in the underrepresented areas of our society." — Sai Gattupalli, EDUC doctoral student
During a visit to the Boys and Girls Club of Holyoke, Rasul recalls overhearing a young bilingual student say that she was worried about writing her reflection in English. Rasul immediately took this piece of feedback to the ALT team, and began working on revising the curriculum to allow for responses in multiple languages. This real-time update to the curriculum reflects a commitment to empathy-based design, as well as empathy-based learning.
"A student would say, 'My brother isn’t that good with multiplication, so I want to make a game that will help him,'" recalls Arroyo. "In the process, they're learning so many valuable things: game design, math, computer science, and the value of computing for the common good. They're also changing their perspective and putting themselves in the shoes of the teacher."
Images of students using technology courtesy of Boys and Girls Club of Holyoke