Brain, Body, World
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.”
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.”
“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
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."
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?”
“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
Gathering data sets outside of New England ensures that if the ALT lab distributes its educational technology beyond the U.S. 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