Global Impact

UF awarded $10 million in grants to personalize virtual learning

The University of Florida is assembling researchers from multiple fields to seek solutions in two areas of 21st century education – personalizing online math instruction and adapting educational technology for students with visual impairments.

The studies are funded by two grants, worth more than $10 million combined, from the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

Nearly $9 million of the grant money supports a new project called Precision Education: Virtual Learning Lab, which brings together top experts in informatics, math education and professional development for teachers. Their charge is to advance a new approach for exploring massive sets of archived student data to update and personalize virtual instruction for future math students.

“With the increased use of computers in education, the large-scale mining of existing education data represents a big new opportunity for computers to help teachers adapt their practice for today’s digltal world and help their students to improve their virtual learning,” said UF education technology professor Carole R. Beal, the principal investigator of both studies (pictured above).

The new Virtual Learning Lab team comprises faculty researchers at UF and the University of Notre Dame, and experts from Study Edge, a Gainesville-based online tutoring company.

Over the next five years, the researchers will conduct studies in the emerging discipline of precision education, which uses large-scale education data from prior students — such as standardized test scores, administrative records from schools and universities, and teaching methods used — to personalize the learning experience for future individual students.

No more one-size-fits-all lesson plans geared to some “statistically average” student profile.

The researchers will focus on online or virtual learners in math using the new technology of “big data” learning analysis. The precision education approach has researchers using powerful supercomputers to rapidly scrutinize the massive education data, plus figures from students’ use of interactive or group learning tools.

“Our grand challenge is to improve the achievement of struggling online students,” said Beal, who was recruited to UF’s College of Education from the University of Arizona in 2014 to head the new UF Online Learning Institute. “We will design new teacher development programs on the use of learning analytics and personalizing instruction, and how to track student progress when every student is doing something unique.”

Researchers at the Virtual Learning Lab will develop and test their prototype personalized model of precision education on a popular online tutoring tool called Algebra Nation, which the UF Lastinger Center for Learning launched in 2013 in tandem with Study Edge. Algebra Nation has since been used by more than 3,000 teachers and 200,000 math students from all 67 Florida school districts—mostly ninth graders gearing up for the mandatory end-of-course exam in Algebra 1.

Near the end of the study, researchers will compare test results of students using the updated and personalized version of Algebra Nation with the scores of students using the regular version.

Beal said the Virtual Learning Lab also will serve as a national hub for researchers—forming a network for sharing findings and collaborating on new efforts to advance the fledgling field of precision education and personalized virtual learning.

The project’s co-principal investigator is Walter Leite, UF professor of research and evaluation methodology (REM) with expertise in big-data mining and learning analysis.

Other College of Education faculty researchers involved are: Corinne Huggins-Manley (REM), and Don Pemberton and Philip Poekert from the college’s Lastinger Center for Learning.

Two other participating UF faculty scholars are: George Michailidis, director of the UF Informatics Institute; and Juan Gilbert, chairman of computer and information sciences and engineering, and a pioneer in the field of human-centered computing.

Other key team members are psychology and computer science professor Sidney D’Mello of the University of Notre Dame and online tutoring specialist Ethan Fieldman of Study Edge.

Adapting education technology for math students with visual impairment

The theme of personalized online learning carries over to Beal’s second federal grant, a three-year, $1.4 million project to help solve the unique challenges that visually impaired students must overcome in learning online.

Think about it: How can students who can’t see the images on their computer screen solve algebra or geometry problems filled with line, bar and circle graphs, figures, geometric shapes and maps?

“In my investigations, I have found that students who appear disengaged in the traditional classroom are often among the most active learners in the online learning setting,” Beal said.

For this study, Beal has assembled a research team with colleagues from Arizona and Florida to explore how technology can make online learning more accessible to students with special needs. Nicholas Gage from UF’s special education program is co-principal investigator.

The researchers will develop and test an iPad-based instructional system to train students with visual impairments to locate and decipher targeted information in math graphics problems. The system includes audio, print and braille cues in accompanying books to point users to targeted graphics and word problems.

They plan to recruit up to 150 middle and high school students with visual impairments for the project from regular schools and specialized residential programs in Florida, Arizona and other states.


Larry Lansford Author
UF Photography Photography
December 7, 2016
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