Carnegie Mellon University’s Learning Engineering Community

For all the research being done in the learning sciences, how much are college classrooms appropriating that data and adapting to it? Are people learning better in today’s classrooms than they were in the past?

To describe improvements in learning, Herb Simon coined the phrase “learning engineering” nearly 50 years ago at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Today, CMU is building a community around Simon’s idea.

Dr. Richard Scheines, Dean of The Dietrich College of Humanities & Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss the community they’re hoping to build around learning engineering.

What Is OpenSimon?

“The best way to describe this is that we’ve been engaging in research in this space … for really 30 or 40 years,” Richard told us. “We’ve used (grant) money to do research on what works to improve learning. And we’ve also developed a lot of techniques and tools that are really important to be able to accelerate and do that whole process efficiently.”

At a certain point, CMU decided to make those tools available to as many people as possible. To do that efficiently and effectively, CMU created a suite of tools that supports the entire lifecycle of designing, developing, delivering, and using data to improve educational projects.

“If we put those tools into a position where everybody else could use them, then we can not only get others to help us improve the tools and develop them,” Richard said, “but we can (also) help others improve their own educational offerings in a demonstrably meaningful way.”

For example, CMU offers a course called teaching introductory statistics, a topic that nearly everybody has to take and most everybody seems to hate. The university realized quickly that this course was not as effective as it could be, so the school went through a first aid process called cognitive task analysis. Through that process, the school asked questions such as: What are the chunks of knowledge the professor is trying to communicate? What are the skills we need to impart to the students? Where are the students lacking in those chunks of knowledge and skills?

“One of the things we discovered right away was that when students are looking to make a plot of some data to tell other people what’s going on in that data, they didn’t know what plot to use,” Richard told us.

So they chose the plot by going down a menu in a program like Minitab and picking the plots in order. The course learners completely lacked any understanding of what it would take to produce a meaningful plot.

“(To solve that), we developed a set of lessons that guide them in terms of what the variables are they had to actually analyze, whether they were discrete, whether they were continuous, and what plot they should choose depending upon the variables,” Richard said.

The effect was amazing. After a few iterations, the students could take that course in half the time and learn up to six times as much.

How Will OpenSimon Facilitate, Develop & Grow a Community?

CMU recently unveiled the Simon Suite, an OpenSimon set of tools, and Richard and his team called on the community both to use and to help improve the tools. The team also asked for new tools to add to their repository and for collaboration on building content and collecting data.

“It’s really an effort to try to involve anybody who is focused on learning outcomes,” Richard sad. “And let me just be clear on this for a second. This is sort of an important distinction. There’s been a lot of hype or a lot of press, if you will, about MOOCs and about all the progress that’s been made in putting courses out there and making them accessible for the entire world, many of them free. And that’s been great. And I think it’s been incredibly successful in certain pockets. But the focus of that effort is to take the existing model of how courses are delivered, which is somebody giving a lecture and then maybe giving a quiz and then make that available to as many people all around the world as possible.”

So if you have a course in physics and you have a great professor, it doesn’t take much to video the professor giving lectures, put a couple of quizzes online, and then disseminate that to the entire world. But the focus of OpenSimon is not wide dissemination but what it takes to actually get students to learn.

“To do that,” Richard said, “one has to pay a lot of attention to providing environments in which the students can do exercises and get good feedback, get targeted feedback, and then have the data that you collect on what the students are doing inform how you iterate and improve the activities.”

Next-Steps Learning Engineering Advice

“The first thing for sure is to go to our website on the Simon Initiative at Carnegie Mellon,” Richard told us. “Click on OpenSimon and then join the community. We have an open invitation to anybody interested to join.”

Lots of information about the tools is available. There’s information about workshops, webinars, and seminars CMU is going to offer. The more people that join the community and the more CMU can understand what people want and what they actually hope to gain out of a collaboration, the better the university will be able to lead this effort.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Richard Scheines from Carnegie Mellon University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.

Eric Olsen

Eric brings more than a decade of award-winning creative brand development, marketing analytics and higher education experience to Helix Education. Eric is a graduate of Bradley University and earned his MBA at Lewis University.