Vision quest: Exploring new models of learning

by Timothy Gower
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Associate Dean for Research James Slotta
| April 28, 2017

Jim Slotta is a pioneer in the study of how the Internet and other new technologies can be used in teaching. But in recent years he has focused much of his research on what he believes is an equally powerful educational tool: the collective wisdom of the classroom.

“I’m exploring new models of learning,” says Slotta, who was hired this spring as the first associate dean for research at the Lynch School of Education (LSOE), a job he officially begins in fall 2016. (He’ll serve as a visiting scholar in the interim while wrapping up his work at the University of Toronto.)

His is a critical appointment for LSOE, according to Dean Maureen Kenny. She notes that many of the 55 full-time faculty members of the Lynch School are nationally and internationally respected scholars in education and applied psychology who secured more than $14.6 million in funds to support research in the academic year 2013–14. (Although it has just seven percent of Boston College’s faculty, the Lynch School generated 27 percent of Boston College’s sponsored research in fiscal year 2014.) Slotta’s job will be to work closely with faculty to advance the research profile and productivity of a school already known for important scholarship, Kenny says. His position was created in part to support the six “pillars of excellence” that distinguish a Lynch School education, which include “making research matter,” she adds.

James Slotta

Jim Slotta is a pioneer in the study of how the Internet and other new technologies can be used in teaching. But in recent years he has focused much of his research on what he believes is an equally powerful educational tool: the collective wisdom of the classroom.

“I’m exploring new models of learning,” says Slotta, who was hired this spring as the first associate dean for research at the Lynch School of Education (LSOE), a job he officially begins in fall 2016. (He’ll serve as a visiting scholar in the interim while wrapping up his work at the University of Toronto.)

Slotta comes to Boston College from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, where he has held the Canada Research Chair in Education and Technology since 2006. Over the last decade, Slotta has investigated collective inquiry—the idea that students in a classroom, aided by technology, can learn about complex science topics such as biodiversity and evolution through collaboration.

Slotta’s own interest in the sciences dates back to his undergraduate days, when he studied physics at Case Institute of Technology in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. When he graduated in 1987, Slotta’s academic focus took what he concedes was “an interesting right turn”—he decided to pursue a master’s degree in cognitive psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. During his time at UMass, Slotta became intrigued by the study of reasoning and learning in science and education. That helped guide his decision to pursue a doctorate in psychology with influential cognitive learning scientist Michelene “Micki” Chi, who was then director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

Chi, now at Arizona State University, at the time was developing a theory of how common misconceptions about science impede learning. She argued that people often mistakenly conceive of scientific phenomena in material terms. For instance, we think about electricity as “juice” running through wire, when it’s actually the migration of electric charge in a circuit. Working with Chi in the mid-1990s, Slotta conducted experiments demonstrating that these shared misconceptions can prevent students from grasping concepts in physics. Those could be countered, the researchers determined, if teachers avoided using material metaphors in instruction and instead used more precise and descriptive language to explain physics concepts.

That experience inspired Slotta to delve more deeply into education research. “I caught the bug of helping learners learn,” he says. Slotta came to that realization in the mid-1990s, a time when the power of the Internet and World Wide Web were just beginning to gather force. In 1995, only about 23,500 websites existed; that figure increased more than 10-fold by the following year. (There are an estimated one billion websites today, according to Internet Live Stats.) Slotta heard about a group of researchers at the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, who were exploring how the revolution occurring in the world of technology might be used in an educational setting. “They were going to take a look at this Internet thing and see if they could put it to use for learning,” says Slotta, “so I just jumped on it.”

In 1996, while he was working on his Ph.D., Slotta joined the UC/Berkeley group, led by educational psychologist Marcia Linn. He served as project manager for the group’s Knowledge Integration Environment (KIE) initiative. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), KIE was a software program that provided students with instructional “scaffolding,” or a set of tools to help them learn about science topics by using carefully selected websites, hold online discussions with peers, and perform other tasks while working with increasing independence.

As the Internet grew faster and more nimble, Slotta began thinking about how to build on the KIE concept. “I got this idea that we could push the technology to the next level,” he says. The result of Slotta’s inspiration and collaboration with Berkeley colleagues is WISE (for Web-based Inquiry Science Environment), which debuted in 1998. WISE is an online platform that allows students (primarily in middle and high schools) to explore specific science topics in depth, such as the role of wolves in an ecosystem or how to recycle old tires.

Students view questions and problems from different perspectives and debate answers and solutions. Meanwhile, the teacher moves about the room, talking about the key issues with small groups and occasionally pausing the class for a broader discussion. Students form and test hypotheses as they progress through an activity. To date, nearly 20,000 teachers and half a million students have used WISE, which has been translated into such languages as Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Spanish, Dutch, and Norwegian, says Slotta. Moreover, WISE has served as a vehicle for more than $15 million in NSF-funded research and continues to grow.

By the time Slotta moved on to the University of Toronto in 2005, his ideas about using technology in the classroom had begun to evolve. That happened in part because of the incredible growth of the World Wide Web and the emergence of Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and other sites built upon shared ideas, articles, photos, and other content posted by users who also offer comments and critiques, or share and create links between content sites. “Seemingly overnight, the web had evolved into a participatory social network of user-contributed content and social transactions,” he says.

Slotta believed that what worked on social media could be applied to the classroom: students can learn by acting as collaborative researchers. He developed a teaching model he calls Knowledge Community and Inquiry (KCI), in which students learn as a group instead of working as individuals. Using techniques borrowed from social media and content aggregators, such as adding, editing, and linking content, they create a “community knowledge base” to be used as a learning resource. When members of a knowledge community contribute individual wisdom and experience, Slotta says, “that allows one’s peers to become a real asset to learning.”

To study and apply the KCI concept, Slotta developed a framework called Scalable Architecture for Interactive Learning (SAIL), which he thinks of as the next step beyond WISE. SAIL creates a “smart classroom,” in which students study wall-sized simulations of a rain forest or the planets, he explained. They record their observations on handheld tablets, which they share with fellow students and collect on a Smart board at the front of the room in real time.

Slotta emphasizes that the smart classroom and collective inquiry remain experimental education tools. They aren’t yet a substitute for traditional teaching methods, especially with the current emphasis on standardized testing. “I’m a basic researcher in the learning sciences. I’m trying to figure out how people learn,” says Slotta. His goal, he explains, is to offer powerful examples of how teachers and students use the models he develops, with hopes that other researchers will test them and discover ways to bring his ideas into classrooms. His collaborators insist that Slotta’s ideas have already had an important impact. “His work has resulted in innovative learning environments and deep insights into how students make sense of science,” says Linn.

Slotta plans to continue his research as he helps his new colleagues at Boston College develop and conduct their own. Toward that goal, he says he’ll initially spend time consulting with senior faculty at Boston College. “I’ll be trying to learn: What is the ideal research climate at BC, and how can we all help make that come together?” says Slotta. He has been successful and creative when it comes to funding and administering his own research, having received about $20 million in grants during his career. Slotta says he looks forward to working closely with newer faculty to write effective proposals for funding and ensure that grants are properly administered.

Ultimately, Slotta believes his own research focus can be applied to enhance the Lynch School’s scholarly work. “I hope to create a knowledge community among faculty at the Lynch School and across Boston College that will help us succeed at research,” he says. “I’m going to look for ways to use that knowledge to our advantage.”