COVID-19 Ignites New Education Research

by Tom Hanlon  /   Aug 24, 2020

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COVID-19 has challenged higher education—and spurred a flurry of research activity in the College of Education at the University of Illinois.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then COVID-19 created a landslide of need that has spawned new research in the University of Illinois’ College of Education.

In response to the pandemic, the College has provided seed funding for 10 projects, all related to the impacts of COVID-19 on education and society. “We wanted to support our researchers, particularly as they think about how to transition to new modes of research,” says Gabrielle Allen, the College’s associate dean for research and research education. “We know there’s been a big disruption to school-based research, and we wanted to incentivize researchers to start looking at alternative data sources and collection methods.”

The project money is coming from endowment accounts normally reserved for travel—“But when it quickly became clear that no one was going to be traveling [last spring], we thought let’s do something with those funds to emphasize the importance of educational research related to COVID-19,” Allen explains. Beth Niswander, the Director of Strategic Initiatives in the Bureau of Educational Research (BER), worked with the members of the College Research Committee to rapidly put together and manage a solicitation and review process.

The hope, Allen adds, is that these activities —each of which has received “seed” funding of up to $5,000—will turn into full-blown projects that could receive larger-scale funding from major federal foundations. “A little money can go a long way,” Allen says. “If we got one or two of these projects funded on a larger scale, I’d be over the moon. We’ve put $41,000 into this, and if we had new research funded for half a million dollars, it’d be a big win. I’d call that a very good return on investment.”

The projects range from studying changes in undergraduate STEM motivation due to the pandemic to developing an “interactive automatic counselor” to serve as a risk assessment tool to help people navigate day-to-day uncertainties related to COVID-19 to adapting preschools to online learning (see COVID-19 Funded Research Projects, below, for more).

“The projects show the breadth of scholarship in the College,” Allen says. “We have to think about things more holistically, looking at the grand challenges in education that we need to address.”

No matter the area of research, the ultimate goal is societal impact, Allen says. “That’s what we’re looking at. How can we contribute to improving outcomes for our community now, while we also support our researchers in their careers, and support our students to continue their studies? This was the motivation for us in designing this solicitation.

“If we want to see real societal impact, then we absolutely need to be doing more interdisciplinary research, around clusters of activities, so we can look at the grand challenges of education.”

Allen, who also oversees the BER, points to the importance of the BER in driving and supporting transformative research—not just in the College of Education, but across campus.

“There are many initiatives on campus, and most of them involve education in some way,” she says. “Part of the role of the bureau is to be a matchmaker, to keep an eye on what is going on outside the College, so we can help connect our faculty into other projects.”

COVID-19 has certainly changed education—not just for now, but for the future as well, Allen says. And that makes the current research that much more critical.

“I think it will take some time, but hopefully in future we’ll look back and see how this was a turning point leading to new innovations and approaches for improving education and addressing education disparities,” she notes. “So, we want to make sure that our research in the College reflects that and is looking to the future.”

COVID-19 Seed-Funded Research Projects

A brief overview of the 10 projects:

  1. How higher education institutional responses to COVID-19 have influenced college students’ well-being, motivation, sense of belonging, and other sociocultural factors of identity.
  2. How the suspension of athletic competition due to COVID-19 has impacted the aspirations and beliefs of black males who play sports in a K-12 setting for whom athletic achievement may be perceived as a ticket to success.
  3. How switching courses to online instruction during COVID-19 has affected undergraduate biology students’ motivation for biology and their desire to remain in a STEM field.
  4. How an artificial intelligence tool (the “Interactive Automatic Counselor,” for which a prototype will be developed), can help people navigate day-to-day uncertainties related to COVID-19.
  5. How a newly-developed engagement program (“We CU”) can facilitate and recognize undergraduate student-led volunteer responses from across the campus to community needs during COVID-19.
  6. How online museum experiences can support at-home science learning, and whether they provide equitable access for all families.
  7. What roles community-based immigrant-serving nonprofits are playing in bridging home and school during COVID-19.
  8. How preschools can adapt to the reality of socially-distant teaching and learning during a global pandemic.
  9. Whether K-12 school closures slow the spread of COVID-19.
  10. How a multiplayer participatory simulation game can be adapted for online use to help student teams learn to collaborate and make decisions that affect the natural environment.