'I Feel Like We Have Something Very Special Here'

by Tom Hanlon  /   Mar 26, 2021

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The TIER-ED initiative, begun in 2017, has made significant headway in designing and developing inventive applications of new technologies to enhance learning throughout the lifespan.

One project is developing a Conversational Agent system to provide health information and support self-care for older adults in a healthcare system where providers don’t always have the time to effectively educate their patients.

Another project is working on self-regulated learning training for online courses to improve online learning and address the issues of equity that go with it.

Professor Robb Lindgren, TIER-ED directorThose are just two of the projects that are being supported by the Technology Innovation in Educational Research and Design (TIER-ED) initiative, says Robb Lindgren, director of TIER-ED and an associate professor in Curriculum & Instruction at the College of Education. TIER-ED has formally granted funding to 10 projects through a peer-review competition since its inception.

The initiative draws on campus-wide expertise at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to design, develop, and assess cutting-edge applications of new technologies that are critical to education and learning across the lifespan.

“We’ve been able to fund a number of really exciting pilot projects and student research projects,” Lindgren says. He mentions one project that is exploring applications of virtual reality for science education, two other projects that are addressing technologies for children and families with autism, and another that is implementing a feedback system for formative, automated assessment of student thinking (FAAST) to fuel teacher professional development.

Suffice it to say, TIER-ED has had the pedal to the metal since it was initially funded through the University’s Investment for Growth Program.

New Opportunities Opening Up

“A number of projects have occurred because TIER-ED has opened up opportunities for collaboration that weren’t there before,” Lindgren says. “Previously there was a loose conglomerate of fairly detached researchers doing really good work but doing it independently. TIER-ED has raised awareness about the work other people are doing in this area of technology-enhanced learning. And that has inspired and resourced people to do more of this work in ways that have been really exciting.”

Other opportunities have opened up as well.

“On the industry front, we’ve got some good partnerships coming along with Discovery Partners Institute,” Lindgren says. The institute aims to cultivate research and development around technology across the state of Illinois. “We’re working with them to create an internship program for students who come out of our DELTA (Digital Environments for Learning, Teaching & Agency) undergraduate program.”

In addition, TIER-ED has proposed two new programs, one for undergraduates and one for graduate students. “At the undergraduate level, we’ve proposed a new CS + X program called ‘CS + Education,’ which has two tracks. One track will train students in both the hard skills of computer science and the design skills needed to create technologies to help people learn. The second track will train students to be Computer Science in K-12 schools,” Lindgren says.

What could become a new graduate program is spelled out in a recent proposal to the National Science Foundation. “It’s an interdisciplinary program for students who have come to the University to do STEM research, maybe in engineering, or biology or chemistry, and they want to create learning technologies that accompanies that research,” Lindgren explains. “This program will allow them to get their PhD or master’s degree in their home discipline, and get a certificate and associated mentoring and project work to give them the skills to create educational simulations in their discipline.”

Bringing in Key People

Although TIER-ED has successfully forged collaborations among faculty and students already at Illinois, it has also been a focus to recruit new people with specialized expertise to further the mission of TIER-ED. In 2018, the College brought in three new faculty to contribute to TIER-ED’s research and teaching efforts (Nathan Castillo, Cynthia D’Angelo, and Michael Tissenbaum), and Lindgren notes that TIER-ED has also been part of recruiting additional faculty members through startup funding and other resources.

“And we’re close to hiring a programmer to help develop some of the technology designs that some of our project teams are working on,” he adds.

A Bright Future

Lindgren is proud of TIER-ED’s accomplishments to date and enthused about its future.

“Even after three years, I’m still excited about what our work can accomplish,” he says. “We’re starting to show the fruits of our labor in terms of externally-funded grants, and the energy and enthusiasm of our affiliated faculty and students is keeping the momentum going.

“We’ve managed to land at a minimum three superb faculty members through this initiative who are really doing excellent work by all measures. New projects are being started, new partnerships are being formed, new money is being brought into the campus as a result of this work.

“I feel like we have something very special here.”