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Cyberlearning Experts Awarded $1.34 Million to Create Sustained Knowledge-Building Networks

Sharing Technological Infrastructures and Learning Designs Help Address Global Issues

The new NSF-funded project led by UAlbany's Jianwei Zhang will connect idea threads among an international network of classroom communities.

ALBANY, N.Y. (September 2, 2014) — A team of scholars led by University at Albany researcher Jianwei Zhang has received $1.34 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a multi-layer cyberlearning platform that will cultivate collaborative inquiry-based practices across classroom communities in America and internationally.

Zhang, associate professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice, is principal investigator on the four-year project, which will connect the idea threads of different classroom communities using Idea Thread Mapper (ITM), a collective knowledge mapping tool which traces and visualizes threads of ideas growing in extended online discussions. Zhang created ITM through a previous NSF grant with Co-PI Mei-Hwa Chen of UAlbany’s Department of Computer Science.

Elementary school teachers and students from Albany, New York; Toronto, Canada; and Singapore will participate in the research.

NSF project PI Jianwei Zhang & Co-PI Mei-Hwa Chen of UAlbany

Cyberlearning project principal investigator Jianwei Zhang of the School of Education, left, and co-PI Mei-Hwa Chen of the College of Computing and Information.

Zhang believes that the key element for schools preparing students to expand society’s knowledge in the 21st Century is extended inquiry through collaborative knowledge building. His previous research demonstrated this approach’s positive effect upon students in grade 3-6 classrooms who investigated core scientific issues using a collaborative online environment.

“In that study, deepening ideas and questions successively built on one another to sustain the community’s inquiry over multiple months, resulting in sophisticated explanations and a shared desire to continually go deeper,” said Zhang.

“This new project,” he continued, “will create innovative technological infrastructures and learning designs to support such a trajectory of inquiry in each classroom, and further extend it to an international network of classrooms that co-investigates problems of global importance.”

Zhang said that such a cross-community knowledge space is missing in current designs of collaborative online environments, and he noted that sustained progressive trajectories of inquiry remain rare in today’s classrooms.

Robert Bangert-Drowns, dean of UAlbany’s School of Education, said, "Collaboration is essential to learning and innovation. Technologies can support collaboration, but they also can flood collaborators with too much information. Dr. Zhang's ground-breaking work on the visualization of discourse in collaborative knowledge-building addresses this vital issue and anticipates inevitable developments in the ways humans work together when learning with technology. I am honored that the UAlbany School of Education is a center for such research."

The project’s research team includes Zhang’s UAlbany colleagues Mei-Hwa Chen (Co-PI), Feng Chen, and Siwei Lyu of Computer Science, and Alan Oliverio of Educational Theory and Practice, plus renowned learning scientists Carolyn Rosé of Carnegie Mellon University and Marlene Scardamalia of the University of Toronto.

The project will integrate a set of advanced automated analysis tools to discover productive idea threads based on online discourse data, trace student contributions, and nurture idea connections. The results promise new advances in the science of learning and important insights into how students learn and build knowledge together across traditional boundaries in ways that achieve deep, creative outcomes.

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