Carnegie Mellon University
October 26, 2020

Learning Engineering in Action

Faculty Dialogues event showcases CMU's learning engineering approach in classes this fall

By Caroline Sheedy

Jason Maderer
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Learning engineering, the way we design and build learning environments, has been a part of Carnegie Mellon University’s approach to education since Herb Simon coined the term more than fifty years ago. This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic affected the way all educators and students teach and learn, it has played an important role in the way CMU faculty shape their classes.

Amy Burkert, vice provost for education, highlighted this in her opening remarks of a Faculty Dialogues panel, Learning Engineering in Action.

“Traditional paradigms of education have been shifting, and the pandemic has served to catalyze and make evident greater needs and new opportunities,” said Burkert.

Burkert explained that this summer CMU enacted an aggressive, comprehensive plan to redesign and deliver more than 10,000 course sections. The plan was led by Marsha Lovett, director of the Eberly Center, associate vice provost for Teaching Innovation and Learning Analytics and a teaching professor in the Department of Psychology, who with her team in the Eberly Center helped ensure a smooth transition to CMU’s hybrid model of teaching and learning this semester. 

“[Lovett] is advancing a culture change on our campus and has seen a record number of faculty members working to incorporate learning engineering into their courses,” Burkert said.

“Learning engineering involves a virtuous cycle”, Lovett explained.

“Research results from learning science guide the design of innovative instructional practices which, when incorporated into a real-world course, produce data on what did and didn’t work for learning,” she said. “That data can then cycle back to improve our theories of learning and our educational innovations.” 

Putting Learning Engineering into Practice

Learning engineering can look different in every course.

In his Global Histories course, one of CMU’s Signature Courses, Department of History Associate Professor Ricky Law incorporated role playing as a way for students to actively engage in historical events.

“I know that students logging in remotely can feel isolated and lonely, so I tackled the problem head on by encouraging collaboration among students,” Law explained on the panel. 

In the class, students work together to simulate the words and behaviors of historical personas, a strategy for active learning, one of the concrete strategies for hybrid and remote learning recommended by the Eberly Center.  

Law said that an unexpected advantage of remote teaching is that more students stay after class to talk with him.

“I find that my class engagement is actually extended now because, after the official lecture is over, there’ll be about two dozen students that stay behind to ask questions in chat. That never happens in the actual physical classroom,” Law said. 

Dilsun Kaynar, an assistant teaching professor in the School of Computer Science, teaches more than 500 students in her Principles of Imperative Computation course alone. She said that teaching remotely at this scale comes with both a challenge and an opportunity. 

“I have to appeal to a wide range of knowledge and skill levels and be able to monitor students’ learning without relying on the one-on-one interactions that would have been possible in a small classroom setting,” Kaynar said. “In order to do a good job, I needed to embrace an approach to teaching that’s informed by developments in learning science, enhanced by technology, and enables me to collect and analyze data to measure how things are going in my courses.” 

“Traditional paradigms of education have been shifting, and the pandemic has served to catalyze and make evident greater needs and new opportunities." — Amy Burkert

Kaynar worked with the Eberly Center to develop online content modules using CMU’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI). This online learning platform allowed her to collect data and estimate the learning level of her students for a given objective, which meant she could easily address common misconceptions her students had or assign extra practice as needed.

“The opportunity that comes with teaching a large number of students is that they are also a rich source of data … measurement allows me to constantly make improvements in my course,” Kaynar said.  

David Yaron, a professor of chemistry in the Mellon College of Science, also talked about his use of the OLI platform in his courses. Before the pandemic, he created a virtual lab environment so that students could practice designing and conducting experiments without having to go to lab. This semester, it has become invaluable. In particular, it helps students prepare for the time they have together in class. 

“What we’re aiming for is an experience for the student, where they get to spend their own time coming up to speed on what we’re going to do in person. This is a technique called flipping the classroom, where students do things online that prepare them for class,” Yaron said. “With OLI, we’ve created materials that everyone can use online.” 

Yaron is feeling more prepared for class, too.

“Using the OLI dashboard, I can see a summary of what my students did online, what they are struggling with, where they are doing well. I can reach out to students who seem to be struggling and offer them personal help,” he said. 

Lessons Learned for the Long Term

Lovett ended the discussion by asking the panelists what aspects of their teaching this semester they will carry forward in the future. For Kaynar, it was as simple as the chat function her students use in Zoom.

“I’ve come to believe that just relying on raising hands in the classroom is not going to be sufficient for me. I want to be able to emulate some aspects of what I’m seeing in Zoom chat in my classroom,” Kaynar said. 

Yaron agreed, noting the cultural shift this semester has brought. 

“We tried, about five years ago, to get our students to put their questions into the chat window during a lecture. Then, they didn’t bite. I wonder, now that they have had this experience, when we try it again in person, if they’ll engage this time,” Yaron said. 

Law noted the global nature of remote learning. 

“I see that CMU Qatar students are signing up for my class; students are logging in live, staying up late into their day and going to live lectures. I find this so encouraging — they are bringing their perspectives to the classroom,” Law said. 

You can watch the full discussion from the CMU Alumni Association website.