Carnegie Mellon University

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Pittsburgh’s Universities Go to Summer School

PCHE teachers at the Simon Initiative Summer School.

Educators from nine Pittsburgh universities came together this summer with one shared goal: to improve education.

Carnegie Mellon University’s Simon Initiative collaborated with the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education (PCHE) to hold the first-of-its-kind PCHE Simon Summer School to support educators in incorporating Simon technologies and approach into their instruction at their home institutions.

According to Norman Bier, executive director of the Simon Initiative and director of CMU’s Open Learning Initiative, a focus on evidence is one of the key features that distinguishes the Simon approach from other, more intuition-based approaches to instruction. This evidence-based approach supports a careful integration of technology and uses data to continuously refine and improve instruction, leading to better student learning while supporting new discoveries in the learning sciences.

"The Simon approach takes current learning research and uses that research to design new, innovative learning experiences," Bier said. "Those experiences provide data we use to continuously improve the learning experience and advance learning research. It’s a virtuous cycle that leads with research, focuses on improving instruction and is very data-centric."

So, why does this matter?

"It’s important because we know that a scientific, iterative approach is going to improve outcomes," Bier said. "It’s important because it’s an evidence-based approach using education technology — leading with research rather than adopting technology for its own sake. And it’s important because of the opportunity to build on PCHE’s history of successful collaboration; there’s a great opportunity for Pittsburgh to serve as a tightly-connected eco-system across these institutions."

Nine PCHE universities sent three to five representatives — typically an educator with a specific instructional challenge, a technologist and an instructional designer — to the summer school. They worked as a team to develop a new teaching practice in the form of a module. The session was structured so that each team could take their modules back to their universities and begin incorporating them into coursework.

Ryan O’Grady, assistant professor of mathematics at La Roche College, used the summer session to create a supplement to a developmental math course, which roughly 80-85 percent of LaRoche’s freshmen take. The module his team made is an out-of-the-classroom addition to reinforce what students learned in the classroom.

"A lot of the times, the students who are placed in this course are there because they don’t know how to be a good student," O’Grady said. "And, that’s reversible by using something like this. It helps answer the 'why' questions in math and encourages students to consider every equation while recognizing patterns."

The summer school's participants plan to reconvene a few times over the next year to check in with each other’s progress to offer cross-institutional support. Ideally, Bier also plans for them to return as mentors next summer to create a network of experienced practitioners within Pittsburgh.

"It was really exciting to see the teams present their course modules on the last day of the institute," said Bier. "They did a remarkable amount of work in such a short period of time, and were able create some robust, well designed learning experiences, across a huge range of domains – I can’t wait to see how the project develop over the school year."

Faculty members at a PCHE institution who are interested in using the Simon-approach in their classrooms can contact their institution’s center for teaching and learning for more information on opportunities to get involved. They can also learn more at the Simon website, including about the many tools available, or by contacting the initiative directly.

Named for the late CMU Nobel Laureate Professor Herbert A. Simon, the Simon Initiative aims to measurably improve student learning outcomes by harnessing a learning engineering ecosystem that has developed over several decades at CMU.

By Stefanie Johndrow