Nine faculty groups to receive grants for digital and online technology

Renzo Downey, Reporter

Nine faculty groups will receive grants for the 2016-17 academic year to incorporate innovative digital and online technology into classrooms and massive open online classrooms (MOOCs).

The projects, chosen by a Faculty Distance Learning Workgroup selection committee, will receive $250,000 from the Office of the Provost. Each group can receive up to $50,000.

The workgroup, created in Fall 2012 by the Office of the Provost, collaborated with the office to offer the grant for the first time in the 2014-15 academic year, said Marianna Kepka, assistant provost for academic administration.

When selecting grant winners, the Office of the Provost and the workgroup look for projects that affect many students and are innovative or push boundaries in technology, said Kepka, who is a member of the workgroup.

In one of the projects, McCormick Profs. Seyed Iravani, Noshir Contractor as well as Jacqueline Ng, a Ph.D. student in industrial engineering and management sciences, are designing Nebula, which is a graphical and networked discussion board to generate meaningful discussion and improve learning retention in MOOCs.

Contractor and Ng saw discussion increase between students during a successful pilot of Nebula in Fall Quarter 2015, Ng said. Nine courses are using the discussion board this quarter, she said.

For the Nebula project, the grant will pay for research on how students use the new discussion board and what they learn from it, Contractor said.

“The technology has the potential for improving learning outcomes, but there are a lot of things that need to happen with the use of technology to make sure that the desired learning outcomes happen,” Contractor said.

The grant also encourages blended or flipped classes, which model courses around the professor as a guide in discussions or instruct students on how to complete tasks as opposed to lecturing, Kepka said.

Earth and Planetary Sciences Prof. Suzan van der Lee, the leader of another project, said she is improving scientific computing in a course she taught in Fall 2015, which used readings and code — interspersed with quiz questions — to reinforce learning. The grant will fund research to redesign a Fall 2016 course. A similar Summer 2016 course will be offered, except it will take place entirely online, she said.

“You only really learn how to do (tasks) well by doing it, not by sitting in lecture and listening to the theory about scientific computing,” Van der Lee said. “When you’re doing it, things pop up. Things click into place.”

In another project, French and Italian Profs. Christiane Rey, Patricia Scarampi and Aude Raymond are creating online courseware for the intermediate French classes that will establish and focus on weak areas in students’ grammar. The grant will subsidize the Multimedia Learning Center’s creation of the code for analyzing the students’ grammar, Rey said.

Ultimately, as technology becomes more involved in people’s everyday lives, Kepka said she hopes technology and education will become more strongly linked.

“It would be great if we got to a point — and I think not just at Northwestern, but in higher education generally — where we don’t really talk about digital learning,” Kepka said. “We talk about learning, and it’s implied that of course we’re using any number of digital tools to help that.”

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