PCAST Discusses Information Technology, Massively Open Online Courses, and Hispanic Student Participation and Business Partnerships in STEM Education

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Publication date: 
11 January 2013

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) met on November 30 to discuss science and technology policy issues including reviewing a report on the US networking and information technology research and development program and examining Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  They also received an update about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and heard about effective programs at Florida International University aimed at improving Hispanic student participation in STEM. 

PCAST has a congressionally mandated biennial responsibility to review and report on the US networking and information technology research and development program.  This report includes research and development funded by the government as well as by academic institutions.  The statutory requirements include a report on the state of research and development currently underway as well as recommendations for allocation of program budgets.  The report includes topics such as the Big Data Initiative, physical world interactions with networking and information technology, health information technology, privacy issues, and software improvements.   

Questions from PCAST members focused on what changes and outcomes are expected if the recommendations of the forthcoming report are implemented.  Improvement in the ability of workers in the area of information technology to handle changes in the field was listed as a benefit.  The government would also be able to better track trends in investments in this field.  The link between MOOCs and improvements in information technology was also discussed. 

The next topic on the agenda was an update on the status of MOOCs and how they play a role in STEM education.  MOOCs are large-scale online courses aimed at open access to course information, lessons, and instruction via the internet.  Sebastian Thrun, the CEO of Udacity spoke about how MOOCs can transform educational opportunities.  Specifically, he noted that MOOCs can provide a chance for students to confront challenges in the form of activities and that they are not just a forum for video lectures.  MOOCs can also allow students to work on activities and solve problems on a computer and gain an in-depth understanding of a specific problem.  Thrun addressed challenges that he thought were key to the integration of MOOCs in classrooms in the areas of technology development, pedagogy, and assessment.  Regarding technology development, there is a need to improve the use of technology in classrooms as MOOCs are integrated into education.  He went on to outline the need to address changes in pedagogy and teaching methods.  As MOOCs are incorporated into the classroom, teaching methods and the role of the teacher will change.  Lastly, he mentioned that MOOCs allow student tailored education that is individualized and that redefines the one-to-one teacher-student interaction.   

Daphne Koller, professor at Stanford University and co-founder of Coursera mentioned that in developing countries, MOOCs are often the only education opportunities for students.  She highlighted that MOOCs offer content, assessment and social interactions for students.  MOOCs allow for students to watch short, modular videos that can be personalized by order and level of difficulty and can be altered for a more individualized student experience than one might receive in a typical lecture-style classroom. MOOCs also allow for assessments to be built into activities.  Computer-based assessment tools are being developed such that computers can grade problems whose answers are mathematical equations, spreadsheets, as well as short answer.  Technological developments have also allowed for improved student interaction, for example students are able to answer other student’s questions online. 

Anant Agarwal, Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and President of edEx, spoke about how MOOCs can play a role in community college classrooms where students come to class after having watched videos online.  MOOCs are able to increase student access to courses, reinvent education on campuses and improve educational research.  He also highlighted that MOOCs have the ability to mimic online laboratories, thus allowing students to learn design principles that are a key part of STEM learning. 

Frank DiGiovanni, Director of Traning Readiness and Strategy at the Department of Defense emphasized that MOOCs allow for returning combat veterans to gain new skills.  He cautioned that students using MOOCs should not loose human interaction, or become too reliant on the online tutoring system.  He stressed the need for a transparent user interface and independent learning opportunities for students in courses which use MOOCs.  He noted that MOOCs do provide for trans-media learning and provide an opportunity for the development of new types of assessments.  Finally, he asked PCAST to consider how MOOCs could re-define the role of teachers regarding assessment and perhaps allowing teachers to focus more on course development. 

Discussions and questions from PCAST members included how MOOCs could play a role in adaptive testing and how students would be graded if they provide an answer that is correct but not within the algorithm of correct answers.  Another issue was how MOOCs would play a role in elementary school learning particularly with respect for the need for active learning.  Whether MOOCs could and should replace traditional face-to-face classroom learning environments and how to distinguish why students drop out of courses was also addressed.  PCAST members suggested that MOOCs could be a good topic for further investigation if there is ever the creation of an ARPA-Ed agency as was recommended by PCAST in a report. 

Following the discussion about MOOCs was a presentation on STEM education.  Linda Rosen, CEO of Change the Equation, provided PCAST with an update on outreach and advocacy at the organization.  Change the Equation is a non-profit and non-partisan CEO-led initiative which has the goal of helping the business community be more effectively involved in K-12 STEM education.  She delineated the three goals of Change the Equation: to help companies be more strategic in their philanthropy and decision making, to inspire youth interest in STEM fields and to advocate for change in STEM areas. 

Rosen described the STEMworks database that was unveiled in September 2012 which rates the effectiveness of company-led STEM programs.  She went on to describe Ionfuture, a suite of online games geared towards middle school-aged students which is intended to inspire those students to consider STEM career fields.  That online platform includes a STEM career matchmaker activity designed to help students discover 100 STEM career possibilities and a STEM Career Quest game which allows students to see what is needed to achieve a variety of STEM careers.  She also highlighted the recent Vital Signs report, published by Change the Equation that is a comprehensive report of STEM education in 50 states and Washington, DC.  

The final panelist was Mark Rosenberg, President of Florida International University (FIU).  He highlighted the role that Florida International plays in educating Hispanic students in STEM fields.  He noted that it is the first in the country in awarding STEM degrees to Hispanic students and that the university graduated 1,693 STEM graduates last year.  He highlighted three PCAST recommendations that were implemented at FIU to improve student participation in STEM fields: “catalyze adoption of empirically validated teaching practices,” “replace standard laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses,” and the launch of a national experiment in post-secondary mathematics education to address the math preparation gap.

Rosenberg also highlighted how the faculty at FIU came to terms with the need for change and implemented deep reforms within their classes.  Some of these changes include using discovery-based laboratories, establishing a mastery of math laboratory, and changing classroom construction to include more discovery based learning laboratories rather than only building large lecture halls – a change that was antedated by the physics education research community.  As for the math laboratory, its success seems to be largely due to the aggressive use of learning assistants and modeling instruction practices.  The number of physics majors at FIU increased from 31 in 2002 to 124 in 2011.  The university currently has a goal that 73 percent of its students will be able to pass college algebra as opposed to the 33 percent pass rate in 2011. 

Rosenberg made a recommendation to PCAST which was that he would like to see a new National Defense Education Act that would create a network of STEM transformation institutes that would offer GI bill-like support for STEM teachers that would incentivize collaboration between K-12 schools, community colleges, and universities.  These STEM transformation institutes, he recommended, would help to catalyze movement across the wide variety of government-sponsored STEM education programs that promote pathways for students to enter college and become career-ready.