Higher Ed Is My Co-Pilot: A Massachusetts Middle School Shares the Benefits of a Tech-Based Initiative with a Team of Ivy League Researchers

Article excerpt

ANN KOUFMAN-FREDERICK ISN'T ONE to pass up an opportunity to put her district at the forefront of emerging educational technologies. As the Public Schools, in Watertown, MA, she encourages her teachers to participate in tech-based pilot and research programs run by higher ed institutions. And why shouldn't she, when her district enjoys such notable neighbors as Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Boston College?

"These pilot programs are fantastic professional development opportunities for my teachers," Koufman-Frederick says. "They're learning so much about what's on the horizon and what's possible in teaching and learning."

A former instructor of educational technology, Koufman-Frederick sees value in these K-12-higher ed experiments that flows the other way as well. "It's very important for higher ed researchers to be connected to real students and teachers in schools so that they can see where schools are right now and where they need to go," she says. "Some of these research projects are very forward-looking. By participating, we help higher ed researchers understand what the real possibilities are in schools."

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Watertown has taken part in a variety of pilot programs through the Harvard Graduate School of Education, thanks to its close proximity to the university as well as to the professional network Koufman-Frederick formed while teaching courses for Harvard's extension school and for WIDE (Wide-scale Interactive Development for Educators) World, the university's online professional development program.

One such pilot the district is now involved in is Harvard's Virtual Assessment Project, whose goal, as stated on the program's website, is to develop three "single-user, immersive, three-dimensional environments to assess middle school students' science inquiry skills." The three 90-minute assessments are aligned with National Science Education Standards and designed to run on schools' current computing environments. Another carrot dangled by the researchers is maintenance-free participation: The assessments "will require little preparation for users and no additional paper-based materials."

A Better Measure of Skills

The project also has a larger aim in mind. The researchers hope to modernize how schools assess students' abilities in science by showing that these immersive environments are superior to conventional paper-and-pencil tests for measuring science inquiry learning. Each of the three assessments requires students to navigate their avatar through a virtual environment to explore the cause of a health issue among a species within its own ecosystem.

As an example, "Save the Kelp!" brings students to an Alaskan bay to investigate the decline in the kelp population. As the student directs the avatar to interact with the virtual environment, the software automatically creates a detailed, time-stamped event log of the student's actions. The Harvard team theorizes that those actions will more reliably and accurately reflect the proficiency of a student's inquiry skills than a traditional, lab-based test can.

The assessments "are very gamelike," says the project director of the pilot, Jody Clarke-Midura, a research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "They have the look of a video game, but the students are solving a problem, investigating, and engaging in inquiry."

When Harvard approached Koufman-Frederick with the details of the project, she saw how the technology could have a real effect on K-12 education.

"We must do better assessments, especially for science," she says. "Even though the assessment is virtual, it's hands-on. It gets at more than just assessment of content. It gets at how good kids are at critical thinking, figuring out puzzles, doing research, and collaborating with a team--even though the team is all virtual. On paper-and-pencil tests in science, that never happens. …