Category Archives: research

Qrumbs proposal to Digital Media and Learning Competition

The MacArthur Foundation is sponsoring a competition for innovative Digital Media and Learning applications. I had learned of it through my colleague Derek Lomas who won last year for his Playpower project.

This year the applications are posted online with open commenting. The word limit on applications is 300 words (not the abstract, the whole application) which makes it easy for anyone to read through it and give feedback. It also makes it easier to write one and they have over 1,000 submissions last I checked. Judges will select which entries advance to the second phase for which a demo video is required.

With research partners I proposed Qrumbs, a system for social collaborative learning around any web resource. I’m glad to be working with Connexions, Curriki, and the PSLC DataShop, leaders in open educational resources and educational data mining. Below the fold is the full text of the proposal, springing from my work in question authoring. With so few words to work with, I used a narrated scenario to communicate concisely how the system works. I’m including the full text below and encourage you to leave comments both here, or even better on the application’s page.

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Preparing more people for a diverse future

The TED Talks lecture series is a wonderful intellectual and cultural resource. I’ve been a fan for years and on this long weekend relished the opportunity to catch up on some I’ve had in my queue. One of my favorites is by Ken Robinson, because it highlights both a goal and a challenge of my research.

First, the challenge:

I have an interest in education — actually, what I find is everybody has an interest in education. Don’t you? I find this very interesting. If you’re at a dinner party, and you say you work in education — actually, you’re not often at dinner parties, frankly, if you work in education. (Laughter) You’re not asked. And you’re never asked back, curiously. That’s strange to me. But if you are, and you say to somebody, you know, they say, “What do you do?”and you say you work in education, you can see the blood run from their face. They’re like, “Oh my God,” you know, “Why me? My one night out all week.” (Laughter)

Education, to many, is a very dry topic. That’s because, for many, the practice of education is very dry. If you ask a space alien what education is for, he posits, they’ll say it’s training to be a university professor. That’s the pinnacle of the process, right? But it takes much more than university professors to make the world go round, of course. How can our system of education support the diversity of needs and foster the diversity of talents of a rich and dynamic society? That’s the goal.

I ask “how” not “if” because I don’t see it as a choice. Globalization, mechanization, intelligent machines… these demand that we develop human resources, fostering the gifts of each person however they may manifest. Motivated by the example of Gillian Lynne (starting 2:30 in the talk), Robinson argues that we increase the amount of education in the arts, even specifically teaching dance to everyone. Such sentiments underestimate the constraints on time, money and attention for and of students. I would imagine Robinson is not a fan of intelligent tutoring systems, how they involve sitting at a desk and developing, most often, a laser focused set of skills.

But I think research in intelligent tutoring systems and other computer supported learning can help address the diversity he speaks of and even help students learn to dance, if that’s something a community values. Firstly, they can help increase the efficiency with which “maths” (he’s British) and other “left brain” skills are learned, leaving more time for other enrichment.  Secondly, and this is a goal of my research, computers can help personalize instruction to each student’s needs and interests. The computer can devote its unblinking attention to the individual, drawing on a wealth of data about their prior interactions with the system, and that of other learners like them, to deliver an effective and engaging learning experience. Technology isn’t the answer, but it is part of the best solution.

Thanks for reading. I encourage you to watch the whole talk as it has many more gems than I’ve noted here, and several laugh out loud moments.

QCommons opens to all content areas

Today I rolled out a big update to QCommons, implementing  support for many more content areas than Chemistry.

The key new feature is groups. Each group has its own set of content, its own forums, and its own classification terms. (Because “rational” doesn’t mean the same in Economics as it does in Algebra.) Each group can also have its own permissions system and administrators to support more private uses such as school district curriculum committees. If you would like to host a new group, please contact

To keep a handle on the growth of the site, I’ve switched registrations to requiring administrator approval. Please register and sign up for the mailing list. You’ll go into a queue that I’ll process regularly to allow more users.

Stay tuned to this blog for more!

Conference deadline extension statistics

Anyone who publishes in conferences knows the pain of making sacrifices to meet a deadline, only to find at the last moment that it has been extended.  Year after year of these extensions and people come to expect them, making them all the more inevitable.  This reminds me of people who set their clocks fast to be late less, only to adjust themselves again to be late and have to move their clocks ever earlier.  At what point do conference deadlines lose their credibility?

I’d be interested to know how many people believe a conference’s deadline, as an effect of how often that conference extends its deadlines.  I imagine that younger researcher are more credulous, but that it’s simply because they lack the knowledge of all the extensions.

Are there data available on deadline extensions? If not, why not collect it? Each time a deadline is extended, there is surely at least one person who is frustrated.  What if there were a place they could go and vent their frustration by adding the occurrence to some listing/database?  Well here is the place:

To add your data, or vent depending on how you see it, just fill out this form:

I hope this helps. I just added AERA, which had been due today.

Pasteur’s and Edison’s Quadrants

If you’ve been to an plenary session or keynote on education research chances are you’ve heard of Pasteur’s Quadrant.  It’s the idea that basic science (e.g., Bohr) and applied science (e.g., Edison) can be brought together to have significant impact on society, as exemplified in Pasteur’s prodigious contributions. Which quadrant should education research target? Pasteur’s Quadrant was articulated (and I believe originated) in the book of the same name by Donald Stokes in 1997. Stokes was a professor of politics and public affairs and argued for use-inspired basic research as an important target of public funds. My interest is more in research than public policy and I haven’t read the book. If you’re interested, but the publisher’s summary gives a good summary of the public policy thesis and the transitions in government research funding that it spoke to.


Education research, to my eyes, is still finding and defining itself. After Dewey, the greatest advances were by the psychologists. That would be “basic” research in education. While we learned a lot about how people learn, little of it made it into classrooms. Other education research was unscientific, with anthropological or post-modernistic perspectives. There wasn’t much education science and the little that there was was quite basic. The No Child Left Behind act shook this all up. (Quick poll: do you pronounce NCLB as en-see-el-bee or nickleby? I met someone recently who calls it nickleby.) Part of the act formed the Institute for Educational Science within the Dept of Ed. “Educational Science,” now what does that mean? The first director of IES, Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, in a speech describing the mission of IES, cited Pasteur’s Quadrant. But he went further and called for IES to focus on Edison’s Quadrant. It’s worth a read. (I think this is fair use…)

One way of making this distinction is in the terms introduced in the infrequently read but oft cited 1997 book by Stokes, called Pasteur’s Quadrant – Basic Science and Technological Innovation. Stokes described three categories of research based on two binary dimensions: first, a quest for fundamental understanding, and second, a consideration of use. The work of the theoretical physicist, Niels Bohr, exemplifies the quadrant in which researchers search for fundamental knowledge, with little concern for application. The research of Louis Pasteur, whose studies of bacteriology were carried out at the behest of the French wine industry, characterizes the work of scientists who, like Bohr, search for fundamental knowledge, but unlike Bohr, select their questions and methods based on potential relevance to real world problems. The work of Thomas Edison, whose practical inventions define the 20th century, exemplifies the work of scientists whose stock and trade is problem solution. They cannibalize whatever basic and craft knowledge is available, and conduct fundamental research when necessary, with choices of action and investment driven by the goal of solving the problem at hand as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Considerations of Use
Low High
Quest for Fundamental Understanding Yes Pure Basic Research (Bohr) Use-Inspired Basic Research (Pasteur)
No Pure Applied Research(Edison)

Each of the scientific quadrants identified by Stokes is important to the common good. Those who argue for the value of basic research have no trouble finding examples of work inspired only by intellectual curiosity that turned out to be extremely practical. Bohrs’ work on quantum physics is a case in point. Without in any way diminishing the value of basic research, whether use-inspired or not, I want to argue for the importance of activities in Edison’s quadrant, particularly for topics in which there is a large distance between what the world needs and what realistically can be expected to flow from basic research, and for topics in which problem solutions are richly multivariate and contextual. Education is such an area: a field in which there is a gulf between the bench and the trench, and in which the trench is complicated by many players, settings, and circumstances. Choose what you consider to be the most exciting developments from basic research in Bohrs’ or Pasteur’s quadrants that are relevant to education. I’ll pick developments in cognitive neuroscience. Paint the rosiest scenario you dare for basic scientific progress in the topic you’ve chosen over the next 15 years. Then ask yourself what would need to be done to translate those imagined findings into applications that would have wide and powerful effects on education outcomes. I don’t know about you, but I’m not optimistic that the results of basic research, even if the findings are powerful, will flow directly and naturally into education. Goodness! Education hasn’t even incorporated into instruction what we know from basic research about the effects of massed versus distributed practice – and I learned about that in a psychology course I took in 1962. Yes, the world needs basic research in disciplines related to education, such as economics, psychology, and management. But education won’t be transformed by applications of research until someone engineers systems and approaches and packages that work in the settings in which they will be deployed. For my example of massed versus distributed practice, we need curricula that administrators will select and that teachers will follow that distributes and sequences content appropriately. Likewise, for other existing knowledge or new breakthroughs, we need effective delivery systems. The model that Edison provides of an invention factory that moves from inspiration through lab research to trials of effectiveness to promotion and finally to distribution and product support is particularly applicable to education. In summary, the Institute’s statutory mission, as well as the conceptual model I’ve just outlined, points the Institute toward applied research, Edison’s quadrant. I’ve labeled this chart, “Edison’s quadrant, mostly,” because I understand that it is important to nurture the development of basic knowledge related to education, particularly in areas in which other science agencies and major foundation’s aren’t involved. Thus, when resources permit, the Institute will support work that examines underlying process and mechanisms, and work that is initiated by the field. For instance, the President’s budget request for the Institute for fiscal year 04 includes a healthy amount of money for a field-initiated competition. In addition, many of our new funding programs that are squarely focused on application, such as our program in preschool curriculum evaluation, provide for grantees to carry out parallel research that examines underlying processes.

What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.  Here’s another quote that might inspire you, Nikola Tesla speaking of Edison:

If Edison had to find a needle in a haystack, he would proceed with the diligence of a bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search… I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 per cent of the labor…

Incidentally, searching online, I see Pasteur’s Quadrant cited in ICT, chemistry and even geology. (Evidently, there is such a thing as applied geology.) Try those links if you want to know more about Pasteur’s Quadrant generally. And by the suggestion of my colleague Andrea Forte during the OLI Symposium 2008, there’s a Wikipedia article. Please improve upon it as I only made it last night. 😉