Stanford’s Transforming Learning accelerator focuses on science and design of learning to improve education for all
Multidisciplinary teams will address chronic challenges in education by targeting solutions to specific groups of learners.
When the novel coronavirus shut down school campuses last spring forcing millions of students to learn at home, there was an immediate need for remote instruction. It didn’t take long for parents, students and educators to realize that the current solutions were inadequate and uneven, despite heroic efforts by teachers and technologists worldwide.
Transforming Learning, an accelerator that came out of Stanford’s Long-Range Vision, already was looking to revamp online learning to fulfill its early promise of increasing access to high-quality college-level classes.
Now, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the initiative is expanding its digital learning footprint to develop better virtual experiences for students of all ages – from preschool through college and beyond.
Three higher education and six K-12 projects are launching TL’s new digital learning effort aimed at creating rich, robust experiences that are different but comparable to their in-person alternatives.
The college projects focus on field trips, teacher preparation clinical experiences and dorm life. Seed grants supporting K-12 projects were awarded to Stanford faculty to pursue digital experiences that range from synchronous music performances to virtual worlds that support inclusion and social support for students with special needs.
The new projects join ongoing TL efforts to address chronic challenges in education by merging what researchers know about learning with advances in engineering, brain sciences, data and design methodologies to produce targeted solutions for a variety of learners.
Dan Schwartz, dean of the Graduate School of Education, has been spearheading Transforming Learning since it was announced last year. In an interview, Schwartz explains the goals of TL, and how the pandemic and renewed conversations around racial justice are influencing its work.
What makes TL different from other efforts at Stanford and elsewhere to improve education?
Three things make TL distinctive. It is student-centered; it merges the science of learning with the design of learning experiences; and it includes dissemination partners in the research strategy.
So what does all that mean? First, a student-centered approach challenges you to look at what the student needs. While it seems obvious that education should be student-centered, learning solutions are rarely designed with the student as the client. Instead, people have debated the content of instruction, labor policy and whether a smartphone can help kids study more, among other things. One possible reason for this approach is that education has always been data thin, and we have had to think about the fictitious “average” learner. This is rapidly changing with new methods of assessment, data collection and investigation. For instance, we can think about the unique needs of teenage Black males in urban settings rather than assuming they should receive the same learning experiences as children raised in rural Alaska.
The second distinctive element of TL is the combination of science and design. Recent advances in the science of learning have revealed that learning is not a single thing. Each type of learning requires a different approach – language learning has a different profile than learning a good habit, for example. Similarly, the possibilities for designing learning experiences is evolving rapidly. Twenty years ago, it was impossible to have students learn with visually appealing computer simulations. The people who work on the science of learning are typically different from the people who work on the design of learning experiences. The hypothesis of TL is that bringing them together, anchored by a student-centered focus, will create highly effective and creative learning solutions.
Finally, the third element of TL focusses on accelerating real-world impact and scale. We are creating a new infrastructure to connect discoveries with practitioners and stakeholders called Stanford Learning Partners. Too often, change in education is one dimensional. We get impact without scale or scale without impact.
What are the main focus areas of TL?
One area of focus for TL is neurodiversity, which Stanford is uniquely situated to address by harnessing the strength of all seven schools. Students with learning disabilities interact with the medical, legal and education systems throughout their lifetimes, and Stanford has relevant expertise at the schools of Medicine, Law, Humanities and Sciences and Education working on ways to improve the lives of students with disabilities. We’ll create the best solutions if we bring the expertise and stakeholders together around the key client – the whole student.
In addition to neurodiversity, TL will address the needs of online learners, which have taken exceptional urgency with the pandemic, and address early childhood education, where experiences before formal schooling can have lasting impacts. Another frequently overlooked group is workforce learners, who face unique situational and psychological demands compared to children in school. Finally, we are looking at learners who have been historically disadvantaged because of racism and lack of educational opportunity.
How has COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter changed things?
The last few months have brought more attention and urgency to issues of online learning and racial injustice. The pandemic has revealed how much is lost when schools close, while also revealing the unfairness that continues to exist around access and opportunities to high-quality learning. Researchers have been working on problems of equity and access for years, which means they are in a position to step up now that all parents have become aware of the scale of the problem. Our responsibility now is to harness the energy around this moment and drive sustainable and systemic change through well-informed and well-designed solutions.
How can we ensure that the research makes it into the world in a usable way?
The novel thing about this initiative is how it incorporates long-term partners and community work upfront. We are building pathways to get research into the classroom from the moment the hypothesis is made. Our partner network includes entrepreneurs, technologists, policymakers, NGO’s, community organizations, industries and schools. We don’t want to wait for the research to be done before finding people who can use it. An approach that focuses on audience – in our case, students – means we get feedback during the research and design process so we can tweak and deploy as we learn more. This new approach will shorten the distance between theory and practice.
Stanford Learning Partners is a key enabler for translating research into the classroom. One arm centers on cultivating institutions to serve as sites for design and proofing. For instance, the Graduate School of Education has had a decade-long partnership with San Francisco Unified School District. Many of the successful designs that came out of this partnership have been taken up nationally. We need more of these kinds of relationships that cover a greater swath of the institutions where learning occurs. Corporations, for example, have a great need for workforce learning designs.
A second arm drives translation through innovative models for teaching the people responsible for educating learners, ranging from caregivers to teachers to managers. Achieving this educational mission will depend on engaging stakeholders who share a commitment to improving learning.