WPI Receives $500,000 Award from Gates and Hewlett Foundations' Next Generation Learning Challenges

The award will help set the stage for significantly expanding the use and impact of the groundbreaking ASSISTments learning and assessment technology.

The award will help set the stage for significantly expanding the use and impact of the groundbreaking ASSISTments learning and assessment technology.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has received a one-year, $500,000 award from Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) to significantly expand the use and impact of an innovative online tutoring and assessment system developed by researchers at the university. WPI is one of 19 recipients (out of 240 applicants) of grants totaling $7 million in this, the second round of funding from NGLC, a national program that seeks to address critical educational challenges through the use of innovative technology with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates and William and Flora Hewlett foundations.

With the award, WPI will partner with the Center for Educational Leadership and Technology (CELT), the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), and Edutopia/George Lucas Educational Foundation (GLEF) to double the number of students in 7th to 9th grade mathematics classes benefiting from ASSISTments within one year and to establish a technology and professional development plan that will enable the number of student users to be scaled to more than a million by 2015.

ASSISTments is a web-based system that integrates student learning and assessment of student progress (the name is an amalgam of assistance and assessments). Developed and extensively tested by a research team headed by Neil Heffernan, professor of computer science at WPI, the system is proven to help students learn by presenting them with problems and then offering carefully structured assistance. The software records how students use the system and meticulously tracks their progress, providing teachers, parents, and schools with real-time reports that document how well students have mastered a wide range of concepts. The reports help teachers determine what instruction or remediation is needed to increase student learning.

"This project builds on the belief that if teachers have good tools that can provide quality data on exactly what students do and do not understand, and training that enabled them to properly use those tools," Heffernan says, "they can use that data to customize their teaching to better meet the needs of each and every student."

In the research funded by NGLC, students will use ASSISTments to complete their nightly homework. Previous research by Heffernan's team has shown that students who use the online system to do homework learn two-thirds more than students who used traditional paper-and-pencil methods. "Cognitive science has shown that students learn more when they receive immediate feedback," says Heffernan, who is also co-director of WPI's Learning Science and Technologies graduate program. "Without that feedback, students are likely to practice the same wrong procedure over and over again."

Homework accounts for about half of the time students spend on math each school day, Heffernan notes. "That means that if we can improve homework, we have a real chance to move the needle," he says. "In fact, leveraging this out-of-school learning time will be critical to achieving the goals of the NGLC program."

The ASSISTments system, developed with more than $10 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, and other agencies, is made available to schools free of charge. It is currently used by about 10,000 students, primarily in 25 school districts in Massachusetts.

As the researchers seek to double that user base over the next year, they plan to work with schools that provide laptop computers to all students, since the availability of computers will facilitate adoption of ASSISTments and allow new schools and students to be get up to speed quickly. The state of Maine, which has a "one-to-one" laptop program statewide, will be a particular focus for the study; in fact, the researchers have already worked with 13 schools districts to train teachers to use the system.

Participating school districts will take part in a controlled study that will compare the performance on statewide math tests of students using ASSISTments to do their homework and students in schools that do not use ASSISTments.

The NGLC award will also fund the development of a plan for further expanding the use of ASSISTments to more than a million students over the next five years. "Our goal is to transform this system from an 'island of innovation' to a technology in widespread use," Heffernan says. "To do that, we need to determine how best to scale up the technology itself, addressing issues related to hardware, bandwidth, and technical support, but also how to develop and roll out a sustainable and scalable approach to training and professional development for teachers."

NGLC is a multiyear program that seeks to address the challenges facing students, teachers and schools in the United States, in particular the issues that keep nearly three in 10 students from completing high school (that drop-out rate is nearly 50 percent for African American, Hispanic, and low-income students). It brings together and supports innovators who can bring to bear the most promising learning technologies and next generation design models to dramatically increase student learning and success.

Nonprofit educational technology leader EDUCAUSE, which works to advance higher education through the use of information technology, leads NGLC in collaboration with a network of organizations, including the Council of Chief State School Officers, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, and the League for Innovation in the Community College.

"We need to enhance our country's educational system in ways that engage students both inside and outside of the classroom and provide them with the 21st century skills required for today's workforce," Ira Fuchs, NGLC's executive director said. "The innovative work of our grantees demonstrates how the thoughtful application of technology can help us achieve those goals."

June 14, 2011

Contact: Michael Dorsey, Director of Research Communications, +1-508-831-5609, mwdorsey@wpi.edu