Imagine a day in the future when children use sophisticated software tools to build their own scientific instruments, prospective engineers learn their trade in "virtual factories" that exist only on the Internet, and teachers use programs that employ artificial intelligence to help turn student assessments into effective strategies for helping students to learn better.
All this may come about as the result of groundbreaking research into the educational applications of technology supported by the National Science Foundation.
NSF recently awarded more than $5.6 million in planning and research grants to universities, non-profit institutions, and one California high school to carry out this "basic research" under its new Collaborative Research in Learning Technologies (CRLT) program. The 25 individual awards range from $37,909 to $880,658.
CRLT will stimulate research on the integration of technology with learning at all levels of education. "This research will enable the development of new educational systems of self-directed and lifelong learning," noted NSF Acting Deputy Director Joseph Bordogna. Rather than produce products that can be immediately introduced into the marketplace, CRLT is expected to build a knowledge base over several years that will help educators take advantage of the Clinton Administration's initiative to insure that every classroom has access to the Information Superhighway by the Year 2000.
"The intent of the program is to foster the development of the 'next generation' of educational technologies," said John Cherniavsky, the head of NSF's Office of Cross-Disciplinary Activities, which coordinates the CRLT program. "This really is 'basic research,' rather than the development of applications."
Although computers and other technologies have, in recent years, become more prominent in classroom teaching, the use of technology has not become commonplace in most classrooms as it has in the majority of workplaces.
While the commercial software industry has developed a number of successful educational applications, CRLT's primary objective is to promote the development of products that would not necessarily be immediately commercially viable.
All of the projects are designed by multidisciplinary teams and will employ state-of-the-art tools such as artificial intelligence and cutting edge telecommunications technologies.
Although all of the programs are designed to improve the quality of technological tools for life-long learning, some are specifically designed to improve math and science education for traditionally underserved groups.
A research team at Bell High School, in Los Angeles has been awarded a planning grant to explore using high-bandwidth connections between the school and the Internet to develop math and science lessons that will specifically appeal to the nation's growing population of immigrant students of Hispanic origin. The team intends that eventually large numbers of urban schools will be able to apply the teaching techniques and technologies they develop.
Befitting an initiative designed to foster interdisciplinary approaches to technology development, CRLT itself is a joint undertaking of four of NSF's directorates; Computer and Information Sciences & Engineering; Education and Human Resources; Engineering; and Mathematical and Physical Sciences.
Seventy-six institutions applied for grants under the program, out of a pool of 220 institutions that submitted preliminary proposals, Cherniavsky noted.