Simon Initiative "toolkit" released to try and address educational effectiveness

Over the past six decades, the Carnegie Mellon-based Simon Initiative has been researching student learning outcomes, working to improve online learning tools and optimize education systems and processes. After over $100 million worth of research, the Simon Initiative is picking up press coverage on their “learning-engineering” ecosystem.

With multiple grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a National Science Foundation grant partnership between Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, and MIT, and a separate project with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, it seems that the Simon Initiative isn’t alone in its belief that it can revolutionize learning.

Norman Bier, the Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative (OLI) director and executive director of the Simon Initiative, discussed the progress, process, implications, and exigence of the Simon Initiative’s online learning tools with The Tartan.

“We’re talking about a learning-engineering approach, the idea of understanding and exploring learning. We need to accept that this is something happening inside of the brain; we need to build models of what we think is happening inside the brain and connect our models with what we can observe in optimizing teaching,” Bier explained.

Innovations of the Simon Initiative toolkit include, but are not limited to, online cognitive tutors, modules, project-based learning tools, virtual labs, and familiar OLI platform creations like C@CM and Autolab.

And while the Simon Initiative is based at Carnegie Mellon, its greater purpose is to revolutionize and optimize all educational institutions, with the goal of extending its online infrastructure to K-12 schools. Although the project has only recently started to gain acknowledgment for its post-secondary initiatives, Bier noted that the Simon Initiative can now significantly expand and extend thanks to contributions from several partners, donors, and researchers over the past decades.

So where exactly did the Simon Initiative start? Bier noted that the initiative’s namesake, Herbert Simon, was the founding father of several Carnegie Mellon research domains spanning Tepper, SCS, and Dietrich.

In 1967, Simon coined the phrase “learning-engineering,” introducing the Simon Initiative approach that embeds a research-based and design-based thinking approach, improving organizational and research structures as well as educational work.

“We need to think of this research as the Simon Initiative,” Bier emphasized. Bier also spoke about a “hodgepodge of work” among Carnegie Mellon faculty and all of the project’s partners: “The Simon Initiative wants to think about effectiveness and crosses interdisciplinary boundaries and invites lots of faculty to do things like teach modern languages, use technology to better teach statistics, and reach out to the engineering college behind OLI courses.”

Unique to Carnegie Mellon and the Simon Initiative is its goal to “democratize the science of learning.” “Combined with our technical infrastructure, we have social-technical support not seen in other institutions, but we hope that this approach gets replicated in a much larger community,” Bier noted.

He continued, “lesson application tends to be the province of researchers and not always educators. The Simon Initiative is trying to encourage all faculty to treat their classrooms like a learning laboratory, and this will become the work of every educator out there. We need to provide a larger population of educators and practitioners with the right kinds of tools and approaches and content so that research can be applied and engaged with.”

Behind the scenes, the Simon Initiative is also tackling a massive issue: the prospective collapse of education institutions. Bier claimed, “we’re at a really special and challenging moment in the post-WWII post-secondary educational system in the United States.”

According to Bier, states have been losing interest in post-secondary education, and the federal government has not picked up the lost funding. Changing tuition structures and increasing student debt, as well as the broader, more diverse populations of students seeking post-secondary degrees, has put different strains on an educational system that was not designed for this much participation.

“Four-year degrees or any amount of set education might not be enough to keep up with economic pressures and changing technologies and skillsets we’re seeing in the workforce. We need to think seriously about the role post-secondary education plays in the United States,” Bier said.

Despite its continued progress, Bier believes that outsiders tend to look at the Simon Initiative as a simple open-sourcing project. He also emphasized, “too often, we see big stories purporting that there are silver bullets that will transform education. Our toolkit intends to spur a larger cycle of innovation, investigation, and improvement, and no one step is going to represent a silver bullet that is transformation.”

Next to be released by the Simon Initiative is the LearnSphere tool, a product of their National Science Foundation partnership that optimizes data analysis by encapsulating educational workflows such that any LearnSphere user can apply shared learning methods. Within the next 12 months, Carnegie Mellon will begin to distribute a huge portion of these Simon Initiative learning tools.