Inaugural interdisciplinary Learning Technology Academy launches

Inaugural interdisciplinary Learning Technology Academy launches

18 Oct 2016    By Kelcey Buck

It all started with a visit to a gaming company in California. Now, Ron Nelson’s idea for an interdisciplinary Learning Technology Academy is coming to fruition with the formation of the student team that will work together to create learning technologies for children experiencing learning difficulties.

Nelson, the Larry & Sharon Roos Family Professor of Special Education, credited his trip to Section Studios as the place where the idea for the Learning Technology Academy struck him. While there, he observed employees with a variety of skill sets working together to develop the games. Artists created sculptures of the characters and painted backgrounds for the environments, audio technicians and studio directors put together storyboards and directed the storylines, and computer scientists and animators made it all come to life. 

“If you think about universities, they have all of the tools and all of the disciplines, but everyone is operating in a silo,” Nelson said. “I mapped out this challenge to myself to develop a Learning Technology Academy that would pull all of these groups together at the university. The goal is two-fold: develop world-class learning technologies, while also offering great interdisciplinary training and learning experiences to our students.”

Nelson partnered with the Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management to make the Learning Technology Academy a reality. For this initial year, Nelson and Leen-Kiat Soh, associate professor of computer science, will guide a team of students in the creation of learning technologies that will help children achieve automaticity of letter names, letter sounds and high-frequency word recognition. Automaticity refers to children’s abilities to use fundamental skills to help process complex tasks such as reading comprehension and mathematical problem solving.

The team is comprised of four students from the Raikes School, one student from the College of Education and Human Sciences, and two students from the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts, as well as a community member from a local startup. Nelson hopes to add one more student with experience in voiceovers and sound production. Bryan Melland, a junior in computer engineering, was selected as the team leader. The chance to create something that would help others was one aspect of the Learning Technology Academy that piqued his interest. 

“I have always been interested in gamification, and this was a great opportunity to explore the topic and help people at the same time,” Melland said. “I hope that this experience will teach me a lot about leading a project with a team of many people from multiple different technical backgrounds.”

Paul Anderson is the lone student from CEHS on the team. A junior secondary special education major, he first learned about the opportunity in one of Nelson’s classes. After hearing Nelson explain what motivated him to create the Learning Technology Academy, Anderson immediately saw the value.

“The past two summers I have worked at a day facility for children and teens with special needs, and I have seen them use apps to try to help them with letters and reading, but I noticed flaws in the apps and saw ways they could be improved,” Anderson said. “When I heard about this opportunity, it was something I wanted to get involved with because I know what we will be doing will make a difference in the lives of many individuals.”

The Learning Technology Academy team meets as a group on Friday afternoons, and the various smaller groups within the team spend additional time working on their specific tasks. Nelson noted that while he and Soh are the faculty leaders, the students are really the people driving the Learning Technology Academy.

“It’s nice to sit at the table with students who are given a leadership role,” Nelson said. “When we had our initial meeting, they had already met and come up with a list of probing questions. It’s been a fun launch. Beyond anything else, I think for the university to get involved in this kind of area is really critical.”

Now that the Learning Technology Academy is a reality, and the students are off and running, the team will look forward to achieving benchmarks throughout the academic year on the way to a finished product next spring. The ultimate goal remains to create a learning technology that is both highly educational and highly engaging for users.

“I’m really looking forward to the end product of this project and the impact it will have on others,” Anderson said. “I am someone who really loves helping others, so I’m looking forward to the test runs in getting this technology into the hands of kids and seeing them play with it and have fun, while also learning.”

Special Education and Communication Disorders