Child-Centered Technology at Heart of $11 Million Award from the Jacobs Foundation

September 30, 2021

Much of children’s education and social lives moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic, and while many students have since returned to classrooms, digital learning and play environments remain. How might we better design digital technologies to support youth education beyond the pandemic? This question is at the heart of a nearly $11 million grant awarded to UCI from the Jacobs Foundation, a global leader in the field of child and youth development.

The funding supports a five-year effort to improve digital technologies for children, led by Candice Odgers, UCI professor of psychological science, and Gillian Hayes, UCI vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate Division. The goal is to create a collaborative network called Connecting the EdTech Research EcoSystem (CERES). By bringing together global leaders in computer science, psychology, neuroscience, education and educational technology (EdTech), CERES will bridge the divide between science and the EdTech industry.

“The transformative gift from the Jacobs Foundation to UCI will allow us to conduct cutting-edge research on how all children and youth can be brought into the process of designing the technologies they use,” says Hayes, also a professor of informatics in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). “It will also allow us to better understand how good these technologies are at actually addressing real-world problems.”

Hayes will leverage the work of her colleagues in developing CERES collaborations, pulling in ICS researchers from UCI’s Steckler Center for Responsible, Ethical, and Accessible Technology (CREATE) and the Connected Learning Lab (CLL).

“CERES, while a global network that will include other universities around the world, will work closely with ICS centers like CREATE and CLL to do innovative research in the broad area of child-centered technology,” explains Hayes.

For example, Stacy Branham, an assistant professor of informatics involved in CREATE and CLL, will bring her expertise in accessible technology and universal design. “We know children are often an afterthought in the development of online educational tools — but children with disabilities are simply shut out. The exciting prospect of the Jacobs Foundation’s new CERES network is that it integrates EdTech innovators, including people like me who focus on accessibility for children with disabilities,” she says. “We have an opportunity to explore effective online education that integrates blind, D/deaf, mobility disabled, neurodiverse, etc. children from the beginning, so every child can excel.”

CERES will support data-sharing partnerships with EdTech companies, combining expertise in computer science, human computer interaction, education, and psychology to develop evidence-based strategies for reducing inequalities in access and identifying unique chances for intervention to support students.

“I am absolutely delighted that the Jacobs Foundation has selected Professors Hayes and Odgers — and UCI — for leading interdisciplinary research on critical issues in online learning and health of children and educating the next generation of innovators and leaders,” says Pramod Khargonekar, UCI vice chancellor for research. “The CERES network will make great contributions to the future of children all over the world.”

Shani Murray