Professor Black Discusses Technology Behind UCI’s $14.7M Grant to Expand Literacy Outreach

November 19, 2018

UCI was recently awarded a $14.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to expand its literacy outreach project, Pathway to Academic Success, which has improved student outcomes for English learners in 10 Southern California school districts. The grant aims to extend the program to 109,200 middle- and high-school students in Arizona, Illinois, Minnesota, Nevada, Texas and Wisconsin. As reported in October, “the multiyear professional development program for teachers promotes an instructional approach to enhance the thinking tools that research indicates students use to understand, interpret and write analytical essays about nonfiction texts.”

So what exactly are these “thinking tools” that help students understand and write analytical essays, and how do they support the goals of the project’s creator, Carol Booth Olson, professor of education and director of the UCI Writing Project, and project co-director Robin Scarcella, professor of academic English?

Learning more about these tools requires branching out from UCI’s School of Education and Department of English and heading over to the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), where Associate Professor of Informatics Rebecca Black, co-investigator on this multidisciplinary grant, talks about her role in the project.

How did you first get involved in this work?
I became interested in the potential that technology offers to support teaching and learning back when I was a classroom teacher for middle- and high-school students. My students and I had very different backgrounds and interests, but technology and popular media turned out to be a way to bridge some of our differences and make connections between curricular materials and the sort of things students enjoyed doing in their free time.

Can you describe the tools used to help teach academic writing?
For the predecessor to this grant, my colleague Bill Tomlinson and I worked in consultation with some teachers and a team of ICS undergraduates to develop two specific technology tools. One helped students visualize the different components of the argumentation in their essays through color and percentages. The other was an online peer-review system, where students could practice writing and receive feedback from their peers.

For this grant, we’ll be working to develop similar tools but refining and expanding them based on feedback we’ve received from the teachers and students who used the tools developed for the earlier grant. We’ll also be translating other pedagogical materials from the Pathway Project into new tools that can be used to support teacher and student needs at a national level.

What has been the most challenging part of working on this project?
It’s really difficult to develop educational materials that work well for supporting the teaching and learning of students from diverse backgrounds. However, the Pathway Project has been very successful in helping large numbers of diverse students in California succeed with their academic goals in middle school, high school and even as they transition to college.

What was your reaction to learning about the grant to expand the project?
It’s really exciting to have the opportunity to scale the project up to the national level, because it’s a chance to reach more teachers and students.

What other technologies have you developed to help high-needs students?
Professor Tomlinson and I developed an app called The Seed Cycle to help kids learn about pollination and plant growth. It used text, voice and interactive activities to support children’s understanding of science vocabulary and associated concepts, like photosynthesis. We were quite happy to see teachers using it in their classrooms.

In what way is technology an important tool for improving education?
It really depends on how the technology is used. Fortunately, the Pathway Project is grounded in Carol Booth Olson’s years of experience supporting students’ literacy skills in face-to-face settings, and the technology tools are grounded in what I’ve learned through my research focused on young people’s extracurricular technology use. So, all of the technologies that we are developing have clear pedagogical goals grounded in what we know works to support student learning and engagement.

Technology can provide teachers and students with what the U.S. Department of Education calls “anytime, anywhere” access to teaching and learning materials. Often, when a student is exposed to new materials, especially those that involve complex literacy skills, it can take a while for the material to sink in. Technology can provide a way for students to practice at these skills at their own pace. Also, technology can provide communication channels and forms of feedback that, due to time and space constraints, just aren’t feasible in traditional classroom and school environments.

— Shani Murray