36 million Americans score in the lowest two levels of literacy and numeracy . In a society that assumes a basic level of literacy for commonplace activities (reading menus, street signs, labels), we do not have a good system for helping the 45-year-old father who never passed third grade reading. We cannot ask him to attend third grade, nor should we. He has different goals than a third grader: He needs to learn to read material that directly relate to supporting his family (e.g. bills, bank statement, contracts), he needs to learn at times when he is not at work, and he needs quick results to keep him motivated to take time to study this material.
This is the problem space that I work on as a grad student in the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab. I graduated from Olin last May and started at the Lab the month after. The Media Lab is a research Masters program, meaning that this semester, along with two classes, I dedicate a large chunk of my time to research.
What sort of classes does a Media Lab student take?
This semester, I'm taking two classes. The first is Designing for Learning and Creating at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The class, which is taught by Karen Brennan, dives into the fundamentals of constructionism, a learning theory very much in line with Olin's project-based learning curriculum. In the class, we learned the research behind why we learn best by creating, and worked on semester-long projects of our choosing, documenting the learning process as we go.
The second class I'm taking focuses entirely on hands-on making. The class, titled How To Make (Almost) Anything and taught by Neil Gershenfeld, covers everything from how to fabricate a PCB, mold and cast your own objects, make your own Arduinos from scratch, and mill huge wooden contraptions. Some snapshots of the class are shown below. Currently, I am working on a final project that lets a user call into a WebRTC video chat from a "landline" plugged into your computer.
What is your research?
As I hinted to before, my research is in how to use technology to improve adult literacy, basic numeracy, and ultimately family-supporting employment prospects. I work with Philipp Schmidt on the following projects, all in various stages of ideation, development, and testing:
Read Out Loud
Read Out Loud is an application that empowers adults who are learning English to turn almost any reading material into an experience to help them learn English. Learners can take a picture of a page of text and the app then scans in the page and presents the learner with a host of additional tools to facilitate reading. They can read the text out loud, which helps learners who are more comfortable with spoken English understand what is being said on the page. They can select words and translate them into their native language. And coming soon, they can save words to a list for review. By giving adult learners the ability to scan in any page and convert it into learning material, we want to give them more agency to learn from material that focuses on the subjects they care about. It'll also increase their access to English language learning material, since now they can check out any book from the public library and use it as learning material with support in their native language. A demo of the first iteration of the application (targeted at storybooks) can be found here: http://vimeo.com/109415916. The second iteration is now completed as well and we are beginning to test in an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classroom.
Citizen Tutoring is an exploration into how we can create mentorships between the skilled senior citizens and adults learning basic literacy or numeracy at scale. We plan on first starting small, understanding what difficulties lie on both sides of the interaction: What technological barriers are there? What content is needed (and how can we repurpose the large amount of content that exists on the web)? How can we help facilitate a learning interaction between the two people online? Our ultimate goal is two-fold: (1) to empower senior citizens to help their communities and learn technology that will help them communicate more broadly and (2) to empower adult learners through a one-on-one interaction where they get curriculum tailored to their needs.
Milling and staining a large map of the world
XpressMe is an exploration into using mobile technology to reinforce course material for professional certification courses and/or ESOL and basic mathematics courses. We are building an application that allows learners to reinforce the material they learned in class while on-the-go (i.e. during their commute time, while they are waiting in line at the grocery store, etc).