By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

School of Information Studies (iSchool) Research Assistant Professor Jun Wang is continuing his work on how drawing scientific concepts can help promote learning for students in Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) studies with a distinguished grant from the National Academies Keck Futures Initiatives (NAFKI).

The NAFKI $100,000 competitive grant, with Wang as principal investigator, and Felice Frankel, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as the project’s co-principal investigator, was awarded last summer. It will permit Wang and Frankel’s research to carry into 2014.  The funding was part of a highly competitive round of proposals for funds to conduct research regarding the informed brain in a digital world. The topic was the focus of the 10th annual Futures conference which NAFKI held last November.

Wang’s study includes a look at the issue of how heavy media multi-taskers lack attention focus and in-depth learning. His research focus is on showing how the act of drawing out a scientific concept helps engage students in deep learning. At present, he and Frankel are in the process of proof-of-concept testing a social learning tool for MOOC students which permits them to create and share online drawings of scientific concepts.

The physical-plus-mental actions involved in drawing abstract scientific concepts in easy-to-interpret pictures helps to cement ideas for those who are trying to learn the concepts, Wang noted. The act of drawing puts constructive learning strategy and visual thinking skills to use, as differentiated from learning by rote memorization. “Every line or mark you make in a drawing gives you immediate visual feedback” in how the expression of the concept is progressing, he said. Even if the idea is incorrectly expressed, the drawings still provide value as concept comparisons, and thus present good opportunities to learn, he added.

“If the online drawing-to-learn tool proves successful, hundreds of thousands of MOOC students could benefit from it,” Wang said. “We also expect the tool has the potential to spread science knowledge to a huge number of people worldwide. You can imagine this in use with the latest medical discovery or a commonly misunderstood health issue. The concepts could be interpreted in high-quality and impressive drawings created by MOOC students and citizens who join in that effort, and then those drawings, expressing aspects of new knowledge, could be tweeted to millions of people all over the world.

The Futures grants allow researchers to start recruiting students and postdoctoral fellows, purchasing equipment, and acquiring preliminary data, all of which can position them to compete for larger awards from other public and private sources, according to NAFKI. As competitive seed grants, the funds are awarded “to fill a critical gap in funding for research on new ideas, in areas that major federal funding programs typically do not support.” Grant proposals were scored based on their interdisciplinarity, relevance to the informed brain in a digital world, riskiness/boldness, and the importance and potential impact if the grant is funded, noted Michael S. Gazzaninga, director, The Sage Center for the Study of the Mind, on the NAFKI website.