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Carnegie Mellon to Release Toolkit for Learning Research

hand pointing to digital tools

An individual who won both the A.M. Turing Award for his contributions to artificial intelligence in 1975 and the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1978 is the inspiration behind Carnegie Mellon University's decision to make many of its own learning tools, software and content openly available over the next year.

Herbert Simon, a social scientist who taught computer science and psychology at the university (when it was still named the Carnegie Institute of Technology), developed a framework for understanding the psychology of decision-making. But among his many other trains of thought was the idea that higher education should make room on campus "for a team of individuals who are professionals in the design of learning environments — learning engineers, if you will," as he wrote in a 1967 essay on "the job of the college professor." Simon expressed concern that colleges were communities of "amateur teachers" who didn't "make use of any learning principles in a systematic, professional way." What was needed, he proposed was a way to bring to the college "the best available professional and scientific knowledge for designing" the learning environment.

In tribute to this idea, Carnegie Mellon established the Simon Initiative in 2014 as a cross-disciplinary "learning engineering ecosystem" intended to "measurably improve student learning outcomes." Among its functions was development of education technology. Now much of that technology — a suite worth $100 million in research and development — will be released for use by educators in K-12 and universities, as well as researchers and ed tech companies. The overarching goal, according to the university, is to create a global research community.

The full extent of the contribution will be publicized at an upcoming meeting of the Empirical Educator Project's (EEP) in May, which Carnegie Mellon will be hosting. The EEP is a cohort of universities and ed tech vendors selected by ed tech consultancy e-Literate, and will act as a pilot group to create the seed for the global network and help the university refine its support for the initiative.

According to reporting by EdSurge, although some of the software the university intends to release was already available for free download, now the source code for those programs will also be available.

"So much of Carnegie Mellon's Simon Initiative builds on Herb Simon's challenge to his CMU colleagues to improve education through a collaborative, research-driven approach," said Richard Scheines, dean of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and faculty lead for the Simon Initiative, in a statement. "The challenges facing higher education are too big for any one institution to tackle alone; we're opening this toolkit as a first step in building a larger, evidence-based community."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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