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Funding Opportunities

Program Announcement: Education Research and Development Center Program: Virtual Learning (84.305C)

Program Officers:
Dr. Erin Higgins
Telephone: (202) 245-6541

Technological advances are rapidly changing education and are widely seen as having the potential to improve student learning and reduce achievement gaps; however, to date that potential has not been fully realized. Online and blended learning strategies that combine digital and classroom instruction create new opportunities for teachers and students; Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other digital interventions reach great numbers of users far beyond what is traditionally found in a single classroom; and education technology tools may allow researchers and practitioners to gather and analyze large amounts of data quickly and easily. Digital interactions have the potential to be logged automatically and examined systematically to identify, with efficiency, which students are capable of more demanding assignments, need extra help, or are at risk of dropping out. With these data, developers and researchers can also make rapid adjustments to technological interventions and online instructional delivery and conduct experiments to identify the most effective instructional practices for individual students.

Notwithstanding the promise of these technological advances, there are still many open questions about whether education technologies and the "big data" they generate can lead to meaningful improvements in teaching and learning. Moreover, still emerging and needing attention are the infrastructure to support the analytic and instructional use of the data, to store and share these data with others, and to mine data generated from the use of education technologies. Finally, the Institute is particularly interested in learning about how such technologies may support the academic needs of low-income and/or low-performing students.

In response to these questions and challenges, the Institute seeks to create a national Research and Development Center, referred to here as the Virtual Learning Laboratory (Lab). Its broad purposes are to support research on and evaluation of the instructional practices, content, and learning tools provided to students within widely-used online instructional delivery platforms, and to explore how the large amounts of data generated within such platforms can be used to address the practical needs and questions posed by school administrators, teachers, policymakers and researchers. The Institute is particularly interested in supporting projects that will help states and schools make better use of education technology to address the academic needs of low-income students and/or low-performing students.

The Lab is expected to impact the field by developing and/or demonstrating the value of 1) methodological approaches to researching and developing the instructional practices, content, and learning tools offered by online instructional delivery platforms and 2) approaches to analyzing the data produced by those platforms. Importantly, the Lab is also expected to engage with the larger education community to exchange ideas; disseminate information and resources, including methodological papers that may benefit other researchers developing and evaluating online instructional delivery platforms and education technologies; and provide workshops or other opportunities for practitioners and/or researchers.

Specifically, the Lab is expected to conduct a focused program of research that will:

  1. Use experimental methods to evaluate and improve the instructional practices, content, and/or learning tools offered by one or more widely-used online instructional delivery platforms, with a particular focus on making improvements for low-income and low-performing students in K–12.
  2. Advance the field's understanding of how the large amounts of data generated within online instructional delivery platforms may be used to address important research questions and improve teaching and learning.

In addition, the Lab will provide leadership and outreach that will:

  1. Inform policymakers, practitioners, and other nontechnical audiences about big data for education research and practice.
  2. Create a "hub" where researchers, developers, and practitioners will come together — both virtually and in person — to discuss research goals and methods related to online learning, review emerging research findings, and support new partnerships and collaborations.
  3. Build the field's capacity to conduct well-designed studies of online learning and to use big data by offering workshops and other activities.