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IES Funds Center to Improve Virtual Learning
June 13, 2016

IES Funds Center to Improve Virtual Learning

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has awarded an $8.9 million grant to the University of Florida for a new Research and Development (R & D) Center that will focus on personalizing and improving virtual learning. The Center will be at the forefront of an emerging field known as "precision education," which uses data from prior students to support the learning opportunities for future students.

Over five years, the R & D Center—called Precision Education: The Virtual Learning Lab—will address the challenge of improving Algebra outcomes for low-achieving students, using Algebra Nation, a free online learning platform for students and teachers designed to promote mastery of basic algebra. The research team will personalize Algebra Nation for students by analyzing data from prior users; develop indicators of engagement during learning; and design professional development to help teachers use learning analytics to differentiate instruction.

Online learning is growing across the country. For instance, 60 percent of grade 12 students who took the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in mathematics were in schools that reported offering an online mathematics course for credit. That is up from 41 percent in 2009 and 22 percent in 2005.

IES sought to create an R & D center that would conduct research on the practices, content, and learning tools offered within online learning platforms and use data generated by these platforms to address the needs of practitioners and policymakers. IES was particularly interested in projects that would improve outcomes for low-income and/or low-performing students.

"Precision education offers the potential to create online teaching tools that become 'smarter' as students use them," said Thomas Brock, Commissioner for the National Center for Education Research. "When students work on their computers, they generate data that reveal their thought processes – what steps they take to try to answer a problem, how long they work at deriving a solution, and where they are struggling. The Virtual Learning Lab will help us understand how such data may be used to make online instruction more personalized and effective."

The Virtual Learning Lab will test the promise of the precision education approach by studying whether the personalized version Algebra Nation improves students' performance on their end-of-course algebra exam.

The Virtual Learning Lab also will serve as a national hub for sharing findings and producing guidelines regarding the design of personalization of virtual learning systems through the use of learning analytics and accompanying professional development for teachers. Outreach activities will include summer workshops, an annual analytics competition, and collaborative sessions at conferences. The lab will also collaborate on supplemental studies with researchers who are conducting projects involving shared data and the use of learning analytics.

IES funds Research and Development Centers to advance practical solutions to important education challenges in the United States. The centers develop, test, and disseminate new approaches that improve teaching and learning in a critical area. In addition, Centers provide national leadership and outreach within their topic areas.

Learn more about the Virtual Learning Lab

Media Contact: Dana Tofig, Communications Director, Institute of Education Sciences, 202-245-8235,