New Research Center envisions IoT Applied to Personalized Learning

ROSS BRENNEMAN | October 22, 2016

A joint center between USC Rossier and USC Viterbi might make the ‘Internet of Things’ a staple of K-12 classrooms

The Classroom of the Future/ Illustration by Tim Szabo

The Classroom of the Future/ Illustration by Tim Szabo

Even as education technology floods into classrooms across the country, educators haven’t always been able to make sure it’s making a difference. A new center at the University of Southern California will attempt to make that technology more informative for learning and instruction.

The Center for Human-Applied Reasoning and the Internet of Things, or CHARIOT, is a partnership between the USC Rossier School of Education and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. It is established to bring education and engineering together in a way that will help educators gather real-time data about how students are learning and how teachers should personalize instruction for each student.

CHARIOT will be co-directed by Kenneth Yates, professor of clinical education at USC Rossier; Rao Machiraju, executive-in-residence at USC Rossier; and Bhaskar Krishnamachari, Ming Hsieh Fellow and professor of electrical engineering at USC Viterbi.

All three administrators consider CHARIOT to be a “moonshot.”

“The idea of using technology in this manner intrigues us,” Yates says. “Bringing what we know from cognitive science and educational psychology in the laboratory to implement it in real-world learning environments using IoT is very exciting.”

Using wearables and other sensors to collect physiological and cognitive data that can be analyzed and interpreted to measure mental effort and cognitive load provides opportunities to use artificial intelligence, or AI, to give both the teacher and each individual student information about how the material should be presented and how to best learn it.

If that sounds like a lot of information for teachers to handle, it’s because they’re expected to be acting in more of a guiding role; for example, as a student does a reading assignment, eye-tracking technology might tell a teacher when the student is losing focus, or where they might be struggling with a word.  AI technology will also be used to provide students with additional assistance with content, learning strategies and motivation messages.

The co-directors say that CHARIOT will be on the front-edge of personalized learning, an idea that instruction be modified to fit the differing needs of students. Advances in personalized learning is one of the “14 Grand Challenges for Engineering,” according to the National Academy of Engineering.

“Partnering with the Rossier School of Education to provide novel ways to help meet this challenge is a powerful example of the empowering nature of engineering,” says Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of USC Viterbi. “We are fortunate that through its many professional schools, USC provides a plethora of avenues to enable this empowerment. CHARIOT is the expression of such unique partnership between education and engineering technology.”

An essential aspect of personalized learning, the center’s leaders point out, is being able to evaluate such things as the level of student engagement and emotions. The Internet of Things is a connected network of everyday things.  Common examples include wristbands that record how far someone walks and their heart rate, then deliver those data to a smartphone or computer.

Dean of USC Rossier Karen Symms Gallagher notes that the three charter schools opened by USC Rossier—USC Hybrid High School, USC East and USC College Prep, Santa Ana Campus—are all examples of how personalized learning has become integral to classroom instruction, and where the kind of innovation taken on by CHARIOT may prove to be especially beneficial.

“As USC Rossier envisioned, opened and now operate our three charter schools using personalized learning and high quality teachers, we have learned how important real-time data are to teachers’ ability to intervene exactly when students need assistance,” she says.

Krishnamachari, who is also Director of the recently launched Center for Cyber-Physical Systems and the IoT, will focus on leading Viterbi’s efforts in designing, implementing and evaluating algorithms and software for wireless and mobile IoT sensing systems. Machiraju, who is an alumnus of Rossier (EdD ’87), and Yates will focus their work on leading Rossier and other USC faculty in applying that technology to the classroom and other learning environments. Machiraju brings extensive knowledge from the technology sector, including nine years as a principal scientist at Apple with 11 patents in information retrieval.

“My interest is in taking on paradigm-changing projects, and I’m excited about the possibilities that CHARIOT brings to education,” Machiraju says. “CHARIOT is the perfect vehicle for pushing the boundaries on how the next frontier of education can be modeled. Having worked in information retrieval, wearables and learning, it is a natural for me to intertwine these various strands for exponential returns.”

Krishnamachari, approached by Yannis C. Yortsos, Dean of USC Viterbi about the idea for CHARIOT, says that he knew he wanted to be involved in the project to build smart, technology-enabled classrooms—something he knows is needed based on his experience both as an educator and as the product of a large city public school system with high student-teacher ratios.

“I could see right away that if sensor measurements are carefully correlated with more traditional assessments of student learning, it would enable teachers to know which students need help, when they need help and what help they need, and possibly also give feedback and suggestions to individual students about what they could be doing to enhance their learning,” Krishnamachari says.

CHARIOT’s co-directors believe that with connectivity and sensors becoming pervasive, there are currently unforeseen ways by which data can be gathered, interpreted and deployed for strengthening the learning process and teacher student interactions.

Computer scientist and educator Alan Kay once said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”  CHARIOT hopes to provide the framework to create such inventions.