Research and data are two of the primary vehicles that propel Realizeit, and Dr. Colm Howlin is the driver. In his role as Realizeit’s principal researcher, Colm’s work helps drive the evolution and direction of Realizeit’s intelligent learning engine and system. He also spearheads the collaborative research partnerships that help provide a broader understanding of the impact and opportunities of digital learning with Realizeit.
In this interview, Colm discusses the critical role research plays at Realizeit, his approach to partnering with institutions, and Realizeit Labs, the new initiative the company is launching to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the data, insights and opportunities these efforts uncover.
Why is research such a core part of who Realizeit is as a company and system?
Everything we do is based on data and evidence. If want to make a positive difference to students’ success, and if we want to continue to improve our platform, we need to understand and measure what kind of impact we’re having. We need to be able to work with experts in the field and take what we learn from them back in house to make improvements.
There are also plenty of people working on topics around the world that are not directly connected to us that we can learn from. There is work going on in other fields, in other institutions, so you need to keep an eye on the current edge of research to know what’s happening. You can’t claim to be on the cutting edge if you don’t know where the edge is.
Can you share some examples of research topics your team is currently exploring with institutions?
We just published a journal paper with the University of Central Florida and Colorado Technical University comparing the underlying structure of adaptive learning across institutions. Despite the large differences between the two institutions in terms of organization and student demographics, the underlying structure of adaptive learning is the same. We will be presenting this work at several conferences later this year, including the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference and OLC Accelerate.
Another example is the work we’re doing with Charles Sturt University, which uses a self-directed learning model with its Civil Engineering students. In a paper we will be presenting at the 46th SEFI Annual Conference, we will show how students “binge” on topics – just like they would on Netflix shows.
This collaborative approach to research is what really enables us to start making progress. Our partners at these institutions are the people on the ground interacting with the students and faculty and seeing how they’re using the digital learning system. I have the data expertise and the understanding of how the system functions to detail the behavior they’re seeing and find the insights. It is the coming together of these two parts that really allows us to develop a better understanding of how to use digital and adaptive learning effectively – and helps institutions understand how they can evolve their processes as well.
What is Realizeit Labs? How does it fit into this collaborative research?
Realizeit Labs will provide a window into all the ongoing research we do behind and about Realizeit. We’re launching the Realizeit Labs website to share more about the research we’re doing. We often find insights or generate ideas that are of interest to others outside the company. This will give us a place to share that kind of information both formally, in terms of papers and articles we publish, as well as informally through blog posts.
Part of our goal is to provide some insight and understanding for educators into why the system functions the way it does, why we’ve built it the way we have and how to best leverage those capabilities. In a way, it can remove this perception people sometimes have of a digital learning system like Realizeit as a sort of “black box” – Realizeit Labs will give insights into what’s happening inside.
At the same time, we want to foster the collaborative side of our research work and draw in people who are interested in partnering with us. Instructors and institutions can work with us to learn more about their students, their courses and how they can continue to evolve teaching and learning to drive better experiences and outcomes.
We’ll also share our perspectives and opinions that arise from the work we’re doing or what we observe others doing. And if there is something people to learn more about, we are eager to hear that as well. Hopefully it will be a place that starts a meaningful dialogue.
How does Realizeit’s research focus serve the overall goal of better understanding – and better serving – the student?
For everything we do, the goal is always to better serve the student and the faculty. At its core, Realizeit is a learning system. It isn’t simply to assess what students do and don’t know; it’s to teach and to do what we can to help them learn. Because of that, everything we do with research is to better understand how the students use the system, what impact it is having, and how we can make it better for them and their instructors. That could be improving the interactions between the students and the system, providing instructors better feedback so they can more effectively intervene with students, giving administrators the right feedback, they need improve courses and overall learning, and so on.
One recent example is the state framework, which we introduced so students can have more of a voice in sharing how they’re doing with their instructor beyond just seeing data on their activity and progress. Particularly in online settings, instructors often won’t know how students are feeling about the work or how they’re doing. This lets students give a little extra feedback.
Realizeit generates a significant amount of data on student learning that helps inform this research. How do you view the team’s responsibility regarding that data?
From a privacy perspective, we’re strictly adhering to all the legal requirements regarding the handling of student data, but it’s more than that. Instructors and institutions trust us with this data, and we only want to use it for good. We don’t own the data; it is owned by the institutions. We have a responsibility to be very thoughtful about how this data is used, even when it is anonymized and used in the course of research. When we’re looking at the data, it’s always with an eye on whether the application of that data in research is in the best interest of the student and the institution.
What are some of the initial topics readers can expect to see on Realizeit Labs?
We’re going to talk about some of the recent projects that we’ve worked on. So, for example, we’ll be looking at student behaviors and prototypes. We’ll talk about the concepts behind some of our newer features, such as capturing the student voice and what’s happening with the student through what we call soft data. And we’ll be sharing our published research articles and upcoming conference presentations.
How can clients interested in partnering on research get started?
We’re looking for institutions who are already partners with us as well as external researchers interested in using the data. If you are a client institution, you can come with questions you have, and we can set up an analytics project that can evolve into a research project, where we explore the data and pull out the insights. Some clients already have research questions they want to answer, so we can start there as well.
Is Realizeit Labs for Realizeit customers only?
Realizeit Labs is for anyone who’s interested in learning about the research behind digital learning technology. The site is open to the public at lab.realizeitlearning.com. We’re planning to post new content as regularly as possible, and ideally, we’ll ramp it up over time. I hope those customers who are interested – as well as outside researchers and anyone else – visits us regularly to see what’s new.