At NYU Steinhardt, Using Technology to Shape Public Policy and Learning

Digital technology has radically transformed our world,giving us the ability to see into the body, unpack the meaning of music, communicate at the speed of light, and quickly access more information than can be stored in a public library. Researchers at NYU Steinhardt study technology to understand its impact on learning and culture, as well as healthcare and public policy.

Looking at the Ethical Dimensions of Digital Technology

The author of Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life (Stanford University Press, 2010)), Helen Nissenbaum of the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, has argued that privacy is one of the most urgent issues associated with information technology and digital media.

“Privacy online is a particular challenge not only because it enables an unprecedented flow of information, but also because the Internet has created new types of information, for example, information extracted from social networks and large aggregated data sets,” Nissenbaum says.

She notes that healthcare is another “frontier of change” as the recent national push to digitize medical records allows multiple parties greater access to information, but also opens the door to privacy and security threats.

A Multidisciplinary Research Community Studies Privacy Technologies

The challenge is to derive the benefits promised by better access to medical records, but to prevent undesirable access.

“Medical professionals and institutions that provide healthcare should have effective access to your health records, but unfortunately, there is value in the information to many parties who don’t have a legitimate interest in your healthcare,” Nissenbaum says.

In a project funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Nissenbaum is collaborating with partners from the fields of computer science, social science, and medical research to develop sound policy recommendations that acknowledges the value of information technologies and support the ethical exchange of health information, and ultimately healthcare itself.

Called Strategic Healthcare IT Advanced Research Projects on Security (SHARPS), the project seeks to improve current security and privacy technologies and, in the long-term, to create a multidisciplinary research community that will advance research in this area.

Digital Games Make Learning Fun

While emerging digital technologies open up important questions about privacy, they also provide opportunities for new ways of learning. For Jan Plass, digital games have the potential to revolutionize learning in classrooms and out of school.

Plass is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Digital Media and Learning Sciences and co-director of the Games for Learning Institute (G4LI),a multi-institutional, multidisciplinary research endeavor funded by Microsoft Research that brings together computer scientists, cognitive scientists, education experts, psychologists, and game designers to better understand the mechanisms that make digital games so appealing and to use those principles to build learning games that students enjoy.

G4LI’s focus is on digital games as tools for teaching science, technology, engineering, and math—STEM subjects—at the critical middle-school level.

Plass and his colleagues began their research by watching subjects play off-the-shelf video games — such as Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise, Little Big Planet, World of Goo,ProfessorLayton and the Curious Village — in order to extract design patterns that characterize highly engaging video games. Next, they took those patterns and mechanics and applied them to learning games of their own design that could be fun and engaging for students.

Is Fun the Best Way to Learn?

“The aim,” says Plass, “was to compare games with different design features to one another” to gauge their effectiveness in promoting learning. For instance, one version of a geometry game might ask players which rule or theorem to use to solve a problem, and another might ask them to provide the answer numerically. “The game asking for rules rather than RU numeric answers becomes less about arithmetic and more about geometry, and we are interested in how this impacts learning” he says.

Plass’s research seeks to understand many different aspects of the process of game playing, and whether certain game design features promote learning more than others. For example, do players learn better when they play individually or in teams? And if they play in teams, do they learn better collaboratively or competitively?

Preliminary findings suggest that when engaged in challenges that deal with low-level skills such as addition or factoring, kids like it better when they play in teams, and solve the most problems when playing competitively. However, Plass’s research suggests that they learn more when they play individually.

“It appears that what is most fun is not always the best way to learn,” Plass says. In fact research conducted by G4LI has shown that games that provide the right intellectual challenges do not always need to be fun and engaging.

For higher-level skills, such as problem solving, Plass and his colleagues expect that students perform better in teams. “It’s useful to have someone else to work with when you solve a complex problem.” A study testing this hypothesis is currently in progress.


Helen Nissenbaum discusses the values inherent in video game design.

Jan Plass discusses the Games for Learning Institute (G4LI), Molecules and Minds project, and surgical simulations.