On Inventing the Future with Technology: An Interview with Jan Plass

Jan Plass holds Steinhardt’s Paulette Goddard Chair in Digital Media and Learning Science.  He is the director of the program in educational communication and technology, serves as co-director of the Games for Learning Institute, and is the founding director of the CREATE Consortium for Research and Evaluation of Advanced Technology in Education.   We spoke to him about his interest in technology and education.

Your background is in mathematics, physics and, educational technology.  How did you come to your current set of research interests?

I became interested in the use of technology for learning when I studied physics as a graduate student and worked as a research assistant in a physics lab at Erfurt University in Germany. We built interfaces with sensors that connected computers to physics experiments to collect data – pretty much what we now call physical computing. I realized how much more powerful visualizations were to understand data collected from physics experiments compared to looking at tables with the data. I have been pursing this idea ever since – how can visualizations help us better understand complex scientific phenomena? It quickly became clear to me that static visuals can be useful, but that interacting with them was even more powerful for learning. My current interest in designing simulations and games for learning comes from this trajectory visualization, interactivity, and, most recently, game features such as narrative, incentive systems, and emotional design.

What project are you most excited about right now?

My CREATE team and I are currently engaged in a number of projects I am very passionate about. For example, in a project funded by the Gates foundation to design nextgeneration courseware for community colleges, we are building the next generation of simulations of important ideas from statistics and macro economics for students who struggle with these subjects. In another project, funded by the US Department of Education, we design and validate games that improve brain functions of children and adults, including adults with traumatic brain injuries. And one of our newest project is a collaboration with the NYU Child Study Center to develop games to help children who were sexually abused. All of these projects are collaborations with other researchers and entrepreneurs who bring their expertise and passion to the work, and who share our goal of using digital technology to help people live better lives.

Of course you can’t predict the future, but what innovations are on the horizon for students, teachers, and classrooms?

Computing pioneer Alan Kay famously said the best way to predict the future is to invent it. In that spirit, we are working on projects that address some of the key problems in current schools: simulations make learning more interactive and promote higher level thinking. Games make learning more playful and situate it in meaningful contexts. Embedded assessments provide measures for student learning that we hope in time can replace high stakes tests. And our research on affect recognizes that learners experience many different academic emotions that impact learning and shows how emotional design can enhance learning. My ideal classroom of the future combines all these approaches into adaptive learning in which technology supports teachers to enhance the experience for each student.