"It's really about creating effective learning experiences," says David Porcaro, Director of Learning Capabilities Design for Pearson. David and his colleagues are baking in learning sciences research into the next generation of education tools for learners—of all ages.
"We're collaborating with other Pearson researchers, designers, developers, and subject matter experts on digital learning experiences," he says, "and when we're able to achieve a good design it means learners see better outcomes."
Agile, Integrated Teams
"Designing for learning means understanding and applying numerous kinds of research -- from the learning sciences through to user behaviors with mobile technology," says Jeff Bergin, who is Vice President of Learning & Experience Design at Pearson, "and by partnering these research methodologies together, we can innovate more rapidly."
"A lot of tech companies invest heavily in user experience design," says David Porcaro, "but fail to invest in academic research that guides the design process."
"A lot of academic labs invest a great deal in research," he says, "but they don’t focus enough on user experience design."
David says there are several PhD's in the group, with a wide breadth of knowledge. "We're not just building theory," he says. "Our main goal is to apply our research to make better learning tools."
It's a continuous, collaborative process to try to get things right.
And says Jeff Bergin: "we're always looking at the research to see what's best for learning.”
A Great Tool Made Better
One of Pearson's most popular learning tools is the Pearson Writer. It's a support tool for students as they write.
"We integrated the Writer into a sidebar for Microsoft Word," says John Sadauskas, a senior learning designer at Pearson. "Before, you had to use a separate browser window to refer to your essay outline, manually paste your bibliography into your paper, and refer to the writing tips in the guide."
"Now, because the tool is integrated with the writing experience, learners are much more likely to refer to their outline. They can also add bibliographies to their papers with a single click, and ask the Writer for feedback when they need it without leaving Word," he says.
"We want to see evidence that our designs are supporting learning," says Dan Shapera, Manager of Design-Based Research for Pearson's Learning Experience Design team. To test this experience early with users, the Learning Design team conducted participatory research with students.
"Not just, 'How do we enhance each learning tools?' but also, 'Can we demonstrate with student data that the tool is having a positive effect?’”
The sidebar is slated to be rolled-out in April.
The Social Science of Design
"I studied birding in school," says Brendan Reeves, a senior user experience researcher at Pearson. "I couldn't write a line of code to save my life."
Still, the researcher who's trained in neuroscience has an important role in Pearson's design process.
"We have to understand our users at a behavioral level," he says. "We have to identify a problem that actually needs to be solved, then provide a solution that's useful."
"That's why social science and pedagogy is so important."
During some recent work, Brendan and his colleagues discovered something they didn't expect.
"So many learners today are returning students, whether older students or parents or former military," he says. "And you might assume that they'd be far behind millenials in their use of technology in learning."
"The research flipped that assumption on its head," Brendan says. "Younger students 18 to 22 who grew up on Facebook used technology in learning in a minimal way. They're using a ton of technology, just not for learning."
"The older and returning students—people who are pressed for time or who are single parents—they're looking for optimized learning anywhere they can find it," he says. "They're using tons of technology to help them get their work done."
Brendan says: "So much of our work is just solving the right problem."
"That way, we can build products that help students of any kind learn."
When Sherlandy Pardieu arrived in Boston from Haiti three years ago, he was placed into the district's only high school designed to serve immigrant students.
Sherlandy knew almost right away that it was a special place. The school's nearly 400 students come from 40 countries and speak 25 languages.
"This school is amazing," he says. "It's nice to be around people who are so open to you."
"There's something beautiful about this school," says student Ronald Francois, who is also from Haiti. "All the different communities know how to fit in, and know how to talk to one another without hurting anyone."
Newcomers Academy is a special program run alongside the high school that provides support to students with interrupted formal education, known as SIFE students, and those who are newly arrived to America.
SIFE programming is available in Spanish, Haitian, and Cape Verdean.
Newcomers Academy students are exposed to a Sheltered English Immersion curriculum focused on accelerating their language acquisition. Students are in the program for one year (two for SIFE students), and then can choose to attend any Boston high school.
Many students choose to remain at BINcA.
From Peace Corps to Headmaster
The school's headmaster, Tony King, marvels at the resilience and spirit of his students. He says students find tremendous value in being part of such a diverse learning community.
"They like going through the common experience of becoming an American," he says.
A native Iowan, Tony has his own interesting path to BINcA. After graduating from the University of Iowa, he joined the Peace Corps to teach in the Cape Verde Islands. While there, he learned about Boston's large Cape Verdean population, and decided to come to study education as a graduate student in the city.
Tony then taught in the Boston Public Schools, including bilingual classes, and worked in the district's central office. It led to an opportunity to work with others on proposals that created Boston International High School and then Newcomers Academy.
More Teaching, More Learning
"The road to doing well is up to us," Tony says.
He says the school having autonomy over its own curriculum is critical.
When asked why the school has such high outcomes for English language learners, he points to three key elements.
First, the school can pick its own teachers. "The most important thing about our teachers is that they want to work at this school," Tony says. About 30-percent of the teachers are immigrants themselves. "I get to hire a more diverse staff that meets the needs of our specific students."
Second, Tony says the school gets to think a lot about targeted support for individual students. This is especially relevant in a school environment where so many students face daily challenges related to poverty, homelessness, and other barriers to overcome.
Third, King credits more teaching and learning time with the higher results. The school offers after school programming, Saturday school, and February and April vacation school.
All these opportunities add up. Tony says a BINcA student taking the statewide Grade 10 MCAS tests this month would have received 100 hours of additional instructional time this year.
New Expectations, 'Incredible' Success
Not all of the school's students are ready to graduate in four years.
Massachusetts is using its grant money to support a multi-year effort to raise the statewide graduation rates and improve outcomes for students whose first language is not English, known as FLNE student.
The Department is working closely with ten school districts, including Boston, to support their local efforts and network them to information, resources, and technical assistance.
'In Awe of the Students'
Pearson CEO John Fallon visited BINcA during a recent trip to Boston.
John was impressed by the school's leadership, its excellent teachers, and the collaborative learning community he observed.
Mostly, he left in awe of the students. "You could teach us about intrapersonal skills," John told them. "Your resilience, your grit and ability to overcome, I am so impressed."
Helping Other Schools to Transform Students and Improve Outcomes
Others are taking notice as well.
In December, Stanford University published a report on six high schools across the country delivering higher than average outcomes for English language learners. BINcA was one of the six schools highlighted in the report.
Headmaster Tony King is quick to note, though, that the school is still working hard to improve.
Still, students who will graduate this year are well on their way to success.
Ronald, one of the students from Haiti, says he loves engineering and math—and will enroll at a local college in the fall.
"I came here because in my country, what I want is not there," Ronald says. "I came here because if I work hard and go to college, I can be the person I want to be."