In brief: Research news Spring 2022

The Faculty of Education has a proud tradition not only of producing great educators, psychologists and information studies professionals, but great research. Here are some recent stories you may have missed about UAlberta education researchers and the important work they do to improve teaching, learning, policy and professional practice in Alberta, in Canada and around the world.

‘Think of the whole child, not just their ears’

Many audiologists believe sign language is obsolete, recommending instead that deaf children rely exclusively on technology such as cochlear implants and hearing aids. Sign language, they contend, interferes with learning to speak.

Educational Psychology professor Joanne Weber argues the whole dispute is absurd and unnecessary. The first Canada Research Chair in deaf education says options shouldn’t be reduced to either/or. Having spent years teaching deaf children, she is convinced that the more tools for expression — and the greater the exposure to any kind of language — the better. As chair she plans to provide a blueprint for deaf education that gives children every advantage possible, drawing on the arts to improve their language fluency.

Language deprivation is severe among deaf children, says Weber, restricting academic performance and social and emotional development — even among those with cochlear implants or hearing aids who also sign. The average reading level for many deaf high school graduates is Grade 4, Weber notes.

“You're providing all this money towards technology and equipment, and it doesn't solve the problem at all.”

One way technology could play a helpful role in deaf education is through open access to electronic books for both teachers and learners — something Weber is now exploring thanks to a grant of nearly $450,000 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Learning to both sign and speak with the help of hearing devices provides the best foundation for language acquisition, says Weber. But she believes the arts can provide a pathway to increased fluency, creating opportunities for expression and exchange.

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Education researchers work to make online assessments smarter, safer

Among the challenges presented by remote learning is the need to accurately assess each student’s progress and provide timely, constructive feedback that helps them identify their strengths and address their weaknesses—a challenge that’s compounded in higher education settings by large class sizes and complex concepts that call on higher order thinking skills. Educational Psychology researchers Guher Gorgun and Genan Hamad are both working on ways to harness artificial intelligence to support instructors in providing timely feedback while making the most of classroom time and protecting the integrity of the assessment process. Their respective work has earned them each an Alberta Innovates Graduate Student Scholarship.

Gorgun says sophisticated automated scoring and feedback systems have emerged in recent years as viable options for assessing higher order functions like creativity, critical thinking and problem solving tested by open-ended questions. But, she adds, these systems are often developed without input from the instructors or students they’re meant to help. “In my study I’m trying to integrate instructor and student perspectives to develop optimal, actionable systems that can be implemented in large-scale classrooms,” Gorgun says. Hamad has been looking at harnessing the power of machine learning to detect cheating and aberrant behavior based on human-computer interactions in online assessments—an aspect she says is especially important when it comes to testing for professional licensing and certification, even if instances of cheating are very rare.

“Test administrators need to be confident their test results represent the true abilities of their examinees, and the stakeholders who are using these results to hire or license, say, a doctor or nurse, need to ensure that the people they hire or license, will be able to perform their jobs safely,” Hamad said.

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Reading program helps young learners bounce back from COVID disruptions

As educators around the world assess how school disruptions and online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic have affected students, a project led by a University of Alberta researcher is showing that targeted interventions can help make up for learning loss among students with reading difficulties and set them up for educational success later on. George Georgiou, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, and his team implemented a reading intervention program in Alberta’s Fort Vermilion, Black Gold, St. Albert Catholic and Lakeland Catholic school divisions that entailed training teachers to provide four 30-minute lessons a week to students in grades 2 and 3 with reading difficulties. The lessons were given from October 2021 through February 2022 and were overseen by the research team and literacy consultants in each school division.

The study comprised 83 classes from the four school divisions, for a total of 362 students receiving interventions in groups of three or four from 66 interventionists. The 30-minute lessons focused on phonics, teaching irregular words and shared book reading that reinforced recognizing letter combinations taught in the lessons.

“We found that 82 per cent of the children improved over time and, on average, their improvement was equal to 1.5 years. Of all the children who received intervention, 72 per cent no longer have reading problems,” said Georgiou, whose team assessed the students’ reading abilities before and after the intervention period.

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New education resources boost vaccine confidence, scientific literacy

When science educator Carol Brown started developing materials to teach about vaccines and information literacy in K-12 classrooms, she brought in a special consultant to help with creating resources for younger elementary children: her four-and-a-half-year-old son. “My son was a useful resource and my friends’ kids were helpful in thinking about meeting younger students where they were, as was sharing resources with elementary education colleagues to see what they would find useful,” Brown says.

Brown said that meeting students where they are is crucial, and not just in terms of ensuring the material is grade-level-appropriate. Given the potential for controversy around socioscientific issues like vaccination and climate change, educators need to tread the fine line of laying out scientific evidence while nurturing curiosity among learners.

“As science teachers, we need to encourage question-asking, we need to create a space where people feel safe to ask questions without being judged,” Brown says. “We can’t tell people outright that they’re wrong, which closes down the possibility of them even listening. We need to model open-mindedness as educators, and the willingness to admit when we’re wrong as educators in order to foster that in our learners.”

The resources Brown has created are part of a project, Vaccine & Hesitancy: Teaching for Critical Thinking, that grew from the partnership between the Faculty of Education’s Centre for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education (CMASTE) and GlycoNet, a network of more than 175 researchers at 35 institutions across Canada, including the University of Alberta, focused on cancer, chronic diseases, infectious diseases, and neurodegenerative diseases.

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Feature image: Educational Psychology professor and Canada Research Chair in Deaf Education Dr. Joanne Weber (photo: Laura Sou).