The University of Florida is assembling researchers from multiple fields to seek solutions in two areas of 21st century education – personalizing online math instruction and adapting educational technology for students with visual impairments.
The studies are funded by two grants, worth more than $10 million combined, from the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.
Nearly $9 million of the grant money supports a new project called Precision Education: Virtual Learning Lab, which brings together top experts in informatics, math education and professional development for teachers. Their charge is to advance a new approach for exploring massive sets of archived student data to update and personalize virtual instruction for future math students.
“With the increased use of computers in education, the large-scale mining of existing education data represents a big new opportunity for computers to help teachers adapt their practice for today’s digltal world and help their students to improve their virtual learning,” said UF education technology professor Carole R. Beal, the principal investigator of both studies (pictured above).
The new Virtual Learning Lab team comprises faculty researchers at UF and the University of Notre Dame, and experts from Study Edge, a Gainesville-based online tutoring company.
Over the next five years, the researchers will conduct studies in the emerging discipline of precision education, which uses large-scale education data from prior students — such as standardized test scores, administrative records from schools and universities, and teaching methods used — to personalize the learning experience for future individual students.
No more one-size-fits-all lesson plans geared to some “statistically average” student profile.
The researchers will focus on online or virtual learners in math using the new technology of “big data” learning analysis. The precision education approach has researchers using powerful supercomputers to rapidly scrutinize the massive education data, plus figures from students’ use of interactive or group learning tools.
“Our grand challenge is to improve the achievement of struggling online students,” said Beal, who was recruited to UF’s College of Education from the University of Arizona in 2014 to head the new UF Online Learning Institute. “We will design new teacher development programs on the use of learning analytics and personalizing instruction, and how to track student progress when every student is doing something unique.”
Researchers at the Virtual Learning Lab will develop and test their prototype personalized model of precision education on a popular online tutoring tool called Algebra Nation, which the UF Lastinger Center for Learning launched in 2013 in tandem with Study Edge. Algebra Nation has since been used by more than 3,000 teachers and 200,000 math students from all 67 Florida school districts—mostly ninth graders gearing up for the mandatory end-of-course exam in Algebra 1.
Near the end of the study, researchers will compare test results of students using the updated and personalized version of Algebra Nation with the scores of students using the regular version.
Beal said the Virtual Learning Lab also will serve as a national hub for researchers—forming a network for sharing findings and collaborating on new efforts to advance the fledgling field of precision education and personalized virtual learning.
The project’s co-principal investigator is Walter Leite, UF professor of research and evaluation methodology (REM) with expertise in big-data mining and learning analysis.
Other College of Education faculty researchers involved are: Corrine Huggins-Manley (REM), and Don Pemberton and Philip Poekert from the college’s Lastinger Center for Learning.
Two other participating UF faculty scholars are: George Michailidis, director of the UF Informatics Institute; and Juan Gilbert, chairman of computer and information sciences and engineering, and a pioneer in the field of human-centered computing.
Other key team members are psychology and computer science professor Sidney D’Mello of the University of Notre Dame and online tutoring specialist Ethan Fieldman of Study Edge.
Adapting education technology for math students with visual impairment
The theme of personalized online learning carries over to Beal’s second federal grant, a three-year, $1.4 million project to help solve the unique challenges that visually impaired students must overcome in learning online.
Think about it: How can students who can’t see the images on their computer screen solve algebra or geometry problems filled with line, bar and circle graphs, figures, geometric shapes and maps?
“In my investigations, I have found that students who appear disengaged in the traditional classroom are often among the most active learners in the online learning setting,” Beal said.
For this study, Beal has assembled a research team with colleagues from Arizona and Florida to explore how technology can make online learning more accessible to students with special needs. Nicholas Gage from UF’s special education program is co-principal investigator.
The researchers will develop and test an iPad-based instructional system to train students with visual impairments to locate and decipher targeted information in math graphics problems. The system includes audio, print and braille cues in accompanying books to point users to targeted graphics and word problems.
They plan to recruit up to 150 middle and high school students with visual impairments for the project from regular schools and specialized residential programs in Florida, Arizona and other states.
After hundreds of interviews with local residents, the University of Florida took the next step toward forging a shared vision with the Gainesville community when it revealed the findings of its strategic development process.
“The future of the university hinges on the future of the surrounding community, and vice versa,” said Charles Lane, UF’s senior vice president and chief operating officer, who oversaw the nine-month process. Lane described the results at a meeting at Emerson Alumni Hall on Thursday.
In December, UF’s Board of Trustees asked the university to put its campus master plan in context of the surrounding community, kicking off the strategic planning effort. UF partnered with Boston-based firms Dumont Janks and Elkus Manfredi on the process, which began in February and included 97 interviews with community members, 114 interviews with UF stakeholders, eight public meetings and a symposium drawing on the experiences of universities and towns from Ohio State to the University of Virginia.
Some of the plan’s recommendations will be put into action immediately, while others might not be fully realized for decades.
“Significant changes don’t just need a plan, they need a vision,” Lane said. “We’re not planning for the people in this room, but for generations yet to come.”
The plan recommends four initiatives for UF and the community to focus on when crafting the future of the university and city:
New American City
Aligning the city and university could turn Gainesville into a proving ground for solutions to challenges facing cities nationwide. The plan calls for creating a joint planning group and a “Smart City Lab” to gather and analyze data to inform future decisions. It also suggests leveraging the expertise of UF researchers to address local issues and establishing an investment strategy to translate UF research and ideas into local start-ups. Finally, the plan recommends evaluating ways to establish a presence in downtown Gainesville for some of the university’s programs, especially its cultural amenities.
To support this initiative, UF is providing $250,000 in community research awards to help connect UF’s talent to community issues.
To enhance collaboration and innovation, the university will concentrate future development in the eastern third of campus and coordinate with the city to encourage development between downtown and campus. Increasing density in these areas will foster interdisciplinary discovery as well as sustainable growth. The plan recommends studying transportation and parking, the best uses for existing space, facilities maintenance and growth, and ways to make Newell Drive a core connection between UF’s academic core and medical center. Because living on campus supports student success, the plan also calls for re-evaluating the current student housing situation with a residential life plan that includes a strategy for the city’s student housing stock. The housing discussion will extend to creating a strong urban core that enhances neighborhoods, attracts talent and investment and makes it feasible for faculty and staff to live close to campus.
Immediate plans to support this initiative include renovating the Plaza of the Americas and redesigning Newell Drive, which will open up the road as a main artery to further unite the UF campus with Gainesville.
The plan recommends that the university and city collaborate to preserve historic neighborhoods, creating a diverse housing stock and improving amenities while defending them from gentrification. The city-university collaboration would also examine the east-west corridors connecting downtown and campus, University Avenue, Second Avenue, Fourth Avenue and Archer Road/Depot Avenue, investigating fixed-route transit options and revisiting the master plan for Innovation Square with the goal of promoting interaction, connection and future development. The plan also calls for improving the identity of Southwest 13th Street as a gateway to campus and the city, evaluating existing regulations with an eye toward defining appropriate height and density for development, and promoting better relations between student and other residents of neighborhoods near campus by catalyzing housing diversity between campus and downtown.
In support of this initiative, UF will enrich neighborhoods with a $50,000 College of the Arts/city arts initiative. UF will also earmark a portion of the $250,000 community research awards and explore further monetary and talent resources to help preserve and strengthen neighborhoods.
When the consultants studied what people like about Gainesville, outdoor spaces emerged as some of its greatest attractions. It’s also part of UF’s land-grant mission to be a good steward of the environment on and around campus. With that in mind, the plan recommends studying open space, landscaping, street and utility networks, stormwater and other infrastructure, and partnering with the city on large-scale open spaces, bike-pedestrian trails and stream-corridor restoration to advance the region’s ecological health and outdoor amenities. Recommended collaboration with the community extends to energy, water, waste and recycling issues as well as healthy food initiatives with the local agricultural community.
Immediate plans to support this initiative include the creation of a UF landscape master plan and providing $50,000 to identify solutions that will address a UF/city/county environmental issue.
The next step is to form a group of city and campus representatives to begin creating a shared future for Gainesville and UF.
“This process is not going to stop when our consultants leave,” Lane said, “it’s going to begin.”
A new, non-invasive way to track the progression of Parkinson’s disease could help evaluate experimental treatments to slow or stop the disease’s progression.
University of Florida researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to reveal areas where Parkinson’s disease and related conditions cause progressive decline in brain activity.
The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, was published in the journal Neurology.
While current treatments focus on controlling symptoms, biomarkers provide a quantifiable way to measure how medications address not just symptoms, but the neurological changes behind them.
Previous studies have used imaging techniques that require the injection of a drug that crosses the blood-brain barrier.
“Our technique does not rely upon the injection of a drug. Not only is it non-invasive, it’s much less expensive,” said David Vaillancourt, Ph.D., a professor in UF’s Department of Applied Physiology and Kinesiology and the study’s senior author.
The study’s authors – which included researchers from UF’s College of Health and Human Performance and College of Medicine as well as the Medical University of South Carolina – used functional magnetic resonance imaging to evaluate five areas of the brain that are key to movement and balance. A year after the baseline study, the 46 Parkinson’s patients in the study showed declining function in two areas: the primary motor cortex and putamen. Parkinson’s-related disorders evaluated in the study also showed declines: The 13 subjects with multiple system atrophy had reduced activity in three of the five areas, while the 19 with progressive supranuclear palsy showed declines in all five areas. The brain activity of the 34 healthy control subjects did not change.
“For decades, the field has been searching for an effective biomarker for Parkinson’s disease,” said Debra Babcock, M.D., Ph.D., program director at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “This study is an example of how brain imaging biomarkers can be used to monitor the progression of Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders.”
The finding builds on a 2015 UF study that was the first to document progressive deterioration from Parkinson’s via MRI, showing an increase in unconstrained fluid in an area of the brain called the substania nigra. An NIH-funded study beginning in November will use both biomarkers to test if a drug approved for symptom relief can slow or stop progressive degeneration.
Katrina Gwinn, M.D., also a program director at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, described the effort to identify biomarkers as “an essential part of moving towards the development of treatments that impact the causes, and not just the symptoms, of Parkinson’s disease.”
Grace Everitt is helping University of Florida engineering students participate in SpaceX’s Hyperloop competition. She isn’t doing it for course credit or because it will look good on her résumé.
She believes she’s a part of something special.
Said Everitt: “It’s human history in the making.”
Everitt, who received a bachelor’s degree in marketing (Magna Cum Laude) from Warrington at Saturday’s Commencement, serves as the Marketing, Public Relations and Sponsorship Lead for Gatorloop, UF’s entry in Hyperloop. Out of a field of more than 1,500 teams worldwide, Gatorloop is one of only 29 entrants to advance to the final round.
Hyperloop is the brainchild of SpaceX and Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk, whose vision is to build a high-speed, ground transportation system run almost entirely on solar power. Passengers and cargo would travel in pods at transonic velocities. The speeds are so great it would, for example, reduce a six-hour drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles to 30 minutes.
Everitt heard about Gatorloop in the fall, but her studies and other commitments kept her from participating. She came aboard in the spring when she noticed the team’s GoFundMe page had stalled around $1,200. Fortuitously, Everitt was enrolled in Professor Dennis DiPasquale’s Sales Management course, which centers on a semester-long fundraising project, and believed she could apply some of the tactics she learned to help Gatorloop.
Since Everitt took over Gatorloop’s fundraising duties, donations have quintupled and have reached $6,000-plus. But costs to purchase parts and manufacture the pod are steep, so Everitt’s new goal is to raise $20,000 before the competition scheduled for January 2017.
Relying on the tactics she learned in Sales Management, Everitt sought out smaller donations from a large pool of supporters to give an immediate boost to the fund. But with the competition a few months away and approximately $14,000 still to be raised, Everitt is shifting her focus to the corporate sector in hopes of attaining larger-size gifts.
“This has been a great opportunity to flex my skills, and practically apply what I’ve learned,” Everitt said.
Everitt’s enthusiasm for Gatorloop and space transport and exploration is palpable. While some may view ideas like Hyperloop as lofty and unattainable, Everitt said these types of projects are closer to becoming reality than most might think. She also has an affinity for Musk, not only for his grandiose vision but because he comes from the South African province of Transvaal, where Everitt’s family has roots.
“When you go see a movie like ‘The Martian’ with Matt Damon, that’s not fantasy,” Everitt said. “We’re definitely moving in a direction where that’s a real possibility.”
Everitt said her work with the Gatorloop team has impacted her career aspirations as well.
“I always assumed that there wasn’t room for me in the space exploration industry because I wasn’t a STEM person, but that’s simply not true, and I want to share this awareness with other business students who also might have varied interests,” Everitt said.
Misty mountains, glistening forests and blue-green lakes make Cameroon, the wettest part of Africa, a tropical wonderland for amphibians. The country holds more than half the species living on the continent, including dozens of endemic frogs — an animal that has been under attack across the world by the pervasive chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis). Africa has been mostly spared from the deadly and rampant pathogen that wiped out entire species in Australia, Madagascar and Panama — until now.
University of Florida herpetologist David Blackburn and colleagues at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin have documented declines in frog species on Cameroon’s Mount Oku and Mount Manengouba over a span of more than 12 years. The scientists link the decline of at least five species of frogs found only in these mountains to chytrid, which may have been exacerbated by habitat destruction, pollution and climate change resulting in weaker and more susceptible frogs, said Blackburn, an associate curator of herpetology at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus.
“There’s been this perception that frogs in Africa are not affected by chytrid at all, but we have evidence of the disease in some animals,” said Blackburn, co-author of a new study appearing online this week in PLOS ONE. “This is the first real case of a decline across multiple amphibian species in Africa.”
The road up Mount Oku, the second highest mountain in Cameroon and an important center of amphibian diversity in Central Africa.
Photo by David BlackburnStudy scientists collected and documented abundance and diversity of frog species living on the two mountains before and after the immergence of chytrid in the area between 2008-2010. The persistent pestilence latches onto the frog’s skin, affecting the function of internal organs and quickly leading to death.
Blackburn said many of the once common species, like the bright red Cardioglossa manengouba, a frog he discovered and named during graduate fieldwork in the early 2000s, are now scarce and nearly impossible to find.
“It’s looking like some of these frogs may not be around by the time my kids are old enough for me to take them to Cameroon to see them,” he said.
While chytrid is to blame for most of the patterns of decline in frogs worldwide, Blackburn said scientists have linked the fungus to climate change, which may drive the emergence of chytrid in some places.
In studies exploring declines of amphibians in Latin America, University of South Florida herpetologist Jason Rohr has shown that unpredictable climate fluctuations associated with climate change can increase chytrid-related die-offs.
“Our research has shown there may be an underappreciated link between climate change, disease and biodiversity losses,” Rohr said. “Global warming and the severity of unpredictable variations in temperature increase chytrid growth on amphibians.”
Blackburn said extreme temperature changes may affect the biology of the frogs by making them more, or less, susceptible to pathogens. He said this could easily be a factor in Cameroon, though he and colleagues have not yet collected enough data to make that call.
A view of the forests on Mount Oku where some frog populations now experiencing declines once flourished.
Photo by David BlackburnIn captivity, frogs with chytrid are treated with an effective fungicide bath. In the Sierra Mountains of California, scientists have successfully released frogs inoculated with bacteria that make them less vulnerable to chytrid. But these methods are less practical in the mountains of Cameroon.
“Even if a cure was found, it would be hard to inoculate all of the individual frogs out there,” Backburn said. “Promoting a healthier environment in general for Africa’s amphibians in terms of water quality and habitat protection is our best shot for keeping these species around.”
In the 2012 presidential election, 15.6 million people with disabilities reported voting, leaving people without disabilities to make up the remaining 110 million votes cast. The turnout rate for voters with disabilities was 5.7 percent lower than for people without disabilities. If voters with disabilities had voted at the same rate as those without a disability, there would have been three million more voters weighing in on issues of local, state and national significance.
In 2012, 30.1 percent of voters with a disability reported difficulty in voting at a polling place, as compared to 8.4 percent of voters without disabilities. People reported difficulty in reading or seeing the ballot, or understanding how to vote or use voting equipment. This disparity wasn’t supposed to exist after the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) passed in 2002. That law provided US$3.9 billion for states to upgrade their voting equipment after the issues in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. Furthermore, the HAVA required every voting place to have at least one voting machine that is “accessible” to individuals with disabilities, so they could vote privately and independently.
So why, a decade after HAVA passed, did these problems still exist? With the HAVA funds and accessible voting machines, they were supposed to be solved – or at least much less common.
To figure out what was going on, my team and I investigated, speaking both to voters with disabilities and election officials. We learned there were various problems, such as voting machines not being set up, poll workers not knowing how to use the equipment and even that people weren’t sure how to operate various features of the machine, such as how to use the audio or the touchscreen interface.
But the fundamental problem is that voters with disabilities are being offered a “separate but equal” approach to voting. And, as ever, separate is not equal. When a voting place has a separate accessible voting machine, it’s not used as frequently as the primary method of voting. Therefore, poll workers don’t spend as much time using the accessible voting equipment. As a result of this minimal use, poll workers will forget how to set up the equipment and how to instruct someone with a disability how to use it.
In my estimation, the best way to remedy the disparity in voting between voters with disabilities and those without is to provide a voting machine that can be used by all voters, no matter their disability, or lack of a disability. This goal relies on “universal design” – the principle of designing a system or environment such that it has the broadest access for as many people as possible. For example, wheelchair ramps have a universal design because they can be used by people with wheelchairs and those who can walk.
One voting machine for all
The idea of creating a universally designed voting machine isn’t new. In 2003, our research lab created the first universally designed voting machine, called Prime III. At that time, conventional wisdom suggested that universal design was not possible in voting. Recall that the HAVA, passed in 2002, required just one accessible voting machine in each voting place. This was how lawmakers, election officials and voting machine experts conceived accessibility in voting. With HAVA funding long since run out, states and municipalities must find cost-efficient ways to expand voting access. One way to do this is to integrate accessibility into every voting machine.
With the Prime III, voters can mark their ballots using touch, voice or both. They can touch the computer screen directly, or use a keyboard, button switches, joysticks or other input devices to interact with the voting interface. Other voters can use a microphone and headset to respond to verbal prompts. These options allow people who cannot read, cannot hear and even lack arms to all vote on the same machine as someone with perfect sight, dexterity and hearing. It’s one machine for everyone, independent of their ability or disability.
After Prime III was developed in 2003, my lab’s research team conducted several experiments and elections to test its accessibility and usability. For example, the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) used Prime III in its national organizational election. NCIL has members who have various levels of disabilities. Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE) is an organization that represents people with cognitive disabilities or limitations. SABE used Prime III in two of its national organizational elections. This was a critical test for Prime III as the team used candidate pictures on the ballot to accommodate people with shortcomings in reading literacy. The election was very successful: the people running those elections told us there were no failures of equipment, everyone was able to vote, the results were accurate and when there were mistakes, they were corrected.
Other states have also vetted the system and found it useful. For example, in 2012, Oregon used Prime III in the presidential primaries. In 2014, the state of Wisconsin did a pilot with Prime III in two voting places. There were many other tests as well with the aging population, blind voters and children who could not read.
Giving it away for free
Prime III was the first, but many others are following, such as the ES&S ExpressVote.
In September 2015, Prime III was released as open-source software. This allows anyone in the world to download and use the Prime III software for free. They still do need to have a computer, printer and accessibility hardware such as a joystick and microphone, but our system works with a wide range of commercially available products.
People can also extend Prime III, such as making modifications to observe specifics of local election laws. For the February 9, 2016, presidential primaries, New Hampshire was the first state to use Prime III at every polling place. Initial results were positive, with vision-impaired voters telling news media that it was a major improvement over prior systems.
All New Hampshire polling places will use the system again in November’s general election, including for the presidential race. It will be the primary system for people who need an accommodation to be able to vote, but will also be available for use by voters without disabilities. That’s a big step toward the goal of having all voting machines usable by all people.
Universal design is necessary in voting. According to the US Census, one in five Americans has a disability. Even disabilities people might not think of as causing voting problems can: voting machines can be set up too high for easy use from a wheelchair, for example. It is every citizen’s right to have accessible elections; in addition, it is the law. Universally designed voting technologies will have the greatest impact in accomplishing this goal. Making independent, private voting accessible for all voters regardless of their ability or disability is achievable now.
This article originally appeared in The Conversation on May 2, 2016.
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