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Questions for Dr. James Lester

Dr. James LesterDr. James Lester is a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Computer Science and director of NC State’s Center for Educational Informatics (CEI). This year’s pandemic has increased demand for the kind of educational technology tools that are CEI’s specialty.

Tell us a little bit about CEI.

CEI creates innovative next-generation learning technologies. With a focus on technologies that leverage artificial intelligence, we design, develop and field learning software for a wide variety of student populations ranging from elementary school to college. Much of this work centers on intelligent learning software for K-12 STEM education. Our faculty conducts research on intelligent game-based learning environments, multimodal learning analytics, intelligent tutoring systems, collaborative learning environments and natural language technologies for education.

Does CEI work beyond the boundaries of K-12?

We also conduct research on learning technologies to support training for the defense and first-responder communities, as well as healthcare. For example, we’re working on a project for the U.S. Army Futures Command to investigate technologies to support team training, including using natural language processing to assess team communication and performance. We’re also working with the Washington, D.C. Metro to investigate virtual reality-based training environments with intelligent user interfaces to support firefighters. In healthcare, with the support of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, we’re partnering with the UC San Francisco medical school to create health behavior change environments for adolescents.

This COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on virtual learning tools like never before. What do they do well?

Traditional educational software can work for some students in some subject matters to some degree. For example, there are some success stories for introductory literacy and math — but certainly not across the board.

And what parts of learning in a classroom can they not provide?

Traditional educational software doesn’t “understand” students. As a result it isn’t able to engage in the kind of give-and-take that teachers do or that outstanding tutors can in one-on-one learning. It doesn’t know what motivates particular learners, and it doesn’t know how to provide problem-solving advice or emotional support that is tailored to individual students, particularly for underperforming students in adverse circumstances, like we’re seeing today.

How can parents help?

Parents’ in-depth involvement in their children’s education has always been a major contributor to successful learning outcomes, and the pandemic is highlighting its importance. We see a future in which AI-augmented learning technologies not only help students learn, but help parents help their children learn.

Have any of the technologies developed by CEI researchers been utilized by educators during the pandemic?

CEI currently is conducting a host of federally supported projects on AI-augmented learning technologies for K-12 education. None of these projects were originally centered on home use — they were all for classrooms and museums. For example, we’re working on cognitive assistants for teachers, but now we need these cognitive assistants to support teachers whose students are working remotely. With COVID-19 developments, we’ve pivoted and are excited to pilot these technologies in home use.

Stay tuned!

Return to contents or download the Fall/Winter 2020 NC State Engineering magazine (PDF, MB).

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