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IU Pervasive Technology Institute's eLearning Lab awarded $2M to fund Terracotta

Tool will make it possible to conduct responsible experimental research on student learning within course sites.

The eLearning Research and Practice Lab at Indiana University was recently awarded $2 million by the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) to develop the Canvas+Terracotta platform. 

By now, many teachers and students, spanning grade school through college, are familiar with the Canvas learning management system (LMS) and its many uses. An assignment in the LMS could ask a student to submit a practice quiz, watch a video, write a reflection on their personal goals, and more. How such activities are used in formal education settings—and their effectiveness—is an urgent priority for education research. 

I believe there’s a lot of good that comes from experimental work in classrooms, but there aren’t as many as we need because of obstacles in designing the experiments. Terracotta removes a lot of these obstacles allowing teachers without specialized expertise to be equal collaborators.

Mark McDaniel, project co-PI and director of the CIRCLE

Through partnerships with Instructure Inc. (the company that makes Canvas) and the Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning, and Education (CIRCLE) at Washington University in St. Louis, the team will launch Terracotta, a Canvas plug-in that will help instructors and researchers measure what works best in the LMS. Terracotta will make it possible to conduct rigorous, responsible, and replicable experimental research through the widely used learning management system.

When COVID-19 forced the US education system to transition rapidly to remote instruction, teachers nationwide had to build learning experiences in online formats, often without guidance about what works best. Research conducted within Canvas+Terracotta will help shine a light on these educational practices, and will enable teachers and researchers to better understand how to use digital learning technologies more effectively. 

This is new territory for the field. 

“In over 125 years of modern education research, there's honestly never been even a single research tool available for broad practical use,” says Ben Motz, director of the eLearning Research and Practice Laboratory and principal investigator (PI) of the project. Motz is also affiliated with the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and the Cognitive Science Program at IU. 

“Sure, there are surveys, standardized tests and such, but for the most part, if you wanted to run an experiment in a classroom, you'd have to engineer your own process and materials,” Motz said. “Can you imagine how slowly fields would advance if every astronomer had to build their own telescope, or every physicist had to construct their own particle accelerator? I'm excited for this award because it doesn't merely fund a single research study—it funds a shared tool that can enable thousands of studies.” 

Founded in 2002, the Institute for Education Sciences has been the nonpartisan research and evaluation arm of the US Department of Education, advocating for improving the quality and rigor of education research. With this current funding program, IES acknowledged that experimental research in education is often slow and costly, and sought proposals that would instrument widely used digital learning platforms for research purposes, making research progress more efficient, and facilitating broader participation from teachers interested in education research.

Mark McDaniel, project co-PI and director of the CIRCLE, draws on considerable experience designing and implementing classroom experiments to assist the team in developing Terracotta’s design and interface. 

Through his efforts to make the platform user friendly, teachers who aren’t necessarily trained in experimental educational research techniques will be able to create sound experiments that yield usable results. “It’s exciting—I believe there’s a lot of good that comes from experimental work in classrooms, but there aren’t as many as we need because of obstacles in designing the experiments,” McDaniel said. “Terracotta removes a lot of these obstacles allowing teachers without specialized expertise to be equal collaborators.”

But the Canvas+Terracotta platform is not only designed to broaden access to experimental education research. It also includes features that elevate the ethical standards of this research, making it easy to, for example, collect informed consent from students, run more complex experimental designs that manipulate the order of learning activities (ensuring all students have the same learning experiences, and eliminating possible bias), and export deidentified data. “It shouldn't just be easy for education researchers to run experiments—it should be easy to run experiments responsibly,” Motz said. 

Jared Stein, vice president of global higher education strategy at Instructure Inc. also expresses enthusiasm for the project.

Terracotta implements an innovative research and assessment service that fills a known gap in the Canvas community. Teachers and instructional designers have many degrees of freedom in how they implement learning activities in Canvas, but they have practically no tools available to rigorously evaluate the efficacy of these teaching moves,” he said. “Terracotta allows Canvas users to evaluate instructional design in a way that previously would have been impossible to carry out. Considering our customers’ growing demand for evidence-based insights for improving student outcomes, we view Terracotta as becoming a prominent add-on to the Canvas platform.” 

About the Pervasive Technology Institute

The Pervasive Technology Institute at Indiana University is a collaborative organization designed to marshal IU's computational experts and resources quickly in response to societal, research, and educational needs. In partnership with University Information Technology Services, the Pervasive Technology Institute also led the original Jetstream award. The institute was established in 1999 by a grant from the Lilly Endowment and has continued to lead productive uses and applications of research technologies for over 20 years.

About University Information Technology Services

University Information Technology Services is part of the Office of the Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer for Indiana University. It provides services across all IU campuses to support the university’s mission.