Grand Challenges in Education – When we say grand, we mean GRAND!

Highly coloured picture of a piano

Some time ago, Mark Guzdial posted on the Grand Challenges in the US National Educational Technology Plan. If I may summarise the four, huge, challenges, they were:

  1. A real-time, self-optimising difficulty-adjusting, interactive learning experience delivery system.
  2. A similarly high-end system for assessment of cross-discipline complex aspects of expertise and competencies.
  3. Integrated capture, aggregation, mining and sharing of content, learning and financial data across all platforms in near real-time.
  4. Identify the most effective principles of online learning systems and on/offline systems that produce equal or better results than conventional instruction in half the time and half the cost.

Wow. That’s one heck of a list. Compare that with the list of grand challenges from the March, 2011, report of National Science Foundation Advisory Committee for Cyberinfrastructure Task Force on Grand Challenges, which defines the grand challenge problems for my discipline, Computer (Cyber) Science and Engineering. By looking at some very complex problems, they arrived at the following list of areas in which great strides can, and should, be made:

  1. Advanced Computational Methods and Algorithms
  2. High Performance Computing
  3. Software Infrastructure
  4. Data and Visualisation
  5. Education, Training and Workforce Development
  6. Grand Challenge Communities.

Let me rewrite this last list in simpler, discipline free, terms:

  1. Better methods for solving hard problems.
  2. Big machines for solving hard problems.
  3. Good systems to run on the big machines, to support the better methods.
  4. Ways to see what results we have – people can see the results to make better decisions.
  5. Training people to make steps 1-4 work.
  6. Bring people together to make 1-5 work better with greater efficiency.

Now, lets look back at the four USNETP educational grand challenges to see if we can as easily form such a cohesive flow – we want to be able to see how it all works together.

  1. Smart learning systems.
  2. Smart assessment systems.
  3. Data and Visualisation. (Nick note: get into data and visualisation! 🙂 )
  4. Fusing the best of the old and the best of the new.

Now, the USNETP focus is on useful R&D and these challenges are part of their overall view of “they all combine to form the ultimate grand challenge problem in education: establishing an integrated, end-to-end real-time system for managing learning outcomes and costs across our entire education system at all levels. ” but what immediately leaps out at me are the steps 5 and 6 from the previous list. Rather than embed the training and community aspects somewhere in the rest of a document, why not embrace this at the same level if we’re talking about grand challenges in Education? That would give us:

  1. Training educators to make steps 1-4 work.
  2. Forming communities of practice to make 1-5 work better with greater efficiency.

Now these last two steps, of course, are what we’re doing with the conferences, the journals, the meetings and blogs like this but it makes a lot of sense when we see it inside my discipline, so it seems to make sense in the general field of education. There’s no doubt that these two last steps are easily as hard to manage at scale as the other projects, even interoperating with them. In fact, by making them huge challenges we increase their worthjustify effort and validate the research community built up around them. These are financially-sensitive times, where academics have to provide a value for their work. Allocating these important tasks to the grand challenge level recognises the difficulty, the uncertainty of being able to solve the problem and the sheer amount of work that may be involved.

These are, of course, only my thoughts and I have a great deal to learn in this space. I’m still searching for answers but if there’s a nice convenient report that says “Well, duh, Nick, we’re doing that right here, right now” I look forward to correction and enlightenment.

But, if it’s not already part of the USNETP grand challenges – what do you think? Should it be?

2 Comments on “Grand Challenges in Education – When we say grand, we mean GRAND!”

  1. […] don’t normally drop in huge bits of texts from previous posts, but there are the NSF Committee for Cyberinfrastructure Task Force Grand Challenges, and their […]


  2. […] feel sorry for them? I talked to these students about the current NSF Grand Challenges in CS, as I’ve already discussed, and pointed out that, given that the students in question had already displayed a degree of […]


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