EPFL has created a unique ecosystem of services, research labs and entrepreneurial programs in the field of education. And today it is adding another string to its bow with LEARN, a new center that will pool the efforts of the different stakeholders involved in educational research and in developing new teaching tools. “To keep pace with the remarkable advancements in digital technology, we need to update both what we teach and how we teach,” says Pierre Vandergheynst, EPFL’s Vice President for Education. “LEARN’s primary goal will therefore be to conduct translational research in educational science. That is, to try out new teaching methods, demonstrate their impact and turn them into new teaching practices for our campus and, where desirable, for the educational system as a whole.”
LEARN will aim to stimulate research and create new synergies in education – a field that has ramifications for our entire society. The center will be headed by Francesco Mondada, a professor at EPFL’s Robotic Systems Laboratory and the engineer behind the Thymio teaching robot. LEARN members include the Swiss EdTech Collider, a group of around 70 high-tech startups and the Center for Digital Education, which recently unveiled the Learning Companion application that helps students “learn how to learn.”
LEARN members operate at all levels of education, from primary school through university. Thymio is a classic example of their work; this robot lets children try out programming and learn the basics of robotics. Over 40,000 Thymio robots have already been sold, mainly to schools. “Adding computational thinking to school curricula doesn’t mean pushing children to think like computers. On the contrary – it means showing children what computers can’t do so that they can have a more complete understanding of the technology,” says Mondada. LEARN will also aim to help teachers adapt to changes in their profession. In addition to leading the new center, Mondada will coordinate teacher training programs to prepare them for the introduction of a new subject called “computer science and digital projects” for young elementary school kids (4-7 years old) in Vaud Canton.
“Our goal isn’t to make teaching more digital – that’s happening by itself. Rather, we hope to develop ways for using digital technology to make teaching more effective, more varied and more inclusive,” says Professor Pierre Dillenbourg, a LEARN co-founder and head of the Swiss EdTech Collider and of EPFL’s Computer-Human Interaction in Learning and Instruction (CHILI) lab. CHILI has just developed a new test, called Tegami, for making granular diagnoses of dysgraphia in children so that they can receive personalized treatment for learning how to write. “We’re also working on systems for professional training. For instance, we developed an augmented reality application for carpenter apprentices,” says Dillenbourg, who is also a former elementary school teacher.
In addition, LEARN will help expand EPFL’s online course offering through MOOCs – where EPFL is the leading school in Europe – as well as through the EPFL Extension School, which provides courses on digital technology for the general public (with no prerequisites).