Remembering Who Our Work Serves: Reflections from AERA and SXSW EDU


Two of the largest and most important meetings in the education field are held in spring, the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting (AERA) and SXSW EDU. Attending both gave me the opportunity to think about the educational perspectives each meeting promotes and how their different goals may influence attendees. I am returning to my work with a renewed sense of purpose and a reminder that our work serves students, teachers, and other education stakeholders.


AERA ( was founded in 1916 and “is concerned with improving the educational process by encouraging scholarly inquiry related to education and evaluation and by promoting the dissemination and practical application of research results,” according to the AERA website. It has more than 25,000 members and 12 divisions and is the central organization in the education research world. Education researchers may belong to additional groups or associations in their specific content areas, but most belong to AERA.

When I started my career as an academic researcher, the AERA meeting, with its extensive schedule of presenters, was the pantheon to which we all aspired. AERA represents the traditional, academic side of education; the vast majority of members and presenters are current or former university professors or graduate students, and the papers presented there are written in the style and language typical of academic research journals.


SXSW EDU (, rather than focusing specifically on research studies, “fosters innovation in learning by hosting a community of optimistic, forward-thinking, purpose-driven stakeholders with a shared goal of impacting the future of teaching and learning.” Research is an important topic there, but presentations also focus on policy discussions, innovative ideas or developments, emerging products and technologies, and relevant films.

SXSW EDU attracts education innovators and developers, although attendees also include academic researchers, policymakers, administrators, and practitioners.

Impressions From The Conferences

SXSW EDU was held in early March in Austin, Texas. People had told me to expect to be overwhelmed, and the conference is indeed impressive in both its physical and contextual scope. There was simply too much going on for me to possibly attend everything I wanted. After making some tough choices, I attended several thought-provoking sessions across rather different topics. A session on media literacy emphasized that this type of literacy is not what we should be teaching but how we should be teaching. A session on higher education revealed that two-year colleges can end up ultimately costing students more than four-year colleges. A brilliant session called “Storytelling for Impact” made me think deeply about how I can better communicate ideas to students and colleagues.

AERA took me to Toronto in early April. Like SXSW EDU, it is annually overwhelming, but narrowing my focus via my own divisions and special interest groups helps significantly. I spent the week focused on early childhood policy, child poverty, and social-emotional learning, and was excited to see personal heroes in education research.

What most affected me was the presidential address by Amy Stuart Wells, “An Inconvenient Truth about the New Jim Crow of Education,” in which Wells discussed the devastating effects standardized testing has had on low-income students and students of color. Beyond this, she asserted, an overemphasis on testing has hurt American education overall: “Scores on standardized tests are what it now means to be educated.”

Takeaways From the Conferences

As I’ve explained above, SXSW EDU and AERA are drastically different events. They have different goals, different modes of presentation, different topics, and to a large degree, different attendees. I thought I would come out of the two conferences thinking about disparate things, all of which would be useful but not necessarily related. Yet, as I collected my thoughts upon returning home, the same thought kept pulsing through me: We have to keep pushing. Every session I attended reminded me that education work is critical. I thought about how all of the little things each of us do each day add up, and how the smallest decision or craziest idea might be what changes a student’s life for the better.

Researchers have an incredible ability to be absorbed by a study, spending months or years tracking that one theory or idea because it interests them and keeps them (sometimes myopically) focused. Similarly, education innovators can become so intent on “advancing the future” that the concept of newness can overshadow effectiveness and sustainability.

I was energized by the research studies and creative ideas I heard and discussed at AERA and SXSW EDU. Upon reflection, I kept returning to the question that should drive us all: Who is this all for? Sharing ideas and encouraging one another to think deeper and better are critical to progress in education, but we should always stay focused on how our work affects those we serve: the students, the teachers, and other stakeholders.

People attend conferences for a variety of reasons: to present their work, to learn about discoveries in their field, or to make connections with others, for example. For me, conferences often serve as inspiration for new research questions and project ideas. Coming together with our peers can also remind us what brought us to this work in the first place. Remembering who our work serves reminds us why we have to keep pushing.


Bridget Thomas (@DrBridgeQIP) is Senior Education Researcher at QIP and Adjunct Professor at George Mason University. Her work focuses on early childhood policy and translating research for multiple audiences.

What is Learning Engineering?

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Although the term “learning engineering” was coined more than 50 years ago, it is still an emerging field of study. Learning engineering is a process that applies the learning sciences using engineering design methodologies and data-informed decision-making to support learners and learning. In the past 50 years, discoveries about how people learn have influenced how people teach and learn, and there are many new findings still to be applied.

While engineering is the application of creativity and science to solve problems, learning engineering is the creative application of learning sciences and engineering principles to solve problems for learners and learning. Learning engineers create and iteratively improve the conditions and experiences for learning.

Learning engineering applies the science of learning. The sciences of learning are informed by what we know about how the brain works. According to a report published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the learning sciences include

  • neuroscience, a branch of biology that studies the nervous system, neurons, and the behavior of the brain;

  • cognitive psychology, the study of the human mind as understood through observable behavior; and

  • education research, which is focused on models and interventions at the classroom level and above.

Learning engineering is about people. Human-centered design focuses on the learner. Data informs design decisions. The engineering process guides design choices that promote robust student learning. According to a paper published in Cognitive Science, learning scientists say that learning is robust when the student retains information over time, can apply the learning to new situations, or can draw on the learning to accelerate learning in other areas.

Learning engineering is a team sport. The problems that learning engineers try to solve often are too big to be handled by the skills of any one person, so education agencies, institutions, and organizations that support schools compile multidisciplinary learning engineering teams. The composition of the teams varies based on the problem to be solved.

Learning engineering is data driven. Unlike traditional instructional design, curriculum development, or lesson planning, learning engineering emphasizes data use to inform an iterative design, development, and improvement process. This is different from having researchers evaluate the efficacy of a curriculum or methodology after it is fully developed and deployed. Continuous access to data is integral to the process and products of learning engineering.

A Practical Application of Learning Engineering

Duolingo, the award-winning language learning app, is an example of a learning environment and set of learning experiences developed using learning engineering. One of the ways in which Duolingo is innovative is in its use of game dynamics to motivate learners.

“One of the tricks is figuring out how to marry things that are pedagogically sound with things that are reinforcing motivators,” said Burr Settles, who leads Duolingo’s research group.

To figure these things out they use engineering techniques rooted in scientific research.

“We run controlled experiments for almost everything we change,” he said.

The spacing effect, a human learning characteristic, was first discovered over a century ago. This term refers to the finding that people are more likely to remember something if they spread out the learning over time, rather than cramming it in all at once. More recently, learning scientists discovered the lag effect: people commit information to long-term memory better if the time between study or practice increases gradually. Still other research showed that the best time for people to practice is right before they’re about to forget something.

Settles worked with Brendan Meeder, a former Duolingo employee who now works at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, to develop a “trainable spaced repetition model for language learning.”

Their model, called half-life regression (HLR), predicts when someone will forget a word. HLR takes in data about a student’s practice history (when the student practiced and whether or not the student remembered correctly) and data that indicate how difficult a word is to memorize, compared to other words. Given data about the times a learner practiced a word, the app predicts the best time to practice next.

2019 Conference on Learning Engineering

Join QIP at the IEEE IC Industry Consortium on Learning Engineering (ICICLE) 2019 Conference on Learning Engineering to be held May 20 to 23, 2019, at George Mason University Arlington Campus, Arlington, Virginia. The conference will bring together professionals from industry, academia, and government to contribute to the development of this emerging field, share ideas with key stakeholders, and help further define the discipline of learning engineering.

QIP is one of 71 sponsoring organizations of ICICLE, an organization aimed at advancing learning engineering as a professional practice and academic discipline. QIP is supporting the conference by producing a video.


Jim Goodell (@jgoodell2) is Senior Analyst at QIP. He works on connections between education sciences, policy, practice, and personalized/optimized learning. Learn more about Jim here.