As the executive director of Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) Simon Initiative, Bier is charged with a challenging task: accelerate, connect and advance CMU’s unique learning engineering ecosystem. “Our president, Subra Suresh, came to campus, saw the strength of our work in learning research, data and technology and saw its potential — both to transform learning here at CMU but also to impact larger global challenges in education,” says Bier. “With the current interest in education technology and the larger issues we face in higher education, it’s an amazing place to be.”
This role is the latest in Bier's career, spent at the intersection of learning and technology, working to expand access to and improve the quality of education. Prior to joining CMU’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI), Bier directed training and development for iCarnegie, providing software development courses. He also taught courses in computer science at the Community College of Allegheny County and philosophy at CMU, and he served as a founding committee member of the Cook Honors College at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Bier also leads the OLI, which has seen unprecedented growth in the past two years and continues to break new ground. Current OLI efforts include a National Science Foundation (NSF) project that takes learning data from multiple sources and brings it into the authoring space to inform the design and improvement of instructional resources. “We can take information about learning materials and get them in the hands of faculty and instructional designers in a way that’s actionable,” Bier says. “We want to push the needle on their ability to use data and evidence to improve their courseware.” This focus on continuously improving instruction is a recurring theme in his work.
His other recent projects include an investigation into massive open online courses (MOOCs) and their performance compared to other instructional delivery models. “There’s a real tendency with MOOCs to scale the things that are easy to scale,” he says. “Lecture videos, for example, while not the exclusive MOOC experience, represent a lot of the current effort. So we drilled down to understand the value of that versus feedback-rich learn-by-doing.” This study found engaging in learn-by-doing activities provided learners more than six times the benefit of watching videos or reading. Importantly, students don’t have to invest more time in those endeavors than they already do in learning through videos or by reading. “There’s some implication there for where we should be spending our time as we look ahead to the next generation of technology-enhanced learning resources,” Bier says. “If we’re interested in scaling learning, that time might be better spent in building out learn-by-doing activities that regularize feedback.”
Bier says he hopes his work helps educators take a more thoughtful, evidence-based approach to their instruction, and — as devoted as he is to technology — he is clear about his belief in the value of the human instructor. “Technologies improve instructional efficiency and learning productivity, allowing more face-to-face time with students, which is necessary to teach concepts that technology cannot. That’s where we need human creativity and intuition.” Bier says his best piece of advice to anyone working to improve instruction is to let evidence be the guide. “Innovation isn’t an excuse to ignore the existing research base; learners cannot afford this culture of reinvention.”
Technology and data analysis are providing unprecedented exploration into the efficacy of contemporary instruction, and Bier is excited about the road ahead. “Now that we have a sense the process is right — that we can integrate research into innovative practice and gather data that can advance both — we can come up with a virtuous cycle that’s going to be transformational for education.”