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UMass Amherst to Join $90M US National Science Foundation Large-Scale Research Infrastructure for Education

Andrew Lan
Andrew Lan

The Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has joined the newly announced U.S. National Science Foundation’s (NSF) SafeInsights, a five-year, $90 million research and development infrastructure for inclusive education research. Led by OpenStax-Rice University, SafeInsights is a large-scale education research hub that will safely connect digital learning platforms and educational institutions to learn about learning. This initiative represents the NSF’s largest single investment in R&D infrastructure for education at a national scale, and will be the first national infrastructure of its kind. 

“My specialty is analyzing educational data, extracting insights from it and determining what kinds of interventions lead to the best, most equitable learning outcomes,” says Andrew Lan, assistant professor of computer science at UMass Amherst and the UMass lead for SafeInsights. “One day, as I was looking at a batch of data from one particular learning platform, I thought: ‘what about all the other platforms, classes and apps a student will use during their day? If we’re only looking at isolated snapshots of data, then we’re not really getting a clear picture.’ Getting that clearer picture is why we need SafeInsights.”

SafeInsights includes a multidisciplinary network of 80 collaborating institutions and partners, including major digital learning platforms that currently serve tens of millions of students. Lan and UMass Amherst will join together with researchers and large-scale, digital learning platforms to enable privacy-preserving research studies to better understand student learning. 

"If we're only looking at isolated snapshots of data, then we're not really getting a clear picture. Getting that clearer picture is why we need SafeInsights."

-Andrew Lan

According to national polls conducted by the Data Quality Campaign, 86% of teachers recognize the importance of research in effective teaching. However, the majority of teachers must individually piece together research-informed teaching and learning strategies, often with limited resources. 

 SafeInsights will enable research studies that help researchers understand how students learn best, no matter who they are, what they are learning, or how they are learning. The insights gained can lead to the development of better, research-informed teaching tools and practices, promoting educational equity.

“We know research-informed teaching and learning works. Yet, it’s still too hard to conduct large-scale, reliable research and then apply the results for more personalized experiences when students need it most,” said Richard Baraniuk, C. Sidney Burrus Professor at Rice University, OpenStax founder and SafeInsights project lead. “SafeInsights will safely accelerate affordable, rapid-cycle studies across multiple digital learning platforms, leading to more effective tools, practices and next-level innovations.”

SafeInsights stringently protects learner privacy. It uses a unique technique called “secure data enclaves,” which unlocks valuable insights without revealing any student information to researchers or moving student information from the learning tools that it safely lives in today.

“I’ll be leading the artificial intelligence portion of SafeInsights,” says Lan. “Our goal is to enable researchers to jointly analyze data from multiple digital platforms in a secure and private way, without actually seeing any data. We need to figure out how to let researchers ask questions of the data, such as how will a particular learning outcome vary by different student demographics, without leaking sensitive information.”

“There are so many potential advances to be made if researchers can see the whole picture of a student,” says Lan. “We can really help transform education so that it is more equitable and effective.”

This story was originally published by the UMass Amherst Office of News & Media Relations