Dr. Ostrow is a Research Scientist at Worcester Polytechnic Institute where she recently completed her dissertation in the Learning Sciences & Technologies Ph.D. Program. Her research interests include testing cognitive psychology principles in the context of online learning, applying experimental methods at scale, and using learning analytics and educational data mining techniques to establish best practices in online education.
One of the hardest parts about being a graduate student (at least in my experience) was constantly being asked what I planned to do with my degree. Like most of my colleagues, I did not have a concrete plan, so the question would generally just trigger an existential crisis. Since graduating, however, people have been more interested in learning about how I got to this point, allowing me to reflect on my background repeatedly in the past few months.
My default response has been that the Learning Sciences & Technologies program found me.
Technically I can trace the story all the way back to my AP Chemistry teacher in high school, Stanley Bebyn. In the spring of my Junior year, he nominated me for the Rensselaer Medal, a merit scholarship to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) that recognizes distinguished students in math and science. Participating high schools can only nominate one Junior each year, and if the student enrolls and is accepted at RPI, they are guaranteed $100,000 in funding over four years of study. At the time, the honor felt more like an earthquake: it shattered my goals for a career in music and molded my future to fit the context of a prestigious engineering school. In the fall of 2006 I became a psychology major in a humanities department with only 64 students at an institution famous for its 2:1 ratio. I have been a square peg in a round hole ever since.
I met my (now) husband Sam Ostrow at RPI while living in the same wing of our Freshman dorm. He was from Worcester, pursuing a degree in electric power engineering with the goal of fulfilling a leadership role in his family’s electrical contracting company and fulfilling its third generation. Sam, now the Vice President of Ostrow Electric, is organizing their 80th anniversary celebration in August.
I moved to Worcester with Sam when we got engaged after graduating with our Bachelor’s in 2010. I taught as a substitute at a private middle/high school while applying for full time positions. I secured a job as an administrative assistant at a grant-making foundation, but I knew within a month that I would need to go back to school to advance my career. Substituting had taught me that I enjoyed working with students and I knew that I wanted to find a job that would meld education with my background in psychology.
But before I could be wooed by the LS&T program, I would need to suffer a major academic breakup. In the fall of 2011 I enrolled in the School Counseling Program at Assumption College, maintaining my full time job while also working as a full time Masters student. I spent a year learning everything there was to know about school counseling: that it would not be a good fit for me. I took a leave of absence and maintained my day job, looking for other options. Although that leap was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made, I knew I needed to set my sights higher; within a year, I was in talks with Neil to apply for a funded research fellowship in the ASSISTments lab.
When I first learned about the LS&T program I did not specifically anticipate working with Neil or joining the ASSISTments lab. I anticipated that the program would be much more difficult than the Master’s program I had left behind at Assumption, and I looked forward to getting back to the rigorous mindset of an engineering school. The LS&T program was touted as a combination of cognitive psychology, applied statistics, and computer science, combining two of my strong suits with an area (the latter) that was novel to me but that was intriguing in an increasingly digital world. I was hesitant about my weaknesses and I was unsure about how we would afford two years of tuition that was far more expensive than what we had already lost to Assumption. Still, I knew I had to try.
I applied as a Master’s student late in the admissions cycle and learned about funding, but was told that it was already largely distributed to a batch of new students who would start in the fall of 2013, working under then co-director Janice Gobert in her science inquiry lab. I received my acceptance letter from WPI in June and Neil contacted me in July about a position in the ASSISTments lab that would start in August. I met with him and learned more about ASSISTments and his research, quickly discovering that funding under a Partnership Implementing Mathematics & Science Education (PIMSE) grant would allow me to get back into classrooms. The PIMSE fellowship stipulated that I would visit math classrooms at a local middle school every week to forge relationships with local teachers and research how his online learning platform, ASSISTments, was used in the classroom. I had found the LS&T program in what felt like a moment of desperation and now someone was offering to pay me to get an education while merging my interests in a way that felt authentic? I celebrated, on and off, for the next five years.
Although when I began in 2013 I only intended to get my Master’s degree, on my first day in the ASSISTments lab Neil introduced me to the rest of the team as his “newest Research Assistant and PhD student.” I have since been happy to call him a mentor and friend as he has pushed me to strive for more, always providing his unwavering support for my advancement. I have struggled with a variety of obstacles along the way, from a severe car accident to chronic illness that kept me bed-bound for six months in my fourth year. I even celebrated my graduation by having ankle surgery to repair a torn tendon, taking the full summer off for non-weight bearing recuperation before rejoining the ASSISTments team as a Research Scientist. Through every trial and tribulation, Neil and his team have worked as my constant champions and I am beyond grateful for the life they have helped me achieve and continue to support.
As I continue my journey at WPI as a Research Scientist, I spend a great deal of time focused on the role that technology will play in the future of education. I wrote my dissertation on the promise of educational research at scale and I continue to use ASSISTments to conduct randomized controlled trials that test the cognitive principles underlying students’ learning, retention, motivation, and engagement while promoting the tool as one of the most unique modern options available for other researchers looking to do the same.
I recently authored a chapter for an edited volume, Learning Science: Theory, Research, and Practice to be published by McGraw Hill in 2019, in which I promoted three ideologies to be used when developing and applying educational technologies: stay integrated, stay accessible, and stay curious. A modified excerpt from that chapter highlights my personal goals for the future of these systems:
I envision a future in which universal standards would allow for the comparative evaluation of educational technologies and establish a safer marketplace for administrators, teachers, and parents, while achieving personalization through evidence-based interventions. Requiring that educational technologists communicate universal definitions of student success (learning, affect, engagement, etc.) would offer consumers a more concise way to measure and compare the efficacy of these systems. I envision a future in which best practices could be identified within platforms, while outcomes could be compared across platforms, and successful, platform-specific interventions could be replicated and assessed for generalizability. To create the kind of systemic change necessary to achieve the future I envision, educational technologies and the classrooms they serve need to begin to evolve cohesively. Educational technologies are also only as good as the quality, quantity, and accessibility of their content. Developers must remain cognizant of how their platforms integrate with existing content, curricula, and practices, while striving to break down barriers in access and understanding that keep students from equitable achievement. Educational technologies also have the potential to play a key role in allowing educational researchers to conduct randomized controlled trials more efficiently in modern learning environments, driving the future of educational research and therefore implications for both policy and practice. The data collected by educational technologies can be leveraged to improve student learning and achieve evidence-based personalization. Linking rigorously designed hypothesis tests to these environments will benefit users (i.e., teachers and students), stakeholders in the learning process (i.e., administrators and parents), and educational researchers. The quality of research in the field will flourish and platforms will grow from subsequent iterative improvements to their design and content. In sum, broadening our view of the capabilities of technology in the classroom is necessary to advance the state of learning.