EXP: Digital Lofts: Online Learning Environments for Real-World Innovation

Project: Research project

Project Details


We cannot solve societal problems such as global warming, poverty, and illiteracy, without civic innovators. To become civic innovators, learners must gain experience tackling complex, ill-structured design challenges that are not easily solved by a single individual within a fixed time frame. This makes civic innovation difficult to teach: individual mentoring is effective but expensive; extra-curricular environments provide flexibility but insufficient guidance; and classroom instruction is too rigid and time-bound for solving complex public problems. New cyberlearning technologies offer new ways of organizing learning environments for teaching innovation. Just as we create instructional labs to teach science, the purpose of this project is to develop instructional lofts to teach innovation. Our research question is: how might we create digital lofts: on-line, design-based learning platforms that provide guidance on solving innovation problems (when the learning goals are unknown and learners proceed at different paces), without sacrificing motivation or authenticity, both in and outside the classroom? Our initial design hypothesis proposes that digital lofts for civic innovation education should (a) use badges to scaffold the design process; (b) provide a student-generated and curated case-library linked to badges to teach design; (c) use crowd-feedback to increase the frequency and quality of feedback; (d) use recommender systems to semi-automatically create case-based instructional material; (e) use self-assessment to trigger maximally relevant group instruction; (f) use social web to facilitate participation and support, and (g) use recognition and credentialing to facilitate help-seeking and connections to resources. In this project we take a design-based research approach in which we iteratively develop and test principles and technologies by creating a digital loft for Design for America (DFA). DFA is a network of extracurricular university-based design clubs, made up of more than 2000 university students and 95 supporting faculty and professional mentors at 14 campuses. DFA has fostered several student start-ups each with over 1.5 million dollars in funding. Intellectual Merit: This project will produce empirically-grounded principles for designing digital lofts for innovation education, contributing to number of cyberlearning research areas including digital badges, crowd-sourcing, learning-by-cases, design-based learning, and online learning communities. Broader Impact: This project fills an urgent need for learning environments that educate civic innovators who can solve our greatest societal challenges.
Effective start/end date9/15/138/31/16


  • National Science Foundation (IIS-1320693)


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