Dr. Janice Gobert on the EdUp EdTech Podcast with Holly Owens

Have you listened to our CEO and Rutgers Professor, Dr. Janice Gobert on the EdUp EdTech Podcast? The transcript is below, but you can also listen here!

Authentic Inquiry Experiences and Real-Time Feedback in Science


Holly Owens

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another amazing episode of EdUp EdTech. My name is Holly Owens, and I'm your host, and I have a guest with me today, who has a lot of different responsibilities and wears many different hats. Janice Gobert is here. She's a full-time professor of Learning Sciences at Rutgers Graduate School of Education, but she is also the CEO and Founder of Inq-ITS. Janice, welcome to the show.

Janice Gobert

Hi, Holly. Thanks for having me.

Holly Owens

I'm really excited to get into everything that you will have been doing as an education, talking about Inq-ITS, your role at Rutgers, and all the unique things that you're doing. But before we do that, let's talk about your journey. How did you get into this edtech space? How did you get into the teaching space? Tell us your story.

Janice Gobert

Oh, great, thanks so much. So, I did my undergraduate degree in experimental psychology and cognitive psychology in northern Ontario, Canada, where I was born and raised. And then I became very interested in how people understand and work with really rich diagrams. The kinds of diagrams you have in science, architecture, geology, and engineering; those very rich diagrams. And this became my life's work: studying how people use these in rich and deep ways to understand the phenomenon that these diagrams represent.

I went to McGill University, where I did my Master's in Cognitive Science. Then, I went to the University of Toronto and did my Ph.D. in Cognitive Science, which had a very heavy tech focus. And at that time, in the late 80s, it was just around the start of the internet. And people were starting to talk about networked education for people to learn from each other, etc. So, EdTech was really starting to take off then. After my doctorate, I went to UMass Amherst as a postdoc, and then I was a professor at Western Michigan University. Then I was a visiting scholar at Harvard. Then, I actually joined a think tank in Concord, Massachusetts, called Concord Consortium. And from there, I went to WPI, Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, where I started a tech-based research group, and started and co-directed a Learning Sciences and Technologies graduate program with a colleague. And that's where we started the company.

Getting back to my interest in diagrams I had done this type of research in all the various places I talked about. I was very interested in how people understand diagrams, and then, dynamic diagrams; how they understand causality from dynamic diagrams, like simulations. And when you think about a simulation, a student can interact with a simulation and make changes to the simulation in order to understand the scientific phenomenon that it represents. So, those interactions, a student's interactions, i.e., mouse clicks, etc., can be garnered if the system is instrumented to collect them; and used to study how students are going about exploring a scientific phenomenon. So, this big idea has formed the core of my work since the 80s.

All student interactions are stored in the log file and can be used to track what students are doing. And one can write artificial intelligence algorithms to interpret them so you can assess students in real-time, you can react in real-time to help them, and you can also alert the teacher in real-time to inform his/her instruction. So that's what our product Inq-ITS does: a student works with a simulation, and they follow a rigorous process that's described in 21st-century skill frameworks, and what's called the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in the United States. Students form a testable hypothesis; they collect data with a simulation; they interpret their data; they use mathematics to get deep into the mathematics underlying the science-- they might form graphs and specify equations. Then, they look at their data trials, and they select the claims that support or refute their claim. Lastly, they write what they learned in a format called claim- evidence-reasoning. And while they're working, every mouse click, every change to every task, every change to the simulation, everything they type is logged, and reacting in real-time to help them via a digital agent named Rex, and also alerting the teacher in real-time. Teachers' grading is automatically done. And they can do whole-class instruction or if a small group of kids is struggling with the same science practice, they can put them into a group and do differentiated instruction. Lastly, they can do one-to-one tutoring. So, the system works in the ecosystem of science education to support the learner and the teacher aligned to these next-generation science standards, or 21st-century skills. So, what we did was develop these algorithms, and we have been issued several patents for our algorithms that auto score students' competencies on the basis of their mouse clicks.

Holly Owens

I want to know if there's anybody along your education journey that, you know, influenced you, mentored you or you know, or any quotes or things that you have a favorite of that has helped you, you know, along the way.

Janice Gobert

Well, I do. It's not education-related so much, but it's a Henry David Thoreau: "Go in the direction of your dreams; Live the life you've always imagined". And I think that's really relevant for everyone pursuing goals. But along the way, I've been helped by many people. And of course, my incredible team, my co-founders, Mike Sao Pedro and Cameron Betts, are two of the smartest people I know and I've had the pleasure to work with.


In terms of my mentors, though, I'd really like to tell you who's influenced me. So, Carl Fredricksen at McGill University was a great influence on me and on my work in cognitive science. He and I did some very deep research on how architects understand 3 dimensions from 2 when looking at architectural plans. And then I moved to the University of Toronto, and I worked with Carl Bereiter and Gus Craik, and was also influenced by the work of Marlene Scardamalia, who with Carl Bereiter, was really a driving force in educational technology, and networked educational technology: sort of creating agency for students to drive their own learning forward. So that was very much in the forefront of their research group, and then it became kind of ingrained in my DNA to think about Ed Tech. Then I did a postdoc at UMass Amherst with John Clement, who was as deeply interested in visual representations as was I, but also interested in the kinds of mental models that students form in response to deep learning activities in science. So, this created a really nice theoretical frame and methodological vein through my work. Then I moved over from there: I was a professor at Western Michigan University for a while and then I moved back to the East Coast. After a 2 year stint as a Visiting Scholar at Harvard, I ended up at a think tank called Concord Consortium. And I was very heavily influenced by Paul Horowitz, who still works there. And the late Bob Tinker, who was a real innovator in ed-tech, and, and a group that we formed there with several other people, including my dear friend and colleague, Barbara Buckley. And we did some very deep work thinking about how you could log students' interactions. And this was before there were these national frameworks that are very driven around assessment metrics. And so, we were having a lot of fun thinking about what is it you would log and how would you characterize student learning. And that was a very rich time for me. From the Concord Consortium, I was recruited to WPI and I started a research group there as I had mentioned, and Mike Sao Pedro was one of my very first Ph.D. students. And he's now the CTO and co-founder of our company.

Holly Owens

Wow! I bet that makes you feel good. That's awesome. Congratulations.

Janice Gobert

Yes, thank you. It really does. So, he's been with me since 2007, a very long time. And most of the people who work with us now, we have about 20 people across the company and in my research group at Rutgers. Most people in our company have been former students or programmers or something and they've stayed because they love the work, and they love the team. And, you know, life is short, you better enjoy what you do for a living, right?

Holly Owens

Exactly, it sounds like between what you do with teaching and what you're doing with Inq-ITS, there's a lot of, you know, overlap there. So you want to talk a little bit about what your current role is at the institution at Rutgers, and how this all connects together.

Janice Gobert

Yeah, let me back up for one second, though. When I was at WPI, I had a grant-funded research project. And at that time, the US Department of Education was urging people to commercialize things that they thought were critical to teachers' pedagogical practices, and students' improvement in STEM. So, I attended this session, and the person that was representing the US Department of Education at the time said, you know, "you should productize this". And so, with Cam and Mike, my co-founders, we formed our company so that we could go after these SBIR grants, small business innovative research grants offered by the US Department of Education. And we've been awarded four of those now, via our program officer Ed Metz, who's been an incredible support, as well as our program officer on the research side, Christina Chhin. So, the US Department of Education has a really deep interest in taking the projects that they see to have great efficacy for students and great support for teachers and turning them into commercialized products so that they're sustainable. Of course, it has the economy of scale benefit, where if you productize it and it's a SAS subscription ( Software as a Service), you can drive the price down quite substantially to make it much more affordable for more teachers. And so, via this model, we've been able to scale, and we have a footprint in 50 states and 20 countries.

Holly Owens

Wonderful things you are sharing, and I'm so excited that you're on the show, and you get to share this with our audience. So, thank you.

Janice Gobert

Thank you. And so, I started the company when I was at WPI and they were very supportive of the company, the patents, etc. And they are a great partner still for us.


And then I joined Rutgers in the Graduate School of Education in the Learning Sciences program, which has phenomenal faculty in the Learning Sciences. And the School of Education is really driven by diversity and equity, as well as a strong mission for STEM. Rutgers was interested in attracting faculty who developed tech, in addition to people who studied tech, so, I joined their faculty in 2015. And it's been an incredible journey; a great place for me, and for the students that I have there. So, my graduate students work on the platform in the sense that they do their research on it and do some efficacy research. So, it's a very nice partnership. We also offer teacher professional development through Rutgers, through the science and math center, headed up by David Shernoff. So that's a really nice opportunity to get teachers the pedagogical support and the onboarding that they need for Inq-ITS. So, it's a very rich ecosystem. And I love every day and almost every minute of it.

Holly Owens

Well, I'm sure you're really busy. So sometimes your brain needs that downtime to recoup and regenerate, so you can keep doing the amazing things that you're doing. I want to talk a little bit more about Inq-ITS. And you know, the product, the services that you're offering for educational institutions, you can talk a little bit about teachers and getting them involved in it. So, talk to us about that.

Janice Gobert

Right, so teachers can go to Inqits.com. And, they can sign up for a free trial, we have some labs that teachers can use, and they can get baseline data on their students' competencies aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards, which are quite similar to the 21st-century skills frameworks that many countries are using. So, where this change has come about is that the next generation science standards require that kids really do more lab work because we want kids to develop authentic skills in Science, not just rote memorization because rote memorization is not usable knowledge that can be used to solve real-world problems. Simply knowing scientific facts won't get you very far.

Holly Owens

I agree.

Janice Gobert

Especially when you think about what we need is the future's next innovators, people who can think creatively, people who can invent things, right. We need people who can work at the intersection of science disciplines, biochem, etc, because a lot of rich discoveries are happening at the intersection of two scientific disciplines or engineering, etc. And these fields are no longer siloed. We really need kids to be able to think critically. So, these next-generation science standards were formed, because Americans do actually pretty poorly in science. Right now, we're ranked 18th. internationally. And that's very surprising to a lot of people who think that we're ranked much higher than that.

Holly Owens

Actually, that is surprising. But I am kind of disappointed to hear that performance is that low, considering some of the resources that we pour into these programs.

Janice Gobert

So students need to develop these competencies. So that's what our platform is for: developing these competencies, tracking them in real-time, jumping in with Rex, our digital agent, whenever they need help. But also giving teachers fine-grained measures on these competencies across these eight practices known as the Next Generation Science Standards, also known as 21st Century Skills frameworks. And this is useful because a teacher can walk over to a student who might be doing some sort of rote parroting-- we do have data like this. We like to call them Billy's and Johnny's just by just kind of as examples. What we've been able to show, Holly, is that if teachers rely on what students write solely as a form of assessment, kids are mis-assessed between 30 to 60% of the time. Now, what's interesting about that is that we have taken what people write and what people say as ground truth about what they know. But this is, in fact, not always accurate because students are not always good at articulating what they know, or they may be able to parrot something accurately but not understand it well at all.

Holly Owens

That depends on the assessment, right? What type of assessment are they given?

Janice Gobert

Yes, at one extreme, so you could have students we like to call these Billy's. Billy, as a kid, can form a testable hypothesis, collect data, interpret data, do all the mathematics, do the graph, etc. Select the trials that warrant his claim. Then, he gets to the claim evidence reasoning statement, the writing portion, and basically can't describe what he knows in words. This is particularly problematic in STEM domains because stem domains are highly mathematical and highly spatial in nature. So, if the teacher is relying on a written lab report, that student will be a false negative. Now for a country that is trying to hone our STEM competencies and improve our competitive edge, we're tossing away that student because that student is not going to get into AP science. Now, imagine the other extreme. The student that we hear about more often, is the student who is rote parroting what they've read or heard, but actually doesn't understand it at all. All, this is going to be a false negative because this student can write a reasonably sufficient claim evidence reasoning statement because he's just catching or she is just catching the buzz in the classroom. This is particularly problematic for the teacher because this teacher is claiming that this student is competent, and he or she will be passed on to the next grade. And he doesn't, or she doesn't have the competencies the teacher has said that he or she has, so this is highly problematic. I wrote about this in US News and World Report in 2016, in an op-ed piece, when we first discovered that between 30 to 60% of kids are mis-assessed if you rely on what they write. This has given rise to well, not only this finding but moving away from multiple-choice tests where you basically have a 20-25% chance of getting it correct, just out of the gate by purely guessing.

Holly Owens

Right, right. And often, if you are in doubt, choose C.

Janice Gobert

There are often distractor items. So, if there are distractor items they could even have a higher likelihood of getting the answer correct. So, where the field has moved is called performance assessment. So, we want to assess what students are doing and how they're going about doing something because it's a much better measure of the skills that we need them to have, i.e. these 21st-century skills. So, we can support kids in real-time. But we can give teachers fine-grained measures on what Billy can do and what Billy can't do. So, the teacher can walk over to a student like Billy and say, "Hey, you formed a testable hypothesis, you've collected data, you've warranted your claims beautifully. You've done all the mathematics associated with your science. Now all you have to do is write a claim-evidence-reasoning statement, let Rex help you, or let me help you." Conversely, she can walk over to another student, who is only parroting what they've read or heard. And, it doesn't have to be "a gotcha". The teacher can say, "Hey, Johnny, Hey, Wendy", whatever, "I see that you've actually written a claim-evidence-reasoning statement that is scientifically accurate. Now, let's go back and pair this with a rich virtual experiment where you see those processes happening in real-time to better understand the phenomenon". The technology supports teachers in the assessment of these practices and then can give them very good metrics on where these students are doing well, and where they're not. This is a superior assessment approach to assessments like lab reports or multiple-choice tests because you can give students very targeted feedback. Now, with our alerting dashboard, Inq-Blotter, what teachers can do is they can see if 80% of my kids are struggling with say, writing the claim-evidence-reasoning statement, or 80% of my kids are struggling with interpreting data. They can stop the class in real-time, and have a whole class conversation about that. Or if only a few kids are struggling, the teacher can pull them into a small group, either virtually via zoom, or in the classroom. The teacher can also use this for one-to-one instruction.

So, these alerts help the teacher know who needs help, and specifically how to help them. We've also implemented the technology with something called TIPS (Teacher Inquiry Practice Supports), and the teacher can literally push a button and get four different, pre-scripted instructional scripts to start the conversation with the student. And teachers use these in very, very flexible ways. I mean, the teachers are so brilliant with their use of our technology. For example, if you have a student who really struggles and maybe frustrates or easily, you might give them what is called an instrumental hint, the most targeted hint that they need. And this might tell them exactly what to do. And then what a teacher might say is "now explain to me how that's different from what you did yourself, and how this will give you different data? Why is that strategy different?" That reification process, we know, is very important to long-term memory. So that's an example of how our teacher uses our dashboard in very clever ways. I mean, the teachers can be absolutely brilliant because they know their students better than we know their students. So, it behooves us to put the technology into their hands, give them the data they need, give them some support on how to use it, and then have them use it in really rich ways to support the students that they have in front of them.

Holly Owens

Right. And all this, like adaptability and things that you're talking about that provide the teacher with the information they need, the students with what they need to be successful, and you keep emphasizing these 21st-century skills. And I think it's so important, especially for students today with them being in a digital space, you know, with COVID, and going online, that we support them as much as we possibly can, with all these different technologies. And it sounds like that's what you're doing, which is amazing. And I'm sure the educators and students are grateful for that. Now, you've talked a lot about a lot of different things. And I want to know what is coming up for Inq-ITS, what's coming up for you at the institution at Rutgers. Give us some things that are going to be happening that we should be looking out for!

Janice Gobert

Yeah. So, what we're doing right now is we're adding mathematics functionality to all our labs so that students are going to do the math associated with science. And we know that this is important in high school, but it's also important to drive their understanding and integration of math and science. As I said before, these disciplines are not siloed any longer. And, math is the language of science in some ways. So, what we're doing is developing these activities that integrate math with science so that the student can, can interpret the front, conduct the inquiry, and then do the mathematics associated with it. And, we assess them in real-time on this too. And we will scaffold them in real-time, and then alert teachers in real-time.


This work in particular is supported by the US Department of Education. And all the work that I've talked about to date has been supported by them and the National Science Foundation. And we are absolutely indebted to our funders for what they have done for us, for teachers, and for students. In our new project, we want to support students at math, because this is the point at which many students kind of fall down in science, they come to high school and the math creates a barrier to the science. We really need students to engage very deeply and understand the mathematics underlying science. Also, this is important with respect to Equity and Diversity, Holly, because students from underrepresented groups like English language learners, kids in urban districts, kids from ethnic and racial minorities, and kids who are differently-abled, are particularly vulnerable and at risk of falling at high school level. So, in this project, what we're doing is developing those supports called scaffolds and making sure that they work for all students. Because if the technology can't support the students who need it, what is the point, right? So that's the research we're doing at Rutgers. And my company maintains the tech backbone and does a lot of that really deep technology integration and that algorithm development that undergirds all the activities, scaffolds, and alerts.

Holly Owens

Yeah, oh, my goodness, so many good little knowledge bomb drops in this episode with, you know, talking about science, inquiry, and math and not being siloed anymore. Everything's kind of, it's all starting to connect. And it's as it should be when it comes to education. So, the final two questions for the episode. In terms of both of your roles, you know, as a CEO, founder, your professorship, what did we miss anything else you'd like to share about Inq-ITS or Rutgers? And, I want to know, I consider you definitely an expert now, and I want to know, what does the future of education look like you can talk about from technology or just education in general. So, anything we miss that you want to share? And then what does the future look like, though?

Janice Gobert

A couple of things that I think are pretty relevant. So, I'm going to say that I think where our system really shines, is the really deep integration of Cognitive Science and Learning Sciences as a way to understand how to guide the development of rich tech-based materials and to guide the development of algorithms. Because it's not about just mouse clicks, you need to go from mouse clicks to performance assessment. So, you need to know how to develop algorithms that support science, which is what is called an ill-defined domain because there are many productive paths to problem solution and many unproductive paths to problem solution.


So, doing science inquiry is fundamentally different from say simple math problems like 2 + 2—an intelligent tutoring system for math does not require AI "under the hood" per se. To understand how students are doing science inquiry however, you need to understand all the ways in which a student can potentially do it productively and unproductively. Because otherwise you can't assess them, nor can you jump in in real-time.


So, now to your question about the future AI and Ed Tech. There is going to absolutely be more AI, more Teacher Tools, alerting dashboards, and helping teachers make their jobs easier. And boy, do we need to do that, right? We need to give teachers actionable data that they can work with to support their educational or pedagogical experiences. Being a teacher is a rough, rough job.

Holly Owens

You're not joking. Oh, my God, I can't imagine what they've experienced. I can't even.

Janice Gobert

So, in the future, we have more AI for teachers, but we will have more AI for students that are tracking their skills, tracking their knowledge, tracking their eyes. You know, we have a family of intellectual property in eye tracking as well. So that's a whole other sidebar conversation that we could have. Many people are tracking students' affect and/ or their engagement in a task; we have done some work on tracking students' engagement as well. If students aren't engaged, they can't learn.

Holly Owens

That makes sense, right? It's so easily stated that students aren't engaged, they can't learn. It's so simple, but some people have a really difficult time accepting that.

Janice Gobert

I think, even more important, or just as important is engagement in and of itself does not lead to learning. Engagement is a necessary but not sufficient condition for learning. So, you really need to know what students are doing to be able to react in real-time, simply being engaged doesn't mean they're going to result in learning, right. And that's why you need really deep learning sciences technology to develop rich activities. Gamification is not the best approach for that because if we expect students to develop 21st-century competencies, such that they are going to be innovators and creators, you can't reward them with digital bananas. You cannot get from digital bananas to rich, deep, creative, innovative thinking.


Then the other thing that you know, with respect to AI is there's going to be a ton of personalized learning. Many students, the highfliers, don't want to go back to one size fits all, they don't want to go back to the regular classroom. So, these tutoring centers and the centers where they're going to credential students are starting to pop up. And students can get course credits. So not only will these centers be used for credit recovery, but they'll also literally be used for "regular" course credits. And that student could go there and do their science curriculum or their math curriculum. Because students really do not want to return to one size fits all learning.

Holly Owens

Yeah, absolutely, I don't, they definitely don't want to do that. I know lots of people want to go back in person online. And but there's going to have to be different ways in which we approach that situation. Janice, we have come to the end of the episode, and you have shared a great amount of information. And I just want to say thank you so much for your time and all you're doing in the education space with Inq-ITS and at Rutgers and helping the learning sciences, your students, and, you know, just propelling education forward. So, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your experiences.

Janice Gobert

Yes, thank you, Holly. And I just want to give two shoutouts of course, to the US Department of Education, Ed Metz, and Christina Chhin, and also to the National Science Foundation; one of our most recent grants was funded by Amy Baylor there. I want teachers to be able to know where to find us, that is www.inqits.com. And you can try our product for free we're more than happy to talk about it. As you know, this is my life's work. And we're really happy to be helping teachers help their students and getting teachers back to the thing that they love to do best, which is teach, rather than doing countless hours of laborious grading. It's difficult to be a teacher. And if we can support teachers and students by providing them deep tech, that's why we're in this business.

Holly Owens

Absolutely, all that information you shared and more is definitely going to be in the show notes to find out more about Inq-ITS and where you can connect with Janice, thanks again.

Janice Gobert

Thank you.