2018 McGraw Prize Honors Three Innovators in Education at ASU GSV Summit

Today, we’re taking a close look at three innovators in education. While each of these individuals uses education technology in a different way, they all have one thing in common: they’re all 2018 McGraw Prize Recipients.

The trio gathered in balmy San Diego California — where they were honored at the 2018 ASU GSV Summit. The McGraw Prize is designed to honor those who are making a difference in education today. And as our guests this episode will highlight, that impact can range from using artificial intelligence to help struggling adult readers, to using data to target potentially struggling incoming freshmen.

The 2018 McGraw Prize Winners include: Art Graesser, winner of the inaugural Learning Science Research Prize, Reshma Saujani, winner of the Pre-K–12 Education Prize, and Timothy Renick, winner of the Higher Education Prize.

Up first, is Tim Renick of Georgia State University. He’s the Senior Vice president for Student Success — and a professor of Religious Studies — at GSU. He calls his campus unique, because it’s bisected by a National Park Historic District — called the Martin Luther King district.

According to Tim, “When we were founded, it was an all-white institution; in fact, we were segregated well into the 1960s.”

But although the school sits in a district dedicated to the famous civil rights activist, he says that, “As recently as a little over a decade ago we were grossly under-serving our students of color.”

Tim says that at this time, students of color had a 30 percent graduation rate, while “African-American male students were only graduating at 18 percent.”

“So, it was kind of a sad irony that we were a few blocks away from where the Reverend Martin Luther King worked, Ebenezer Baptist Church. Where he lived, his childhood home. Where he where he, you know, kind of prospered. And yet we were part of the problem.”

Yet on the surface, the school wasn’t lacking in diversity.

“What makes Georgia State interesting is its diversity. We’ve moved from an institution that was predominately white to a minority-serving institution. Almost 70 percent of our students are non-white now. About 60 percent of our students are low-income.”

Tim says while school officials were pleased that there were more non-white enrollments, they were concerned about low graduation rates for students of color.

“I think the starting point for the transformation was a point about 10 years ago, where we stood up and did something that is pretty uncomfortable, which is to ask a simple question: ‘Are we part of the problem?’”

For the university, that acknowledgment was a bitter pill to swallow.

“It’s easy to blame others. You know, we often point a finger at K-12 [educational institutions] and say, ‘Well, if they produced better prepared students for us, we’d graduate them at better rates.’ Or, ‘We’ve gone through tough economic times in public education.’”

“You can easily point the finger at the state and say, ‘When they fund us better,’ you know, ‘we’ll produce better outcomes,’” Tim says.

According to Tim, the key to getting these better outcomes was investing in better data — and instead of blaming K–12 institutions, looking at themselves and the potential red tape and redundant bureaucracies the school may have created.

“There were about 14 different things that we expect students to accomplish after graduating high school in the summer before they start college. Things from applying to financial aid, to registering for classes, to picking a major, to providing immunization records, which the state of Georgia requires.”

“And at each of those steps, as we began to analyze the data, we were losing some students,” says Tim.

Tim says after looking at the numbers, GSU realized that they were losing people over this seemingly minor issue of turning in paperwork. So, they partnered with a Boston-based startup called AdmitHub, and built a database of 2,000 answers to common questions.

“We thought maybe in the summer…we’d have five or six thousand questions answered by the students. We had 200,000 questions answered by the students. They were texting at 3:00 in the morning. Some individual students texted forty or fifty times.”

What Tim says was most interesting, was that students were more willing to ask questions to a chatbot than a human being.

“In some cases, they were embarrassed by the fact that they didn’t know the answers. Or they were embarrassed about the personal nature of the information. And they saw the chatbot as a tool.”

Long story short: it worked.

“So in one summer using that new technology — which wasn’t expensive and was deployed all from beginning to end and about a three month period — we lowered the rate of summer melt by over 20 percent.”

He says graduation rates across the board have doubled, and that “African-American males now are graduating at triple the rate they were when we launched these initiatives.”
Something like this might seem cost prohibitive. But the school hasn’t even raised tuition.

“And we’re doing it for a reasonable cost, too. We’re doing it for a cost that has allowed us not to raise tuition and not raise fees for a number of years. And that’s a model that I think is going to take hold nationally.”

Let’s turn now to another innovator, who’s passing the gift of technology to the next generation.

Reshma Saujani is the founder and CEO of the non-profit Girls Who Code — based out of New York City. She says coding is important for upward mobility.

Reshma, the daughter of refugees from Uganda, says she started Girls Who Code because she believes in the American Dream.

“I’ve had jobs since I was 12 years old. I helped my parents pay for their mortgage. And there are so many girls that are being left behind, because their families are not getting an opportunity to march to the middle class. And I want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“I see coding as like the next great equalizer,” says Reshma.

Reshma says less than 25 percent of the technology workforce is female — and that’s a problem.

“Our goal, when we started in 2012, was to close the gender gap in computer science and technology, and to get gender parity in technology jobs.”

Her program has three prongs.

“The first thing: we offer free summer immersion programs. So we’ll take 20 girls. And for seven weeks, we’ll embed them in a classroom in a technology company. We run about 80 of those programs every year in about 16 different cities, where about 1600 girls who are rising juniors and seniors go through that program.”

“So seven weeks, every day, nine to five, with the hopes that at the end of that program they’ll say ‘Ah, I want to major in computer science!’ and they’ll go into the technology workforce.”

The second prong is made up of free after-school clubs — which are hosted in schools and community centers. Reshma says the single-sex environments help girls learn together and get excited and passionate about computer science.

Reshma’s third and final prong is arguably the most important.

“And then the third thing that we […] really do is really think about ‘How do you shift and change culture?’”

To get girls excited about coding, they released a 13-book series, including Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World.

Reshma says she feels like Girls Who Code is yielding big results.

“We’ve reached 90,000 girls in less than six years and all 50 states. And to put that into perspective, only 10,000 women graduated in computer science last year. So, we are well on our way to making a significant impact. And we’ve done it in six years. We have found our girls are majoring in Computer Science at 15 times the national average. 16 times the national average for black and Latina women.”

“At the rate we’re growing, we are going to reach gender parity in technology jobs by 2027.”

Reshma says she loves the results that her company is already seeing — in just 6 years.

“It’s happening. And I believe that if you invest in girls, if you commit to their education, if you meet them where they’re at, if you involve the private sector and the public sector, this is a problem that’s solvable.”

She believes that the work she is doing has the potential to solve this problem in merely a decade.

“Someone once said to me you know very very. ‘Not too often do you have the opportunity to solve a problem in a decade.’ And we do. Like literally in 10 years, you and I should be sitting here and we should be looking at the rate of women that are in technology and saying ‘We did it… we’re at parity.’ It’s possible.”

Let’s turn now to our third McGraw Prize Winner: Art Graesser. He’s a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Institute of Intelligent Systems at the University of Memphis.

Art says a big part of his work is building intelligent tutoring systems — including so-called “conversational agents” that actually interact with the user. One of these systems is AutoTutor, “an intelligent system where the learners interact with talking heads or fully embodied conversational agents and they learn by having a conversation in natural language.”

According to Art, “AutoTutor really helps people learn because you can put natural conversation strategies into the system plus ideal. So you combine both the natural conversation of people and tutors, an ideal pedagogical strategy, and combine the two.”

This artificial intelligence system is already seeing real world applications.

“The most recent one is the one that I’m doing with Georgia State University, actually Daphne Greenberg, and that’s the one to help struggling adult readers. So we want to help struggling adult readers interact with the auto tutor to comprehend text at deeper levels. And so that we would like to be scaled up to many many millions of people if if that’s possible and hopefully that’ll happen in the future.”

Art says a lot of his work stems from his involvement with the Institute of Intelligence Systems:

“Imagine computer scientists with linguists, with psychologists, with education people, with physicists, I mean, artists.”

He says the model of the institute, of different disciplines working together, is going to catch on.

“We think that the wave of the future for higher education is having teams of researchers and students from different fields that build things and what we do is build learning environments. So we’ve been going on, you know, very intensely now for 33 years and hopefully it will be another 433 years. But we think that’s the future of higher education: interdisciplinary group projects where you build things, test them out, and that’s how students get deeper learning.”

Art, Reshma, and Timothy were honored at this year’s ASU GSV event for their year of contributions to education. To learn more about the recipients and the prize, visit the website at mcgrawprize.com.

Kassandra Sundt

Kassandra Sundt

An Army Brat born in Canada, Kassandra got her start reporting and producing at Emerson College's WERS 88.9 FM, and later at WBUR 90.9, both in local Newscast and Radio Boston. When she's not writing about education, she's covering local Boston news and sports. Often, she can be found playing roller derby or knitting.