NSF Awards Grant to UA Art Professors to Explore Emergent Learning

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — A trio of University of Alabama art professors have secured a $350,000 National Science Foundation grant to find new ways to create a “system” that will foster creativity among a large group of students participating in an online class.

The project is called “Autonomous Cohorts and Emergent Learning.”

The idea, said Dr. Brian Evans, associate professor in UA’s department of art and art history, is to use a peer-based grading system in a class covering an introduction to art and art history.

Evans received the grant along with two art and art history colleagues: Sarah Marshall, associate professor, and Dr. Lucy Curzon, assistant professor in art and art history. Essentially, students, when grading themselves in an anonymous setting, will generate a system for evaluation and feedback that will help their fellow students learn how to think, write about and create art.

Sarah Marshall, left, Dr. Brian Evans, and Dr. Lucy Curzon

“It’s to set up a large class of students to run as a complex, adaptive system,” Evans says. “A complex adaptive system is made up of a large number of independent agents. The agents interact with each other based on a set of rules.

“What results from this large group of agents is an intelligence that is greater than the intelligence of any given individual.”

The grant is funded from the NSF CreativeIT Program, which explores applying information technology in the study of creativity. Evans is the principal investigator on the grant, and Marshall and Curzon are faculty associates who will also work on the project.

The project, once under way, will involve insights Evans has gleaned from recent research on crowd-sourcing, swarming and social networking.

One analogy often used to describe this phenomenon involves a flock of birds. The flock appears to fly together as an organized group “under some kind of centralized control, i.e. a leader, even though there is no leader,” Evans says.  This apparent organization is called “emergent.”

Another common example is the ant colony. Agents follow a string of rules, and direction – or in the case of a college class, learning — emerges.

“The idea of this emergent behavior from a complex adaptive system is being mapped into a class of students, each of whom is an individual agent in this large course structure,” Evans says. “If the structure is set up correctly, the hope is that there’s an emergent behavior that will result in learning and creativity.”

Evans intends to use the grant to develop a system for his UA art appreciation class, in which he already uses computer-based learning management systems to grade assignments. For the class, he intends to set up a series of academic and creative assignments that would be graded in a peer-review system; generally, five other students read over and grade an assignment under the supervision of an instructor.

The grading is anonymous – students don’t know whom they’re grading, or who is grading them.

“From a learning perspective, the students are learning from the grading as much as they’re learning from the projects,” Evans says. “We need to set up those projects with good rubrics to get the students involved – that’s what needs to be worked out.”

Evans notes that “pockets of emergent learning” already are appearing on the Internet.

“Groups of like individuals are finding each other, organizing and moving themselves through a body of knowledge — like a course on iTunes U — as an autonomous cohort, using primarily peer-review,” he says.

Ultimately, Evans sees these kinds of learning systems as scalable; basically, the more the merrier. Groups of high school students, military personnel on assignment or lifelong learners could become engaged in one of these classes and learn from each other as well as from the curriculum.

The implication is that self-governing “crowdsourced” classes, involving a group of students dedicated to a positive outcome, could be made available to the Internet and bring quality learning experiences to remote areas at low cost.

“The larger the class, the more diverse, and so the better it works,” Evans says. “Creativity requires diversity. You could teach a class in this manner with 10,000 students, and it would be better than if you were teaching 50 students.”


Richard LeComte, media relations, rllecomte@ur.ua.edu, 205/348-3782; Dr. Brian Evans, 205/348-1899, brian.evans@ua.edu