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Texas A&M researchers receive $8 million grant to study impacts of virtual and face-to-face learning

The research will focus on students and teachers in more rural Texas school districts
Published: Jan. 21, 2021 at 11:11 PM CST
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) - Researchers at Texas A&M were recently awarded an $8 million grant to fund a study on the impacts of virtual and face-to-face learning.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced countless classrooms to engage in some degree of virtual learning, but thanks to the funding, the Project VICTORY (Virtually-Infused Collaborations for Teaching and Learning Opportunities for Rural Youth) team has an opportunity to conduct a first of its kind experiment.

“As we looked at the information that’s out there in the research literature, we could not find any real studies that had been done in a controlled environment or with a randomized controlled study,” Texas A&M Educational Leadership Research Center Director Beverly Irby said. “Right now with the pandemic, we have had a very uncontrolled situation.”

To better understand the effectiveness of the two teaching methods, Project VICTORY will work with 3rd through 5th graders using a literacy infused science curriculum.

“It has these strategies strategically embedded, and those strategies provide these opportunities for students to practice listening, speaking, reading, and writing in science,” Research Scientist Cindy Guerrero.

“According to national statistics, science is the least performing subject unfortunately, so that really motivated us to look into this particular subject,” Bilingual ESL Professor Fuhui Tong said.

The project plans to recruit 150 teachers and 1,500 3rd graders, following them through three years of schooling, to monitor their progress in science. Teachers will be randomly assigned to a face-to-face instruction plan at school or a virtual one where students will learn from home with the help of their families.

“We also provide virtual mentoring and coaching where we go into the classroom,” Guerrero said. “We provide real-time live feedback with the teachers, so we can tell them in the moment, ‘Hey, you’re doing a great job,’ or ‘You may not notice, but let’s address this in this way using this strategy.’”

These researchers and professors say 3rd through 5th graders are at a critical juncture in their educational development. It’s one reason why students at those grade levels were targeted for the study.

“If we don’t get to students by the 5th grade, then their interest in STEM subjects wanes,” Irby said. “Particularly by the 8th grade, if we have not interested them in STEM subjects, then it’s almost a lost cause.”

“In early grades, we’re talking about learning to read, then transition to reading to learn. Starting from 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade, that is the transitioning period,” Tong said. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but given quality instruction, rigorous research, and experimentation, we will be able to see that difference.”

The project will focus on schools in rural communities. Which ones will participate is still yet to determined, but the support of 77 rural Texas school districts was critical in securing the grant.

“It’s an equity issue because the smaller schools have students that are just as talented but yet they’re unable to have access to these kinds of materials,” Aggie STEM Center Co-Director Mary Margaret Capraro said. “We hope they can improve and increase their interest in STEM.”

“Through Project VICTORY, we expect to improve quality education for all schools in Texas, but with a special emphasis in rural education,” Texas A&M Department of Educational Psychology Regents Professor Rafael Lara-Alecio said. “Regardless of where those schools are located, we can get quality instruction.”

Texas A&M students majoring in science or education will also be involved in the project. Project VICTORY hopes those university students who also come from rural backgrounds can develop a deeper connection to the students with whom they’re interacting, therefore improving the power of the instruction.

“They can become role models for these students,” Capraro said.

The VICTORY team also hopes to take their research beyond the pandemic so it can have a lasting influence even after it ends.

“Then we will know how well students learn in comparison of face-to-face versus online instruction,” Irby said.

One of those long-term goals is to improve participating teachers as well. That way, each new class of students that comes through that instructor’s classroom each year will be exposed to their improved teaching methods.

“It’s sort of like a snowballing,” Tong said. “They serve the first cohort of students, but each year they have new kids in their classroom, and they continue improving their practices to serve the needs of these students.”

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