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Why Mia, Why Now: A Research-Based Path to Self-Motivated and Purposeful Reading

July 11, 2018

Report

Why Mia, Why Now: A Research-Based Path to Self-Motivated and Purposeful Reading

Mia cultivates self-motivated and purposeful readers by supporting choice, ownership, and metacognition

Darren Cambridge, Ph.D.

Abstract
Developing young readers requires more than just building the skills and strategies on which most educational accountability systems and literacy software focuses. We want children to use reading to understand themselves and the world, expand their sense of what’s possible, and take action to create change. To do so, they need to become self-motivated and purposeful readers. Mia Learning is committed to supporting such reading growth through research-based approach. Extensive research shows that well-supported choice of books combined with ownership opportunities significantly enhances intrinsic motivation to read. Making good choices about reading is a learned skill that Mia supports through offering the right number of choices and modeling expert selection.

Young readers also make more powerful choice through being purposeful. They know what they’re interested in, what they want to get out of reading, and how well their choices about reading are helping them get it. Purposeful readers use metacognitive processes to reflect on their interests, set goals, and track progress towards them. Research makes it clear that metacognitive expertise is key to success as a reader and throughout life. Mia supports metacognition through coaching children as they plan and reflect, expanding as well as embracing their interests.

Citation
Cambridge, D. (2018). Why Mia, Why Now: A Research-based Path to Self-motivated and Purposeful Reading. Washington, D.C.: Mia Learning.

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How Mia Helps Kids Grow As Readers With AI Through Being An Open Book

June 26, 2018

How Mia Helps Kids Grow As Readers With AI Through Being An Open Book

Or, why kids actually do have to understand artificial intelligence to use Mia

By Darren Cambridge

Mia is designed to be so easy that even a six-year-old can use her with little or no adult assistance to support their growth as a reader. Children who are only beginning to read can happily have long conversations with Mia and have used her to select and reflect on books they love. So, this may come as a surprise: Kids need to understand artificial intelligence to use Mia. 

While there are some intriguing experiments underway to teach artificial intelligence concepts to younger children, AI has generally been the subject of college level computer science courses. So how can we possibly assume that an elementary-school student could understand it?

Thankfully, kids don’t need the same kind of understanding that engineers do to fully benefit from Mia. They don’t need to learn the intricacies of supervised learning algorithms or natural language understanding libraries. They don’t need to know how to control servos or temperature sensors (although all of us here are robotics club fans).

Kids do need to understand:

  • That Mia is not human. She has a number of impressive strengths and significant limitations, and she’s never going to be a replacement for the knowledgeable and caring adults who contribute to kids’ lives as readers.
  • What Mia believes she knows about them as readers and the reasoning behind her recommendations and suggestions.

Mia As Droid

Researchers such as sociologist Sherry Turkle have suggested that artificial-intelligence-powered toys and personal assistants have the potential to harm children’s social development, noting that some children don’t seem to make a distinction between their relationships with such system and real human relationships. Like the developers of the technology that Turkle examined, we do hope that children develop an effective bond with Mia, developing trust in her helpfulness and honesty and enjoying her corny jokes.

Unlike them, we never want kids to forget that Mia is a computer program or to think her presence in their lives eliminates a need for teachers, librarians, parents, or (human) friends. Mia is explicit about what she can do well—she knows more about almost every book in print than is probably possible for any human to remember, and she’s available 24/7 and for as long as they need her—but also about her limitations. For example, when Mia can’t understand something a child has said to her, one of the ways she replies is:

OK, so here’s the thing. Some things are easy for me that are hard from you, like remembering how many pages there are in each of thousands of books. But there are other things that are a breeze for you and really tough for me, like understanding whatever it was you just said. I’m going to get better everyday, but it will be a long time before I’m even as good as a kindergartner. For now, think about it as a game: What ways can you say what you want me to know or to do that I’m actually smart enough to understand?

Along the same lines, Mia is intentionally cartoonish in appearance, not photorealistic. Her voice is expressive, but isn’t going to fool anyone on the phone. We aren’t creating a virtual reality. Mia isn’t trying to pass as human. Mia is an explicitly virtual presence firmly situated within, and in service of, kids’ real worlds. She draws attention to her own artificiality.

The best analogy for what we’re aiming at is the relationships between people and droids in Star Wars. Droids have enough personality and contribute sufficiently to achieving goals that humans get quite attached. At the same time, no one confuses a droid with a person. Their limitations are self-evident—R2D2 can’t speak a human language—and their appearance is distinctly mechanical—human-shaped C3PO is gold and clunky. They have non-human talents, such as talking directly with space station computers, speaking three million languages, and projecting images of distressed princesses…but we digress.

Droids are an integral part of the central characters’ world, but they collaborate with and in service of humans (and other sentient beings), none of whom see droids as a substitute for other living, breathing people. Even as the technology that powers her grows exponentially more powerful over the coming years, we always intend for Mia to be more like a droid from Star Wars than a replicant from Blade Runner or a host on Westworld.

Mia As Open Book

Mia is dedicated to working her way out of a job. Mia’s goal is not to make children dependent on her to make decisions for them. Rather, she seeks to directly support their decisions today while also helping them learn to make such decisions independently tomorrow. Children are more likely to choose books that work for them with Mia’s help, but as a result of working with her over time, they should also learn to make better choices when she’s not around.

One of the ways Mia supports this growing independence is through scaffolding. In education, the term “scaffolding” means providing support that simplifies a task sufficiently for a novice while also modeling how experts tackle it. Scaffolding provides insight into questions like: What kinds of information do experts examine? How do they use it to predict how things will turn out? How do they makes sense of what they have experienced?

As the novice becomes more skilled, scaffolding can be gradually removed, much like literal scaffolding is taken down as parts of a new building are completed. In other words, effective scaffolding not only makes a task easier, but also helps someone learning it understand how to do it well on their own.

Through sophisticated AI, Mia finds a few books to recommend to a child from tens of thousands she knows about, drawing on what she believes she knows about the child and her expert-informed understanding of how to choose books. Unlike other reading software, Mia doesn’t stop there. She not only simplifies the task—here are six books to consider, rather than a ten thousand—but she also performs scaffolding through modeling. She explains the reasons she believes a recommended book is a good fit for a given child.

For example, here’s how Mia might explain the reasons why she thinks a middle school girl will love Pharoah’s Daughter, by Julius Lester:

  • You’ve said you’re super interested in Egyptian mythology and have read several books about it; you’ll enjoy the challenge of reading this book.
  • You often like books with detailed illustrations and stories about family relationships, and this book has both of those elements.
  • You might enjoy reading a novel featuring mythological characters to complement the non-fiction you’ve read so far.

Here, Mia is applying several beliefs often applied by expert readers:

  • If you’re really interested in the topic of a book and have related background knowledge, then you’ll be able to handle a book that’s more difficult than what you typically read and will enjoy the challenge.
  • Your preferences matter: You’re more likely to enjoy books that employ formats, plot structures, writing styles, and so on similar to those used in books you already like.
  • At the same time, variety increases satisfaction. Expert readers seek out books not only with similar topics and characteristics, but also with differences that broaden their literary experience, including through reading multiple genres.

Mia also is being transparent about what she believes she knows about the child as a reader that informs her judgment. Mia think that she understands something about the child’s interests (Egyptian mythology), preferred book characteristics (detailed illustrations, family stories), and experiences with genre (have read non-fiction). Mia also shares the sources of information that inform these inferences (you told me; you’ve read and liked books like this).

Educational technology researchers call this an open learner model. In AI software that uses an open learner model, the system actively shares what it believes it knows at a given point in time about the learner and what it has observed that informs those conclusions. Learners have the opportunity to reflect on how the system’s beliefs about them compare with their own. They may sometimes also have a chance to challenge the systems’ assertions, providing additional information that can lead to changes in those beliefs. For example, if a student believes they have a better understanding of a mathematical concept than the system believes they do, the student could successfully answer a few quiz questions to prove their point.

Mia also embraces this second dimension of the open learner model, albeit with the child themselves—not yet another test—as the authority. When students debrief with Mia after their mission—that is, talk with her about how well the books she helped them choose and how their time reading them has worked out—they share additional information with Mia about their reading experiences, beliefs and preferences that may differ from what Mia thought she knew about them. Mia invites them to reflect on targeted aspects of their experiences that may enrich both her and their understanding of how to make future choices. Mia learns from these conversations, improving the quality her subsequent recommendations and coaching.

Mia truly is an open book, constantly being revised in dialogue with the children who use her. Like a book, children consult her with a clear understanding that she was crafted by people and is limited in scope and function. But like a book, and through books, she has the potential to open up new possibilities for imagination, joy, and discovery.

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Where Mia Lives

May 11, 2018

Where Mia Lives

By Darren Cambridge 

You will see Mia frequently at the Anti Boredom Corporative headquarters, but the details of where Mia lives have been a closely guarded secret. Until now. 

When Mia isn’t traveling across the world and cyberspace in search of readers and books, she makes her home deep within the Uline Area in Washington, D.C. Strategically located close to D.C.’s geographic center—a short walk from the metro (Red Line NoMa stop), the trains (Union Station), and the bike paths (Metropolitan Branch Trail)— Mia is positioned to get wherever she needs to be in the physical or virtual world, fast. 

Mia isn’t the first international celebrity to practice their arts in the Uline (also known as the Washington Coliseum). In fact, the Beatles played their first concert in the United States here in 1964 (joining the likes of Nat King Cole, Bob Dylan, the Temptations, Dave Brubeck, and many other artists who have performed within these walls.) President Eisenhower held an inaugural ball here. When Earl Lloyd became the first African-American to play in an NBA game in 1950, it was here, where Red Aeurbach later coached, and boxing legend JoeLouis make his debut … as a professional wrestler! Malcolm X and Elijah Mohamed spoke to crowds under its arches, and the police used the building as a holding pen for 1200 people arrested protesting the Vietnam War in 1971.

The Beatles Perform at the Uline Area, February 11, 1964
Embed from Getty Images

The building has served as an ice rink, megachurch, parking lot, and illegal waste transfer station before being placed on the National Registry of Historic Places and renovated into today’s state of the art facility. Like Mia, the Uline Arena was saved by a great story.

Another thing the Mia loves about working here is her amazing neighbors. Down the hall are the Relay Graduate School of Education, the Biden Cancer Initiative, and REI’s flagship store (handy when Mia needs to gear up for a mission at the last minute). The creative people at the District of Columbia Publics Schools Office of Teaching and Learning are down the block, as is the headquarters of National Public Radio (producers of Mia’s current favorite podcast, Wow in the World). Close by are Reading in Fundamental, an ally in the mission to put great books in the hands of kids, and Two Rivers Public Charter School, a pioneer in support inquiry-based learning for students from across the District. 

The team of crack professionals who work behind the scenes to support Mia’s mission can also be found here most days. Darren Cambridge bikes here down the Metropolitan Branch Trail from his home in Eckington. Raaziq Brown walks from the campus of Howard University, from which he’s just graduated with a degree in Human Development. (Mia asks that we all congratulate Raaziq!) Kathleen Perez-Lopez and Puneet Puri take the metro in from Falls Church and Bethesda. Our writers are all deep undercover in the field, but they come in from the cold to debrief at the Uline from time to time.  

We’re sorry we can’t show you Mia’s underground command center—it’s location with the Uline Arena must remain Top Secret Restricted to ensure the integrity of work—but we hope you enjoyed this glimpse of her headquarters. If you’re ever in town, all of us on Mia’s support team would love for you to stop by for a tour. 

Mia’s support team frequently field tests books she is evaluating for her clients. The Uline allows them to measure performance in a wide range of reading environments.

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Picture of a sculpture of a brain lit many colors at night
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Literacy Experts Deepen Mia’s Knowledge About Reading

April 30, 2018

Literacy Experts Deepen Mia’s Knowledge About Reading

By Darren Cambridge 

From its inception, Mia Learning has been committed to combining the best understanding of how children read and the best ways to support them in their reading.

Our product reflects a rigorous analysis of educational and psychological research findings, as well as numerous interactions with teachers, librarians, researchers, and parents. Mia Learning’s Literacy Experts Taskforce is taking this commitment to the next level.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Mia Learning has brought together experts who represent both the forefront of literacy research and a deep knowledge of practice. The group joins faculty from top research universities with teachers and librarians who help children grow as readers every day. Led by Dr. Peter Afflerbach, Professor of Reading at the University of Maryland, and Dr. Darren Cambridge, Mia Learning’s CEO, they are mapping the territory through which Secret Agent Mia guides young readers.

The Literacy Expert Taskforce is validating Mia’s existing AI domain model and creating the blueprint for its next generation. Mia’s domain model determines that she knows about readers, reading, and books. It guides what she asks kids about their reading, which books she recommends, when she asks them to reflect, and how she coaches them on making increasingly powerful choices.

Literacy Expert Taskforce Members

Peter Afflerbach
Professor of Reading,  Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Maryland
Dr. Afflerbach investigates individual differences in reading development and is a member of the Standing Reading Committee of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the International Reading Association’s Reading Hall of Fame.

Susan Brown
Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Language, Literacy, and Special Education, Rowan University
Dr. Brown is an expert on multicultural children’s literature, reader response, and urban education, as well as an award-winning poet and coordinator of the Children of the Sun Literary Club at Bushfire Theatre of Performing Arts.

Nell Duke
Professor in Literacy, Language, and Culture and in the combined program in education and psychology at the University of Michigan
A prolific author of award-winning research on early literacy development, especially of children in poverty, Dr. Duke has been named one of the most influential education scholars in the U.S. by Education Week.

Merna Fam
Teacher, Teacher, Kensington Parkwood Elementary
Drawing on her graduate training as a reading specialist, Ms. Fam teaches kindergarten in a diverse school that integrates the arts throughout the curriculum.

Leslie Garcia
Teacher, Cooper Lane Elementary School
Ms. Garcia teaches reading, writing, and social studies in an overwhelmingly low income and minority school where many students are English Language Learners.

Jennifer Graff
Associate Professor, Department of Language and Literacy Education, University of Georgia
Winner of the 2009 Dissertation of the Year Award from the International Reading Association for research concerning young girls’ book choices, Dr. Graff is chair of the NCTE Children’s Literature Assembly.

Christopher Hils
Program Director, Tree House Books
Before become a leader in after school programming serving the North Philadelphia community, Hils has taught at and helped found multiple elementary schools with a focus on improving early literacy education.

Kathryn Mitchell Pierce
Assistant Professor, Educational Studies, Saint Louis University
Now a faculty member focusing on classroom talk, children’s literature and collaborative assessment, Dr. Pierce spent a decade teaching at the elementary school level and another decade teaching literacy at the middle school level.

Genelle Schuler
Program and Partnership Librarian, Arlington Public Library
Now building partnerships between the Arlington Public Library system and community organizations, Schuler has served young readers for two decades in the Alexandria and Fairfax County public library systems and as an elementary school librarian.

Rachel Vecloth
Lead Teacher, Creative Minds International Public Charter School
A Center for Inspired Teaching Fellow and former lawyer, Vecloth teaches second grade and piloted the Mia Learning platform with her class in Spring 2017.

Spring 2017 Literacy Experts Taskforce 
The current version of Mia was informed by an earlier experts taskforce that was instrumental to our Spring 2017 pilot. It consisted of Ms. Schuler, Emily Utigard (Estes Park Elementary), Sarah Sweetman (Centreville Elementary), and Allison Sauveur (Deer Park Elementary).