Illustrate: Interdisciplinary Learning Sciences and Technology Research

Learning - Interdisciplinary Learning Sciences and Technology Research (ILLUSTRATE)

BMS theme team Learning 2024

We are delighted to introduce Andrea Kottmann as the new Research Theme Chair for Learning..

As Theme Chair, Andrea will continue to work with a viable research community connected to the Learning theme through a shared vision, knowledge sharing, supporting young researchers, and stimulating interdisciplinary consortium building. 

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Coordinator: Andrea Kottmann

Domain Challenges

Learning is the cornerstone of societal development. The development of individuals, groups and systems carries our heritage forth, enriches our existing experiences, creates new and better ways to care for our environment and one another, and provides structures to enable social, economic and political reform. To develop, we need to learn. While much is already understood about learning, current societal challenges require investments into particular aspects of learning. We believe four warrant particular attention (depth/quality, equity/inclusion, adaptability/flexibility, differentiation/personalization). The rationale for each of these is described below.

First, much of today’s society is plagued by problems of plenty: more data than we can handle, more food than we can distribute well, more information than we know how to use, more access to technology than we can regulate well, and the list goes on. This firehose of opportunity presents a challenge to achieving depth and quality. In an age of plenty, learning characterized by depth and quality is under threat, in part because it requires the ability to select, make trade-offs, prioritize and narrow. Research is needed to understand (factors that influence) the depth and quality of learning, at the leaner, learning environment and system levels.

Second, for better and for worse, the problems of plenty are not experienced by all. As global consciousness increases, so does out collective awareness of the opportunities and threats for participation in society, on micro, meso and macro levels. We are increasingly aware of the urgent need for, and universal benefits of, learning that is characterized by equity/inclusion. We need research to help understand (ways to influence) broadened participation and (ways to leverage) diversity in learning.

Third, participation - even if achieved - is not stable. Changing industries, evolving social norms, migration, and technological advances are just a few examples of developments in the world around us which require learners to be characterized by adaptability/flexibility. We need research to help us understand how to support learners and their learning in a constantly changing world.

Finally, people need to be able to cope with change but the environments need to be able to cope with their (changing) needs. Developments in (social) media, industry and health care attest to the fact that we are already in an age of customization. And yet, we have much to learn about the differentiation/personalization of learning environments, Research is needed to understand and use the affordances of targeted learning opportunities while mitigating unintended consequences such as de-skilling, self-centeredness, commodification, or invasion of privacy.

Scientific contribution

The BMS learning research program conducts a productive blend of fundamental and applied research. Through robust collaborations with practitioners, research practices are ecologically valid as well as socially responsible. We aspire to achieve theoretical breakthroughs related to our four focal areas. We aspire to achieve methodological breakthroughs in association with big data, data collection technologies, and the development of instrumentation for innovation. Key theoretical and methodological challenges we will tackle in the coming period are:  



Societal impact

The learning research theme aspires to impact society at large by direct influence across and on three interacting layers: learners, learning environments, and the systems to which these are connected. Learners can include children, adults, employees, teachers (when the focus is on their own development), and in some cases teams, organizations or machines. We aim to develop learner capacities such that they are empowered to: function as productive citizens, ensure their participation, adapt to changing demands, and play a role in seeing, or shaping their own learning (pathways).

Learning environments pertain to the immediate surroundings of the learner, and include physical spaces, materials (e.g. books, software, equipment), peers, teachers, and even norms or routines within those immediate surroundings. Our research contributes to understanding and shaping learning environments so that they facilitate deep learning through means which are both inclusive and responsive in light of learner needs.

Systems refer to non-immediate aspects of the learning context which (in)directly influence either the learner or the learning environment, such as an organization (e.g. school, business, institute), government (e.g. local, state, nation), sector (public, private), etc. The learning research strives to contribute to systems through insights that help improve quality monitoring and assurance, mitigate divides, adapt to the changing needs of its participants, and establish practices that are responsible, reliable, and ethical and sustainable.


The learning research program leverages existing assets and seeks new ones to foster the development of an interdisciplinary community of researchers that supports one another in conducting outstanding research that is of societal relevance. As inventoried and described in Chapter 4, the existing cadre of researchers (including their expertise, strategic networks, and track records in funding) is our strongest asset. Targeted investments are needed to develop the human, material and structural aspects of infrastructure that can enable this work to thrive. First, new investments are needed for institutionalization. While the research program benefits already from faculty support, the establishment of a formal structure with strong leadership and sustainable funding seems crucial for reaching the goals described above. While also serving other goals, efforts to institutionalize the learning research program would support the crucial process of community building. While initial steps were taken in 2017 and there is definitely energy and will to establish this line of research, much work is need to develop a research community that could, together, tackle the challenges described above. The establishment of a strong community will nourish our researchers’ abilities to conduct research of outstanding scientific quality. At the same time, additional investments into researcher capacity, laboratory facilities and organizational practices that foster knowledge sharing and professional growth are needed. Together, these measures will support the team’s ability to yield relevant and meaningful societal impact. Additional priorities for outreach capacity include establishing long-term partnerships as well as the human, material and structural resources that can enable this.