This is a project I sliced from my dissertation study and presented at the 2018 ACM Special Interest Group on Design of Communication (SIGDOC) annual conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I participated in the Microsoft Student Research Competition and was awarded 2nd place for this project.
This study shares the story of a design challenge a semester-long maker project where students dedicated themselves to team-based learning, ideating, and prototyping tangible solutions for wicked problems in technical writing and communication (TWC).
There are two key words to my project that I think are helpful to begin with: design thinking and the maker movement.
Design thinking is essentially a methodology and a philosophy for problem solving. It usually manifests in a 5-step process that focuses on understanding user experience and creating innovative solutions.
The maker movement is a recent educational phenomenon that is gaining popularity across K-12 and college settings. It feeds on the latest development of modeling and prototyping technologies that afford instant creation of mock-up ideas using cheap materials. Making is slowing becoming a pedagogical strategy to engage students with hands-on research and problem solving. It puts design thinking to work, cultivate meaningful collaboration, and help develop students’ multimodal literacy.
I see an opportunity for technical writing and communication curriculum to leverage the affordances of the maker movement and design thinking.
In Fall of 2017, I integrate a semester-long design challenge with my technical communication course, and studied its viability. A design challenge is a signature activity of design thinking. A design challenge activity presents participants with a complex/wicked problem, and lets them undergo the phases of design thinking to propose a tangible solution.
My research questions were:
- What resources & tools do students need to succeed?
- What key challenges do students face?
- What literacies do students develop?
I’ve used mixed methods to collect student learning data. First, the design of this course was informed by my visits to three makerspaces in the US and conversations I had with students and makerspace managers there.
During the course, I have administered surveys, students self-assessments, interviews, and students’ rating of teaching (course evals), plus my own teaching observations and reflections.
Through the pre- and post-course surveys, I have learned that students enjoyed working in teams to tackle a complex problem. Their attitude toward team-based project increased significantly (positive) at the end of the course.
In the students’ self-assessment, I learned that students acquired 7 out of the 10 core career competencies outlined by the college of liberal arts at our university. They are:
- Analytical & critical thinking
- Applied problem solving
- Innovation & creativity
- Oral & written communication
- Teamwork & leadership
- Engaging diversity
- Digital literacy
Through the students’ rating of teaching, I found that students most appreciated the application of technical communication concepts in real-world problems. Although sometimes that connection is faint, students said they can rely on the instructor to give them motivation.
In the group and individual interviews, students revealed that they learned quickly how to find support from their team members and those outside the classroom to accomplish their design project. Students also mentioned how they appreciated the learning of non-textual communication strategies as they realized persuasion is multimodal.
To answer the three research questions I have posted earlier, I first learnt that a design challenge project in a technical communication course can be best supported by institutional units such as the university’s IT and innovation services. It is important to identify key collaborators and partner with them to enrich the course. Together, the instructor and the institutional units can co-create learning objectives/outcomes, course projects, and evaluation strategies.
Second, it is important to help students find motivation in the design challenge by guiding them to the benefits of the framework and helping them identify their inspirations. Engagement is a subjective term, and needs to be made explicit between the students and instructor. Any sources of resistance can be opportunities for conversation. The instructor has to be ready to listen to students.
Finally, it is important to figure out ways to capture students’ development of multimodal literacy. As far as tech comm pedagogy is typically concerned, we want to know how students developed rhetorical awareness to social problems and the ways they address them. How are students investigating and using different genres? What do they learn about material rhetorics? I think there needs to be a strategy for documenting these.
I believe making and design thinking can greatly enhance students’ learning in technical writing and communication courses. My study opens new spaces for scholars and instructors of TWC to incorporate hands-on problem solving projects in their classes as an innovative way to engage students meaningfully.