Learning by Designing & Making: A Design Challenge Project in TWC

SIGDOC 2018 - Learning from Making [Poster]

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.

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Source: https://denovo.dwt.com/

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.

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Source: https://www.steelcase.com/research/articles/topics/active-learning/making-way-making-education/

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.

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My research questions were: 

  1. What resources & tools do students need to succeed?
  2. What key challenges do students face?
  3. 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.

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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.

Collaboration and/in Technical Communication

Rowers on a boat. Image by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash.

I was invited by the amazing Amruta Ranade over at the New York based Cockroach Labs to share my experience being a graduate student in a technical communication program. I decided to talk about collaboration. The following is originally published on Amruta’s website.


Collaboration is at the heart of technical communication, and I see at least two reasons to why that’s so:

  1. Technical communication materials are produced for human use and therefore always require human input; and
  2. As cliche as it may sound, it remains true to me that no one knows everything, but everyone knows something––thus two or more heads are better than one when it comes to solving technical communication issues or tasks.

As a PhD student, my work in the past 4 years has largely been collaborative. Whether in practice or pedagogy, I have been acculturated to working with users, designers, researchers, and teachers. These interactions are often productive and rewarding; they help me create more effective documents, design and perform better studies, and deliver innovative instructions. In this guest post, I share some of my collaborative experiences in research, publishing, teaching, service, and professional practice.

Collaboration in research

Upon reviewing my CV, I realized more than half of my current projects are shared with other researchers in and out of my home department at my university. While I have worked in larger teams that ranged from four to eight researchers, my typical collaborations are in teams of two (myself and another researcher or scholar). Whether we are co-investigating a common problem or co-authoring a report, my experience with sharing a research project has been rewarding. I have always learned new research methods and strategies for communicating my findings. Furthermore, from a research standpoint, collaboration may boost the validity and reliability of a qualitative study if inter-rater reliability is utilized and achieved.

Collaboration in publishing

When publishing in technical communication journals (or any journal, I suppose), authors tend to work with journal editor(s) to identify the publication’s scope, standards, and other publishing specifications. I consider this interaction with journal editors and even responses to blind reviews as a kind of professional collaboration. Such collaboration ensures the quality of a publication––that authors produce scholarship that advance knowledge, reviewers provide feedback that enhance the scholarly merits of the refereed work, and editors ensure the integrity of the publication is preserved and supervise the production process.

I have also been blessed with the opportunities to co-edit some special issues of technical communication journals––most recently for the Journal of Business and Technical Communication and Computers and Composition––on special topics like “design thinking approaches for technical communication” and “immersive technologies and writing pedagogy.” In these co-editing experiences, I have collaborated with other academics to create calls for papers, review submissions, coordinate peer reviews, and work with authors and publishers. Special issue publications such as these tend to require a kind of collaborative dynamic that’s different from a regular journal issue as we had to draw resources from a select pool of experts and work within a specific publication timeline that complements the publisher’s workflow.

Collaboration in teaching

Based on my teaching experience, students find it more meaningful to work with problems that have tangible impact on their lives and those around them. As an instructor of technical communication, this means I need to work to bridge theory and practice in student learning. To achieve this goal, I have been collaborating with faculty members with other disciplinary expertise to co-design course modules and learning activities that benefit students in our classes. For instance, in the current (Spring 2018) semester, I am teaming up with a professor from mechanical engineering to create a learning unit for my business writing course where my students serve as press release writing consultants to graduate engineering students whom they are partnered with. This collaborative effort gives both my students and the graduate engineers in another course an opportunity to cross path and learn from each other.

Collaboration in service

As a member of the technical communication discipline, I am also called to provide services to the field that advance its visibility and wellbeing. In my opinion, these services are best done through collective effort and thus I have collaborated with other graduate students and scholars to co-organize events that led to the aforementioned goals. One example is the 21st Annual Great Plains Alliance for Computers and Writing Conference, where three active scholars in my department and I co-hosted in the Fall of 2017. Pulling together a regional conference isn’t a task that can be easily accomplished by an individual; by collaborating with colleagues and other graduate students, we were able to co-design a program that reflected the trends of the field and attracted presenters that had interesting topics to share.

Collaboration in professional practice

When not teaching or conducting research studies, I work as a leasing agent for a student housing provider. Collaboration is ingrained into my work routine; more often than not, I am working with other fellow agents to address leasing and marketing needs––we review our weekly leasing (sales) performance, discuss existing customer service issues, and come up with solutions to address these situations collaboratively. Also, part of my work is dedicated to maintaining a shared database of resident profiles and incoming prospects. Every leasing agent at my property plays a part in keeping shared notes and updating the database. Each year, it takes a team of six leasing agents, working very closely with a leasing manager, to fully lease our residence. While leasing and customer service may not be directly related to technical communication, they are communicative activities that require similar professional rigor.

Together, all these experiences help me grow as a technical communicator, whether through research, publishing, teaching, service, or professional practice. Indeed, as my academic advisor––Dr. Ann Hill Duin––wrote with her collaborator more than 25 years ago, collaboration in technical communication is a research continuum, rather than a static phenomenon or theory. The motivation and techniques for collaboration in technical settings keep shifting according to the context within which the collaboration occurs. My advice for rising technical communicators is to dip their toes in multiple collaborative contexts as part of their training so they may be hone their skills in collaborating with others.

A Design Thinking Orientation

Students building prototypes for their solutions.

This semester, my students are engaged with a design challenge project where teams will identify wicked problems related by students at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus, and devise and prototype human-centered solutions for campus users.

To help orient students to the design thinking process, I led a 50-minute activity today using resources provided by the Stanford d.school. Students were asked to bring scrap items and craft tools to class while I provided some random materials such as crayons, boxes, strings, tapes, stickers, and glow sticks.

The goal of the activity was to introduce students to the ways they could observe and identify wicked problems. The “mission” of the activity was for students to redesign the campus experience for a partner I had assigned to them.

To start, students were asked to sit with their partner. Then, they began by reflecting on their own campus experince (1 terrific experience, 1 terrible experience). After that, students were asked to interview their partner. They took turns doing so. Following the interviews, students wrote a user-story statement (“X needs Y so that/because Z”).

Next, students were asked to observe their classroom setting (and beyond, thinking about the campus in general), and to pay attention to ways we interact with objects and spaces.

Using the user-story statement and observation of classroom spaces, students were asked to generate at least 5 radical solutions to meet their partner’s needs. They then shared these ideas with their partner, and spent a few more minutes selecting one “big idea” to refine and prototype.

Students then spent the next 8-10 minutes building a model for their “big idea.”

Students building prototypes for their solutions.

A student building prototypes for their solutions.

A student building prototypes for their solutions.

Students building prototypes for their solutions.

When the time was up, students paused their prototyping, and began sharing their prototyped solutions to their partner. They were asked to focus on what worked, what needed to be improved, and to take questions from their partner.

This was also when our class time was up.

So, I collected the prototypes from students and asked them to reflect on this activity by responding to the following questions:

  • How is design thinking similar or different from “traditional” research process?
  • How did you approach your partner’s problem(s)?
  • How did you come up with your “radical” solutions?
  • What does your partner think about your solutions?

In the next class session, I will return the prototypes to students and ask them to share their insights from this orientation. My goal is to have students reflect intentionally on the affordances and limitations of design thinking, and how this process might be used in their design challenge project this semester.

What I have learned from leading this activity (and participating as well because a student’s partner was absent today) is that design thinking is more than just “thinking.” It is very action-driven, human-centered, and project-focused. When applied to a technical communication course, design thinking could be a useful framework to help students make their ideas/solutions tangible.

I look forward to seeing what students make of the design thinking framework and the projects they choose to engage with this semester. I will share them in a timely manner.

SMAAASH: VR Entertainment Review

On Thursday, my friends and I went to check out the newly opened virtual reality games and arcade center at the Mall of America, SMAAASH. While many might be fooled by my studious outlook, I am actually a huge fan of arcade games. I have spent many hours in my teenage years in arcade centers and have always enjoyed new game stimulations. So, I was very excited about the chance to check out this new experience.

SMAAASH is an interactive gaming facility that is built around virtual reality (VR) technologies. Opened on Dec. 20, 2016 at the Mall of America, SMAAASH offers America’s first VR-driven “adrenaline arena,” coupled with sports, music, and bar dining experiences.

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When walked into the arcade arena, I was immediately drawn to the flashy LEDs and screens set up to get visitors registered for their play. My friends and I got an all-access pass that gives us unlimited access to all games and one round of Sky Karting (go kart). Main attractions include Finger Coaster, Exterminator, Vertigo, Art of Attack, X1 Simulator, Haunted Hospital, Hot Shot, Zombie Outbreak, and three sports based challenges namely Super Keeper (soccer), What the Puck (ice hockey), and Extreme Takedown Challenge (football). There is also a “smart arcade” with classics like race cars, skiing, and basketball ring toss, and other screen based games. You can read all game descriptions here.

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Having studied VR and wearable technologies since 2015, my colleagues at UMN and I have been intrigued by the potentials of VR in gaming and social engagement. SMAAASH embodies a combination of both. While back in our home lab there’s one set of HTC Vive for individual research and user simulation, SMAAASH offers interactive and communal participation in VR experiences. These experiences are made possible mainly by Oculus and Vive technologies. What’s interesting to me is how the player/user can be a part of creating their VR experience, and sharing it with their friends.

For instance, at Finger Coaster, players can design their own roller coaster tracks and bring up to four friends to share the ride they have invented.

^ This is one of my most favorite.

Another highlight at SMAAASH is the Vertigo experience. I’d say that simulation is indeed not for the faint hearted. Through the VR headset, the player is lifted to about 50 feet above ground to a single plank, with the mission to save a kitten at the middle of the narrow walkway. I almost chickened out of this particular simulation (although I actually did with the zombies), I am glad that I tried–and succeeded in saving the poor kitty–because it was something I would never have done in real life.

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VR does trick the mind into believing the simulation to be reality. What the Vertigo experience teaches me is that there are truly many ways VR can be used to simulate scenarios that are hard to create in reality, but might be useful in shaping or changing one’s perspective.

We ended up spending about 2.5 hours there, not including the time in the dining space (the wings are delicious, by the way). I think SMAAASH could be a great group trip for those who don’t mind spending a little more on the tickets that traditional entertainment. The ticket prices at the Mall are:

  • $5 per Active and Virtual Reality Game; $1 per Arcade Game, or
  • All Active & Virtual Reality Games: $28 for once; $35 Unlimited, or
  • All Arcade, Active & Virtual Reality Games: $34 for once; $40 Unlimited

I give this new arcade a 4 out of 5 stars for its innovative approach to social gaming. I reserve one star for when it lowers its ticket prices and for when the players can be even more involved in designing their own VR experience.

Agile Writing: Continuous Writing Process Improvement for Teams @ GPACW 2016

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Joe Moses and I presented at the annual Great Plains Alliance for Computers and Writing conference this year at UW-Stout, and here is our presentation abstract:

Drawing on pedagogical case studies, we explore how a common project-management framework used in industry supports learning in writing classrooms. The framework, called Agile Writing, forms a usable bridge between learning in academic settings and working in organizations. Our Agile Writing model is based on Scrum, an agile framework developed by software developers. In Agile Writing, students work in cross-functional teams in which they create both individual writing and team-written documents. Specific Agile Writing components give teams a chance to reflect on goals and achievements and to monitor progress on specific requirements and tasks. Those components enable instructors to measure individual contributions to team projects and to monitor team progress as teams pursue their goals.

We posit Agile Writing as a usable framework for instructors who have formerly rejected team learning because of challenges to measuring individual effort. In this presentation, we introduce and share our experience using Agile Writing in multiple writing studies courses––including first-year writing and senior-level technical communication courses––by referring to the empirical findings gained from surveys, participatory observations, and qualitative interviews with students in these courses. Based on our findings and classroom experience while piloting and developing Agile Writing over three semesters, we offer a set of specific guidelines for implementing Agile Writing in classrooms, including best practices involving project management technology in the writing process.

Feel free to contact us to visit further on this model.