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.

This Technological Life: My Technology Literacy Narrative

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Google’s Blogger, aka Blogspot, one of the blogging platform I have used in my teenage years.

In his most recent work, Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice, Douglas Eyman (2015) began his survey and critique of digital rhetoric as a field and methodological approach with his own technology literacy narrative. A variation to the traditional personal literacy narrative, the technology literacy narrative focuses on the writer’s experience with various technologies that support their acquiring of digital literacies.

As I spend more time this summer thinking about the theoretical landscape of digital rhetoric, I have decided to write my personal technology literacy narrative as I believe it might help with my understanding and locating of “digital rhetoric”––that my views and evaluation of digital rhetoric are rooted in the practices and disciplines through which I have traversed. So here goes.

My early encounters with computers happened both in school and at home. Along with other 10-year-olds, I was led into our school’s brand new computer lab back in 2000. At the turn of the millennium, Malaysia (my ancestral home) was picking up its pace in scientific and  technological development––especially within schools and governmental infrastructures––and there was a pervasive national narrative that promoted science education and computer literacy. Thanks to generous donors and state endowments, my friends and I were among the first few lucky groups of students who got to learn programs like Microsoft Paint, Kid Pix, and the Windows 97 Office suite while attending grade school. As part of the curriculum, we had about two hours each week dedicated to lessons on computer hardware and software, as well as typing and navigating the computer interface. While I don’t exactly remember much of what I did in the then-new computer lab, I cherish the memories when I “painted” abstract graphics on the computer, saved them on a 3.5” floppy diskette, and exchanged it with other classmates so we could view one another’s “artwork.”

Back at home, my parents bought our family computer soon after I turned 15, and I vividly remember how my brothers and I had spent the whole weekend figuring how to get the speakers hooked up to the CPU. We even drew up a who-gets-to-use-the-computer-when timetable so we would not fight over one another for some early versions of Solitaire. It was also then when my parents decided to get us Internet connection through a dial-up modem. Because the family phone would be disrupted when the computer is connected to the Internet, our use of the Web was quite limited. Nonetheless, it was then that I was introduced to the idea of blogging (around 2006) and I used the Web mainly for that purpose. I would write about my day in school, my feelings about the latest anime story on TV, and everything and anything that I thought someone out there might be interested in reading through my blog. In retrospect, it was since I began blogging that I developed a sentiment for writing. I was writing more than ever before and my vocabulary grew as a result. More than that, blogging also kept me reading (other blogs) and participating in a virtual community of bloggers who share common passions. I was so indulged in the act that at one point I thought I could make blogging my career. Sadly, that idea was given a pass after my teachers told me that it was not feasible. (Of course, they didn’t see Google and social media coming.)

The latter part of my technology literacy narrative wends its way into personal computing mainly for writing and communicative purposes, and then a deep dive into using the mainframe systems in college after I transferred to an American university. Before entering the second decade of the new millennium, computers were almost ubiquitous on campus. Email and online dashboards like Desire2Learn learning management system and e-Services portal were (still are, I think) regarded as “official channels of communication” between administrators, faculty members, and students. To my surprise, I became well versed in all these modes of writing and communicating rather quickly, and I was very watchful for communicative conventions and ethics across these platforms.

Continuing my studies at a comprehensive American university also gave me the opportunities to meet with people from different cultural backgrounds, education, and interests. Especially during my days in the student residential hall, where students would exchange and explore ideas in the middle of the night, play games, and share their respective interests with each other, I got to learn about computer programs and sites that I have never heard before (as most of them are popular within certain regions of the world). Although I did not get involved with computer games as much as most of my colleagues in digital and techno-rhetorics do, but I have always had a keen interest in visual display and computer programming. It might have been for this reason that I enrolled in a media studies undergraduate major with a focus in advertising and minor in psychology. Though not directly computer-related, most of my term papers share a common topic of technology and social behaviors. Upon completing my senior year, I went on to work in the madman industry for one short year, and returned to complete two master’s degrees––one in advertising and public relations, the other in rhetoric and composition, where I was first (or finally) introduced the concepts of writing and rhetorical theories.

It was through my rhetoric and composition MA program that I began to apprehend the facility of rhetoric and shifted my disciplinary identity from media studies to rhetoric. Two of the classes I took as a graduate student that made explicit the relations between the digital and the rhetorical were Matt Barton’s “Digital Rhetoric, Culture, and Discourse” and Judith Kilborn’s “Digital Rhetoric and Pedagogy” (which I completed fully online). It was then that my interests for digital rhetoric began solidifying and becoming a core of my research today.

Of Truth, truths, and Ways of Knowing

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Religions, beliefs, and worldview aside, we subscribe to different camps of epistemology. That is, we have varying methods and levels of acceptance to methods of acquiring knowledge. With the recent tragedies involving people committing lawless wrongdoings in the name of righteousness, it is simply frustrating to hear what these people deem as the only truth–and using it as justification for their transgression.

It begs the question, then, what is truth?

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I know it is oversimplistic, but there is a continuum. We need to see that there are ways to acquiring knowledge–truth–than just plain doctrine or opinion (capital-T truth). Those are not the only kind of truth. In a pluralistic society, we are constantly creating and negotiating multiple truths (lowercase-T truth). Through language and other modes of communication, we use different means to ascertain meanings. What is true to one may not always be the case for another.

A pluralist approach to understanding of truth maintains that truth requires different treatments for different kinds of subject matter. 

My aim here is not to argue for the subscription to a pluralistic view of truth, although that would make me very pleased, but the goal is to reveal that there’s underlying assumptions to how we come to know as true or not.

A quick Google Search would yield helpful definitions like these:

Objectivism: Reality exists independently of consciousness.

Positivism: All knowledge regarding matters of fact is based on the “positive” data of experience and that beyond the realm of fact is that of pure logic and pure mathematics.

Empiricism: All knowledge is derived from sense-experience.

Rationalism: Reason rather than experience is the foundation of certainty in knowledge.

Relativism: Knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.

Constructivism: People actively construct or create their own subjective representations of objective reality. New information is linked to to prior knowledge, thus mental representations are subjective.

It is important for us to examine where our conviction resides. The way to choose to acquire truth impacts how we treat truth. For what it’s worth, I just hope that those of us who seek to confess truth would examine where/what our epistemology is subscribed to, and what we can do to be more receptive of others. I am just too tired of things people to justify their iniquity, especially, “I am right because I know the truth.”

P.S. Please pardon the poor spirit in this writing. I am really saddened by the Orlando tragedy and what that has become of in the news media.