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.

Is There a Robot in This Class? On Writing & AES

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This presentation was delivered at the 2014 Conference on College Composition and Communication in Indianapolis, IN, March 24, 2014.

Automated essay scoring (AES) is the use of specialized computer programs to assign grades to essays written in an educational setting. It is a method of educational assessment and an application of natural language processing. Its objective is to classify a large set of textual entities into a small number of discrete categories, corresponding to the possible grades—for example, the numbers 1 to 6. Therefore, it can be considered a problem of statistical classification (Wikipedia, “Automated essay scoring”).

As we know, the conversation on machine grading isn’t new. It began in 1962 with Walter Reitman’s thoughts on the possibility of machine grading at a conference on needed research of teaching English. Most historical summaries of AES trace the origins of the field to the work of Ellis Batten Page. In 1966, Page argued for the possibility of scoring essays by computer, and in 1968 he published his successful work with a program called Project Essay Grade (PEG).

Multiple-choice exams have, of course, been graded by machine for a long time, but essays are another matter. When it comes to English composition, the question of whether computer programs can reliably assess student work remains sticky. Can a computer program accurately capture the depth, beauty, structure, relevance, creativity, etc., of an essay?

Douglas Hesse writes that when it comes to the resulting problems of cost and frustration associated with traditional writing assessment, he worries more about how computer grading will negatively impact “the transferability of skills and about the cost to how students perceive writing (and the resultant cost to human culture).”

Amid the pressure many composition teachers and their institutions face in regards to the possible adoption of computer-grading programs for assessing student writing, many teachers have strong opinions – most of them disagree with the employment of grading machine in their classroom. In this pressing time, I think it is important for teachers, as well as graduate students, to understand the impact on pedagogy, process, and product that grading machines may have if they replace human readers. Hence, by providing an overview on the appeals of computer grading programs and the ongoing debates around the adoption of automated essay scoring software for assessing writing, this presentation aims to illustrate how mechanized evaluation of writing may mechanize pedagogy as well as the process to create a written, machine-directed product. I will also offer suggestions for writing instructors in handling the adoption of essay-grading programs in their classrooms.

Read the full conference paper here.

View the conference presentation here.

How are We MOOCing?

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This winter break and holidays have been an ideal time for me to work on my MA research, which focuses on power and ideological borders within MOOC interfaces. Having already written about 40% of the anticipated 15,000-word thesis essay, I find my interest and desire to learn about MOOCs grow stronger each time I come across new findings that add to current discussions.

Although there has been a tone of work and scholarship about MOOCs circulating on the Internet, researchers and graduate students are still hungry for new, solid, up-to-date findings that could validate the debates on whether this phenomenon would transform higher education, or just turn out to be another damp squib.

After some long waiting, UPenn Graduate School of Education released on Dec. 5, 2013 their initial report on a study that analyzed the movement of a million users through 16 Coursera courses offered by the University of Pennsylvania from June 2012 to June 2013. These findings were presented by Laura Perna and Alan Ruby at the MOOC Research Initiative Conference (funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) in Texas.

Emerging findings (quoted from PennGSE Press Room; emphases added):

  • Course completion rates are very low, averaging 4% across all courses and ranging from 2% to 14% depending on the course and measurement of completion.
  • Across the 16 courses, completion rates are somewhat higher, on average, for courses with lower workloads for students and fewer homework assignments (about 6% versus 2.5%).
  • Variations in completion rates based on other course characteristics (e.g., course length, availability of live chat) were not statistically significant.
  • The total number of individuals accessing a course varied considerably across courses, ranging from more than 110,000 for “Introduction to Operations Management” to about 13,000 for “Rationing and Allocating Scarce Medical Resources.”
  • Across all courses, about half of those who registered viewed at least one lecture within their selected course. The share of registrants viewing at least one lecture ranged from a low of 27% for “Rationing and Allocating Scarce Medical Resources” to a high of 68% for “Fundamentals of Pharmacology.”

Image by NYTimes.com

Prepping for NCA Convention

This summer, I was notified that my proposal to present at the coming National Communication Association annual convention has been accepted. It was a paper I developed for a mass communication research methods course last year. I must confess that I am really excited for this is my first (national) conference in the communication discipline. In the past, I have been attending local and national conferences pertaining to rhetoric, computers and composition studies; this will be a rather different context as I suppose the audience has shifted from humanists to social scientists. I am spending these couple of nights leading to the conference prepping for my presentation delivery.

Since the presentation format is an interactive scholar-to-scholar configuration, I have remediated my paper into a poster. See below:

NCA Scholar to Scholar

Please let me know if you have any suggestions to make this presentation better. Thanks!

Virtual Cocktail Party: Can Online Education Teach Social Skills?

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Those of you who have been around me probably know that my research interests revolve around digital rhetoric and online pedagogy, especially the development of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. This summer, I took a composition MOOC offered on Coursera, delivered by Georgia Tech, as part of my research in digital rhetoric. Following a phenomenological approach, my study takes into account the experience and self-consciousness of the MOOC user as a central research method to draw inferences of a writer-scholar’s engagement with MOOC interfaces.

A Confession

Towards the end of the 8-week long course, I came across an interesting incident whereby I saw the connected learning theory in practice. Several students on the Georgia Tech MOOC found it difficult to keep up with the assignments and announced their withdrawals from the MOOC via the course discussion forum. What happened next was other MOOC students started encouraging these students to endure the challenges. While some students insisted that they were not apt enough to using the technology needed to produce the assignment, there were other students in the course who offered help to these quitting students to help solve their technological challenges.

For one student, the help she received meant so much to her that she made that a part of her final assignment as a way to thank her peers for offering help to her. See video below:

As hype around MOOCs and other online open-access educational platforms becomes stronger and louder, we as writing instructors may want to pay attention not just to administrative and political concerns about online education, but to also consider how students navigate themselves in these online learning environments, including their interactions with the interface and, more importantly, with their online peers.

Before I proceed further, it is important for me to make a distinction between xMOOCs and cMOOCs.

xMOOCs: While they include discussion forums, and allow users to interact and discuss ideas, the center of learning is instructor-guided.

cMOOCs: They are simply discursive communities creating knowledge together. C stands for connectivist.

Now, xMOOCs are not better or worse than cMOOCs; they are just different. This entry focuses mainly on xMOOCs, which are offered via providers such as Coursera, EdX, Udacity, etc.

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Anti-Social MOOCs

Jennifer Morton, a philosophy professor at City College of CUNY, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education this past July about the social and behavioral competencies that students in online classes develop and don’t develop – as compared to their peers in traditional face-to-face courses. She (quite rightly) points out that MOOCs and the like present an opportunity for disadvantaged students to get a taste of higher education at a drastically reduced price, or in most cases, for free. Though the offer seems appealing, Prof. Morton identifies several reasons why students should not turn to MOOCs for serious education, and this quote sums up her argument.

A college education bestows not just cognitive skills—mathematical, historical, and scientific knowledge—but practical skills—social, emotional, and behavioral competencies. Tenacious, confident, and socially competent employees have an edge over equally cognitively talented employees who lack those practical skills. What students cannot learn online are precisely those social skills.

Prof. Morton thinks that taking a MOOC is like sitting in a large lecture hall being lectured by a professor who doesn’t know her student’s name. She argues that since higher education is supposed to be a place where students from lower-income families to learn to socialize and engage with middle-class social norms, the adoption of online education by large public university will threaten to harm the very students for whom higher education is an essential leg up into the middle class.

Because MOOC students are believed to not be able to socialize with other peers online, Prof. Morton argues that children from impoverished communities will not be able to pick up the desired social skills in the online education context. She also believes that such social skills are key competencies that would make students a “good fit” for their future workplace.

The Counter-Arguments

As a response, Prof. Robert Talbert, a mathematician at Grand Valley State University, offers a few disagreements to Prof. Morton’s arguments. What I would like to do here is to highlight some of these disagreements, pairing them with my personal observations as a MOOC student, and validate his points by providing some examples from my experience.

First, Prof. Talbert thinks that it’s a stretch to say that students “cannot” learn the types of social and behavioral competencies that Prof. Morton is talking about in an online setting. And I too agree that it’s probably more true that students who study primarily or entirely online will learn a set of social skills, but which are very different than the set traditionally developed in face-to-face education.

The video we’ve just watched serves as an example of how socialization happens within a MOOC environment. While it does not necessarily speaks for everyone who took or is taking a MOOC, the experience of the lady testifies to the notion that online socialization is key to successful learning experience. She also said in her video description that, “the kindness of strangers and a strong community in the forum” was what helped her to “muster the strength to continue on and finish the task (assignment).”

Second, Prof. Talbert compares online education to homeschooling as a kind of alternative educational setting. We, of course, cannot say that online learning students don’t develop social skills they need later in life because there are certainly many homeschooled students go on to excel in college and the workforce. Conversely, there are many traditionally schooled students who are not socially competent despite the amount of face-to-face schooling they receive.

Next, it is imperative to note that the entire category of “online education” is bigger than MOOCs alone and is a moving target. Prof .Talbert posits that it seems a little too premature to write off online education because there other models that universities are adopting to remix the online and face-to-face experiences. An example would be a flipped classroom model, where students are expected to acquire basic familiarity with new concepts before coming to class through a variety of means.

Without shifting too much of a gear, I would like to draw another disagreement against Prof. Morton’s argument, based on the notion of electronic contact zones. As we celebrate the 20-year anniversary of Cynthia and Richard Selfe’s landmark article, “Politics of the Interface,” we are reminded that contact zones can take place within online learning communities. Going back to the video example I provided at the beginning of this presentation, it is apparent that MOOC students can be socialized into different norms, but ones that are different from the kinds of norms we expect to happen in a traditional classroom. Such socialization in the online community can be just as rigorous, if not more, than what is expected of a brick-and-mortar classroom.

Implications and Strategies

What does it mean for higher education institutions and teachers? Theoretically speaking, we should not count out online educational settings as dysfunctional when it comes to student’s socialization with one another in their networks.

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Instead, we should focus on some practical steps to suggest ways students and users can make more out of their MOOC experience. This may include asking question such as this: If we cannot achieve online what a traditional, face-to-face education would call as socialization, to what extent is this a problem with technology rather than the pedagogical platform? Echoing Selfe and Selfe’s call, we should re-evaluate the kinds of borders established by the platform and the interface of computers.

In conclusion, I feel there’s no need to specify what kinds of social skills students should or shouldn’t learn in both traditional and online learning environments. In a massive learning network such as MOOCs, one can only experience what it means to socialize online once he/she has completed one or more courses. And since the standards for online education is a moving target, we cannot really devise a model for success. Rather, we should constantly seek out ways to enhance the learning experience, and challenge to erase borders that divide communities.

This entry is a digital reiteration of a presentation delivered by the author at the 2013 Great Plains Alliance for Computers and Writing at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.