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.


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.


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.



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.


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.

Students Talk Technology: Tech Tools for College Education

Many studies have revealed that college students today arrive on their campuses with high literacy in the latest technology and mobile devices. It is not uncommon to see students walking around with their beat earphones, texting while waiting in the hallway, and snapchatting with their friends in the dining hall. Yet, in the sea of options, what educational technologies are students using to help them with their studies? In the video above, I interviewed a trio of undergraduate students at St. Cloud State University (SCSU) to quiz them on their favorite tech tools and innovations they hope to see in the future.

All that tech has caused something of a dependency, too. The following infographic reviews responses from SCSU students about their technology-using habits — ultimately showing a trend that leads to a techno-reliant generation.


Ideas/comments? Add your two cents to the comment section below!

Changing Times: Meshing Lessons and Gadgets


This column originally appeared in St. Cloud Times, Monday, March 10, 2014. 

I am among the generation of children who grew up on the Internet. My daily life revolves around different screens, from my laptop to smartphone to music player. I am addicted to instant information. And I am drawn to cultural memes that I consider funny, intuitive and expressive.

But I am also a scholar-teacher. While working on my master’s degrees, I am teaching a first-year writing course where I work closely with college students. The small talk in my classroom often hinges on celebrity gossip, new models of technology and social media. My dual role in the higher education context has informed me about what it means to be a student, as well as how to be a teacher for students of the 21st century. I find the latter part of the equation becoming more and more crucial in my professional development as technology evolves.

Paradigm shift

Most literature on education in the digital age discusses the paradigm shift of the traditional, face-to-face teaching model into network-mediated, nonlinear delivery methods. Cynthia Johnston Turner, a music professor at Cornell University, urged educators to adapt to the evolving digital culture.

“Some of us might find this concept unsettling, disturbing or even dangerous, but a paradigm shift is occurring and educators need to evolve with it,” Turner wrote in USA TODAY.

I couldn’t agree more. When I started teaching, I simply recreated what I knew about instruction from my observation as a student: I stood in front of the classroom; I lectured from my notes; and I assigned homework.

Yet during just the past few semesters, I convinced myself I was wrong. I have learned that classroom control is indeed an illusion. Students are probably just waiting for that split second when the instructor is not looking to pull out their phones.

I found myself committing the same transgression in my own graduate classes! I realized in most class sessions, I set my phone on the desk and tap it occasionally. I would scroll through Facebook feeds and check my email.

Just use the tools

Instead of seeing myself as the benevolent dictator, I wanted to change the climate of technology use in the classroom.

I now designate BYOD (bring your own device) days where students do individual and group work in class using their writing technology. During the semester, I introduce applications and software that are helpful for students’ learning management (such as note-taking and vocabulary apps). Outside class time, students can communicate with me and their peers via a closed Facebook group. I have also designed some assignments that center on issues with technology.

As a result, students are becoming more aware of their use of technology. The classroom becomes a site for students to think critically, as well as to reflect and share their experience with technology. Learning hence becomes student-centered.

Students also like their assignments more when they consider what they are working on relevant to their daily lives.

Echoing Turner’s advice, the evolutionary changes that teachers are experiencing in their classrooms today are something that needs to be recognized and respected.

On teaching in the 21st century, Turner remarked, “What can we do about it (technological innovations)? We could blow up the traditional model and start over, including putting a halt to all of the expensive building happening on campuses. Or, we could recognize the problem and start changing how we teach, day to day, class to class.”

While I am not an expert in education, my experience in the classroom has given me useful insights about teaching and learning in the 21st century. That is, we have to evolve with time and technology.

Otherwise, as Turner put it, “we may go the way of the dinosaur.”

Image Source

Top Majors at St. Cloud State


Recently, I was poking around the very-much-unseen website of the Office of Strategy, Planning and Effectiveness at SCSU and was surprised to see the 2012-13 enrollment numbers according to majors. Having been at St. Cloud State for almost half a decade now, I have always had the perception that the College of Liberal Arts and the Herberger Business School are the two largest academic units within the university in terms of total number of majors in the respective colleges.

Needless to say, I was wrong. Looking at the spreadsheets made available by the Office of Institutional Research – which provides general information about the University including admissions, student enrollment, course enrollment, major/program enrollment and awards conferred – I sorted out the top five (most-enrolled) majors at St. Cloud State University. [Note: these numbers reflect only the full year equivalent (FYE) enrollment for each college/school.]

5. Psychology (471.4)


Psychology is the scientific study of human behavior. Psychologists are interested in many different aspects of behavior, including thought, perception, feelings, learning, development, social interactions and disorders. The aim of psychology is to learn why we behave the way we do. See Department of Psychology website.

4. Communication Studies (483.1)

comm studies

The rhetorical tradition has long been considered central to a liberal education. People must communicate effectively to function well in education, business, politics, government, the community and the family. In addition to offering a variety of major and minor programs, the Communication Studies curriculum is open to all students and is designed to complement and integrate most programs of study. See Department of Communication Studies website.

3. English (611.8) – excl. ESL majors


Dedicated to the study and practice of the diverse uses of the English language in all its forms, the English Department devotes its energies and its teaching to English studies as understood in the richest sense, including: the heritage of literature written in English, the philosophy and practice of rhetoric and composition, creative writing, English education, linguistics, the methods and theories of teaching English as a second language (TESL), and, in general, the social, ethical, and psychological dimensions of language use. See Department of English website.

2. Mathematics (701) – excl. Statistics majors


Mathematics and statistics are fundamental to many areas of study and are an integral part of a university education. The department offers curriculum designed not only to enable students to pursue careers in mathematics or statistics, but also to better prepare students for careers in business, education, engineering, and the physical, life and social sciences. To participate in a technological society and a competitive global environment, graduates need a strong foundation in analytical thinking, data analysis, problem solving, and modeling. See Department of Mathematics and Statistics website.

1. Biology (712.8)


The Department of Biology offers a number of undergraduate and graduate degree programs in various sub-disciplines of biology, in addition to preparing students for entry into professional degree programs such as medicine, dentistry and physical therapy. Talented faculty and staff, dedicated to teaching and learning by doing, provide an active learning environment for students that includes laboratory and field experiences, and independent research projects guided by faculty mentors, as part of the academic curriculum. See Department of Biology website.

See respective college’s/school’s full department FYE enrollment here (PDFs):

These information are made available to the public by SCSU Office of Institutional Research. It is important to note also that the actual number of students who declared their majors are drastically different from the FYE reports, possibility due to retention and graduate rates. For instance, the top two most-declared majors in Fall 2013 are Psychology (267) and Criminal Justice (250).

Just to give us a better sense of where SCSU stands in comparison with national statistics; the top majors in the U.S. (2013), according to U.S. News & World Reports, are: (Not-ranked)

  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Biometrics
  • Forensic Science
  • Computer Game Design
  • Cybersecurity
  • Data Science
  • Business Analytics
  • Petroleum Engineering
  • Public Health
  • Robotics
  • Sustainability

So, what do you think? What is/was your major and why did you choose that major? Feel free to drop your two cents below!

The above commentaries are merely of my personal observations and do not reflect that of the Office of the Provost and Academic Affairs at SCSU.

Cover image: 2010 Orientation Group by Neil Anderson.
Psychology cover: Ryan Peter
Communication studies cover: Towson.edu
English cover: NewYorker.com
Mathematics cover: Wikimedia.org
Biology cover: Philippe Guillaume, Flickr

So You Want a Free Textbook? Try Writing Commons

WC 2014 Postcard-2

Ever since I entered higher learning, costly textbooks have been a constant contributor to my agony and frustration. As a student, I could never avoid one or two classes every semester (if I’m that lucky) for which I have to burn my wallet to buy these monstrous-sized textbooks, printed in full color, that are only used when I’m cramming for tests. So as I slowly transition into teaching, I pay close attention to the texts I assign to my classes. And when I do assign multiple textbooks for a class, I strive to make every penny worth the spend: I try my best to integrate them in class lectures, discussions, and activities, not just asking the students to read them at home.

However, there are times when I wished the texts were more up-to-date and adaptable. I would love to use a text that is regularly updated and revised for most recent content. Especially when it comes to topics of technology and current issues, the way the publishing industry operates is just not compatible with the needs of the classroom. This is why I opt for online textbooks like Writing Commons.

WC 2014 Postcard-22

On top of fresh contents, Writing Commons is free for all users. The idea of a free open text stems from the open educational resource (OER) movement, a shift from the traditional for-profit publishing into making pedagogical materials free and available over the WWW. For faculty members, we have the assurance for quality content as all submissions to Writing Commons are reviewed by a credible review board made up of honorable scholars from the field of composition studies. Read here to find out more reasons to adopt Writing Commons and what impact it has been for college writing.

I admire the efforts put in by the Writing Commons staff and would do my best to support this positive endeavor.