Designing for Democracy in Education

This reading critique was written by Monet Spells for Educational Technology (CS 6460, Fall 2014) at Georgia Tech. I could not find a public copy of the article to link to online, so I linked to the authors’ respective websites.

Designing for Democracy in Education: Participatory Design and the Learning Sciences
by Betsy DiSalvo and Carl DiSalvo

This paper establishes the importance of participatory design in the learning sciences by outlining the challenges, current uses, and potential impact. Participatory design creates opportunities to uncover self-motivations, identities, and interests in the participating parties. It constructs meaningful engagements by encouraging participants to co-create learning environments that meet the needs for the whole community engaged in the learning practice. This concept is fundamentally different from traditional classroom environments, in which teachers develop a curriculum without learning their students’ interests and self-motivations.

The concept of democratic participatory design research is interesting in it’s divergence from standard research methods. The traditional learning sciences approach is to formulate research and learning goals around the researcher’s passions, interests, and directives. Participatory design challenges that idea and instead tasks the community with establishing a dialogue and setting the agenda. As the authors confirm, participatory design is beneficial to researchers, though I’d be interested to understand how the learning sciences community welcomes research of this method. For example, if another researcher conducted the same participatory design study, their results would be fundamentally different depending on the community and contributors involved in their study. Is participatory design too nebulous a research process or is it identifying the need for new research methodologies?

The authors claim that in order for community based research to be successful there must be a long-term commitment. During this commitment period, there must be goal setting and co-designing opportunities with the community to establish a trusting relationship. I am curious how the authors are defining long term in this scenario. Is it implied that in order to do effective participatory design work, there must be a substantial relationship between the educators and the students that is developed over a long period of time? Is the definition of “long-term” arbitrary and solely dependent on the nature of the relationship (e.g., test-prep tutors, mentors, teachers)? How does this claim include programs such as Teach For America where adults commit to a few years of service in a community? Do systems like Teach For America provide an effective structure for beneficial education and opportunities for participatory design?

Business Case for UX

This writing assignment supporting the business case for user experience, written by Monet Spells for Professional Preparation & Practice seminar (CS 6753, Fall 2014) at Georgia Tech. This writing is based on an article published on First Round, Review.

How Design Thinking Transformed AirBnB from a
Failing Startup to a Billion Dollar Business

Early stage start-ups grow small metric numbers into bigger numbers and, by definition, developing and “start up” a product to be successful. This is a fascinating concept and allows for seemingly small decisions and changes to directly correlate to metric changes without the complex factors of large corporation success. The story of AirBnB, a community marketplace facilitating home rentals, is an example of small strokes creating big waves, as the company utilized user experience concepts to double their weekly revenue and increase customer engagement by over 30%.

AirBnB, founded in 2008 by Brian Chesky, Nathan Blecharchzy, and Joe Gebbia, was generating a mere $200 per week in revenue in their early stages. In 2009, on the brink of potential failure, the founders assessed the AirBnB listings in New York. Looking at their product objectively, they noticed that listing photos were of poor quality – there was a problem with the way hosts were “selling” their homes and the AirBnB product. Their solution: fly to New York and take professional grade photos of the listings to increase aesthetic appeal, thereby increasing the perceived value for customers. AirBnB addressed head-on that the perceived value of the product influences, potentially positively or negatively, customers’ buying practices. The solution was working; the weekly revenue doubled to $400 per week, “the first financial improvement that the company had seen in over eight months”.

Years later, AirBnB established a rule that new developers ship changes to production on their first day. This keeps ideas flowing and proves that good decisions come from anywhere. A first-day employee recognized that favorite-stars were “the kind of things you see in utility driven experiences” and suggests a heart icon instead. The result: increased customer engagement by over 30%. In this instance, the employee recognized the way customers would perceive the icon and by putting users at the forefront, recognized a heart was more appropriate.

In order to make substantial success, products need to be user-centered, reflecting user needs, satisfying user wants, and addressing user insecurities. AirBnB continues to engage and understand their customers to fully grasp their problems and present solutions customers will appreciate. This ideology permeates throughout the company, as a user-centered approach to computing, marketing, and product development. New employees travel and stay in an AirBnB rental to understand the customer experience. Team members hypothesize the success of features to encourage “measure[d], productive risks on behalf of the company that can lead to the development of major new features”. While the article drew no clear connection between these instances of user experience concepts and business or revenue benefits, AirBnB is currently a billion dollar company. Let’s just say they’re doing something right.

Learner-Centered Design

This reading critique was written by Monet Spells for Educational Technology (CS 6460, Fall 2014) at Georgia Tech.

Learner-Centered Design: The Challenge for HCI in the 21st Century
by Elliot Soloway, Kenneth E. Hays, Mark J. Guzdial

The authors of this article are simultaneously optimistic and critical of the next shift in HCI and technological development. They encourage a shift away from user-centered design, where users exist in the center of tools, tasks, and interfaces, and towards a learner-centered design, where learners exist in the center and their special needs are addressed. In the end, they question the distinction between users and learners, asking if there is a substantive distinction to be made. I believe there is a fluid line between users and learners, as context, intent, and environment are crucial in developing software for both groups.

In the article, the authors posed thoughtful questions that address the challenges of realizing scaffolding in software. Some questions (e.g., “How can we ensure the effectiveness of such software-realized scaffolding?”) are potentially irrelevant with today’s technological advances. For example, there are chess robots that learn and improve while playing with both novice and master players. This technology implies that software can be adaptive in understanding the best methods to scaffold and then remove those supports. The adaptive and unbiased nature of software can be a great benefit and can be used to teach individual students complex topics, without slowing the classroom pace.

The article was forward thinking in nature, looking to the next generation of HCI to validate their thoughts and claims. They did, however, have a pessimistic view of students as both lazy and unmotivated, making the push to support these learners with technology difficult to buy into. The authors aren’t addressing the learning methods (e.g., skill and drill, classroom structure, etc) as obstacles that make students lose interest; instead they’re declaring that students are perpetually disinterested in learning but should be addressed identically to motivated professionals.

The authors identify the challenge of HCI as supporting individuals and groups of individuals in developing their expertise, to make people smarter. This is an interesting concept. Today, smarter may be perceived as thinking less, being more resourceful, and trusting technology, with technology so deeply integrated into our lives and simplifying the minute tasks. People are developing technological fluency at an early age and becoming experts in basic computer functions, setting the foundation to learn other things (e.g., math, science, physics) using software because the medium is more familiar than traditional resources (e.g., physical encyclopedias, finding books using Dewey Decimal System). Is this something the HCI generation of the 21st century has fully grasped and taken advantage of? Can we then rely on technical fluency at an early age and introduce more advanced software in primary school education?

Learner-Centered Design: The Challenge for HCI in the 21st Century was published in Magazine Interactions Volume 1, Issue 2, April 1994, pages 36-48.

Pianos Not Stereos

This reading critique was written by Monet Spells for Educational Technology (CS 6460, Fall 2014) at Georgia Tech.

Pianos not Stereos: Creating Computational Construction Kits
by Mitchel Resnick, Amy Bruckman, and Fred Martin

This article focused on personal and epistemological connections as two valuable constructional-design principles for computational construction kits. Construction kits and activities can engage students on a personal level by connecting with the familiar, such as a student’s interests and experiences, for a personal connection. Alternatively, construction kits can tap into important domains of knowledge to encourage new ways of thinking, for an epistemological connection. In the most effective kits and activities, students are simultaneously engaging in both connections.

Before reading the article, I reflected on the argument that children should play outside instead of watch television. When children play outside, they are creators, using their imaginations to build situations, solve problems, and establish the rules for their imaginary world. When children watch television, they are consumers working to understand the situations, conflicts, and rules of the program. The article supports the basis of this argument. The authors claim that teaching a student an instrument is invaluable for them to become a creator and apply the knowledge to other areas. On the other hand, teaching a student to play a stereo makes them a consumer and doesn’t directly promote their ability to develop a more complex or deep knowledge base. The key in both of these scenarios is to provide fundamental knowledge that students can continue to build upon.

The article explains the value of students exploring topics and solving problems based on their interest level. In the examples of MOOSE Crossing and StarLogo, students were genuinely excited to solve the problems and immediately rewarded when they succeeded in finding solutions. The value here is the teacher’s ability to harness student excitement and accelerate the rate at which they learn. To what extent can educators use this model to engage and excite students? What is the line between letting students define the scope of their problems based on their interests, and ensuring they grasp the correct knowledge? For example, if students were able to pick an article of their choice to critique each week, how would the instructor ensure that the class is learning at the same rate and obtaining the correct knowledge? Can the constructional-design principles only be applied once students have the correct educational foundation?

Learning and Transfer + How Children Learn

This reading critique was written by Monet Spells for Educational Technology (CS 6460, Fall 2014) at Georgia Tech.

How People Learn
Chapter 3 – Learning and Transfer & Chapter 4 – How Children Learn

These chapters cover the different processes of student transfer and the biological ways in which babies and toddlers learn. I particularly enjoyed the covert connections drawn between child learning and expert thinking. For example, children cluster information into meaningful units to remember it, similar to the way experts organize their knowledge about a subject (as established in Chapter 2, How Experts Differ from Novices).

These chapters introduce an interesting perspective about motivation and education. Chapter 3 discusses motivation as a contributing factor to how much time people are willing to devote to learning if the subject presents the right level of challenge. Chapter 4 reinforces this idea with studies of newborn and early developmental learning confirming that babies learn the rules of movement, object contact, and basic counting, but lose interest once they habituate. Babies are motivated to learn, solve problems, and develop competence for humanistic reasons (survival, adaptability, and growth) and students are motivated to learn because they are performance or learning-oriented. As students grow, their reasons for learning change but the act of gaining knowledge is an innate human sense.

For the first time in How People Learn, the authors discussed cultural practices as influencers in a student’s education. Chapter 3 reinforced the importance of accumulative knowledge and Chapter 4 explored the early development of accumulative knowledge. These are consistent themes throughout the book and positively established as an essential factor in the classroom. In the first cultural example, a teacher introduced fractions with a discussion about Thanksgiving and sharing pumpkin pie with family. In this situation, an African American student couldn’t conceptualize a pumpkin pie (his family ate sweet potato pie) and instead of thinking about fractions was concerned with the taste, look, and texture of a pumpkin pie. This is an example of varying understanding of common knowledge, as the teacher’s idea of a common metaphor is not what her students know or understand.

The cultural practice discussion continues with an overgeneralized and insufficiently explained or supported reference to oral styles. First, the assumption that white or African American teachers would make different judgments based on student oral styles eliminates the teacher’s pedagogical knowledge that would lead teachers to make objective decisions about a student’s aptitude. Second, the book has unanimously referred to prior knowledge that students enter the classroom with as accumulative knowledge that the teacher should take the time to recognize, understand, and incorporate into learning. However, discussing topic-associative and topic-centered oral styles is the first instance of accumulative knowledge being portrayed as a deficit and cause for teachers to assume their students have less potential for learning. If oral styles are consistent with cultures and communities in the United States, it seems that they should be treated as individual dialects or languages. Instead of a teacher making a sweeping judgment about their students, it would seem more productive to work with students to develop a metacognitive awareness of the cultural dialect (and it’s appropriate uses) versus the dominant dialect.