Innovation & Teams

At the Leonhard Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Education, the center I work for, we've run a year-long workshop series on teams. From team formation to assignment design to facilitation to assessment, we've covered dimensions of teams that we thought might be of interest to our faculty within the college. Along the way, we've tried to improve our own team performance, and I can say that as a group we do seem to be more aware of and attentive to the characteristics that foster high performance in a team.

One of our new projects for next year is a focus on innovation & creativity in engineering. The goal of that effort is the help faculty incorporate activities in their classes that challenge engineers to be more creative in their thinking. We will again be taking a multi-pronged approach to addressing these ideas, but one strategy we've settled on is a "working conference" that would include outside experts in innovation and creativity, both from within and outside of the engineering disciplines.

As a part of our planning for this event, we were all asked to come up with a list of possible participants. Even though some of our ideas are probably a little far-fetched and ambitious, it's been fun to share papers, videos and presentation slides of possible invitees with my colleagues. Somewhere along the way, a friend alerted me to the Ted Talk by Tom Wujec titled "Build a tower, build a team." I thought it was an entertaining and informative take on some of the issues involved in team dynamics, incentives, and innovative thinking. If you like it, you can check out the Ted talks of Dan Pink or Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi for related ideas about the interconnected nature of incentives, creativity & performance.
Last fall, the College of Engineering ran a pilot course with the Seoul National University in South Korea. The effort is just one part of an item in our college's strategic plan to increase global awareness with our students. Specifically, we are looking at ways we can offer "non-travel based global experiences" to our undergraduates. Why? Because it's a valued commodity with employers in our increasingly global workplace. The likelihood that our students will, at some point, work with and collaborate with peers from other cultures is high.

Why not just have everyone travel abroad? That's a fine idea, and around 40% of incoming students voice some expectation of going abroad during their college years. How many actually do it? The number is closer to 2%. There are a host of reasons for this: expense; falling behind on degree plans; work and family obligations. You get the idea.

As I've mentioned here previously, the pilot course involved a graduate class in industrial design. My involvement was to vet and recommend a technology platform that would allow small groups to work together from thousands of miles away and with a significant time-zone difference.

There are many interesting aspects to the survey results, but the ones most relevant for my role in all of this was how well the collaborative platform was received. And in this case, it was not received all that well. As mentioned in a previous post, the students had the option of using the Wiggio platform for their team assignments. Support materials were provided, and I have a 30 minute overview of the available toolset.

Basically, the survey findings indicated that the students did not perceive any advantage in using Wiggio over email as a means for communication. The question stems in this case where "Wiggio/Email is an effective way to communicate about the group project":


Because of the nature of my job, I'm used to both successes and failures in pilot projects. In fact, I think there's a real danger to rooting for something to be a success; there's always the chance that one could lose objectivity and not assess results with a clear head. It's also the nature of pilots and experimentation that some things work better than others. That said, I don't want to introduce confusion into students' lives by offering them something for which they don't see a value.

There are some interesting methodological issues with these questions as well. For example, Wiggio includes email as a part of its communication offerings. So essentially the question is asking students to compare the utility of A & B, but B includes A. The other thing that strikes me is that there was a bias against the new technology before the students even heard about it; the "pre" survey was administered before Wiggio was introduced to the class. With that in mind, I think some of the lessons learned from the experience are to frame the technology in a more relevant way, and to introduce a platform like Wiggio with a fleshed-out example use case.

There are some very interesting findings from the class regarding intercultural communications, cultural awareness, and anxiety that I won't get into now, but in many ways they were the most important info we collected. I have no expertise in these areas, so I'd feel a bit uncomfortable discussing them, but suffice to say that Penn State students see things in a drastically different way than their peers from Seoul National.

We're hoping to give this course another go soon, this time relying on the Google Apps for Education platform. Should be informative to compare results and see what differences emerge.

I spent last week in Austin, TX at the Educause Learning Initiative annual meeting. The overall quality of the conference sessions I attended was high, and I was impressed with the between-session conversations that I found myself participating in; lots of passion directed toward the integration of technology for teaching, but there seemed to be more awareness of integration and scale issues. Reports on conferences have never been my favorite posts to write. Often they end up too long and all over the place. So I'm going to focus on four sessions that I attended and thought highly of instead of trying to capture thoughts about the conference overall.

The first session that made an impression on me was centered around a project at the University of Virginia called SHANTI at the University of Virginia. Basically, SHANTI is a project to examine the deployment of technology in the humanities, social sciences & arts. Efforts are targeted at teaching, research, and community-building. As a part of their efforts, the SHANTI team has deployed a collection of tools for general use. 

The basic tool-set SHANTI employs:
  • WordPress for blogging & web page creation
  • Confluence Wiki for collaborative writing
  • NowComment for the ability to annotate by line of text. Students can then engage with one another in discussing the particular sections of text.
  • Zotero for personal & shared bibliographic info
  • Kaltura for management & delivery of rich media
Of perhaps greater importance than the provision of tools is SHANTI's involvement in curricular efforts: the presenter detailed plans to create a digital humanities undergraduate minor as a part of their efforts. This kind of multi-pronged approach seems more difficult to manage in many ways compared to a tech tool roll-out, but the potential benefits seem likely to be worth the effort. Tackling curricular issues necessitates the involvement of administration & faculty, and offering those communities a role as a stakeholder in a technology effort feel to me like the right way to manage things. It's a different model than "build something and hope for the best," and the relationships that may develop could pay continuing dividends long down the road.

Cross-National Course Update

The Kansei engineering course that I mentioned last time is underway in earnest now, and the groups have begun collaborating using the Wiggio platform as a basis for their work. I gave a presentation to the class a few weeks back to go over the features of the tool set, and the students had excellent questions.


One interesting thing was that the Friday before my presentation to class Wiggio updated their services to add a whole slate of new features: shared whiteboard, video conferencing (for up to 10 users), and screen-sharing, all within their "virtual meeting" space. In short, they've added many of the features of tools like Abobe Connect, while still retaining the rest of their asynchronous tools (collaborative document editing, threaded discussion, group surveys, and shared calendaring). In my mind, it all makes for an ideal mix of low-entry synchronous and asynchronous collaboration tools.

It's been exciting to watch the group activity from the sidelines. As expected, some of the groups are using it heavily, and some not much at all. And in what might be interpreted as a testament to the ease of use for Wiggio, I have been contacted by two students out of 37 with questions. Both of those had to do with forgotten passwords. Nobody has had a question about the use of actual features to this point, which I am very surprised about. No doubt the questions will eventually start rolling in, but so far it's been smooth sailing.

New International Project

Teams and team dynamics are topics of increasing interest in the College of Engineering. 'Improving student teams' is the basis for our faculty development workshops for the academic year 09/10, and we'll be hosting speakers (both internal and external to the college) on a range of topics from team formation, to international awareness, to technologies that support distributed/virtual team efforts. Much of the impetus for our emphasis on teams comes from feedback from accreditation groups, but there is also an increasing demand from employers that students have some experience working in groups that may have members all around the world.

So with that in mind, I'm excited about a new project that I'll be helping out with this fall: we are working with the industrial engineering department to run a cross-national graduate course on Kansei engineering in collaboration with Seoul National University in South Korea.

Originating in Japan and popular in Korea, Kansei engineering is an approach that considers human feeling & relationships into design elements. The course will be co-taught by faculty from both institutions, and enrolls approximately 40 students (20 from each institution). Students will attend a synchronous meeting twice a week; Penn State students will attend class in person, and their peers in Seoul will participate via two-way video.  Cross-cultural communication issues will also be important to navigate, so the professors for the course have recruited colleagues from the College of Communications to assist them in preparing the students for the challenges ahead. Group dynamics vary widely by culture, and addressing these issues will be essential due to the potential stress that working in a distributed team may cause.

As a part of the course assignments, students will be grouped into cross-national teams and asked to complete two projects: an analysis of a design case, and the early design of a product. Because of the team project element and the barriers presented by time & space, the teams will need to rely on a collaborative tool set to successfully complete their work. After an evaluation of available tools, I recommended a web application called Wiggio as a collaborative platform. Wiggio offers functionality that the teams would need while offering a product with a relatively low barrier for entry, which we felt was especially important given the language differences involved. Groups within the ANGEL course management system could provide some of the features that were required, but not all. Adobe Connect was considered, but I felt it was important to find something that would provide support for both synchronous & asynchronous work. In addition, I find the learning curve for running meetings in Connect to be somewhat steep (though attending a meeting is very simple). Some of the other contenders (Huddle, GroupTable, Google Apps Team Edition, etc) offered great tools, but were perhaps more than this class demanded and thus were a better fit for more complex projects or larger teams.

I see this class as a great opportunity to investigate a whole slate of issues: distributed work team effectiveness; considerations for global/cross-national collaboration; what kinds of features a collaborative tool set should include, and why; and how well the various technologies support not only effective project work, but also a sense of class community.
The Department of Education released a report a while back that detailed a meta-analysis of 51 research studies related to online education (PDF here). It's a good report, and one that contains some surprising information regarding the use of media in online courses, "discovery learning" approaches, and online quizzes. There's a lot more in there, too. It's a little lengthy (90 pages), but the executive summary gets to most of the main points.

Aside from the topic's relevance to my work, the other reason the report is of interest to me is because it culls research studies and uses only random-assignment or controlled quasi-experimental design papers in its meta-analysis. One of the things I wish were different in the ID/Ed Tech fields is the nature of research. The over-reliance on case studies (or "descriptive reports" as they are categorized by the Education Resources Information Center) is continually disappointing to me. It communicates a lack of methodological rigor when compared to other research disciplines. Even when there is an actual research component in published studies, the majority rely heavily (or exclusively) on self-reported data from students. Case studies and satisfaction surveys certainly have their value, but it's frustrating that these relatively weak methodological approaches are so prevalent.

As an applied person, I rely on quality research for vetting approaches & strategies when planning an instructional effort. The DOE report is an example of what I'd like to be relying on: evidence-based practices, not narratives about pilot initiatives or reports about what students liked or did not like. I understand that learning outcomes are difficult & time-consuming to collect, but it seems to me that the field in general would benefit from a move toward a more scientifically rigorous approach to research.    

In the Service of Education


I am a big fan of Science Friday on NPR. If I can't manage to listen to it live, I make a point to catch the podcast. Ira Flatow is a great talk show host; he is conversant enough in the topic at hand, and gives his guest the room necessary to provide insightful contributions to the discussion. The topics covered are very broad, and almost always focus on subject matter about which I know nothing. So the opportunity to learn something new is very high, and the chance that I will enjoy the process is high as well.

Last Friday, there was a great conversation called "the art of the Natural History Museum." Basically, the discussion was all about how to present the natural world to museum patrons in the form of exhibits. This process is basically a long collaboration between scientists & artists in navigating how to create pieces that are accurate & engaging, all within the constraints of time and budgets.

For me, the parallels with instructional design came early in the discussion. As I listened to a paleo-anthropologist describe his process of working with an artist, he sounded very much like a faculty member concerned with getting things right. At the same time, the artist scrambles to learn enough about the subject to be effective and keep up, much like those of us involved in course development often do.

Not surprisingly, I found myself attenuating more to the artist's comments. One in particular resonated with me. When asked about his work within the larger wold of art, he stated that his job was to create art in the service of science. It was fundamentally different from expressive art, and that perspective changed how he worked. He has to be more amenable to criticism, and be willing to set aside some amount of creative impulse because his role is to support scientific accuracy.

It was a statement that I felt really summarizes by feelings toward technology for instruction. To paraphrase the artist, I see the appropriate approach to be one of technology in the service of education. Much like artist's techniques, it's necessary to stay abreast of new tools to accomplish this end to the best of our ability. But it is fundamentally different from developing technology for its own sake.

Anyway, give it a listen if you get a chance. There's also an exchange about some prestiges museums not wanting to incorporate animatronics into their exhibits because they have doubts that these technologies contribute anything to the learner experience. That had some echos in conversations I hear on the job as well, but that will have to wait for another post.  

Reboot Attempt #2

control alt delete pillows.

Ok, so my last try at regular blogging fell short after a brief period of activity. This time around, I'm going to shoot for shorter posts and see if it takes.

I have to say, this process of trying to find the right balance to keep me blogging is pretty interesting; reminds me of tweaking recipes.

Image from DiffractionFiber ETSY store.

Requesting vs. Requiring

As I've mentioned previously, we've deployed student peer voting in our Ethics & Design of Technology course (now in its second iteration this semester). One of the issues that we were most worried about with students voting and commenting on their peers' blogs in the was how we should frame the community aspects. In other words, should we explicitly tell students that they are required to vote and comment on the work of their fellow students? After all, we are already requiring them to blog in the first place, so perhaps the best play would be to make them provide feedback as well.

I was (and still am) against the notion of forcing students to interact on our course hub, though I did harbor some concern that they would simply choose not to participate. The alternative, though, is that required comments can result in very surface-level responses that are essentially useless in a course centered on ethics. Because the conversation is so essential to developing an awareness of ethics, terse & trivial responses don't bring much. Again, this is my opinion, but I see much more value in students challenging one another's perspectives & negotiating an understanding of moral dimensions.

In the end, we went the route of compromise: we asked them to participate and informed them that their activity on the course hub wound be considered as a part of their umbrella "participation" score (along with attendance & in-class participation). The main framing ended up being an appeal to their own best interests, as an active course hub with lots of conversation would only help them to develop their moral judgment & ask them to defend positions. To be sure, though, there was not an mandate that all students must participate, or comment/vote a certain number of times per week, etc.

Eight weeks into the semester, I think the resultant activity level is fairly good. It's certainly a fact that not every student is voting and commenting, but I never believed that would be the case even if it had been required. But most are; as of today, 24 out of the 28 are participating. I count that as a success up to this point, and an argument for explaining the value of something to students instead of explicitly requiring it as a part of their responsibilities as a member of the class. 

Regardless, I would be curious to see any research regarding this issue if anyone knows of studies that look at these issues. I'd be particularly interested in any discussion of the relative quality of contributions vis a vis required & optional. I honestly don't know which choice is "better;" there are clearly advantages to both approaches, and I'd venture that my view on this issue would be different if the nature of the class centered more on facts & less on judgement.
I've been working on my assigned project with the college of engineering for a year now, and over the holiday break I took some time to sit down to assess how I thought things had gone. As is often the case with projects, a look back over email exchanges and calendars shows most of my time spent on unforeseen issues. A significant amount of time was spent on ideas that did not pan out, but that's fine given the exploratory nature of my project; we know we won't get all of it right, and useful data collection is possible from the successes and failures.

What struck me most in reflecting on the year is how much of a struggle it was (and continues to be) to control such a dispersed project. Our courses are delivered via video conference to 4 campuses. We have students working on cross-campus teams to create video documentaries as the primary assessment piece for the class. Because of the way the class is listed, it's necessary to deal with each campus registrar individually to make sure the course is on the books. Once it's on the books, it has to be listed correctly; for example this year one of the campuses listed our course as "Web" with no room info or time. So logically the students who enrolled thought it was a totally online course.

I've touted the book "Results Without Authority" for a couple of years now, but in the past I had seen it as a resource for some good ideas. Given the complexity of the project, the approaches in the book have now become essential to my work. In short, the book details how to control (or steer) a project using three aspects:
  1. Processes
  2. Influence
  3. Metrics
I plan to get into these ideas in more depth in future posts (I have been assigned a new class to develop for the summer, and thought it might be an interesting exercise to detail the design decisions for that class as I go along). For the moment, the book resonates with me because it acknowledges the realities of projects and the limits of one's own personal control over some aspects of said project. To me this is not an admission of defeat as much as it is a nod to how projects actually unfold. In short, I plan on devoting time and energy developing competencies that can help steer my projects, even though my level of formal influence might not change much. In doing to, I hope to become a more effective advocate for what I view as the correct path when the time comes to make critical decisions.