New Web site!

New Web siteWe have a lot of variety in our work here at the Cyberlab, and we talk about it with visiting researchers, VIPS, and parter universities multiple times a week. Those specific conversations bring us a lot of projects and collaborations, but how do you cram hundreds of unique conversations about your work into one place so that the rest of the world knows what you do? If you are living in a far flung future filled with advanced technologies, you would clone yourself of course. However, in the here and now we have web sites…and we all need and desire an amazing web site that expresses the evocative and innovative nature of our work in a melange of medias allowing potential partners to understand the scope of our project at a glance – and finally we have one of those!  We owe a huge thanks to Lisa Gray at Gray’s Web Design and Nancy Steinberg for bringing the complexity of our research and R&D work into the light. Take a look!

 

More on Dialogic Research

By Shawn Rowe

For the past couple of posts, I’ve written about trying to the take the work of Mikhail Bakhtin seriously in designing and carrying out learning research. I wrote about the need for the voice of the researcher to enter into real dialogue with the voices of learners, and I wrote about the need to include learners as co-authors in research about their experiences. Bakthin’s account of dialogicality holds another important lesson for social sciences and study of human activity. Namely, the meanings of what people say (and by extension do) are never completely part of what they say and do. That is, we can’t unpack the meaning of an utterance or a gesture or a thinking routine by focusing on the utterance, action or routine itself. This is because everything we say or do responds to something someone or something else said or did and because it anticipates some response from the world or other people. As a result, the meaning can’t be found in the isolated words or actions themselves. It resides (or perhaps emerges is a better word) instead in the dialogue itself – the utterance-anticipated response-response-utterance or action-anticipated result-result-action sequence.

The meaning of any given element of that chain for the actors involved as well as for the observer can’t be isolated to any one of the elements. To understand the sense or meaning of these actions and utterances, we as analysts have to see them in their whole dialogic context. If as a researcher all you care about is the end state or result of what people say and do, then you an afford to ignore the rest of the chain of meaning. This is, in fact, what many learning researchers do – focus on end results alone rather than developmental sequences. Such approaches are the result of product-based research and design practices seeking to engineer better products (i.e., learners who know more, can do more, or believes the right things).

A researcher who is interested instead in either the processes that lead to learning and development as a clue to supporting it or who is interested in illuminating the meanings of what people say and do and how these meanings are shaped and constrained by the contexts we live in, then that researcher can’t ignore the chain of activity from which meaning emerges.

Cyberlab: will it change the way we do research?

I am so excited to write this blog today and talk about a groundbreaking event Cyberlab is hosting this week. Believe it or not, it all started with my fascination for a reality TV show called project runway, where fashion designers are thrown into a fast paced design competition through a series of timed challenges. I asked myself the question “can we do something similar and fun involving research challenges that can jump start the use of Cyberlab tools as an open source and create a community of users?” Well it turns out I asked that question out loud and the Cyberlab team’s answer was a big fat YES!

We brought six informal learning researchers/evaluators from various institutions here in the US and in Brazil as participants. They will work in teams in a set of four timed data collection challenges designed to be fun and fast paced and to break into our Cyberlab system for creative and innovative use. We also invited a panel of judges to help them through the challenges and evaluate their performance. We are hoping to promote lots of collaboration among the participants, to generate future projects including Cyberlab tools and to start a community of users that can really change the ways we do informal learning research.

This will be either an epic fail or a wonderful success. Either way we are committed to have fun this week, to share the capacity we have built for Cyberlab use and to learn a ton with these brave researchers who accepted to go on this adventure with us. We are making it work! Doing it fast! And having fun along the way.

Check our website for more detailed information: http://oregonseagrantcybelaboratory.evolero.com/ignite-research-challenge/

If you are around and curious, come check out the participants’ final presentation on Friday, Aug 28th at the Hatfield Marine Science Center Auditorium. We will be starting at 9:30 am and wrapping a week of challenges and fun discoveries. Help us ignite Cyberlab research and change the way we do informal learning research!

Here’s Looking at You!

So, since I never really talked much about what I was actually doing in grad school, while I was there, I decided to write this month’s blog post about my research. There is probably some irony here, but I can’t really explain it- just be excited that this post might actually show that I have done some real, academic work during the last five years.

What I want to talk about today, is one of the data collection tools I used, and why. During the time when I was still figuring out what I was going to do, beyond my grand scheme of “exploring a Maker experience with early adolescents”, I was lucky enough to get to spend hours in the car with my colleague and cohort member, Deb Bailey (now Dr. Deb Bailey!). Deb’s research interest has some parallels to mine- she explored how participation in gardening programs affected older adolescents, and we both work on the SYNERGIES project, so had time to talk about our ideas as we commuted up to the Portland area for conducting interviews and such. Deb was going to use Personal Meaning Maps with her youth, and the more we talked about it, the more I felt that they would be the perfect tool for my work too.

If you are unfamiliar with this tool, it was developed by John Falk and some of his colleagues and used in a number of studies based in museums. At first glance, it looks like a mind map or concept map. You have a piece of paper (although I guess this could all be done in iPads if you are tech savvy) with a prompt in the middle and have the participants write down words or phrases that refer to what they know, think, or believe about that topic. The next part is what was interesting to me- you interview the participant about what they have written, using their language. This appealed to me as a way to minimize my biases in the interviews.

You administer this activity twice, ideally as a pre-/post- experience, doing the interview twice too. In their second pass, they can add, remove, or change whatever they want about the initial artifact. And this was another important factor for me. The Personal Meaning Map would pretty accurately track the changes that each individual went through as a result of the experience they were participating in, rather than track them against some predetermined end point. As a former Montessorian, where the mantra is “follow the child”, this ability to see where each youth started and ended in such an individualized way fit perfectly with my beliefs about respecting each learner and where they might happen to be on their learning journey.

Then, this tool, which can look deceptively simple, can be analyzed along a number of dimensions- extent, breadth, depth, emotional intensity, and mastery. For someone vested in a mixed-methods study, this ability to have some measurable, quantitative data was a boon! Further, I supplemented these dimensions by examining changes in use of personal pronouns by the youth, and this tool was a perfect artifact to gather that data also.

You never know when inspiration will hit. As Deb and I passed the time during our car rides, really just filling the time, of course talk about our research ideas would come up- as it was consuming a lot of our lives. But, if I had not been “stuck” in the car for hours, talking to my intelligent and industrious friend, I might not have learned as much about this interesting tool, and my research would have been the weaker without it….. Serendipity comes in all sorts of interesting moments!

You can call me Wyld, Dr. Wyld

Well- I seem to have done it! I successfully defended my dissertation last week and passed unanimously! I don’t know if that is unusual or not, but it still feels good. Of course there were some minor revisions suggested by a few committee members, but that seems to be par for the course, in our department at least. It has been a long haul, and while I have enjoyed it overall and have met some truly lovely people, I am ready to find out what the next chapter of my life holds.

However, I wanted to take some time to give advice to others on this path. Hence, my Dissertation Survival Guide. Before I start, I will admit that I never bothered to read any of these types of lists while I was in the process myself. However, it has come up in conversation a few times, so I thought It would be worth sharing my thoughts, now that I have survived this journey, relatively sound of mind and body.

1.) Put on real clothes every day. This may or may not be important to you, but to feel like a “real” grown-up during this process, I had to look the part, to some extent. I am not advocating that you dress like you are going to a professional office every day, but I do recommend not spending more time in your pajamas than is healthy for you.

2.) Keep a routine. This was vital for me. After being a parent and teacher for most of my adult life, I was used to being responsible to and for other people. I started grad school when my children were finishing up high school, so my role was already shifting, and as a GRA, my work was flexible and somewhat sporadic, so it could have been easy to fall into a slacker lifestyle. (as a former Austinite, I can use that word with pride!) So, I still got up every day and worked out, did my house chores, and spent time “working” pretty much every day, Monday-Friday. I am a list maker, and I would make lists before I went to bed to come up with tasks to accomplish the next day, be they for my paid work, my own research, or other grad school related activities. I was afraid if I started going to movies or such during the day that this less structured lifestyle would suck me into some kind of unproductive vortex and I would linger in grad school for more years than was reasonable.

3.) Set goals. This is related to my lists. I would stay on top of reading in the field, applying to present at conferences I cared about, and I took more classes than necessary- but I did like that part of grad school. I enjoy learning!

4.) At some point, you just have to sit your booty down and write. This one took me awhile to figure out. I knew I would have to start making progress on my dissertation if I was going to finish this Spring, even though I had not gotten my IRB approval yet. But it was hard to move forward. My motivation came in the form of a fellow grad student, Elese Washines’ Facebook post. In early January, she posted her resolution to start writing an hour a day. While this is not a novel idea by any stretch of the imagination, it was all I needed to get started. So, in solidarity, I messaged Elese and asked her if she wanted to be my “accountability buddy” and that I would start writing too, and we would text each other our progress.

5.) Build your stamina. When I actually started writing the dissertation itself, I started out writing for an hour a day, four days a week. Then I based it on a daily word count. Over time, I built up the amount of time I would spend writing, and by the end, could write for hours at a time. This was useful when it came to the last push to finish on time and I would spend the whole day at my computer! My marathon analogy from previous posts has proven to be useful in so many ways!

6.) While I didn’t know it would be so useful, having an accountability buddy was important. Just texting Elese a few times a week kept me more honest about sticking to a writing routine. Being a commuter student meant I didn’t have access to meet my friends for writing sessions, so this virtual way of connecting was just enough to motivate me. Find someone, preferably who understands what you are going through and commit to each other!
7.) Lastly, I do not know if it was a coincidence or not, but I started a regular yoga practice the same week I started this PhD program five years ago. Not having a full time job, and now having a much more flexible schedule, meant I could structure my day around when there were yoga classes I could attend. It may not be the answer for everyone, but I felt calmer than the occasion often called for, and I do credit yoga for helping me stay more mellow and in the moment through all of my grad school process.

I don’t know if any of this will be helpful to you, but it worked for me. If you are in this process, I wish you the best of luck. Stick with it, because being on the other side FEELS AMAZING!

You are never too old…

So, I have a follow up to my last post about my foray into Making. Let’s return to the scene when I had gone back to the site of the first workshop I had fled, where I eventually tried my hand at Scratch and the cute, little Bee Bot. I previously mentioned that I spent some time just tinkering with the Bee Bot. I didn’t see any directions, but jumped in anyway and tried to figure it out. I did get some “peer to peer” mentoring from someone else who stopped by while I was exploring, and I was quite content to just play with figuring out how to program it to take different paths. It is a fairly simple robot, as far as robots go. It has four arrows on its’ back, in the four cardinal directions, with a “go” button in the center of those. From searching the internet, I found out that there are two more buttons, “clear” and “pause”, however, on the one I was using, those words were rubbed off, or it was an older version that had some other symbols instead of the words that were not intuitive to me. To program it, you touch an arrow the number of times you want it to go in that direction, building a sequence, and then press “go”.

There I was, on the floor, by myself, fairly happily trying to make it go in different directions and different shapes. In one of these iterations, I had it turn left and travel off the mat on which it normally runs, as I was working towards having it go in a square shape. At this point, one of the facilitators/presenters for the session walked by and noticed what I was doing. I am sure she had the best intentions of giving me more technical language about what I was doing when she commented “looks like you have a syntax error”, but the effect was to make me feel incompetent. It is pretty pathetic. I am a 46 year old woman, almost finished with my PhD, who has raised two amazing young women to adulthood, and taught elementary and middle school students for over a decade. I am a competent, relatively bright, and accomplished human being! However, I immediately shut down when someone told me, in a way that made me feel “dumb” that I had made an error with an educational toy designed for young children. So, once again, I packed up my belongings and left the room.

It has been interesting to reflect on my reaction. From the first, I felt vulnerable and uncomfortable with so many activities and materials in the room with which I was unfamiliar and inexperienced. Lame as it may sound, it did take an act of courage for me to come back and finally sit down and try some of these things by myself, not just watching others. And, I tried not just one, or two, but three new things that day. Yet, at the first sign of perceived judgment about my “failure” I felt terrible and left. I didn’t react that way when my “near peer” sat and offered suggestions to help me figure out how to “clear” the programs to make a new one, but when it was someone who was in more of a position of authority, I was shut down.

Lest you worry that it curbed my adventurousness, the universe generously offered me yet another Maker experience that day, creating the functional chair out of cardboard. This time, I didn’t even try to resist and claim the offered role of observer. Instead, I just laughed and accepted my fate and went and gathered materials.

I hope I remember the deeper lesson I learned that day – even when I am giving what I think might be helpful language or advice, if a learner does not want it, I might do more harm than good. And when someone is at the edge of their own boundaries, even if it might just be baby steps into something new, that is a vulnerable place and they need extra space and support. Lastly, even grownups, who are competent in lots of other ways, can be insecure learners in that space of trying something for the first time too.

What counts as conservation talk?

I am taking a break from writing about Cyberlab today, since I have been in a work retreat this past weekend and trying to move forward with my research project. I am getting ready to dive into data collection, and one of my methods includes a focus group composed of professionals in various fields and organizations that have some relationship to the conservation mission. The goal is for us to develop a rubric for what counts as conservation talk when you are watching family discourse at live animal exhibits.

With that in mind, I have been doing a lot of thinking and reading about conservation, what it means, how it is talked about, where it happens, what mission it carries, and what does it really mean to different public audiences in Free-Choice Learning settings. While doing so, I stumbled across Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud” show about the value of Nature. Guest speakers were Michael Nelson (Professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Oregon State University) and Cathy Macdonald (Oregon Director of conservation programs for the Nature Conservancy). They carried on a short but interesting conversation that added a whole new dimension to my thinking as I design a conservation message intervention for one of the activities my recruited families will go through.

The main discussion revolved around the intrinsic versus utilitarian value of nature, how such values align with the conservation message and which would be best used to deliver a resource conservation message to various audiences. Nelson is a co-author on a recent paper emphasizing the point that, when given the opportunity to express intrinsic value, people tend to really do it. The problem lies in cross-disciplinary confusion about what intrinsic value means; therefore, the professional conservation community is missing out when they do not incorporate an intrinsic value component to their framework of thinking.

I see both intrinsic and utilitarian values as equally useful tools in spreading the conservation message, but how do we accomplish that? Say in live animal exhibits such as the touch-tanks I will be doing my research on. Light bulb went on! I think I can have a most focused way to create a background for my rubric as I watch the families’ discourse and can classify what kinds of values they are expressing, intrinsic or utilitarian, and use that as baseline data for our focus group discussions. If adding intrinsic value to an animal is an indicator of some conservation awareness or a firm component of conservation mission, then we can’t disregard that kind of discourse during family interactions.

That brings me back to my dilemma now as to what kind of intervention to design so as to purposely expose participating families to a conservation message. Do I focus on the utilitarian aspects or intrinsic aspects or both? How can we combine it all within this rubric-creating exercise? Moreover, how can it all relate to the literature suggestion that experiencing live animals in exhibits generates a level of conservation awareness in visitors? I am sure the nature of qualitative work will help guide the phases of research based on the collected data itself. I am super excited to start putting all these thoughts into solid research activities to generate solid and novel tools to be used within the same research and to generate original results about what family conservation talk looks like in free-choice learning settings. That would add an exciting new dimension to what we already know about biological talk at touch-tanks by previous research from Shawn Rowe and Jim Kisiel, and add conservation talk to the body of knowledge out there. At least, I hope so.

What about you? Do you think that the conservation field can benefit from incorporating intrinsic value in their activities a little more and making it a solid component for their mission?

Ask and you shall receive….

So, after giving my colleagues a bit of a hard time because I have been the main contributor to the blog for that past few months, I somehow managed to forget to write a post last month (Sorry everyone!). Sigh… karma is a harsh mistress sometimes. I am in the thick of writing for my dissertation, which I somehow did not realize needed to be given to my committee quite so soon, and have been a bit distracted.

However, karma takes and she gives. I have had a couple of lovely moments of asking for what I want, and just flat out receiving it since I last wrote. I am a big proponent of the “just ask for what you want/need” philosophy and have attempted to pass this bit of wisdom on to my own children and those I have taught over the years. My attitude is that if you don’t ask, the answer is automatically “no”, so you might as well ask. On one level, you have nothing to lose, besides a bit of pride. Therefore, I encourage them to reach out to the world and make their wishes known. Otherwise, they are much less likely to get what help they need along the way.

My first recent example of asking had to do with the date for my PhD defense. As a student who does not live in, or even frequent, Corvallis, I tend to be out of the loop with how this whole grad student process works. I haven’t really seen others go through it, and am a bit lazy when it comes to digging around on websites. So, I decided to call my trusty friend Deb and ask her if there were any deadlines I should be paying attention to regarding graduating this spring. Turns out there was! If I want to walk in June, I should defend my dissertation by May 1. Oops- I really thought I had more time. However, May 1 is a lucky day in my world. It is the birthday of my life partner and best friend and happens to be one of my favorite holidays in the Celtic calendar- Beltane. So, I took a risk, emailed all 5 members of my committee and told them that was the day I hoped to have my defense. And by some small miracle, they are all available that one day! Yay!

My next example regards a conference I heard about last year, and wanted to attend, SXSWedu. It could be my Austin past, the whole SXSW industry has taken up a good part of the calendar there. However, it seems to be a conference that promotes a lot of exciting new things happening in education, particularly in my area of study- the Maker Movement, and (in one of life’s many ironies for a Luddite like myself) technology and social media. And I am still invested enough in being “cool” to want to attend this “cool” conference. I had vague ideas about submitting a proposal for this year’s event, but am not on the right listserves to hear about the appropriate deadlines, and missed that. I was still interested in attending, so checked into prices. However, the $450 early bird price was a bit of a shock, so I resigned myself to missing it again this year. Yet, within days, I had an email that some group (TES Global) was giving out free conference passes to educators who tweeted innovative things happening in their classrooms. Well, I am not actually teaching, so I tweeted a few photos from my research project, which does look exciting and innovative and techie, and I was lucky enough to get one of the passes. While I think they had lots to give out, and I don’t feel too special for having “won” one- I would not be going this year without it! I am very excited to go next week, and hope to make up for all of my missing blogs over the years while I am there! Keep your eyes peeled!

So my friends- just ask for what you want! Even if you are not sure you deserve it, you might just get it!

“Rocking” the perfect camouflage location for exhibit microphones

Mark Farley, Rebecca Harver and I made a trip to the “Aquarium Village” in Newport (and the Visitor Center’s storage unit) in the hopes of finding anything remotely inspiring in our task of camouflaging the microphones in installation at the touch tanks. We thought maybe driftwood or something like that would be easy enough to drill into and still fit within the naturalistic design of the tanks. Upon opening the door and stumbling upon dusty unidentifiable objects, our hope was not so high but soon enough I discovered what seemed to be the best solution for our dilemma.

Rock boring clams made perfect holes for our microphones.
Rock boring clams made perfect holes for our microphones.
Rock boring clams made the perfect holes for our microphones.
Rock boring clams made the perfect holes for our microphones.

Thank you rock boring clams for providing us the perfect “habitat” for our microphones to live! Your capability of penetrating wood, coral and rocks leaving behind these perfectly sized holes just made our life much easier and those interesting rocks a great addition to our exhibit. We did have to do a little rasping but all in all our microphones fit perfectly. Below are some photos illustrating this interesting merge between nature and technology to facilitate our video data collection and analysis.

Then we were off to drill holes at the touch tank for placement of the microphone ensemble, connecting wires and power sources. Jenny East was very proud of her newly acquired skills. We will collect some data with a couple of these installed microphones now and make sure all is functioning well before we continue the set up. I am super excited to start my data collection through this high quality video and audio system, as well as happy to see the vision long developed for the system to actually materialize. I am sure we will test around bouncing and interfering sounds since the touch tanks are so dynamic, but hey we are getting there. Stay tuned for more updates on Cyberlab’s interesting adaptations.

Susan O’Brien setting up wires.
Susan O’Brien setting up wires.
Jenny East setting up wires.
Wire madness.
Jenny East setting up wires.
Jenny East setting up wires.

Writing a marathon- one word at a time

So, as I head into the second half of my fifth year in this dissertation process, I am starting to look for the light at the end of the tunnel. Now, five years might not sound like too long to be in a PhD program, but for my program, at least in the cohorts before and after mine, the average is closer to four years (here’s looking at you Drs. Good and Stoffer!) And I did start my journey thinking I could complete it in four years- I had a plan! However, my qualifying exam process dragged on for a short eternity, and that set me behind, as things happen in a sequential way. And while I could have moved forward with some of the steps, for a while I was not sure I would progress past that point, and it didn’t seem worth it to spend time on a process that I might not see through to completion. Since I am still writing these blog posts, it is true that I did squeeze through those exams and was allowed to continue on to the subsequent steps of research and writing. However, I have had some road blocks with this stage too, as, for a variety of reasons, I kept having to postpone when I could start collecting data.

Finally, last fall, it seemed that the stars were starting to align, and I would be able to do my project in January through March of this year. Now, if you are doing the math, you might realize, as I did, that this will only leave me a few months to write my whole dissertation, on top of doing the data analysis, once the program I am collecting data from ends. I do have a fairly high opinion of my ability to write a lot under pressure, but I decided to do what I can now, to move along. So, I started my writing process, before my data collection. It makes sense, I can write up my introduction and literature review and methodology and such without having done the study, and anything I write now, means something I don’t have to write in April. I am pretty determined to graduate and walk the stage this June, so time is of the essence!

In December, I started to pull together what I could from things I have already written, such as my proposal. I dinked along with this for a few weeks, hashing out an outline and filling in some spots on it. However, it was when my dear friend, Elese posted on FaceBook that her New Year’s Resolution was to write on her dissertation for an hour a day, that I was motivated to make my own concrete goal. I sent Elese a message, asking her if she wanted to be “accountability buddies” and we would stay in regular touch with each other about our progress-and she said yes.

This is all a little complicated by being a commuter student- in that I live more than an hour away from campus, so don’t go down unless I have too. Many of my friends in the Corvallis area, who are in similar points on this journey, get together in small groups to write and support each other. I have to motivate myself. Having Elese on the other end of my texts helps- I know someone out there is paying some attention to whether or not I am making regular progress. I also had a coffee date with one of my committee members who lives up here too, and she gave me an open invitation to stop by her office, even unannounced, just because this process can be lonely.

And she is right- although I had not really thought about it in that way, this is a lonely journey. I really adore the group of colleagues I have met through this program, but as I have never lived near them, I have done most of this alone. When we were taking classes, there was that level of interaction, and I miss it! What I am doing now, reminds me most of when I (foolishly!) decided to run in the first Eugene Marathon, in 2007. I was a casual runner, so joined a training group, to learn the skills it would take to help complete this, for me, colossal undertaking. I learned a lot and met some good people, but on the race day itself, I ran alone. I had planned to run with others, but people end up with different paces and such, and it was easier to just go on my own. And that is how this feels. I did the training, taking classes and going to lab meetings with my colleagues, and making some great friends, but now, I am off on the trail, writing one word at a time, as I ran that race, one step at a time.

But, I am sure looking forward to taking photos together as we all wear our PhD regalia in June, after we all make it over that finish line on our own.