First Time TA in GaTech

This past semester, my second semester in Georgia Tech as a PhD student, I TAed for CS4660 Educational Technology. This was not my first time of being a TA. When I was still a master student, I TAed twice for two graduate classes in my major. I took these classes before, so it was not too difficult for me to TA them. Plus I was not the only TA. This time, not only I was the single TA, but I didn’t take this class before. All the students would be undergrads, and I was no familiar with the undergrads in the US at all. Being a PhD student in School of Interactive Computing, I would say I knew a decent amount of knowledge of technology, but I was in no means an expert in education. How could I be a good TA with all the barriers above? I had to say TAing for this class definitely posited a challenge for myself.

I didn’t know a lot about pedagogy. Therefore, I didn’t perceive myself as a structural TA with many intellectual rationales behind. Nevertheless, from my previous experiences as a TA, I knew what would always work was to be kind, be responsible, and work hard. I cared about students in a sense that I would like them to learn well. Because most of my responsibility for TAing CS4660 was to grade students’ reading critiques, I wanted students to know that I cared about what I was doing through giving meaningful feedback.

What did I learn? The first thing that came to my mind was that being a TA carried a whole lot of responsibility. I knew some of the responsibilities before I started, but I learned other ones later. I expected students to care more about grades than to learn new knowledge (I used to be like this when I was an undergrad). Yes, there were students that were like this, but there were other students who were eager to learn. What could a TA help? To help create a more inviting learning environment and a more friendly learning experience – for each individual student. As a student myself at GaTech, I often felt the learning environment around me was more competitive than nurturing. Therefore, to encourage students to really learn instead of competing, I left notes where both insights shined and weaknesses shown in their critiques. I also thanked them for willing to share their own stories with me. My positive feedback strategy worked out when students told professor that they felt it was okay to really have opinions in this class, not the opinions that they “should” have, according to the textbook or the instructors.

As I said earlier, I didn’t know anything about a typical undergrad’s life or how he/she learned in class when I started. Because of this lack of understanding, I was afraid that I would not be able to be understanding. However, to my surprise, I soon (a week of into the semester) found out that these undergrads were in fact very similar to myself: they worried about their grades, they wanted to have fun outside of class but they didn’t really have much spare time, they worried about their job and they also worried about their future, etc. Initially, I though American undergrad culture would be very different from the one I experienced in China before. But according to what they wrote down in their critiques, no big difference really. Being able to identify these commonalities between myself and these students made me feel I could empathize them better.

Throughout this entire semester, I cared about the students and I graded each assignment cautiously. This was something that I would continue to do if I would be a TA in the future. What’s more, after 2 or 3 weeks, I could recognize each one of the students and their critiques. Since then, I started to give more individually-tailored feedback. This worked. I remembered giving this feedback last time and then saw this student worked on his/her assignment this time accordingly. I was happy about this and I was also proud of myself – for really worked hard on the class materials that I didn’t have previous exposure to. Another thing that I would love to keep doing was to keep promise. Never once did I handed back their assignments late.

In terms of improvements, there were a few things that I wanted to work on. I noticed students having problems inside and outside of class, but they didn’t come to my office hour for help. Did I reach out to them? No. Because I was not sure whether it was okay for me, as a TA, to email them and check in. I regretted for not acting earlier since one student came to meet towards the end of this semester and asking me questions about the requirement of the assignment. I wondered why this student did not come earlier, and maybe I should encourage students to come and ask any questions. In addition, my own student life became pretty stressful in March and April. At that time, I realized I wasn’t able to grade as carefully as I earlier did. I tried to change, but I failed. I guessed this was more a problem of myself other than the students, but still I hoped I can figure out some solutions to balance my workload.

Overall, I had a great experience of being a TA this semester. I felt lucky to be trusted by both the students and the instructor. Most likely I will continue to be a TA next semester. Hopefully I will have another great time with students again.

Reflection, on I2S Competition and groupwork

My team, Eating Right, won both Ideas Track Runner-Up and Best Poster awards in the 2016 Ideas to Serve (I2S) Competition held at the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Institute of Technology on April 8th. This competition is intended to encourage current GaTech students and recent alumni to think about how to create a better world through feasible and concrete ideas. During the night of the 8th, all the finalist teams presented their posters and gave a 1-min pitch to the audience. I was so happy to see that there were so many projects that cared about issues of global relevance, not only in the United States. Initially, I didn’t really expect us to win anything, since I didn’t know if people valued this kind of work. However, it left me feeling deeply encouraged, because people did care, and they were even willing to spend money on this.

Just to give you context: our team, Eating Right, aims at creating a mobile app that will provide valuable and trustworthy dietary information for diabetes affected households in India by presenting entertaining cooking show videos. Our project started in October 2015( as a collaboration between Georgia Tech and the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (India) ) , and Jasmine started working on it then. After one month, I, a Human-Centered Computing PhD student, joined the team. Recently in March, two more Human-Computer Interaction students (Sam and Tanisha) came on board.While Jasmine and I focused on the research aspects, Sam and Tanisha brought design expertise to the team. Prof. Neha Kumar advised us from the onset and helped us communicate with collaborators in India. All of us, including our professor, are women.

What makes teamwork impactful in our case?

  1. People. All four of us have sufficient background in Human-Computer Interaction design and research, which makes it easier for us to communicate. Although we have similar backgrounds, we do hold diverse skill sets. Sam and Tanisha were originally from India so they can speak different Indian languages and draw on their understanding of Indian culture. Jasmine had done fieldwork in India, and could anticipate the challenges we might face later. I am a researcher who has read a lot about ICTD and have a deep understanding of how to approach this research using human-centered design. Together we are advised by Prof. Kumar, who is an expert in ICTD research. We are also supported by our collaborators in India, who offer first-hand data about users and valuable inputs for our research and design outcomes.
  2. Work ethic. I believe this is important in every field, not only in teamwork. Nevertheless, to keep a good work ethic can be really challenging when there are too many things going on at the same time, which is often the case for a graduate student. We face this challenge bravely and deal with it professionally. We rely on emails to communicate most of the time and all of us are very responsive – to emails, text messages, or phone calls. Because we are invested, the project is able to make steady progress. We stick to deadlines as best we can. If we cannot keep our promise, we let all team members know.
  3. Coherent understanding, all the time. We communicate in timely fashion to make sure that everybody is on the same page. This not only covers work assignments, but also high level objectives. For example, we do believe that user research can make a difference and design should be based on specific contexts and users’ needs. Communication sounds tedious and time-consuming sometimes, but it can foster understanding, which allows the entire team to work more effectively.

These bullet points above address some things that good teamwork should include, but they are not enough. What I find amazing in the Eating Right team is that we are all open to making mistakes and we learn through failure – the working environment we create is a safe learning environment, not a competitive one. When one of us says something that sounds not so right to others, others will ask questions and start a discussion. No one is offended. For instance, I’m not familiar with Indian culture so I have tons of questions (I know some of them must sound naive to Indians). My teammates are always willing to explain whatever detail I’m looking for. I try to do the same. I believe, because of this positive learning environment, people’s skills are leveraged, good work ethic is acknowledged and followed, and a coherent understanding can be nurtured.

Certainly, we are all motivated and passionate about this project from the bottom of our hearts.

I used to be a believer of individual work, but my experience in the Eating Right team changed my mind. When a team works well, productivity will be high, and everybody on the team can learn. It is amazing when teamwork presents its power, and I hope to experience more awesome teamwork in the future. Of course, to make this world a better place, you need a team, or maybe a larger team. 🙂

Be calm or be engaging? Thoughts on UbiComp

Two crucial ideas act as foundation for Mark Weiser’s article The Computer for the 21st Century [1]: First, “the most profound technologies are those that disappear.” (page 94) Second, “whenever people learn something sufficiently well, they cease to be aware of it.” (page 94) I’m going to examine the latter one here.

I am unable to agree with Weiser’s statement, though I can see where he comes from. According to the example of street sign he provides afterward and what he believes as “only when things disappear in this way are we freed to use them”, I can tell that he is considering about those objects that work as “tools” or “media”. He believes that tools can serve people well when they “disappear”. This underlying idea works for objects as street signs because these objects are relatively simple and the corresponding tasks they are trying to achieve is also simple (street signs show information about streets). Thus, this idea may not work when the level of complexity increases for either the object or the task. For instance, color pencil, which is a simple tool for drawing, can be used in several different ways when being operated by an experienced painter, such as burnishing and impression. Under this situation, one actually needs to be aware of the pencil to be able to achieve distinct effects, because how the pencil is used affects the result of drawing directly. I therefore argue that depends on the complexity of both the object and the task, people either increase or decrease their awareness about this object, when they learn something sufficiently well.

The problem is: how shall we take advantage from this different degrees of awareness wisely? In ubiquitous computing, this question can be hard to answer. I would like to say that this really depends on the type of things and what they are trying to achieve, but I have no idea on the criteria of categorizing things, if any. Rogers says technologies can be engaging in UbiComp [2], but she doesn’t offer a good reference for researchers to judge the type of technology here. I can see the possibility for this issue to become even more complicated as UbiComp technologies are used by different people with different cultural backgrounds. Should technology be engaging when its user doesn’t value engagement much? More similar questions can be posted.

I’m not going to try to answer any question here. But I would still love to say again that we, no matter as researchers or practitioners, should place human in a central role when designing technologies. Only by designing technology in a human-centered sense can we be aware of the diversity among both people and situations. There is no universal design. Maybe it doesn’t really matter if technology is calm or engaging. Human matters.

References

[1] Mark Weiser. 1991. The Computer for the 21st Century. Scientific American 265, 94 – 104. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/scientificamerican0991-94

[2] Yvonne Rogers. 2006. Moving on from Weiser’s Vision of Calm Computing: Engaging UbiComp Experiences. In Proceedings of the 8th International conference on Ubiquitous Computing (UbiComp ’06). Springer-Verlag Berlin, Heidelberg, 404-421. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1107/11853565_24

Conflict, in learning and in constructing identity

I would like to explore the notion of “conflict”. In their book Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation Lave and Wenger talk about how learning takes place under various situations and how newcomers are able to become old timers through learning. On page 116, authors introduce conflict as follows:

Conflict is experienced and worked out through a shared everyday practice in which differing viewpoints and common stakes are in interplay.

Here, it is easy for readers to take “differing” and “common” as words referring to differences and commonalities among different individuals. What I’m arguing is that conflict also exists in one individual’s mind. Differing viewpoints and common stakes mentioned in the quote above can be presented in one single individual’s mind when one is growing and learning. Sometimes this kind of conflicts can be supportive, other times they can be truly destructive, in terms of destroying one’s identity.

When I first came to United States, I thought I would engage in great learning experience as a master student in HCI. I looked forward to doing some really design and humanistic stuff. I never doubted my learning ability or my English level. However, it turned out that I was not nearly as correct as I imagined. I thought I could convey my ideas pretty well, but when I couldn’t recall common expressions in group meetings I then started doubting myself as a proper English speaker. What was more, I encountered both minor and major cultural differences here and there in my life. I was afraid to ask questions and to bring confusions to other because of my unfamiliarity to United States. Conflicts, presented as cultural differences, were in fact the gaps between my previous identity and the new identity that I was still struggling to construct at that time. Although people kept telling me there was nothing wrong with me, I later still questioned my identity really hard, because I looked so inferior, drastically different from who I used to be.

Therefore, I appreciate Lave and Wenger since they mention change of identity as part of the learning process in their book. In addition, I feel grateful about their statement on page 51: “Participation is always based on situated negotiation and renegotiation of meaning in the world. This implies that understanding and experience are in constant interaction – indeed, are mutually constitutive.” I could have offered myself a little bit more understanding at that time but I didn’t. Looking back, I guess what I was lacking was also an appropriate level of introduction to even the boundary of participation. How was I able to legitimate peripheral participation when I didn’t know where to start? I wish I had read this book earlier to make myself feel more comfortable and confident.

Therefore, learning can be fulfilling when the learner is welcomed and willing to participate. As I see my own identity changes through my learning process, I keep reminding myself to be more understanding when communicating with other people. Learning is a lifelong journey that we as humans learn to understand ourselves and be with ourselves peacefully under various situations. As people come from different backgrounds with different values, it is fair that everybody has a right to be understood situatedly.

Again, on Situatedness

I have mixed feelings towards Chapter I in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life[1], written by Erving Goffman. This chapter, Performances, talks about different ways people perform under various social conditions. Some of the words truly resonate with my personal experiences, while others are more surprising in a negative sense. Example for the latter one includes how Goffman talks about women on Page 61 (“… but there are many social contexts in which it would be improper for a woman not to misrepresent herself as being more youthful and sexually attractive than is really the case”). I decide to understand these ideas as typical productions of its time, which is more than 60 years earlier.

I’m both impressed and disturbed by this statement on page 57:

“Under our published principles and plighted language we must assiduously hide all the inequalities of our moods and conduct, and this without hypocrisy, since our deliberate character is more truly ourself than is the flux of our involuntary dreams.”

Even if Goffman explicitly states “this without hypocrisy”, I am still able to sense the uneasiness of putting on one or more social masks. This is because I’m the kind of person who often feels anxious of my own performance when there are people around. Thoughts revolve in my mind are like “did I just say something improper”, “oh I hope I didn’t make that gesture”, “I really have to be aware of my behavior next time”, etc. This anxiety can be intensified in strange environment or when facing somebody with more power or higher social status. However, what comes together with anxiety is a longing for being my true self under any kind of situation, and then hopefully being accepted and loved as who I truly am. I believe I’m not the only person who dreams of this.

Technology and HCI have a saying here. They contribute to people’s being themselves by supporting new technologies that allow people to reflect and improve, such as apps for focusing and fitness tracker. But this go beyond simply developing apps or devices. Allowing people to reveal themselves truly without fear and anxiety means technology should be less intimidating and more inclusive. This again goes back to the idea I mention throughout this entire semester: situatedness. To design and develop technology with more empathy requires a close look on different persons. How do they behavior under different situations? How can technologies support people more situately?

Why I am so much into situatedness is because I think this world can be improved by people’s awareness and acceptance to each other as different individuals. I strongly believe that technology has something to do here. Therefore, I am responsible of taking care of this as a researcher, no matter how little I can actually contribute.

[1] Erving Goffman. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor Books, New York, NY.

Sense-making Process in HCI

One of the most apparent themes emerges from Kari Kuutti’s writing about activity theory[1] is sense-making. In fact, the field of HCI has struggled a lot in various sense-making processes, from the very beginning when this field was forming. Questions are asked: What does HCI mean when standing in between human and computer? How can HCI make sense of human and computer? What theories and methodologies should be applied? What are the possible outcomes and contributions of HCI research? Activity theory tries to answer these questions by providing a list of terms and their relationship in a framework, and then realizes this framework under a specific environment to get a better understanding of how human achieves a goal by mediating different tools and leveraging the relationships among elements inside the environment.

Therefore, “a specific environment” becomes the key phrase here. To be specific also means to be situated, to admit the uniqueness of a setting that embeds a goal or task or problem. This characteristic of activity theory echoes with other theories developed around late 1980s and early 1990s, such as distributed cognition, situated action, ethnomethodology, etc. The inclusion of external environment as an influential factor for understanding human cognition marks a significant change of sense-making approach in HCI. Human actor was no longer seen as an isolated system with comparable structure of computer. Instead, because external environment has been taken into consideration, the effect it can possibly bring to human is also introduced to the sense-making process.

I am deeply moved by this idea: Meaning can only be constructed under a concrete situation. It is dangerous for both researchers and practitioners in HCI, especially theorists, to simply grab a theory and try to derive meanings from it, as theory looks much more reliable and stable than the changing environment and human mind. Nevertheless, meanings don’t come from theory. They originate from the application of theory under a particular context. While theory offers means, context defines the environment. Meaning is the ends we can reach by beginning from a question and passing one or several proper theories in a particular context. The sense-making process has been simplified here. Real-world issues can only be more complex.

Why should we treat sense-making process so carefully? A short answer is that technologies have never been so massively exposed to our lives. Thus, it is certain that the changes technology can bring to us will affect the way we make sense of ourselves and how we understand the world. That’s why we need to understand the effect of technology situatedly. I’m happy to see researchers in HCI has digested this view and so many topics come into being because of this idea. Examples are social computing, ubiquitous computing, ICTD, etc. However, I still remain open about how HCI will improve or adjust its sense-making approach in the future, as change is happening all the time.

Reference

[1] Kari Kuutti. 1995. Activity Theory as a Potential Framework for Human-Computer Interaction Research. Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction (Nov. 1995), 9-22.The MIT Press.