Redefining the Approach to Research: New Strides in the Field of Wearable Technology
Professor Ann Hill Duin and Senior Lecturer Joe Moses are spearheading a collaborative approach to research on the role wearable technology can play in teaching writing studies and rhetorical theory. The Wearable Research Collaboratory (collaboration + laboratory) was established to be an “incubator of bold ideas.” Here, members apply design thinking methodology to a technical and professional communication experience with the goal of enabling cross-cultural, innovative insights and solutions. Currently, members of the collaboratory include doctoral candidates Megan McGrath and Jason Tham, and undergraduate Research Assistants (RAs) Azana Adefris, Nathan Ernst, and Alexander Westgaard.
Doctoral candidate Megan McGrath is part of the collaboratory, and she teaches freshman writing studies students. “I was really intrigued by the idea of shifting from mobile technologies to wearable technologies, and how that might work better with certain students’ workflow, and how that might be heading in the direction of bringing as many things we use on a daily basis into the classroom in practical ways,” McGrath explained.
Two grants are currently funding the collaboratory’s undergraduate research assistants (RAs): the Aldous Grant and the Academic Innovation Grant. The Aldous Grant seeks to find developments on the networked collaboratory model and its impact on innovative solutions to research. “A key component of that grant is outreach, so an important outcome of the research is letting others know about the findings of our work,” stresses Duin. The Academic Innovation Grant supports a partnership with Liberal Arts Technologies and Information Services (LATIS). LATIS’s lab provides a space for RAs to try out new forms of technology. “They’re learning from us, we’re learning from them.” adds Duin. “The RAs involved in the project explore emerging technologies in partnership with LATIS, and then here in the Department of Writing Studies we talk about what might be used in a face-to-face classroom or in online and distance learning courses.”
From Google Glass to Google Cardboard
During the spring 2016 semester, the collaboratory deployed Google Glass in writing studies classrooms. Doctoral candidate Jason Tham used Google Glass in his classroom to analyze its effect on student peer review, while Senior Lecturer Joe Moses studied the wearable presence of Google Glass and its impact on the rhetorical situation and its impact on users’ sense of audience, setting, authorship. Meanwhile, McGrath used Google Glass with her freshman students to examine the device from a usability standpoint. “It was helpful to have students engage with something new, and to see what glitches, as technical communicators, these devices had,” says McGrath. “I interviewed the students to see if they really would use a wearable technology for any of the assignments in our class. And the response seemed to be ‘not yet.’ We’re not orality driven enough to sit down and compose a technical report with a pair of Google Glass.”
“We found the Google Glass devices difficult to use and expensive,” concludes Duin. “So, next semester we went quite a different direction—with Google Cardboard.” Over the fall 2016 semester, the collaboratory used Google Cardboard, a foldout cardboard head mount that works with smartphones and simulates virtual reality (VR). “We’ve been focusing on the potential for immersive narrative and 360-degree videos, very much that narrative genre of writing,” explains McGrath.
Cost and accessibility were huge factors in determining the use of Google Cardboard. “We explored cheaper options because we wanted students to get more hands-on experience to try these things,” elaborates Tham. “It’s more reasonable to have students buy them as part of their course packet and integrate them into the curriculum.”
The team agreed that takeaways from previous Google Glass research helped to make the Google Cardboard deployment more successful. “In terms of how I would deploy these in the future, I would ask students to explicitly think about what previous experiences they’re bringing to this new technology, how those perceptions are going to influence the way they approach and understand this technology, and how I as the instructor can try to scaffold this experience as much as possible,” emphasizes McGrath.
Embracing ambiguity is a hallmark of the collaboratory. “It’s not that we don’t have any idea where we’re headed,” Moses remarks, “but we don’t map out a plan that says ‘Here are the steps we must follow.’ So there is forward movement based on individual research and teaching interests, and then we look for ways our interests can converge. And it’s been a productive path to innovation in our teaching and our approaches to research.”
McGrath elaborates, “We think about this collaboration as cross-cultural. Not just in the traditional sense of ethnicity and geography, but we think about culture as ideology—as grad students and instructors and undergraduate RAs together in one space, so a lot of blurring of boundaries…. A lot of this just happened very organically, and I think that is what has made this work so expansive and rich.”