WHIMC is a National Science Foundation-funded research project and interdisciplinary collaboration between several organizations dedicated to cutting-edge and impactful informal learning.
The goal of WHIMC is to develop computer simulations that engage, excite, and generate interest and engagement in STEM. WHIMC leverages Minecraft Java Edition as a learning environment for learners to interactively explore the scientific consequences of alternative versions of Earth via "what if?" questions, such as "What if the earth had no moon?" or "What if the earth were twice its current size?" as well as other emerging astronomy inquires, like "What would it take to terraform mars?" or "How do we mine asteroids?" Kids get to explore these as aspiring scientists and engineers on an interactive server that changes to match their interests.
The Fab Lab enabled makers of all kinds to imagine, design and create using open source software and DIWO (Do It With Others!) equipment. We did this by working with a local and international network to actively cultivate public engagement through community-focused art-entrepreneurship, research and education.
I stepped down as director in 2020 to move on to new opportunities but I remain a maker at my core. The link below goes to a preserved version of the website from the period I steered the operation.
Libraries are really important. They fill a lot of social and service roles, like supporting education and life-long learning, providing critical information access for job hunting and government services, and they even act as place of gathering for community activities and democratic discourse. Increasingly, roles like these are related to the acquisition, sharing, evaluation and creation of information through digital tools like computers and the internet.
So what exactly is the role of the public library in fostering digital literacy?
More specifically, what does this role look like in Illinois public libraries that aren't located in Chicagoland? Especially the ones that serve socially excluded populations that are arguably most in need of services and empowerment? What are the emergent best practices and challenges these libraries face? My task was to explore these questions by visiting many libraries all around the state. I spoke to librarians, pored over literature and did my best to assemble a compelling series of stories and case studies.
Listed in "Ten Notable Dissertations of 2015"American Libraries magazine
Most of my education was built around questioning and challenging the schooling systems that struggled to provide many of the digital literacies I—and many others—both needed and desired. As a result, I sought to cultivate them through other means, which ultimately led to my often non-traditional approach as an aspiring teacher. Being an effective teacher goes beyond simply recognizing that we’re not all empty vessels to be filled with knowledge or that all of us have the potential to be teachers. It’s really about enabling individual agency and building community capacities.
(1) I think most learners are socially motivated. For many grades matter much less than feedback, guidance and meaningful deliverables. Marks and inappropriate standardization have the potential to reduce schools to factories that grant titles or invalid classifications rather than cultivate meaningful learning experiences. The recent trend of large-scale online learning may only exacerbate issues of impersonalization. The primary finding of my research over the past two years with project MAPLE, a grant studying metacognitive learning strategies in STEAM middle school classrooms focusing on at-risk and youth with learning disabilities, is that the most fundamental barrier to participation, which is a prerequisite for any kind of academic success, is relevance. Students need to do more than understand the process of how something works, but also figure out why it matters (or could matter) to them, personally and contextually.
(2) Ivan Illich, Ken Robinson, Lisa Delpit and hundreds of others have explored these issues, as well as their alternatives, for decades. Rather than refusing to participate in existing systems, however, I’ve explored more realistic ways to complement formal assessment by integrating relevance into metrics of learning for my students. For instance, instead of relying primarily on grades for motivation, students can be expected to regularly present to their peers, or asked to create deliverables for external audiences. Often these additional sources of feedback provide a kind of implicit and explicit “reality check” for what students should know and be able to do. It is best when it happens in a classroom with a supportive culture, where students work with one another, recognize each other's accomplishments, and diligence and curiosity are praised. The class becomes more of a collaborative team.
(3) I work to promote learning experiences that involve reverse engineering and remixing through inquiry and iteration. After graduation few folks have the time to crack open a book and sit down to methodically learn the principles of something for long periods of time before engaging in it. For many activities only so much can be learned without practice and answering successive “why” questions. Most industries are looking for workers who are “T-shaped”, able to specialize and to successfully relate to other roles or fields. The process of determining how something works, as well as to adapt its constituent components in new and interesting ways, is a skillset that can help to enable empathy and interdisciplinary success.
An assignment I give in my class, “The Design of Usable Information Interfaces”, which serves as a foundations course for user experience in the Informatics minor at UIUC, demonstrates several of these concepts in action. A great deal of the way we communicate now is through creating and interpreting visual mediums. In most formal schooling students are taught how to read and write but receive little guided practice communicating with visual mediums. The times it is taught it often employs prompts like “show the concept of negative space” that result in abstractions that aren’t immediately actionable.
To compliment this sort of approach I ask students to start the way we ask musicians to learn: find and copy a dozen visual interfaces they like and reduce them to their basic layouts and colors. In doing this the students create a successive library of shape arrangements and palettes that they then use to recombine elements to yield new expressions and organizations.
This process takes multiple attempts and many of them are deemed insufficient. The value accrues as they are then asked to study what they made to understand why different mashups work (or fail) to create or direct attention and interactions as they do. They then make use of a traditional art reference textbook to grow their vocabulary for this kind of analysis, creating a report with visual annotation, done as a kind digital think-aloud, like a written a cognitive walk-through.
The final stage of the assignment involves taking one of the remix designs and building it out to become a robust visual layout for a specific context, filled with dummy text, images and, potentially with another iteration, simple interactivity prototyping. This assignment, while complicated, has dimensions of choice, contextual application, practice, reappropriation, investigation and more.
Where possible I systematically identify and connect the goals and guiding principles to each assignment I have in a camp or class, along with how I measure them. See my portfolio for an example Learning Objectives and Assessments Alignment graphic for the class featured above.
I’ve selected more key instruction principles that integrate into my formal teaching methodology:
Over the past decade I’ve taught 13 undergraduate and graduate level semester courses (28 instances, about 700 students - I learned all of their names) and have run 10 types of week-long STEAM summer camps for junior high youth (30+ instances, ~400 kids). Most of these involved collaborative curriculum development, but several were designed entirely by myself. I’ve also had experience teaching in public school classrooms, facilitating teacher and librarian professional development, and running over 100 short workshops for K-5, the elderly and families.
Fields - community informatics, library & information science, sociology, art, education
Design - prototyping and fabrication, user experience, interaction, web, graphics and information
Research methods - qualitative social science, PAR, case study analysis, grounded theory
Tech - object-oriented programming, familiarity with a wide range of IT hardware
Perspectives - critical technology studies, digital and media literacy, information activism, sustainable and asset-based community engagement, inquiry based learning, storytelling-based information visualization and moreGames - as simulation tools for teaching, research and design
Since I’ve taught in many fields, formally and informally, and with many different kinds of learners I don’t have a single go-to set of standards or assessment methods that I use to evaluate. I am familiar with and appreciate the guidance given by structures like UDL, ISTE or Doug Belshaw’s 8 essential elements to digital literacy, but often I’m interested in more interpretive outcomes like examining the questions students ask going into an experience, as compared to the questions they ask coming out of it. I do take a strong position that both process and product matter in education at all levels. Most working professionals cannot come away from a week of work and exclaim “it felt good and I learned a lot by reflecting on it, so it’s all good” they must actually produce a deliverable that does something. Social-emotional outcomes are important, but equally so are defined and measurable skills, as well as actionable results.
University-level courses require a variety of assignments, usually involving a written component but often accompanied by conceptual diagrams, information visualization, multimedia, code or oral presentations. I do not typically use tests or automated grading systems and my courses are always 40 students or fewer so they can be each graded individually with notes. Typically classes do not include more than one major project, instead featuring short reading responses to relevant literature in tandem with connected short projects. Spectrum-based rubrics are given along the way to indicate where improvement is to be had, with adjacent annotations to indicate where students may have made mistakes or need to improve. My goal, generally, is not to have “gotcha” kinds of judgements, but instead conversations about decisions and consequences with actionable suggestions.
As a director of a lab I’ve done a great deal of training and mentoring, the former judged on the basis of safety guidelines and operational protocols as well as expected conduct and patron services, and the latter structured more around student investment and growth. I regularly offer independent studies where undergraduates must first provide a proposal with project definition, expected learning goals, timeline and anticipated deliverables.
All instructors at the University of Illinois receive regular evaluations (ICES). As a result of these I have been on the List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent for seven semesters. I am often asked to write letters of recommendation for students who excel in my classes. To date I’ve written 30.
"He clearly had a passion for what he was teaching and was very big on allowing students to be creative with the assignments, while there were some requirements that needed to be met, he was very flexible on the way you could go meet them.
from The Design of Usable Information Interfaces
"He comes up with the greatest assignments. Almost every single one I would put on my resume. They are so important and applicable to the real-world. I learned so much."
from The Design of Usable Information Interfaces
"The cirriculum is diverse and allows students to experience several different facets of technology and design. The professor was very open to criticism and feedback from the students, which made him reliable and well-suited to teach this course."
from Makerspace Studio
"The instructor gave students room to learn. His lectures were helpful and guided student learning, but the major strength of the course was that students were allowed to explore the material on their own terms. The instructor was always available whenever students struggled with a concept."
from Web Technologies and Techniques