Integrative thinking: The final portfolio

Marjee's conceptual framework
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*Notes: Specific papers are linked in context in this narrative. All of these papers are also part of the greater, master list located here.

I became interested in doctoral studies while I was a chemistry teacher completing my Master’s Degree and taking a course in computer animation for enjoyment on the side. (I always wanted to learn about computer animation, but it was something my parents would never support. As soon as I had my own disposable income, I did the two things they always told me I couldn’t do until I was completely autonomous: I bought myself a moped and enrolled in the local art and design school for non-credit adult education.)

The web was still very young and mostly static at this time. Google wasn’t really around. Nonetheless, I knew that there was tremendous potential around the corner in terms of online media production. As a chemistry teacher, I could never seem to find just what I wanted to help my students visualize all of the exotic, subatomic happenings I wanted to convey. My animation courses showed me just how close we were getting towards being able to produce and share anything we wanted, pedagogically, given the right tools and the right training.  Completing my Master’s Degree, however, showed me that there was little work exploring what these new tools could do. Further, there was even less work exploring  what this means for learning, teaching, and the future of classroom environments and interactions.  These questions and curiosities propelled me into my doctoral studies and those interests have remained with my despite my sometimes otherwise meandering path through doctoral scholarship.

My three years of coursework at UW-Madison provided me with theoretical ideas and content knowledge that remain important in my scholarly tool-kit. Through my doctoral minor there, I focused on the history of science, where I was able to spend time investigating how “educational crises” were communicated to science teachers in their primary professional publication, The Science Teacher. This research allowed me to engage in deep analysis of historical communication, both text-based and visual. At the same time, I was working on research with the Educational Communication and Technology faculty,  my doctoral home, on the types of skills and literacies engendered in digital environments. The most representative work that came out of this collaboration is a piece analyzing the types of discourse and argumentation players of the very popular video game, World of Warcraft, engaged in. The faculty was interested in having  me pursue this type of work further for my dissertation, and there was a lot of financial support for this type of work at the time. I felt that this line of inquiry was distancing me too much from my real concerns: school, teachers, kids, and making learning compelling, relevant, and rigorous.  For this reason, I left Madison and came to work on two grant-funded projects in the DC metropolitan area that would allow me to work directly on technology projects for the classroom. I researched several doctoral programs in the area and saw that there were several faculty at GMU who were working on interesting projects and share my research epistemologies.

When I started my coursework at GMU, I was able to incorporate my interests and what I had learned professionally and academically right away. For instance, in the Ways of Knowing course, I was able to take a deeper look at Design Based Research as my final “Way of Knowing” project paper.  When I mention my interest in design of curricular artifacts and research, people often mention “design based research” to me, and this paper was my opportunity to articulate why an interest in design is not the same thing as using a design based research approach. Design based research(DBR)  claims to be centered around the production of some artifact, including production of a theory. I honestly don’t think that is a useful definition as it is all encompassing, and furthermore, as a designer I have found failure to be far more instructive than success, so DBR suffers from the problem that journals do not want to publish the most instructive findings coming from design endeavors. That is to say that there are more conventional approaches to research that can be as useful as DBR, but perhaps more palatable to journal reviewers, and that is something I need to take into account at this stage in my career.

Continuing on to the next semester, my EDRS 810 course forced me to begin to grapple with integrating my interests into a truly integrative conceptual context paper. While the assignment was referred to as a review of literature, our professor was very much a proponent of the “conceptual context” approach to literature reviews. The work I did on this paper struggles to connect how video game design can enhance or hinder scientific epistemology. It would have been impossible for me to write that paper out in narrative form without the concept mapping exercises that I engaged in as part of my mixed-methods course. These exercises forced me to take apart and reconstruct my ideas and assumptions and were tremendously useful tools for thought. The paper for 810 and the three modules for mixed methods  helped me get started on articulating my thoughts on this topic much more thoroughly when it came time for me to publish a post-mortem theoretical piece on the Operation: Resilient Planet video game that I produced as the result of a grant from the Kauffman Foundation to National Geographic and Filament Games. At the heart of the paper, I document the struggle that comes with trying to represent novel discovery and authentic inquiry within a video game, which is essentially a series of algorithms. That is to say, the medium constricts the message but at the same time, it provides opportunities for innovation of educational presentation and activity. That problem lies at the heart of my scholarly fascination.

One of the big problems with educational games is that the really good ones are very expensive to make, and they require a lot of grants as seed money to get going.  As much as teachers love the ideas of good video games in the classroom, the pressure of standards and pacing guides keeps a lot of valuable stuff out of the classroom, and the role of video games is still being carved out. I still think the future for video games as meaningful learning tools remains bright and  I’m curious about where the field goes in the future, but for now, I want to turn my attention back to teachers and what they are doing right now. Teachers are empowered to make their own curriculum in ways I didn’t think possible when I first began these inquiries. Graphical and video editing tools are readily available and streaming video is readily accessible to most teachers and to many schools. With this in mind, I am excited and curious to investigate what teachers are producing and sharing when it comes to online video for science education.

Through my internship here at GMU, Dr. Peters-Burton and I were able to demonstrate how even with a professional background in the sciences, science teachers still developed highly varied understandings regarding the nature of science and how it is taught in science class.  I anticipate that some of those findings will help inform my analytical lens for this particular study. In addition to learning more about the videos that teachers share and the reasons teachers go on to create and share videos, I also hope to be able to address the unique methodological issues that arise when researching online communities and born digital artifacts.  These areas are still under-theorized and there is room for a lot of good work to be done here.  My work with realism and the role of qualitative research in understanding socio-cultural learning problems will help me write substantive methods and analytical pieces that I hope can be stand-along publications in methods journals. I think this lead to developing further expertise in the evolving problems surrounding qualitative and mixed-methods research in an online environment.  There is a tension between design and epistemology that is at the heart of what I want to know as a scholar of science education and educational technology as well as what I want to know as a methodologist on a new frontier.



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