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Faculty Receive Funding to Create Innovative Digital Projects

New efforts to increase Northwestern’s visibility in digital and online teaching environments

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March 10, 2016 | by Fritz T. Burgher

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Nine projects that faculty proposed to support student learning through the innovative use of technology will receive funding for the 2016-2017 school year, according to an announcement by Northwestern University’s Office of the Provost and the Faculty Distance Learning Workgroup.

The digital and online projects, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), allow faculty and the University to experiment with modern learning technologies while showcasing Northwestern’s excellence in teaching. 

Project descriptions follow: 

“Fostering Effective Online Discussion in Higher Education With ‘Nebula,’ a Graphical Interface for Discussion Boards”
Seyed Iravani, professor of industrial engineering and management sciences, McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science
Noshir Contractor, Jane S. and William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences, McCormick, and professor of management and organizations, Kellogg School of Management
• Jackie Ng, Ph.D. candidate in industrial engineering and management sciences, McCormick 

The growth of online and blended learning environments has created a greater need for students to interact with one another, engage in higher-order processing of information and develop a sense of community. Online discussion boards have the potential to offer an engaging and social environment for students, but they often fail to live up to expectations in the classroom due, in part, to current design features. Iravani, Contractor and Ng intend to leverage information visualization techniques in the design of a graphical discussion forum interface called “Nebula.” Traditional discussion boards use a linear text-based format that displays posts chronologically; “Nebula” presents discussion as a network graph, in which posts are nodes and replies are the edges that link posts to each other. Their goal is to facilitate collaborative learning through the development of an optimal environment for students to learn from each other. Another goal is to increase contextual learning by having students immerse themselves in classroom material before and after coming to class.  

“Learning Analytics for Real-time Measure of Student Learning During Lecture in Introductory Materials Science and Engineering Course”
Emma DeCosta, lecturer, administration, McCormick
• Ramille Shah, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, McCormick; department of surgery (transplant division), Feinberg School of Medicine; department of biomedical engineering, McCormick

DeCosta and Shah are taking a new approach to how they co-teach Materials Science 301; their goal with this project is to help students develop a deeper understanding of course material by measuring student learning at multiple points during each lecture and adjusting lecture content and delivery as needed in real time. The plan is to develop a database of questions for use during each lecture, deliver the questions using Learning Catalytics (a real-time classroom engagement, assessment and intelligence system), measure student learning outcomes on a per lecture basis and document common misconceptions. Ultimately, DeCosta and Shah intend to share their questions and feedback with future instructors of the course. The project will offer immediate benefits by increasing student engagement and provide future benefits to instructors of Materials Science 301.

“MOOC: Luther and the West”
Christine Helmer, professor of religious studies, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences

Helmer has been awarded funding to offer her course “Luther and the West” as a MOOC. The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and Helmer’s course grows out of the exciting and dynamic international religious environment as scholars around the world are searching for new understandings of Luther in light of present-day circumstances. This MOOC will be the only online course that is offered that specifically addresses Luther’s vast contributions to the modern west. As one of the leading experts on Luther working today, Helmer will bring a worldwide interest to the course and will increase Northwestern’s position as a leader in the historical study of religion in a way that promotes understanding and tolerance. 

“The Chinese Student Diaspora in America: A Multicultural, Multilingual and Multimedia Storytelling Project”
Mei-Ling Hopgood, associate professor of journalism, Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications

In her course, Hopgood will bring together a team of domestic and international students at Northwestern to study, investigate and tell the stories of Chinese students who leave their families, homes, jobs and country to study in the U.S. Students will be studying the history and realities of a diverse group that is often overlooked and misunderstood. Participants will report in Mandarin, Cantonese and English, and will pitch stories to The New York Times, one of the most influential media groups that is also experimenting in multilingual journalism. By having students engage in crosscultural and multilingual interviewing and story production for different media platforms, Hopgood hopes to further Medill’s dedication to finding innovative ways to enable and empower collaboration and learning among students of diverse backgrounds.

“Design and Fabrication of Embedded Electronic Devices”
Ilya Mikhelson, lecturer of electrical engineering and computer science, McCormick 

Mikhelson is developing a course to address the gap between theory and practice in engineering, specifically by giving students the necessary tools to make an idea into a reality. In one fast-paced course, students will take a Web camera prototype from inception to completion, incorporating circuit design, 3-D printing, firmware programming, Internet connectivity, mobile development and Web development. By the end of the course, students will be able to take a problem they would like to solve, create a solution and implement it elegantly in both hardware and software. With industry trends towards connected, low-power devices, the skills Mikhelson will teach will be a valuable asset in the post-college job search. 

“Arabic for Media, Linguistic Choices by Media Professionals”
• Mounir Ouanaimi, adjunct lecturer, NU-Q Liberal Arts Program

The Arabic for Media course has been offered at NU-Q since 2009 and is aimed at informing the linguistic choices and decision-making processes of media professionals. By “flipping” the course, Ouanaimi’s approach to this class will address the difficulty of addressing the theoretical components in the traditional 90-minute session. Ouanaimi intends to offer course content online via carefully designed instructional interactive videos; this will allow students to spend class time more productively discussing the practical implications of the theory and examining authentic media products. NU-Q is already training top-notch media professionals who function in the Middle East, but Ouanaimi is confident that this course will further establish NU-Q’s connection to the market and raise the school’s profile locally and regionally.

“Flipped French: Adaptive Grammar”
Christiane Rey, associate professor of instruction of French and Italian, Weinberg
Patricia Scarampi, associate professor of instruction of French and Italian, Weinberg
• Aude Raymond, senior lecturer of French and Italian, Weinberg

By developing digital tools for a grammar and exercises component of a second-year French course, Raymond, Rey and Scarampi aim to free class time for communicative activities and to improve students’ comprehension and retention of the material by providing an approach tailored to individual levels, needs and styles. Their work this year will build upon their work from prior years when, supported by Hewlett grants, they began development of an online textbook. The features explored this year will make the study of French grammar significantly more interactive, more efficient, more effective and fun. The kinds of features proposed in this project -- specifically the sequencing of grammar and exercises, incorporation of tailored feedback and an interface for instructors -- do not currently exist on the market and represent a significant development that will help students to better assimilate material.

“Experience-based and Analytics-informed, Online Resources for a Flipped-classroom ‘Introduction to Scientific Computing in the Physical Sciences’ Course”
Suzan van der Lee, professor of Earth and planetary sciences, Weinberg

In an effort to better align course content with students’ needs and expectations, van der Lee is developing online course modules that will allow her to “flip” instructional content to actively engage students with the subject matter. By updating an existing framework in Canvas with experience-based, analytics-informed and research-supported content, the modules developed in this class will continue to exist and can be re-used on demand. These innovative modules have the potential to remain relevant because they are easy to adapt to both technological developments and evolving student needs.

“Pair Research: Matching People for Collaboration, Learning and Productivity”
Haoqi Zhang, Allen K. and Johnnie Cordell Breed Junior Professor of Design, electrical engineering and computer science, McCormick
Liz Gerber, associate professor of mechanical engineering, McCormick; associate professor of communication studies, School of Communication; and associate professor, School of Education and Social Policy

Collaboration and seeking help boost productivity and produce better research, yet few mechanisms exist for orchestrating such behaviors among undergraduate and graduate student researchers. Zhang and Gerber, co-director of Delta Lab, have been experimenting with a new kind of interaction within and across research groups that they call “pair research.” Each week, members of a group of Northwestern undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty are paired up by a matching algorithm and meet for a one- or two-hour session to work on each other’s projects. The following week, different pairs are formed and the process repeats. Zhang and Gerber intend to develop a Web-based platform for pair research that will incorporate features to help inform pairings over time and allow students to proactively suggest opportunities for collaboration and learning. This project will build on the successes of their early pilot deployments by advancing new learning technologies and developing a platform to broadly support the use of pair research in a variety of settings, both in and outside the classroom.

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