CIRCL perspectives offer a window into the different worlds of various stakeholders in the cyberlearning community — what drives their work, what they need to be successful, and what they think the community should be doing. Share your perspective.
Ana-Paula Correia is an Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and a faculty member with the Human-Computer Interaction graduate program at Iowa State University. Before that, she was a middle and high school science teacher in Portugual and also worked as an Assistant Professor in the Curriculum and Educational Technology department at the University of Minho in Braga, Portugal.
(Read Ana-Paula’s full perspective below, or watch video excerpts from the interview, which took place January 27, 2015, at Cyberlearning 2015.)
How did you get into cyberlearning?
I started my career as a science teacher in a classroom. Actually, it was seventh grade through twelfth grade, so I taught all the grades while I was working as a science teacher in Portugal. And you know, when you teach science, you want the students to learn as to a deep understanding about scientific concepts, because science builds on foundations. So if they have a really deep understanding about the foundational, then they can easily build, and fly, and become scientists.
So I was interested in how to develop that deep understanding on scientific concepts, especially the ones that are critical for further understanding. And then came along the computer and the technology, but I look at technology as an application of knowledge with a practical purpose. It does not need to be necessarily a gadget, or technology. It can be an intellectual process for me is also, in my head, is technology, because it’s an application of knowledge to solve a practical problem, if that intellectual process is going to help me solve educational problem or issue.
What is your current research interest?
I have several interests, but my central focus is learning design—how you design learning experiences. They have an impact, because they help people learn something that they want to learn, or is going to be helpful to improve the quality of their life. So that’s my kind of where I start from. And I think collaboration—we talk a lot about collaboration, but we don’t really break it down in terms of how you start a collaboration and, more importantly, how you maintain and sustain that. And how is the connection meaningful and deep?
So I’m interested in those issues to support collaborative learning, support learning teams that work at a distance—so, they are distributed different places in the world—and how they build trust and they be productive and successful because they have a deep connection. So I’m going back to the concept of deep, and time to reflect and to build relationships that will make projects successful and impactful.
Do you consider yourself as a researcher or a designer?
Okay. So they have all these labels that I really—sometimes I feel I don’t fit in any label, so I don’t want to label myself as a computer-supported collaborative learning researcher, because what interests me is beyond that. I want to know how people connect in a deep way so they can learn from each other. So I really cannot put myself in any label. Sorry about that.
What are some things one should think about when designing a learning environment?
First thing that comes to my mind—who am I designing for? If I don’t have an understanding of the audience or the group of learners I’m targeting, so whatever design I would come up with can be perfect, can have a lot of money behind it; if it’s not designed with that group of people in mind, it’s never going to be successful, because people are not going to use it. And it’s not their fault. We tend to blame the target audiences—our students or our end-users—because they don’t use our learning events or our educational software.
But the first thing is that front-end analyses is that you have to go in and live with your target group of learners. You have to live with them—breathe the same air, understand their daily life. That’s what I tell my students when they design for children. If they don’t have children of their own, they have to go and spend a week at a school—be in the classroom. If they are designing for first graders, be in the classroom with that teacher for an entire day, for a week. They did that, and they come back and say, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know all that teacher can handle.” Because they need to understand the audience they are designing for. This is the most important thing, and also the most difficult thing, because sometimes we cannot reach audiences that we are designing for, for different reasons.
One time we designed for a group of immigrants, and they were illegal immigrants, and we didn’t have access to them. But still, the principle is that you have to understand your target audience. So we reached out to other people in our community that could represent them, and we conducted learning analysis with these people. We cannot just ignore that step—it is so important. So I’m still on the first phase, and I know—and because you know the target audience, you’re going to design something to help them learn something that is meaningful to them and relevant. You have to figure out the resources that you need, and people also talk a lot about lack of resources. I will talk more about lack of imagination.
There are always resources around you; if you don’t have the money, reach out to the community. There are people that are willing to do work for you or with you for free or pro bono. You just have to be resourceful and look for people as them being the resources, not necessarily the money. Even though money’s important, don’t take me wrong. But it should not be the thing that will stop me to do the thing. So be resourceful; really understand your audience.
One of the challenges that researchers face is finding implementation partners in the community and ways to get technology into the hands of users. What are your thoughts on technology diffusion?
You know, if you look at the diffusion of innovation, adoption of innovation theories, they always talk about this group of adoptors that are early in the process and are eager to do it; eager to be the first one to have the new gadget on their hands and to show people that, “Oh, well, they are doing by using their gadget.” Well, after that initial hump—initial excitement—the sustainability is always the issue. And that’s where I think we encounter some of the problems; finding that group of early adopters is not the challenge. The challenges go beyond that.
And again, you have to understand the community that you are designing for, because if you understand what they need and what they are longing for, and more importantly, how they evolved. Because we might design something now that, in three years, no one uses it, because our design did not follow how the community evolved in these three years. Everything that’s happening in the world right now is impacting our life, and we need to be aware of that and evolve our solutions to meet whatever needs or whatever problems we encounter every day.
What do you hope to learn from the cyberlearning community? Or what do you hope to contribute to the cyberlearning community?
I want to contribute with my ideas. I think I have a unique perspective into problems, and I want to share that perspective with the people that have been talking for this last two days. And I always want to connect in a deep way. I want to leave this meeting with friends and not so much with acquaintances. So now, in terms of community, research and development—I want to learn what kind of solutions are out there and what are the solutions that are working, and also to get inspiration from those projects, to generate more ideas and other solutions with other people on current problems.
I also learn from their problems, and most importantly if people report and are open, learn from the things that fail in implementation. And there’s so much richness in terms of learning, but we are training not to share our failures. So I miss that sometimes in these kinds of meetings. I would like to learn more about those. Because there’s always learning, so there’s always gain. I don’t see it as a—I look at the failure as a positive, constructive event, because it’s going to take it to bigger things; better things. I wish we could report more about those in these meetings.
If there were ten million dollars for a new research center in cyberlearning, what would you want that center to focus on?
For starters, I would never want a ten million dollar center. If I get ten million dollars as a fund, I’m going to split that money and create one thousand hubs of innovation and creativity. These people—these young people—are so talented that get out of college so hungry with so much ambition. They might not want to work for someone. What if we spread out money and we are one thousand hubs, where two or three people that are hungry and ambitious and smart work? We can get out—even if we have only half of the people being really successful, we’re going to have five hundred solutions to problems.
And I think avenues—hubs of creativity and innovation distributed and they talk with each other—and it could be nationally or internationally—in my head, there are no boundaries. We have these people—they’re ready to solve problems, and they are probably underdogs—they would never get fund any other way. And we could reach out to these talented people—hungry; they want to make a difference in the world—and work for the common good. Education is a luxury. It’s a good—it’s a social good. We should all be working to make that good more equally distributed.
I could see that ten million dollars generate one thousand centers; that’s kind of my vision. And then have those centers be entrepreneurial in itself, and I look at the entrepreneurial not just because you start a business or you own a business, or you have a start-up. For me, being entrepreneurial is a way of looking at problems. It’s kind of a lifestyle. You look at the problems in a unique way, and you come out with a solution that people actually use it. And if you do that, then you’ll be able to self-sustain it.
Is there a key message you would like to communicate?
But they’re all looking for solving problems, so my message for these people is like, first let’s all collaborate in a deep way—in a true, authentic, generous way of sharing. Because when you share, you need to be generous in terms of you have to give everything you have to the other person. So that’s how you’re going to grow, that’s how you’re going to help your students to become whatever they want. So I’ll be – -; I don’t see cyberlearning as like creating a system or a platform. I see it as an approach to solve problems.
Cyberlearning for me—it’s an approach to solve learning problems that uses technology as a support. And even my definition of technology is broad, because it includes more than our tangible objects. So for me, technology can be a way of assigning people to groups. The group composition—if you want a very creative, innovative, productive, successful team, you have to come out with a system to create those teams.
And just that process of group formation—the way you decide how groups are going to be formed is actually going to determine some of the team’s success. So for me, this in itself is a technology, because it’s an intellectual process. So when you use the word cyber, what comes to my mind is technology in the broad sense; networks—people connecting with the help of the machines, of course. But the machine is not the center of my definition of cyberlearning.
Cyber, for me, brings more the notion of distributed—not being in the same room with people; virtual; geographically apart. And technology will help us to communicate, to be productive, to solve those problems in a way that will bring common good. So maybe my definition is too broad, but this is kind of what I believe. Then the gadgets, the systems, the platforms—they are efforts on solving those problems. Is this a little bit clearer now?
How could your work come together with others from this conference to have a bigger impact?
I have to go back and share with you what I think about what “impact” is. I don’t feel that influencing one thousand people with my work is in my – – the impact. I want to know what is the quality of the influence, and I might have high quality influence on a small group of people, and this could be impact for me. So again, when you ask me how do I see the impact, what will be the impact of my work—I want to make an impact on people’s life in terms of sharing everything I know with them.
It does not matter if they are colleagues, if they are peers, if they are my students, if they are members of my family, if the cab driver that we have a wonderful conversation about West Africa—it’s just a moment that you are with people, we share what you know, they share with you. And this, for me, is impactful. And what I get from these meetings is that small-scale impact, but it’s deep, and it’s going to be sustainable, and it’s going to last. Next time I come to this meeting, I just need to look at people and we’ll be in touch—we’ll stay in touch, because we are interested in the conversation we had, not because I’m very rich, and I’ll be able to provide fund for the project.
What work is exciting to you?
The exciting part is the teaching and work with the students. I look at my students as the next generation. When you ask me what is the impact of my work—the impact of my work is going to go, disseminated by the people that I’m mentoring, that I’m learning from, that I’m teaching. This is like a ripple effect. This is how I see the impact of my work. I don’t see so much the impact of my work because I’m going to invent this little machine; I’m going to impact these many people during this period of time.
I see my work as these are the people that I’m connecting on a daily basis, and those are the messages they are going to bring when they go back to Mongolia, when they go back to Malaysia, when they go back to Turkey, when they stay in the United States and start their own company in San Francisco—this is what excites me every day. And then the fact that I’m making an impact through people. I don’t know how many people—it’s like people that I encounter every day—I don’t count them.
When you travel, when you meet other people, you get inspired by the ways—for instance, when I travel to Europe, I always tend to bring my children with me, because I want them to see how people have the same problems, but they approach the problems from a different point of view, and I want them to learn from their experience. Because at the end, we need to be problem-solvers. We should not be having all these social problems that we’re still having in 2015 if we’re good problem-solvers. So that’s what—this is the bottom line for me. I know it’s big picture, but it’s just kind of the way I am.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I think one thing I like is we cannot lose sight of what is important. With our work, what we want to contribute to a body of knowledge, but we also want to make an impact on people’s life in a way that their life becomes better according to their own definitions of what is good for them, not according to our definitions.