Meet Deborah Fields

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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.

Deborah Fields

Deborah Fields is a part-time consultant and part-time professor at Utah State teaching online. She has a Cyberlearning project and a newly-funded iTEST grant with Yasmin Kafai. Deborah and Yasmin also gave the Joint Keynote for the 2014 Cyberlearning Summit and GLS Playful Learning.

How did you get started in cyberlearning?

The interests that I came to grad school with were about supporting kids in making connections across settings. Now it’s called connected learning, but I was interested in it before it was called that. It didn’t necessarily have anything to do with digital worlds or anything like that. But when I was getting my Masters degree at UW Madison, I took Jim Gee’s first Video Games and Learning course (see the book), and that was where I first encountered one way that technology could be this wonderful connective spot. He was documenting all this amazing learning that was happening, and many people weren’t aware of the value of what they were learning. It tapped into their interests, and it was hugely social and relational, which goes against stereotypes.

Then I stumbled upon this wonderful working relationship with Yasmin Kafai, and that took me to studying virtual worlds, which we talked about at the 2014 Cyberlearning Summit. Studying kids online made that connection across spaces seem so clear, because they were online or they were offline. But then it turns out that it was really mixed and we were following them across spaces. And that led me to really start formalizing the idea of how kids can connect across spaces and how technology might be involved in that.

Then for my dissertation I followed two kids for a year across spaces in their lives. I spent 200 hours with two different kids who were 11. They were so gracious. I visited them in classes at school, I went to their homes, was with them when they were with their friends. Even got invited to the girls’ first facial and one of their dentist appointments. They weren’t terribly great data collection sites, but I met all these faces. It would be hard to get a grant to do something like that, but for a dissertation it was really great. One of the things I learned was that when kids were making something that had enough room for personal expression and yet also met some of the norms or values of schools or institutional settings, then it became a connective artifact for them. For example, if they’re writing something, they might insert their humor or a silly story they encountered. I watched kids write science essays about why leaves are smaller or bigger in different environments, getting into the photosynthesis transpiration compromise, and insert their sense of humor. And then it became this connective artifact.

What are you focusing on now?

All of my research since then has basically focused on sites where kids are making something that has enough room for personal expression. That is what I’m doing now with my cyberlearning project: Trying to study constructionist-based situations where kids are programming in Scratch. We know that kids are interested and can make these cool projects, but one of the challenges is documenting what they’re learning. Their projects may insanely crazy and weird, like sharks eating divers and then barfing them back up, but they’re actually learning to do broadcasting, learning event-driven programming, some computational thinking, and those sorts of things. We’re trying to document that in a robust way, and trying to design situations that get them deep. So much of broadening participation in science or computing is just about interest or identity, and that’s where I started. But if you don’t build in that rigorous learning and get them deeper, then you’re not building the other side of the equation that allows it to be connective for people. So that’s how I got into cyberlearning and making. And why I make light-up clothes.

What are you doing with light-up clothes?

We just got an iTEST grant to build a computer-science curriculum where etextiles will be the culminating unit for an introductory Exploring Computer Science class. That’s very exciting. So now we get to build that into a more formal high school situation with boys and girls. That will be a fun challenge. When we wrote the grant we said that using etextiles will reach out to girls and it does, but sometimes the boys in my classes are the ones who stay the latest. And they’ll redo their projects 3 times until it’s done to their satisfaction. So it’s not that other kids don’t enjoy it. It’s fun to make things that are personally expressive. Etextiles is particularly powerful in a connective way because it travels; you don’t have to click on a screen to see it. I can wear my trapeze pants to a conference. Think about how many people saw that. And the kind of identities they built about me as someone who is capable, and oh she does aerial arts, and is a professor. So it’s very fun. When you allow kids to do that, it allows them to be authors of their own identities that get interpreted multiple ways in different settings. And then they become more powerful.

I like to think of kids as being their own brokers and how can we give them the tools to do that. And having artifacts to show off. I was in a principal’s office once with etextiles and there was this kid who was struggling in school, but he came in during lunch to work on his project. He often had the identity where he was knows as the goof-off kid, not paying attention, those sorts of things. But in that moment, we were in the school office working on his thing, the principal comes in, and he’s like, “So, what are you doing? How does this work?” And the kid explains it, completely accurately. It became a wonderful identity-building moment where he was shown as someone technologically savvy, who understood some of the computer science and the electric circuitry and stuff. Those kinds of moments are the ones I like to build.

Where are you now? You are working with kids in LA?

Yes. Most people don’t know that I have shifted to be a part time temporary assistant professor with Utah State. It allows me to continue some of my work on the grants and I teach online. And then I’m a halftime consultant. So I was able to relocate to Los Angeles to be with my spouse, who I had been away from for 4 years as I was trying to follow the academic dream, and just realized that it was a more moldable thing than I had realized. So I’m having a lot of fun. And I became a yoga teacher! I taught my first two classes this week. And I’ve learned so much anatomy and science as I’ve been doing this. I wore my trapeze pants to class, too.

What makes you wake up every morning and want to work on this?

On of my big passions is that I really want people to have a much, much bigger view of what kids are capable of. I want to support kids’ creativity and interests, and their rigorous learning at the same time. So often we think of just doing one or the other. But no, we can do both, and we can do both at the same time. The constructionist part gets into that. And also it’s such an exciting thing to study, when you’re like, “Ah, they just learned that, and it’s so awesome!” and I can see that that data. And in my paper I can write about this girl who designed a game with rich, amazing programming, and she shifted her programming style to do it, and it’s zombie cat heads falling from the sky that you have to catch. That makes life worth living! To be able to say that in an academic paper? I love putting the mischievous back into academia, too. We just legitimized zombie cat heads falling from the sky.

So what get’s me up in the morning? Trying to do work that can change people’s minds––researchers, kids, and the general public––and now, developing this curriculum. We get to try to create a really good, constructionist curriculum, in high schools, as part of the Exploring Computer Science curriculum, which is such a good course. They have social justice stuff in there, and social aspects of computing. It’s a very connective type of course to help expand people’s ideas of what computing includes, how it’s relevant in our everyday lives, and really exposing kids to a lot of different ways they can use computers, do some programming as part of it, but also problem solving and computational thinking at large. Then the idea is to do that in a really culturally relevant way in Los Angeles public schools, and then hopefully expand beyond that.

That is my iTEST grant. My Cybrlearning grant tries to tap into how we authentically us big data to develop ways to create authentic assessments of kids learning. I come from a background of rich qualitative analysis, and my team has really been trying to do both. We’ve been using rich qualitative analyses to dip into big data, and to develop measures they can use quantitatively. And then testing those by looking back to see if they are telling us what we think they’re telling us. That’s one of the big challenges. It’s really hard to do any kind of research well. Good qualitative research is so hard. Good quantitative research is so hard. To try to bring them together and develop a team that has the different expertise needed has been a big challenge. But it’s really fun to see the views of programming that I haven’t been able to see from hand coding. Then you have to figure out how to communicate it, which is another challenge. Sometimes I feel like a doctoral student again. But that’s the pleasure of doing edgy kind of work.

I also get to work with such amazing people! Looking at the CIRCL Cyberlearning conference participants, those are always the best people. They are creative, and have different areas of expertise. It’s not just putting a brick in a wall, it’s breaking down walls, working across organizations and programs. I love the teams of people I get to work with on my individual projects and also the larger community. I feel like there is a lot of respect, and a lot of rigor. People are really thoughtful and thought provoking, and that is so much of what gives me pleasure.

Are you working with teachers?

Historically I’ve done most of my work with kids. With the ECS project, we’ll be working more with teachers, developing the curriculum working on the professional development. We expect to start working with just one or two teachers, editing and revising, and then hopefully this can go out and reach more teachers. Another potential grant we’re waiting to hear on would be very focused on teachers and with with a science educator who focuses on professional development.

Since I’ve worked more in informal settings, I come in with a different set of expectations for what can be done in classrooms. Sometimes that can be good for breaking new ground and trying new things that others don’t think of, but then it’s also very important to partner with people who know the constraints and expectations. It’s fun to bring in different people with different backgrounds.

I’m also working with Jane Margolis, Joanna Good, and Gail Chapman, who wrote the ECS curriculum, as well as Yasmin Kafai. Because we’re working with an existing curriculum, there’s a lot that we’re trying to work within. And especially in this first year, it depends on the individual teachers and how much time they’re willing to give us. First I have to get them all sewing lights on clothes.

What are you struggling with, and how might the cyberlearning community help?

I’m struggling with the beauty and difficulty of working across disciplines with different methods, and building new forms of analyzing kids learning. My advisory board helps; it’s great to be able to go to them to hit them with questions. Getting specific feedback on an in-progress project is so important for strengthening it and making sure you’re going in the right direction, and it’s great to learn about other people who could be valuable. I’ve been able to do a little bit of connecting on my own, but the CIRCL meeting can help with that. It’s great when the community can trade favors on feedback and specifics, and get into those deeper conversations.

As a community, building those relationships and building that work where people can collegially work across disciplines is really hard. People have different agendas and different ways of valuing expertise. That’s one of the things that the cyberlearning community seems to be trying to do. People are playing roles with different expertise and collaborating together. You might need someone who is very solid in learning sciences, or in different methodologies, or working with teachers or schools. Those are really different roles. You can’t just master all of them in a career. I think that’s one of the challenges facing the cyberlearning community. And it’s hard to create those spaces. For me to go talk to a real computer scientist about certain methods is hard because I don’t have that expertise. I’ve spoken with a lot of people in engineering or computer science and they’re really passionate about education but they don’t have the background in education or learning science to know what’s been done, rigorous understanding of learning theory and how to research it.

And so you have to be humble enough to learn, and conscious enough of other people’s expertise that you’re also willing to help teach them. That interdisciplinarity, to do really well, is really difficult to support. I’ve had collaborations that have fallen apart. I’ve had times where things just didn’t go as far as they could because everyone is so busy on their own project. We only have so much time, and people have to meet different expectations. In computer science, proceedings in certain conferences count for them; for others, a journal article is all that matters. It’s hard to create the space where you can work deeply across settings. I do have some great partnerships that have worked out, but I’ve had a lot more where we just talk for an hour or two or meet for several hours even, and it doesn’t go very far. It’s hard to create a heavy-lifting team to carve out a new area, and take the time to learn about each others’ expertise enough to do interdisciplinary work.

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