söndag 27 februari 2011

Gendered design


This week I listened to a thought-provoking talk by KTH Ph.D. student Karin Ehrnberger about gender-coded design. The pictures above says it all. As an industrial designer, Karin's thesis work concerned a practical exercise in uncovering (deconstructing, opening up the black box of) design and values. More specifically she has uncovered gender-coded design practices through an innovative design "intervention". More specifically, she switched the design conventions of a drilling machine and hand blender with each other so that the drilling machine used the conventions of the hand blender and vice versa. The result was the drilling machine "Dolphia" (named after non-threatening round, friendly dolphins) and the hand blender "Mega Hurricane".

Karin also mentioned that all the stuff at IKEA that is made out of soft materials (plaids, curtains etc.) are called Anita, Felicia, Birgit, Inez and Kajsa while stuff made out of wood (bookshelves, footstools etc.) are called Ivar, Billy, Oddvar, Hugo and Bosse. I really haven't thought about that before. The whole talk was an eye-opener. As a Ph.D. student, Karin is now trying to (theoretically) understand and further explore what she did in her master's thesis in terms of design and values (including but not limited to issues of gender).

I immediately thought about the huge difference in design between the original (aggressively "male") Xbox computer game console (2001) that flopped big time in Japan - not the least because of the design - and the (organically "female") Xbox 360 follow-up (2005). Since computer gaming and game consoles have made the trip all the way from the domain of teenage boys to the family living room and even retirement homes (Nintendo Wii) in just a decade or two, it would be really interesting to see a study of how the design of these machines have changed together with the remodeling of computer gaming into a social family activity. At the same time we have another development in the emergence of pro-gaming and professional gamers. I wonder what can be made out of the form language of high-end computer gaming equipment (computer mice etc.). I bet the design conventions are (very) "male", attempting to convey values of speed, force, no-nonsense effectiveness and so on...

Hand mixer with a "sporty" display with a rev counter and a "trigger" button.
Drill with "non-threatening" organic forms and simple interface/settings

lördag 19 februari 2011

Social media in higher education

Me and a couple of colleagues (Stefan, new ph.d. student Pernilla and my wife Tessy) are planning to write an article about student attitudes to social media use in higher (university) education.

It started with a call of paper for the journal "The Internet in Higher Education". More specifically, there will be a special issue on "Social Media in Higher Education" (pdf file) where my colleague Stefan Hrastinski is one of the two guest editors. While this call for papers provided the initial push, we later decided to skip this special issue, not the least because a tight deadline (March 15) as well as a possible conflict of interests on Stefan's behalf if he were to be both an author and editor for the special issue.

Instead we met in the beginning of December for a brainstorming session and formulated some loose questions based on the overlap between the call for papers, our research interests as well as my course on Social Media Technologies (and the 60+ students who took that course).

These loose pre-Christmas discussions were quite unfocused (being of a more brainstormy nature), but they did make an impact inasmuch as I actually formulated no less than four different open-ended questions for the (home) exam for the course that relates to the topics that interest us. I don't know for sure, but this feels like it is a pretty unique (or at least unusual) way of conducting research... What do you, dear reader, think about this?

What's great about this from my/our point of view is that we have a captive audience of 60+ informants who are doing their utmost to write the best possible answers to these questions (since their grades depend on the creativity and quality of their answers). Here are the four questions (slightly edited):

Question 4
Some students fired me at a seminar because there will be no role for university teachers in the future (when you can find everything on the Internet)! Or will there...? Will university teachers be even more important in a world of super-abundant information?

a) With support from the course literature, please either argue why
- I will be out of a job as a university teacher 10 years from now, or
- why my job as a university teacher will be more important that ever 10 years from now.

b) What (other) job could I have 2020? Please try to argue convincingly why your suggestion is reasonable. Do note that I will judge your answer based on your arguments, not on how appealing or lucrative my (potential) future job is!

Question 6
I became a little inspired by formulating the last question on the course course evaluation form you filled out:

The goal of some course activities (especially the group assignment) was to force you to work together with new acquaintances and extend your social network. What have the effects of establishing new, weak (?) ties to other students during the through the course been for you personally? Or if you haven't made any new contacts, why do you think that is the case?

a) How many persons who took the course did you know before the course?

b) Discuss and analyze network-inducing activities that have taken place in and around the course from a perspective of "weak" and "strong" ties. The "network-inducing" activities I refer to could have been initiated by me (group formation exercise/group assignment) or by you or another student (for example striking up a conversation during a break).

Question 7
Formulated already in 1980, this is the "media gap":

Please fill "the media gap" (below) with Internet/social media technologies.

a) Please argue about and justify your choices and their placement relative to each other and to other kinds of media surrounding "the media gap" (see picture above)! Then choose one out of the following two questions:

b) Analyze and discuss the proposed division between one-to-one media, Internet/social media and mass media. What are possible factors that complicate this seemingly simple division between different kinds/functions of media?

c) Analyze and discuss the Internet/social/"media gap" media in your figure in terms of Jenkins' use of the terms "interactivity" and "participation".

Question 8
Teaches A, B and C all teach the same masters-level university course. Teacher A always try to use as many different social media tools as possible during the course. Teacher B tries to use a few selected tools. Teacher C sees little use of social media in that course.

Please take the role of one of these teachers and specify what kinds of social media tools you will use and what kinds of tools you will not use. Please also motivate and argue why you made those choices, and, please try to think "beyond" the use of social media in this particular course (a course which happened to be about social media)!

Please answer in the form of a 1-2 pages long "mini-essay".

I will not go into details about the aim of our interview study (I might come back to it later though), but sufficient to say is that we met this week and planned and discussed the study and the resulting paper. As a result of our meeting I have now taken the exams of 15 students (25% of those who took the course) and pasted their answers to the questions above into four separate documents. These four documents each became between 16-30 pages long (!) and 90 pages long together. We have divided the documents up and will read them before our next meeting with an eye towards the generation of questions we want to ask the students in the study about their attitudes to social media use in higher education that we plan to conduct.

torsdag 10 februari 2011

Rich pictures and climate challenges

I have previously written about the Rich Pictures exercise that I held in my course on social media. I have now adapted, or perhaps returned to the original form and purpose of the exercise; to organize a one-off 3-hour exercise in the area of sustainability, environmental issues and climate challenges.

I have previously written about the evening course I took during the autumn. Some things were good about the course, some things less so. The social framework around the course did not work so well. I did not feel that course participants had good opportunities to get to know each other and develop relationships based on the ambiance and natural curiosity that people who have an interest in common (and are interested enough to take an evening course on that topic) harbor towards each other. That didn't matter (that much) to me as I took the course together with two friends of mine, but none of us did make a lot of new friends through the course even though I'm sure that there were people there that I would have liked to get to know better.

So, part of the purpose of the exercise was to let students in the new-but-similar course that runs during the spring term get to know each other better early in the course. There were several other purposes beyond this purpose of being an ice-breaker and social mixer, such as:

- a way to divide the class into groups without the hassle of course administrators themselves having to fine-tune the work and accomodate different participants' wishes.
- give the students an exercise with a lot of room for (own) creative thinking. Perhaps a few groups will even find new ways of thinking about a topic?
- a way to get "into" the topics covered by the course.
- realize the difficulties (and benefits) of working in a group and having to negotiate and find common ground.
- work with the (in the academic world often-forgotten) sensory and emotional dimension of climate challenges and with an added possibility of "touching" (affecting) participants in other ways than just intellectually, through reading a text or listening to a lecture.

So I suggested a Rich Pictures exercise in the beginning of the new course as, among other things, a way to kick-start the creation of a social structure around the course. I took care of all practical aspects of carrying through the exercise and I have to say the exercise turned out to be a success. The exercise lasted for three hours and I had divided the evening into five "acts":

- Act 1 - selecting a picture and negotiating with others in order to form groups around topics/themes.
- Act 2 - discussing the topic at hand and working with your new group to create a poster.
- Act 3 - presenting the poster and "voting" on you favorite poster (by placing small sticker directly on the poster).
- Act 4 - choosing a task that your new-formed group would work on throughout the term and in parallel to the course.
- Act 5 - filling out an evaluation form so that I would get feedback on the exercise.

I'm especially happy about some constraints we formulated for Act 1 above. All groups had to consist of three persons. All groups had to consist of both men and women. All groups had to consist of both students and "returning" students. And finally, you were not allowed to form a group that included someone that you knew from before the course started. Despite the exercise on the whole being a success, there were still a few things that could have been improved and the main two points are:

- With so many moving parts (acts 1-5 above) and groups leaving to work and returning for further instructions, I could have printed a time-table so that the groups would have known at what times be back in the classroom. As it was, participants were a little on the time we were supposed to reassemble and so we had to go around to check on the groups and also gently remind them that "they had 10 more minutes to work before meeting up in the classroom again"

- The biggest problem though was that I handed out an evaluation forms before they left, but it was done in a haphazard way; people filled it out quickly and handed it in before leaving for the evening. While the feedback on the whole was extremely positive, the actual text was very short, sometimes just summarizing what they thought in a few or even just one singe word ("Great!").
The problem is thus that I did not get a lot of input for my own planned study and for a future paper on the topic of rich pictures. I now realize I should have created a more protected space (in time and in space), for example by asking them to help put the furniture back and then sit down for a concluding summary of the evening. When seated, I could have walked around, personally handed out the evaluation form and stated that they should take their time to think about the questions and try to answer them carefully as a kind of personal service to me. Or we could have had a public "gripe session", a sort of group discussion about pros and cons of the exercise. This gripe session could have been precluded (or followed up) by an evaluation form, perhaps filled out during the following days over the Internet. This is something I need to think about a lot more before I do this exercise again (and discuss and calibrate with my future co-author in Manchester). Even the (current) questions themselves were pretty lame so I have to think a lot more about what I want to get out of the evaluation.

Since the students were positive about the exercise, I'm sure they could and would have provided me with better input to my study had I given them the chance. This was after all what I would get out of the exercise (except the experiences of having conducted it). This is really a crucial point too, as there is little incentive (for me) to do the exercise again from a scientific point of view if it doesn't yield any data that I can use in a future paper about all of this...

However, I did have a lunch meeting with the course administrators one week after the exercise and they were certainly happy enough to invite me to do it all again after the summer, when the next course (the one I took last term) starts again. I think I will do so but I then have to prepare the data collection part a lot better!

tisdag 1 februari 2011

Spatial sound in computer games

I just (two hours ago) submitted a paper about sound in computer games and it's a huge relief to be done with it, the work has been quite intensive during the last week and today was the very last day to submit it. Only yesterday the paper was 10% longer that what was allowed and the threat of failing to shave off 500 words of the paper was pretty clear: "Submissions in excess of these limits may be rejected without refereeing".

The paper has been submitted to the journal IEEE Software for a special issue on "Engineering Fun". It will be published in the September/October issue if accepted. From the call:

"As large and complex software projects, modern computer games pose many software engineering challenges, with complex and performance-intensive design and implementation choices. As entertainment products, games also rely heavily on less well-defined, abstract properties such as playability and fun. The influence of soft, thematic, and aesthetic requirements on precise and practical designs introduces a variety of interesting development constraints and goals."

The paper is based on a great bachelor's thesis by a student of ours, Markus Bogren Eriksson. His thesis was presented half a year ago and it is called "The sound of reality: Simulated spatial acoustics in modern game worlds". The paper we submitted today is called "Fabricating reality through spatial acoustics". Markus is first author of the paper and I'm the second author.

It just so happened that I came across a call for papers to this special issue only two months ago and directly felt that Markus' thesis would fit hand-in-glove with this special issue. I directly sent a mail to Markus (in the beginning of December). A week or so later we had a great brainstorming session about how to transform (parts of) his thesis into a paper - and then I left Sweden for a month-long trip. Markus worked on the paper over Christmas and we have worked together on the paper (primarily through Google Docs) during the last two and a half weeks.

Even though the topic of the paper is not really my thing, I still think the paper turned out great in the end and I think it has a pretty good chance to be accepted to the journal. At the moment I have a hard time to distance myself from the paper but I hope it is a good as it subjectively feels right now! Here is the abstract:

Fabricating reality through spatial acoustics

We argue that sound is a neglected area of computer game development in comparison to graphics. At this point in time, increased realism and immersion in computer games might thus best be attained by expanding current two-dimensional soundscapes into the third dimension through simulated spatial acoustics (SSA). This recommendation is based on two studies or ours as well as an examination of 20 contemporary computer games and interviews with game developers, sound designers and sound engineers at two progressive gaming studios.

Keywords: computer games, spatial sound, sound and music computing, modeling, simulation