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Teaching and Learning Forum 2010 [ Refereed papers ]
ClimbIt as an interdisciplinary learning and teaching tool

Jo Jung and Shane Henderson
Edith Cowan University

This paper discusses a trial of teaching and learning strategy based on an interdisciplinary approach. The project title, ClimbIt, is meant to capture the spirit of the tool and the location of where the tool will be situated within the university building. The term ClimbIt stemmed from an idea of providing students with access to computer laboratory usage information on the walls in a stairwell in Building 3, Edith Cowan University, Mount Lawley campus, Perth. A user scenario, which the ClimbIt project is based on, was that a device with a visually engaging user interface design would communicate live 'weather-like' information as they walk up the stairs - hence the title - in real time.

The idea of ClimbIt stemmed from the students' needs to find a lab and computer to complete their assignments between classes. As labs are booked for classes during semesters, students often have to experience awkwardness and cause nuisance to other students and lecturers in classes by knocking on the doors. The ClimbIt project was envisioned as a solution. The core objectives of the project were to: (1) provide an engaging and stimulating learning environment for students; (2) reflect the industry practice of working in collaboration with people from diverse backgrounds; and (3) provide a solution to an authentic problem (i.e. access to lab usage information). As a result, ClimbIt acted as a teaching and learning strategy and a deliverable product (a tangible outcome) that can be used by real users.

Interdisciplinarity is often regarded as an ideal approach for teachers and students to engage in teaching and learning. Nevertheless, many learning institutions and their pedagogies has been framed by disciplinarity. One of the weaknesses of teaching and learning in the isolation of framed disciplines is that it does not reflect the reality of industry practice and prevents students from being ready for industry when they leave university. The ClimbIt project is an attempt to immerse our students in an authentic problem-solving scenario that steps outside of the traditional notions of discipline and allows them to safely explore the post disciplinary worlds' new workflows while having the guidance and support of the academic framework.

The journey of interdisciplinary teaching and learning by students and academic staff is discussed according to the product development phases. Subsequently, a summary of findings and recommendations for future projects of this nature, based on the authors' observations and surveys are listed.


Introduction

Interdisciplinarity is often regarded as an ideal approach for teachers and students to engage in teaching and learning. From teacher's perspective, an interdisciplinary approach allows academics to provide students with tools and learning environment relevant to industry practices and demands. For students, the value of higher-order thinking and learning skills and provides a vehicle for their integration into curriculum. In particular, the study field of human-computer interaction (HCI), such as exemplified by digital media and the arts, has always appreciated the inter-twinement of multiple disciplines. The recognition of emotions, the social nature of users, and user experience within HCI have further strengthened the importance of different disciplines with diverse backgrounds working in collaboration.

The commonly accepted appeal of interdisciplinary in teaching and learning is that a range of activities can be achieved (Klein, 1990, p. 11):

Unlike universities, the real world is not sectioned into disciplines or courses but it is interdisciplinary requiring multiple elements including social and cultural dimensions (Canning, 2007). Many learning institutions and their pedagogies have been framed by disciplinarity (Klein, 2000). This has caused some observers to remark that the notion of disciplines is artificial and is now breaking down into a post-disciplinary world (Rosamond, 2006; Turner, 2006).

Despite its potential, interdisciplinary curricula has a number of barriers preventing effective collaboration between different disciplines for both teachers and students (Thew, 2007, p. 1):

A project, called ClimbIt, presented in this paper was conducted to trial an interdisciplinary teaching and learning program. It explored the ubiquitous nature of computers and the Web to: The ClimbIt project is an attempt to immerse our students in an authentic problem-solving scenario that steps outside of the traditional notions of discipline and allows them to safely explore the post disciplinary worlds new workflows while having the guidance and support provided by a tertiary learning institution. In addition, to obtain a direct experience of interdisciplinary teaching and learning, a group of lecturers at Edith Cowan University used the ClimbIt project as a basis for students assessments. It was envisaged that authentic project problems would provide more engaging appraisal based content worked on by students in multiple units simultaneously.

The name 'ClimbIt' is meant to capture the spirit of the tool and location of where the tool will be located within the university building (see Figure 1). The term 'ClimbIt' stemmed from an idea providing students with access to computer laboratory usage information on the walls in a stairwell in Building 3, Edith Cowan University, Mount Lawley. A user scenario, which ClimbIt is based on, was that a device with a visually engaging user interface design would communicate live 'weather-like' information as they walk up the stairs-hence the title-in real time.

Figure 1

Figure 1: The stairwell of building 3, Mt Lawley Campus, Edith Cowan University.

Context of the project

School of Communication and Arts (SCA) students at Edith Cowan University often encounter problems of locating free computer labs and computers where they could work on their assignments. As labs are booked for classes during semesters, students often have to experience awkwardness and cause unscheduled disruption. The ClimbIt project was envisioned as a solution to this - a student built tool to communicate 'weather-like' information in real time to show lab usage. The project represents a novel approach informed by literature on problem-based learning and assessment. Students from different disciplines (e.g. interactive media, graphic design, advertising) collaboratively produced a single product. The approach to their design replicated the commonly used industry systemic approach to meeting challenges. Students acquire critical knowledge, problem solving proficiency, and collaborative competence. Through the ClimbIt project, students were encouraged to develop 'tight networks' with other students practising inter- and cross-disciplinary approaches relevant to their profession.

Students were divided into four groups with similar distribution of IMD and Graphic Design students in each group. By using ClimbIt as a project theme, students were given two project problems/challenges delivering the online tool:

The main focus of the project was on visual experience as we did not want to develop yet another monotonous and dull university online tool for students. The visceral aspects of the project were important in order to capture the essence of ClimbIt as a creative way to deliver an online tool for students. The seductive experience theory was chosen to accommodate the creation of an emotionally engaging project that encourages regular use of the tool. Khaslavsky and Shedroff (1999) described that creating a pleasurable experience by building a positive relationship between a user and a computer has an effect that appeals to the user. Similar to a positive relationship in a social interaction (e.g. friendship), the appealing effects act as a reason for the user to participate in the interaction with products (in this case, an online tool). Therefore, in this case, students are motivated to interact with and continue the interaction with the tool for their benefits - i.e. in control of their daily campus schedule and therefore, to effectively organise their study space and time.

The two project problems acted as guidance aligning with two disciplines' focus (i.e. IMD and Graphic Design). Nevertheless, students were given complete freedom to manage the development process and roles played within a group.

ClimbIt: online delivery of live lab usage information

The introduction of cloud computing and popularity of user-driven online services (e.g. Web 2.0) have firmly placed the Web as an integral part of our everyday life. Information access has been one of the popular Web functions where users can easily search and retrieve information. Universities are one of many organisations that utilise the Web to effectively manage the flow of information (e.g. course enrolment, unit content delivery). Nevertheless, the usage of the Web to deliver information by universities has been limited to administrative tasks (e.g. self-service online enrolment and download assignment information). These autonomous online tools are useful, however they lack 'enjoyment' factors affecting user experience; and perceiving users (i.e. students) as productive beings and disregard their social and emotional nature. People employ social skills and exhibit emotions when interacting with others and objects (Reeves & Nass, 1996). Computer users do not put their emotions aside and discard their social nature just because they are using computers.

Ubiquitous computing and using the Web to treat users as affective beings as well as productive beings provided the basis of ClimbIt project. The need of SCA students provided a starting point for this project, and the needs of computer users shaped the framework of this project to be effective and enjoyable to use. As mentioned previously, emotional engagement played an important role in the ClimbIt project.

Project processes and outcomes

As this project was a trial of a teaching and learning approach and strategy, it is important to discuss the journey of the students and lecturers involved. The details of the phases of the project are documented in the following section.

Initial conversation and planning

Initially, it was envisioned that up to four core units from five courses within Bachelor of Creative Industries will be involved in the project: Advertising, Graphic Design, Interactive Media Development (IMD), Marketing, Journalism and Public Relations. The proposal of large involvement of disciplines was to accommodate different stages of ClimbIt project development simulating the industry practice and product design. Table 1 shows the initial proposal of project development cycle.

Table 1: Original plan for project development phases, semester 1, 2009.

PhaseWeeksDisciplineOutput
1.Research: Data collection (Wk 1-4)Public RelationsPotential user profile (e.g. user's needs, wants, and desired interactive/interaction experience)
2.Documentation
(Wk 4-8)
Graphic DesignDevelopment of website interface themes to be included in the design/project documentation
Interactive MediaDesign/project documentation based on the information obtained from Marketing and PR students
3.Implementation
(Wk 8-13)
Interactive MediaDevelopment of the ClimbIt website based on the design documentation prepared by GD and IMD students
Graphic Design
4.Product promotion (Wk 8-13)AdvertisingPlan implement and promote of the product

Week 14 - Release of the project

Each unit coordinator was contacted by the project leaders (i.e. the authors of this paper) to explain the nature of the project and the anticipated outcomes. Their involvement was required to incorporate some assessment of the project at a level they were happy with, from a small optional part to a major compulsory assessment item. That is, select an aspect of the project whose assessment met their unit's needs. Each staff member was able to choose how the project would be incorporated into their unit and the assignment score allocation. However, the hectic semester time frame and lack of a shared vision of the project prevented the involvement of large disciplines. As a result, the project primarily involved two units from IMD and one unit from Graphic Design.

Phase 1: Research

Due to the challenges encountered mentioned previously, the timeline and student involvement were revised. This required IMD students replacing the Public Relations students' role of collecting user data. The role of Advertising and Journalism students was also replaced by planning the release of the product via online School announcement board (see Table 2 below for a revised timeline).

Table 2: Final plan for project development phases, semester 1, 2009.

PhaseWeeksDisciplineOutput
1.Research: Data collection (Wk 1-4)Interactive MediaPotential user profile (e.g. user's needs, wants, and desired interactive/interaction experience)
2.Documentation
(Wk 4-8)
Graphic DesignDevelopment of website interface themes to be included in the design/project documentation
Interactive MediaDesign/project documentation based on the information obtained from Marketing and PR students
3.Implementation
(Wk 8-13)
Interactive MediaDevelopment of the ClimbIt website based on the design documentation prepared by GD and IMD students
Graphic Design

Release of product Week 14http://www.sca.ecu.edu.au/

Students in one of the IMD units, Interface and Information Design, worked independently to collect user information as they progressed through the first 4 weeks of the unit.

The design of the final project timetable (i.e. Table 2) was hard to finalise. For various reasons, the project timetable was not finalised until around week 3 of the semester, despite concerted efforts by the project coordinators (e.g. late notice of withdrawal from the project).

After finalising the timetable, a 'handover' meeting was planned of all students involved at each transition between phases. This required the project coordinator to identify suitable times to suit the multiple units involved. These meetings turned out to be critical opportunities for students to review their groups' efforts, and the comments - reported below - show that they found them very motivating.

Phase 2: Documentation

To help implement the results of phase 1, a meeting of all involved students would be held as phase 2 started. This meeting would be the first time many of them had seen the full project and the other people involved. As this project was based on an industry-like assignment with authentic problems, at first, students could not comprehend the scope of the project. Therefore, this meeting was an enlightening session for many of them to realise the exciting opportunities and challenges the project entailed.

The first full meeting was held in week 4 of the semester, It was well attended despite being held at a busy time in the semester. Groups were then formed and thirty-four students who attended were arranged into four teams. At this stage this was an approximation of numbers and not a final participation figure. Based on their skill sets, expertise, and the unit they were enrolled in, students' roles were decided and then they were allocated into a group accordingly (see Table 3 for units involved in the project).

Nine students from an IMD unit (IMM2125) were assigned with roles of project researcher and management. Their roles were to provide a framework and drive the direction of the project informed by an in-depth research on users and project requirements. Seventeen students from another IMD unit (IMM2123) were assigned a role of dynamic content developers. Their primary role was to; create the front-end of the project based on the visual information received by Graphic Design students; and to prepare the back-end of the project to link it to the university data system feeding live lab usage information. Eight students from Graphic Design unit were assigned a role of visual designer, creating an "identity" and the overall look-and-feel of the project.

Table 3: Units involved in ClimbIt project.

UnitUnit description
IMM2123 Interactive Multimedia Authoring 1This is one of the two IMD unit involved in this project and it introduces students to the concepts and principles of IMD development through integrated authoring systems (i.e. Flash). Students are exposed to the principles and practices involved in developing digital media products.
IMM2125 Interface and Information DesignThis is another IMD unit involved in ClimbIt project. It introduces students to the concepts of interface and information design. It includes an introduction to the fundamental principles of interface design exploring a variety of interactive media information and performance environments based on human-computer interface and information architecture theories.
DES2101 Design PracticesThis is a Graphic Design unit which introduces students to the world of visual identity, including designed branding, visual and corporate identity, logos, and typographic devises.

During the meeting, students were also notified of the ClimbIt Blog on WordPress (see Figure 2). The blog enabled students to gain feedback and guidance from staff, as well as enabling group communications. In total, forty-three posts were made to the blog, there were nineteen registered users, including five staff, but only eleven were actively participating students. Comments ranged from introductions and thoughts on the project itself to comments on group confusion and feedback.

After the meeting, students were instructed to work with other group members to develop a prototype containing a brand identity and the overall user interface design of the project.

Phase 3a: Implementation

The second meeting was held in week 8 of the semester. This was an opportunity for students to showcase their prototypes and to obtain feedback. The groups all took different approaches, but all their products worked, and as a result the students seemed to find the diversity stimulating. Group 4's 'test-tube' solution was voted best by everyone (See Figure 5). It was described as 'funky, modern and simple'.

After the initial presentations, groups met and many students were excited with the new ideas and thoughts of changes and improvements they could make to their prototypes. There was a general 'buzz' of excitement in the room, seeing the other student's work helped students to see there was full participation in the project and this helped to fuel fresh enthusiasm in all students. This meeting was very successful and feedback from students was very positive and constructive.

Phase 3b: Student evaluations of prototypes

After each group's design was completed to a working level, an evaluation was set up by IMM2125 students to user test the projects with ECU students (i.e. potential users of ClimbIt). Ten first-year ECU students participated in the evaluation. Overall the evaluations identified the best prototype as Group 4's 'test tube' interface. IMM2125 students appreciated the evaluation, as they were able to obtain useful information that helped them to refine the project.

A conclusion from Group 4 reads:

To conclude, I feel the responses and constructive criticism we received from our user testing group was tremendously valuable and I personally learnt a lot from it. The benefit from this exercise on the final result of the ClimbIt project was much improved because of it. While also gaining some positive feedback on our design choices we made several essential changes to the initial design to present the project we now have completed and I feel is very successful.
Group 1 used an Apple Macintosh inspired logo as a metaphor because it represents the Macintosh lab and maintain the familiarity for the users. A simple hallway diagram approach, with Apples (see Figure 2), in colour (representing the room colours) in the room with a fill level as to how many computers are being used in the room.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Group 1 prototype.

Group 2 used the floor plan the building with colours to show where labs are and their current usage (see Figure 3). The navigation on the site occurs along the left side and the top of the page and change colour when in use by the users. They have incorporated the same style guide colours that the ECU uses for its website. However, during the meeting it was suggested that colours which already are in use on the walls of labs should be used to coincide with colours showing on the floor plan.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Group 2 prototype.

Group 3 used the design concept of sliding bar with colour coded blocks to convey lab usage information. The goal of the sliding bar design is to allow users to quickly scan the lab usage information at a glance (see Figure 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4: Group 3 prototype.

Group 4 ( the winning group) used a concept of test tubes to represent the labs using different colours, matching the colour of SCA lab rooms (see Figure 5). The liquid content of the tubes reflects the usage of computers - the colour in the test tube, the higher the number of computers being used. Bubbling test tubes means no computers are free and stoppers indicate that rooms are in use for a scheduled workshop.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Group 4 prototype.

Phase 4: Presentation

The final meeting was held in Week 14 of the semester. The aim of the meeting was to present the final products to third year students and an independent panel of judges - i.e. internal academic and IT staff members, and industry clients associated with the IMD course.

The overall presentation was considered a success. Students thoroughly enjoyed the session as it:

Release of the product

After the presentation, third year students and the judge panel voted the test tube site by Group 4 as the winner of ClimbIt project. In the voting paper, judges were asked to provide written feedback for each project. The feedback suggested that they enjoyed and preferred the test tube site because it: Other ClimbIt products also received positive feedback, however, they failed to capture the audience's attention and create an emotional connection (i.e. engaging user experience).

The winning group's ClimbIt project (Group 4) was announced and published on the ECU SCA website (http://www.sca.ecu.edu.au then click 'Live Building 3 Computer Lab Usage Information').

Staff and student feedback

Staff and students were surveyed after project finished. This included two staff that were initially invited but did not participate and involved in the project. Ten students completed a questionnaire. The survey return was small but we were able to gather valuable information:

Summary of recommendations

The data collected in each of the previous phases led to recommendations on the project and for future interdisciplinary projects of this nature. This was the first time such a large interdisciplinary project had been conducted for both lecturers and students involved. The evaluation revealed both important successes and scope for improvement. There are valuable lessons to be taken from these experiences and with time, they can form the basis of a set of best practices for mega-projects across different schools and faculties.

Commitment

Commitment from academic staff involved should be confirmed before start of a project. In ClimbIt project, the excitement of conducting an interdisciplinary project gained much interest from lecturers and their commitment to participate in the project. However, the nature of the project demanded lecturers to minimally modify their units for assessment purposes and the development process of the product. This resulted many lecturers to withdraw from the project. Although, the concept of interdisciplinary teaching and learning is widely appealing, requirements involved to adapt existing unit structures for an interdisciplinary project can be a drawback.

In the ClimbIt project, existing units were involved according to the phases relevant to production schedule. To eliminate the predicament of time-consuming process to modify existing units, a freestanding project would be ideal.

Students' understanding of interdisciplinary teaching and learning

For a smoother transition of students' learning experience, a clear outline of interdisciplinary teaching and learning is necessary. The ClimbIt was a first interdisciplinary project for all students involved. Many of the students did not have a clear understanding of the complex concept of interdisciplinary learning. The lack of students' understanding of the program discouraged students from moving forward in the early stage of the project. This is because, the interdisciplinary nature of the project was not well understood compared to the practical nature of the project which they were more accustomed to.

Students understood the concept of working in collaboration with students from different disciplines. However, they were not as accomplished in engaging with team members from diverse backgrounds. For example, initially, the project challenged many students' ability to consider alternative perspectives that are outside of their disciplines. Nevertheless, as the project progressed, the students learned to contribute and actively share their skills and knowledge. They removed the barrier of working in isolation and learned to recognise the importance of leveraging each other's valuable contributions.

Human resource

An impartial project coordinator could be a valuable resource to support and oversee the project. During a semester, lecturers are busy with teaching and researching schedule. Activities outside of their schedule can be demanding affecting the quality of their work.

An additional support role in the form of an IT Coordinator should also be considered for projects of a technical nature. Funding should be allocated to cover both these roles. The ClimbIt was technically oriented project, which required input and output of School's data system.

Communications

Regular communications and meetings are important in order to unify the students and to keep track of progress. This allowed the students to monitor development of their's and others' projects.

Reflective journals can be useful in recording learning experience and to vent frustration. In the ClimbIt, students were asked or required (depends on which unit they were enrolled in) to use blogs for group communication and individual journals. The use of blogs encouraged the students to engage in the process of reflective practice. The nature of the project involving a large group of students, frustration was a nature course. The blogs acted as an avenue allowing students to vent frustration professionally and constructively - in turn, the blogs provided the students with a community of practice.

Teamwork

An interdisciplinary project can be time-consuming and risks unforeseen challenges throughout the project development. This is partly due to the diverse backgrounds of people involved (e.g. lecturers with different academic life cycle, students from different disciplinary mainstreams). Participants' understanding of the same project could be very different leading to conflicting ideas and interpretations. For example, in ClimbIt project, staff and students encountered confusion in the early stage of the project due to different expectations and misunderstood roles.

Assessment of an interdisciplinary project

An interdisciplinary project involving multiple units should carefully consider the mapping of assessment criteria onto project processes. As multiple units were involved, assessment weights were assigned according to the requirements of each unit. The students received different marks based on completion of unit requirements instead of their contributions in project. This resulted inconsistency in assessments and in some cases imbalanced marks.

Evaluation

A peer evaluation of a project outcomes or product by potential users could be an enlightening experience for students. In ClimbIt, to reflect the industry practice, an evaluation with ten first year students (i.e. potential users of the product) was conducted. The evaluation assisted the students' learning in three ways: Traditionally, university learning has firmly focused on acquisition of knowledge and lacks practising knowledge gained. In conducting an evaluation, the students were able to practice theory into practice by utilising their knowledge as a tool to solve problems.

The three units involved in ClimbIt project share a common learning component of importance of evaluation and potential users product refinement. Prior to the ClimbIt project, the theory was put into practice by either assessing fellow students' works, which can be biased, or discussing their work with lecturers. By providing the students with an opportunity to design their own evaluation criteria and work with potential users, the students were able to experience a situation similar to an industry practice.

The students' experience of the evaluation indicated that they felt more confident in what they are doing by obtaining information directly from the potential users. In the evaluation, the students did not only identify problems but positive aspects of their product. The potential users' positive feedback was perceived by the students as a validation of their effort in the project affecting their confidence positively.

Development of multiple projects as a motivational factor

In ClimbIt, students developed four products based on the same objectives and requirements (i.e. a web-based tool that delivers live lab usage information). The only difference between the four products was the interface and interaction design. To be the chosen project to be published on the School site, the students had to work on creativity and innovation in the user's information experience. This resulted the students to be competitive between collaborating groups of students. This also encouraged students to challenge their own thinking and actively engage in self-directed learning.

In addition, the minimal limitations of ClimbIt project allowed the students to freely articulate their creative solutions and ideas without restrictions - there is no single solution that is 'right', but rather one can be deemed as 'most appropriate'.

References

Canning, J. (Ed.). (2007). Disciplines in dialogue: Disciplinary perspectives on interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Southampton: The Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning Group.

Khaslavsky, J., & Shedroff, N. (1999). Understanding the seductive experience. Communications of the ACM, 42(5), 45-49.

Klein, J. T. (1990). Interdisciplinarity: History, theory and practice. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University.

Klein, J. T. (2000). A conceptual vocabulary of interdisciplinary science. In P. Weingart & N. Stehr (Eds.), Practising interdisciplinary (pp. 3-24). London: University of Toronto.

Reeves, B., & Nass, C. (1996). The media equation: How people treat computers, television, and new media like real people and places. Stanford, California: CSLI Publications.

Rosamond, B. (2006). Disiciplinarity and the political economy of transformation: the epistemological politics of globalisation studies. Review of International Political Economy, 13(3), 516-532.

Thew, N. (2007). The impact of the internal economy of higher education instituitions on interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Southampton: The Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning Group.

Turner, B. S. (2006). Discipline. Theory, Culture & Society, 12(2-3), 183-186.

Authors: Dr Jo Jung and Mr Shane Henderson, School of Communications and Arts, Edith Cowan University.
Email: j.jung@ecu.edu.au, s.henderson@ecu.edu.au

Please cite as: Jung, J. & Henderson, S. (2010). ClimbIt as an interdisciplinary learning and teaching tool. In Educating for sustainability. Proceedings of the 19th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 28-29 January 2010. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2010/refereed/jung.html

Copyright 2010 Jo Jung and Shane Henderson. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format, provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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