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Research Statement ||| Craig D. Howard, PhD

Educators are overwhelmed with the proliferation of new media. High level studies do not provide access to the nuanced understandings that educators need to make informed decisions about these new media. My studies are fine-grain analyses of specific design features. These studies enable educators to make those informed decisions. I focus on features related to the teaching and learning of critical discourses because critical discourse ability is crucial for entry into communities of practice in the information age.

This mission serves students and teachers, but also the field of instructional design. To serve students and teachers, I describe how design features impact communications. However, studies in critical discourse also serve the field. The second thread of my research agenda addresses a form of critical discourse in instructional design: the design case. I first present the thread of studies that speak to specific features, and thereafter detail how my studies of the rhetoric of instructional design impact the field.

1.     Addressing design features in teaching and learning critical discourses with new media

Design features impact teaching and learning with new media, but design features are never isolated. Contextual factors, other design features, and the larger design in which a design is embedded always impact the effectiveness of a specific feature. I grappled with these relationships and the difficulty of making sense of the complexities. To address the complexity, I presented a design theory to untangle how several features can work together to promote the learning of critical discourses (Howard, 2012).

This research builds on Hymes’ (1972) theory of communicative competence, breaking it down into actual features that might appear in instructional designs. I present seven foci as a means to categorize these design features for critical discourse learning. One of those categories is safe spaces for learning, e.g. anonymous critical discourse.

To study anonymity in critical discourse, I contrasted website design critiques by learners in known and anonymous conditions. These empirical results speak directly to the design of mediated spaces: “Students who were anonymous were approximately five times more likely to provide substantively critical feedback than were those whose identities were known to their recipients” (Howard, Barrett, & Frick, 2010 p. 89). The results modify our understanding of De-individuation Theory (Postmes et al, 2001), but do little to help the educator who is overwhelmed with media choices.

Web 2.0 sites present one such overwhelming media choice for critical discourse learning. Collaborative language learning websites are popular for supplemental coursework and for self-access learning, but also number in the thousands in Google searches. To address this problem, I collected a list of 24 “Web 2.0” websites in use at five universities. I narrowed the list down to the ten that met the criteria of Web 2.0 and quantified their design features. This method supported two statements about Web 2.0 designs. Search results offer little help in finding the better Web 2.0 designs, and the presence of synchronous user-to-user features are indicative of Web 2.0 designs that contain the highest functionality overall (Howard, 2011 p. 210).

Developments in my teaching resulted in the two new design features that I investigated in my dissertation, incorporating discourse models and staggering participation. I studied how these features impacted performances of higher order thinking. Discourse analysis provided insights into Vygotsky’s (1971) theory of socially constructed knowledge. Unmarked expert discourse planted in the discussion space led to three times the frequencies of higher order thinking among learners. This suggested that the knowledgeable other is important, but also that the knowledgeable other may not need to be identified as such (Howard, 2012; Howard, 2011).

The staggering of participation brought about twice the frequency of higher order thinking, but was also the more economical design modification (Howard, 2012). Staggering participation does not require design labor; it is simply a task modification and is relatively easy to implement. These results, related to the staggering of participation, suggested that the sequence of contributions impact socially constructed knowledge. The sequence of learner contributions is an aspect of online discussions that had not previously been addressed.

The method developed in this dissertation enables the study of converged media designs. The method exposed learners’ tendencies to couple judgments with their higher order thinking. Design features that steer the tenor of discussions may prove valuable in teaching critical discourse (Howard, 2012). The logical follow up to this study of collaborative video annotations will investigate features that steer tenor in critical discourse.

2.     Critical discourse in the field of instructional design

In my positions as assistant editor at Tech Trends and the International Journal of Designs for Learning, I noticed there were consistencies within the critical discourse of practice-oriented research being submitted to these publications. That research genre is called the instructional design case. To identify the components of this discourse, I conducted a content analysis of over 30 reviews of manuscripts submitted to the two journals (Howard, 2011). Five rhetorical tactics emerged as ways concerns were met by authors. The results of this study provide a plausible rhetorical structure for this new form of knowledge building in instructional design.

At the same time, the design case as a form of research remained undefined. I recruited three leaders in the field to collaborate on writing a definition of the instructional design case as a form of research (Howard et al., 2012). In this article we set the boundaries of design cases as research and distinguished the design case from design based research (Barab & Squire, 2004; Rowland 2007, 2008). The two forms of research are very different. Design based research speaks primarily to theory while instructional design cases speak primarily to the practice of instructional design.

I continue to develop this aspect of my research because it is important to the field of instructional design. Design cases make design decisions accessible to other designers and help disseminate the value of our work. I have written my own case based on the collaborative video annotations design (Howard & Myers, 2010) and written about how the training of reviewers skilled in this research method is important to the field (Howard, in press).

This research trajectory is positioned for a healthy future.  Innovations that make communities of practice more accessible fit well within the NSF Cyberlearning program. The increase in awareness of communities of practice has brought with it financial support. In 2000, external funders were supportive of an Email exchange program that I started. I provided learners with authentic second language experiences, but this trajectory offers something even more crucial- access to communities of practice. I am excited about new collaborations and research that creates innovative designs for learning.

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