Practikon: A Mobile-first Practice/Feedback Application to Support the Development of Communication Skills in Technical Subjects
2015 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition Proceedings
Andreas Karatsolis is the Associate Director of Writing,Rhetoric and Professional Communication as Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His disciplinary training includes a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Communication with an emphasis on technical/professional communication in science-related fields, which is at the core of his teaching and research efforts. In his position at MIT and as a member of the Administrative Committee of the IEEE Professional Communication Society, he is primarily interested
... rimarily interested in designing curricula and tools which can help engineers and scientists develop life-long competencies in communication. In the past seven years he has also been the Lead of co-Principal Investigator in projects related to the design, implementation and assessment of learning technologies, especially in the domains of language learning, health communication and public discourse. Suguru Ishizaki, Carnegie Mellon University Suguru Ishizaki is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Communication Design in the Department of English at Carnegie Mellon. His current research interests include pedagogy of commu-nication and design for students and professionals in the technology/engineering disciplines, and computer-aided rhetorical analysis. Introduction More than ten years ago, the National Commission on Writing found that, for many companies, only about a third of their new employees possessed the required communication skills, and estimated that $3.1 billion is spent annually on efforts to remediate the situation 1 . Such reports are not uncommon or surprising, and their results align with what almost all alumni surveys from several institutions of higher education point to: graduates, especially in Engineering and the Sciences, consistently report that they are underprepared for the communication demands of their workplace 2 . Such surveys provide significant indicators for external evaluators, such as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), about the need to support both the instruction and practice of professional communication 3 . Driven by such accreditation and workplace demands, several institutions have embarked into establishing full scale Engineering Communication programs within their curriculum (e.g. University of Toronto, Mercer University), or have developed stand-alone courses for their students. In a few instances, such as the case of MIT, communication instruction is embedded within the disciplinary curriculum. The key challenges in introducing communication pedagogy into an existing engineering curriculum are scalability and limited resources. Conventional approaches to teaching communication are geared towards small class sizes and are difficult to adjust for large groups of students. Directly scaling this approach would require a large number of qualified instructorsi.e., to support and assess students' communication activities-at a significant cost. Some researchers have addressed these problems by developing online writing centers, resources and tutorials for communication skills 4-7 .Online peer tutoring has also been suggested as a potential approach 8 . However, these efforts are still new and further investigations are necessary. Despite the increasing efforts, a large scale survey by Reave 9 found that there is still a "large gap between the workplace needs and graduating engineers' communication skills." Based on Reave's work, Evans and Gabriel criticize the current conception of communication skills as independent "soft skills" and postulate that communication should be understood as social action that is bound in the context of engineering practice 10 . Hence, they suggest that communication should be "learned through processes of participation" where communication is directly associated with "performing engineering." Our project builds on the approach suggested by Evans and Gabriel, by situating learning activities in authentic professional contexts where students are expected to perform tasks that require clear and effective communication. Studies of teacher comments on student writing in the Sciences and Engineering suggest that feedback focuses on lower-order concerns such as grammar and formatting   . Recently, some studies indicate that instructors have begun to focus on higher order rhetorical concerns as well 13 , which are, in fact, the type of concerns most prominent in workplace reviews 14 . Research in the Learning Sciences has shown us, however, that effective feedback has to be targeted and coupled with goal-directed practice 15 . In short, to help students or technical staff improve their communication skills, goal-directed practice on higher-order rhetorical issues is necessary.