Learning Interface Design

I now know what I am: an aspiring Learning Interface Designer.

It’s from this cool blend of User Interface Design and Educational Psychology. Basically, I have always been interested in finding ways to teach core skills using simple-to-understand interfaces, both in my professional and my personal work. One thing: I do not think the interfaces necessarily have to be digital to be a part of this field.

I am bringing this up here because of a few reasons:

  • I have been trying to articulate what I am for years now, and did not find the exact term until I joined the Living Lab 2nd Year Fellows and started doing some real research into instructional design.
  • I have never been wholly a graphic designer or an artist but some weird mish-mash of both and neither. No wonder, maybe I am something else entirely!
  • I thought it might be of interest to those of you starting your teaching careers– switching to an academic career can be extremely rewarding, so dive in!

I have a title, what now?

I actually have been thinking about that a lot, especially since I have to develop my Professional Development Plan this week. It’s this 7-year strategy tracing a possible trajectory to tenure, and it really gives you some perspective. I am now considering a master’s degree in Educational Psychology–Hunter has a great one, right up the road. I am also toying with the idea of heading towards a doctorate eventually, a thought that just delights me. See, I hold a master’s in 2D or Graphic Design. That is what is called a terminal degree: there is nothing higher in that field, at least not on a wide-spread basis. Oh, to be a doctor! My mom will be thrilled!

But seriously, I’m just so glad to have a solid direction. I have been searching for a long time, and had not come up with anything satisfactory until now.

Some examples of my work

Professionally, I have been an interaction (web primarily) designer for the last 12 years. My original background, however,  is in Fine Art, specifically printmaking. I love printed ephemera, specifically pieces geared towards persuading consumers. I have been developing a series of “products” over the last 15 years, these little printed conceptual art pieces meant to address some of the ills of modern life. You may or may not agree that these are specifically pieces of interface design.

The Perspectiflex

This is a simple letterpress and die-cut piece that I produced in 2010. The whole idea is this: Say you are aggravated by someone. You could stew endlessly about it, thus ruining your day. OR, you could take this device, put the outer ring on the proper pronoun and spin the spinner to discover a possible reason for that person’s behavior. Repeat this until your annoyance ebbs.

The Ardor Arbitor 

This piece was created in 2008, and is silkscreen and xerography. The whole idea: using a simple system of stickers, you go out into the world and learn to judge levels of sincerity around you so that you can then go home and judge your own.

Okay, these are both fairly lighthearted examples, but the core sentiment is what counts: I like to make small interactive things to help people learn small but hopefully profound skills.

I am trying to put this skill to work in my teaching to come up with ways to give my students what they need in as kind and compassionate a way as I can. None of these pieces will be as idiosyncratic as the artwork, but who knows? I may stumble across some way to teach something in a new way. So far, I have just been churning out handouts and example files for my students, all of it very simple and low tech:

Here is the top half of a class worksheet I devised to teach the art of kerning, which is the ability to balance the spaces between letters in a word. It is a subtle skill, not easily transmitted.

The pink words are the exemplars, all properly spaced (in my opinion). The blue words are just raw type, rendered by the design program we were working in with no intervention. The student works on the actual file in the program, so he can move things around and edit them.

The student is invited to modify the spacing between the blue letters and then drag their attempt over the pink, thereby getting some feedback without my having to hover nearby.

This is all well and good, and it has worked pretty well in class. Only, there is now an online exercise that does this all beautifully: Kern Type, a kerning game by Method of Action. Go give it a whirl, it’s gorgeous. That is what I want to do, to make systems or devices or interfaces that teach core skills in a succinct and lovely way.

It gives me chills just thinking about it.

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Learning to Teach, Part Two and a Half: More Reading

I just wanted to add another book to the list:

A Mind Shaped by Poverty: Ten Things Educators Should Know
by Reginia Rawlingson

This very short book was incredibly poignant: not only did I grow up amidst poverty, but a number of my students did as well. What are some possible mindsets that poverty can cause? What are the fallacies that a person from an impoverished background can fall into? Rawlingson tries to shed light on the issue by speaking from her own childhood experience, and from the accumulated wisdom of several decades as an educator. It is not a research-based work, at least not there are no footnotes or references to studies, but the narrative rang very true to me.

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Learning to Teach, Part Two: Books I am Reading

I have been rooting around, trying to find the best books to read as I learn how to teach at the college level. Here is what I have found so far:

Building Expertise: Cognitive Methods for Training and Performance Improvement
This book not only explains fundamental instructional methods, it delves into the reasons those methods work on a neurological basis. Fascinating, easy to read, and easy to implement in the classroom. I can’t recommend this book enough.

Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty
I have to admit, I have yet to read this one, but it comes highly recommended. It covers a hundred tips and strategies to motivate and engage your students.

Teaching Unprepared Students: Strategies for Promoting Success and Retention in Higher Education
I read this a while ago, but it was hugely helpful. Concise and clear, it gave me ideas on how to reach my less prepared students right away.

Basically, I am looking for ways to get my students excited about the subject material, even the ones with difficulties like limited time, learning disabilities, or lack of study skills. There is a growing body of knowledge out there, it just takes a little digging to find it.

What are some books that you have used?

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Learning to Teach, Part One: Prepping for Class

When I left my office job and started teaching design at a few local colleges, I was a tad green. I’d taught before, but never full-time. Juggling 5 and 6 classes (not the recommended course load, I found, but I was nervous about money) was proving to be nearly impossible. Just as I got one lesson hammered out for one, a different class would be looming ahead. I was staying up late and rushing around… I was a hot mess. I was preparing 2 hours or more for every hour of class and frankly, it wasn’t working. I’d come in with these huge piles of notes–basically my entire lecture, written out word for word. I would nervously read it aloud, making lame asides and generally boring the hell out of everyone in the room, including myself. I also found that I would have so much material to cover there would be no time for anything beyond me droning on and on. That’s right: I was giving 3- and 4-hour long lectures. Ridiculous.

Occasionally (and despite my best efforts), I would manage to hit my stride. Those fleeting moments were incredible: I was suddenly having a conversation with the class, really engaging in the material and getting it across. Fleeting is the operative word, however: the minute I realized things were going well, I’d sink like a stone into my usual whirlwind of self-doubt. Luckily, the students were usually willing to wade through my awkward delivery. What choice did they have, anyway?

Slowly but surely, I have gotten better at maintaining the flow of a successful lesson. I had to learn how to articulate things that I have known for years, and I needed to find the framework in which I could best teach. Right now I am still using the lecture-then-lab class structure. I know there are different ways to run a class, it is just where I am right now. I can already feel the format shifting, so I will be sure to check in once I have moved to a new one.

What I have learned about preparing for class:

  • Prep about 2 hours per class: enough to feel confident in the overall message, but not so much that you have everything memorized or written out. My problem was a lack of confidence: I was trying to pack every possible facet on the subject , not just what the student needed to know to get started.
  • Don’t prep all at once, do it in manageable installments the week before. This means being a little more organized than I was used to being, but I have slowly learned how to do this.
  • Be thorough in your documentation: I always write out a full lesson plan for every class, and I use it to keep myself on track. Now that I am teaching some of my classes a second time, I have this great record of what I need to do.
  • Writing out my lectures was a futile exercise. I do better when I wing it a little, just head out there and hoof it in front of the class. I ask the students more questions, get them involved. Also, my lectures no longer take up the entire class period…

I have also learned a few other lessons:

  • Having a sense of humor has been invaluable. Luckily, I was always willing to laugh at myself at my stodgiest moments: I think that is why the students hung in there with me.
  • I have found it is best to be honest about what I know and do not know. I am just starting my teaching career, so who am I kidding anyway? My students have seemed to appreciate my honesty and to respect the things I am able to tell them with confidence.

Basically, I have to trust that I know the material in order to teach it well. If I am spending hours and hours buttressing my knowledge of the subject matter, it is more about my own insecurity and that is for my therapist, not my classroom.

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Learning to teach, period.

It is all well and good that I want to share my exploration of teaching design, but first I must share the process of learning how to teach, period.

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