Lessons from Teaching

I recently graduated from QUT for the second time. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been back to uni since I finished up my honours thesis. Having completed this first part of my career/learning journey (and being amidst the second phase with starting at a professional services firm as a graduate), I’ve had the opportunity to return to university. Not to be taught, but to teach.

Being provided the opportunity to teach was a big achievement for me. Being a student, I found my tutors inspiring. This is what I believe made me want to be able to teach. And I’m lucky to have the opportunity to teach.

But teaching is quite a different thing from being taught. It is a different experience. A different perspective. A new way of thinking.

Teaching makes you think twice.

More than once in my class have I had to pause to think carefully to answer a student’s question. This creates a bit of a tough situation. Having the responsibility of knowledge transfer means you need to know your stuff, and you need to know it well. Regardless of how trained you are, sometimes you are thrown a curveball. These times make you stand back and assess knowledge gaps and development opportunities. What feels like a tough situation turns into an opportunity to grow.

Teaching makes you think in more ways than one.

Oftentimes, the knowledge you take for granted as a professional is difficult to transfer. This isn’t because you don’t know your stuff. It is likely due to a gap in how you understand something and how your student is able to conceptualise the topic at hand. This scenario forces you to think in new ways to effectively explain content, in turn forcing you to reassess how the topic is structured. The imperative to explain the topic to your students turns into an opportunity to look at something in a new way, which leads to benefits in day-to-day professional practice.

Teaching makes you think more deeply.

In addition to what I mention in my first point, students often have surprising and unexpected questions. These questions challenge your current thinking. This need to assess what you know makes you reconsider what you know and how deeply you know it. These challenges and reassessments point out areas to explore topics further as both an educator and as a professional.

Teaching makes you appreciate what it is to be a student.

While you are a student, you know what it is like to be a student. Teaching makes you see what it is like to be a student. Standing at front-of-class gives you a perspective on how tough and exhausting it can be to study. It forces you to think “what is important as a student?”. Knowing the key points to get across is most of the battle of educating. Getting it right lightens the load for students, and reinforces one’s knowledge.

Teaching makes you appreciate what it is to teach.

This may sound like a recursive nonsense statement. But it is true. Teaching is the only way to really understand the rigour of tertiary pedagogy. Studying is one thing, teaching another. The two must go hand in hand to reinforce and develop the other.

What new perspectives have you gained when having to teach someone something new, in or out of the classroom?

On receiving a university medal

As some of you may know/have worked out, I’m a bit of a (self-confessed) nerd. I’m a stickler for correctness, I need to always be learning something new and I’m very specific about how things need to be (anyone that’s been in a university lecture with me knows I need to sit in a specific spot and my friends need to sit in a specific order, too). Even as a very proud nerd, one thing I don’t normally do is try to show off too much; I don’t think that (showiness) is a great trait. But in the interest of being a true inhabitant of the Internet, I’m going to be on this occasion.

Going on from the above, I was obsessed with getting straight High Distinctions for my entire degree. This fell down in only the second semester of my degree with Interaction Design. That didn’t stop me from trying to aim high for the rest of the degree, regardless of what people told me was impossible and what was realistic in terms of grades. Close friends know of a specific incident regarding someone telling me it was impossible to receive straight sevens. Didn’t I prove them wrong.

I graduated with First Class Honours from my B.InfoTech(Hons) degree this past July, being the only person to from this degree in that round of ceremonies. My final GPA for honours was 7 (how impossible is it now?!). But, that’s not all I achieved,or all the university bestowed upon me.

I was honoured with the award of a QUT Medal, which is the university’s most prestigious award for graduating bachelor students. Out of the 1,400 students graduating in the July round, just 7 were awarded with a medal. This represents the top 0.005% of students.

QUT Medal
Three years of hard work pays off. 

To say I am proud is an incredible understatement. I was lucky to have incredible family, friends and educators to get me to this pinnacle. Although it sounds cliché, I could not have done it without them.

Has someone ever told you that something was impossible? How did you prove them wrong?


Research Freak Out

Research is a bit of a stressful practice I am finding out. I’m partway through my honour degree so I’m talking about the original, academic flavour of research. Being in the applied field of information systems, the project I am working on is highly dependent on extensive practitioner-focused research. This means I need a lot of data from
industry. Getting data is much easier said than done…

I say research is stressful because it’s full of pressure. And gratification is extremely delayed. I started the data collection phase today; it’s a ver compressed timeline seeing its the festive season and my thesis is due in February. I’ve been working to get interviews (with help of course!) with relevant firms. It’s taking a long time. This stresses me out. Because gratification is delayed, some cognitive dissonance occurs (“Why am I even doing this?!”) and things don’t feel great. But then you get a break through and you feel great. Then the cycle of stress-concern-breakthrough repeats. It’s tumultuous.

Probably sounding whiny, but it’s a stress. Having support has become really important. Knowing that someone is there to guide and advise is incredibly important. I’ve also found focusing on the endpoints helped manage some of my concerns too. Of course you continue to hope that everything works out. That is really all I can do (apart from work hard).

I want to know what you do to manage the trials of research. I think I’d learn most from others rather than just guessing on my own!

What is your research experience? How do/did you manage stress and concern in your research project?

Starting Honours

I recently graduated from my undergraduate degree (a Bachelor of Information Technology) at the Queensland University of Technology. It was an exciting, frenetic two and a half years. But my academic career is not yet over – I’m starting my honours. I’ve had some good advice that a good way to develop yourself during higher degree research (HDR) is by blogging. More or less specifically this was about reporting on your research, but I think it would be good to visit how I would have started my honors (and approached my undergraduate degree) differently. This is advice or realizations I didn’t have until I’d started so I though the were a few things worth sharing. The great thing is that I don’t necessarily think these suggestions are just as applicable to undergraduates.

1. Make Academic Contacts Quickly
To be fair, this isn’t something I had a problem with – it’s more or less an identification of a theme. I was only able to get the project I have through contacts. Know what you like to study and really get to know the academic who specialize in this at your tertiary education institution. Ask questions and be interested – even for undergrads, there are so many opportunities that come out of connections with your academic staff.

2. Use mind maps/Express what you’ve learnt
This is one thing I wish I had of tried earlier. I am in the process of understanding my topic (which is fairly complex and more than sufficiently nuanced). Nothing makes sense until you find a way to express what your researching and reading. Mind maps worked well for me (thanks to my primary supervisor for the idea). If your university or library offers courses on this topic, attend it.

3. Print Stuff
This is horrible for an IT student to say, but sometimes reading on paper is just so much easier than reading off a screen (as ironic as that is while you read this on a computer or mobile device no less). While printing prices are truly astronomical at universities, ask your project supervisor or faculty librarian if there is something else you can do about printing. Academics and librarians understand that you’ll want to print research and from my experience, they all go out of their way to help.

4. Use EndNote (or similar)
I can’t believe I went through undergrad without using this once. While I’m not using it extensively yet, I will be. EndNote is such a powerful tool to keep a track of all your references and documents relevant to your research. When your dealing with HDR, this is a godsend. Take a course in it if your Library offers one, or ask your faculty’s librarian for help. Just use it and be amazed.

5. Ask Questions
If there is something which you can’t answer, ask your supervisor/s. They are there to guide and help, especially for honors and masters students where this will likely be your first piece of original HDR. Just know what you need to know and ask.

Hopefully these five tips are useful for undergraduates and HDR students alike. What are your recommendations and tips for students undertaking honors, masters or PhD research?

Tumblr – Software Above the Level of a Single Device

Web 2.0 is a powerful tool which is now reaching far beyond the desktop computer; the ability to reach target markets is increased dramatically. In 2010, there were five billion Internet connected devices – an incredible channel to reach users and target markets. But these 5 billion devices include traditional desktops, mobile phones, tablets and any number of other devices. Clearly, one version of an application cannot suit all devices due to the variances in the features of devices.

This is where the concept of software above the level of a single device arises. As one of the core Web 2.0 design patterns, this pattern states that web applications should be tailored to meet the needs of individual devices, by targeting specific features of a service to devices, and making the most of what these devices have to offer. This creates a rich, tailored and complete service which a company can and should use as part of their Web 2.0 offering.

Focusing specifically on mobile devices and the desktop, there are a collection of web apps that have complimentary mobile app options. One such company offering this functionality is Tumblr. Tumblr is a unique blogging platform, siting somewhere between micro-blogging service Twitter and full-blown WordPress, Blogger and other blog services. It encourages users to post short content – quotes, text, links, photos and so on – but deliver this in a more blog-oriented style. While Tumblr is multi-platform – there is a desktop tailored web-app, native applications for iPhone, BlackBerry and Android, and also connectivity to Twitter and Facebook.

Tumblr makes unique use of software above the level of a single device best practice. First, Tumblr tailors the experience of posting to the device. On the desktop, the web app fills the display and has a wide-screen layout. On the mobile devices, the posting activities are tailored to fit the display. Tumblr takes these steps to suit the device and ensure accessibility, which invites content contribution by users. Further, mobile device applications take use of the hardware on these devices (specifically photo, video and audio recording), which are not always available on desktops. Users always have their mobile devices with them, meaning the barrier to contribution is lowered and the user may post from where the action is. Data is available across the web and mobile platforms once the data is posted.

Tumblr for iPhone vs. Tumblr for Web
The post selection screen for Tumblr on iPhone compared to the same interface for Tumblr for Web

One aspect of the pattern which Tumblr does not integrate is location. There is a push for location services in web 2.0, examples including FourSquare, Google Places and Facebook Places. Tumblr is positioned to include functionality to post a users location and have a Google Map show as the post on the user’s Tumblr blog. It may also be possible for Tumblr to spread social interaction to the real world and allow a way for users to discover posts near them, as a way to find out interesting things going on around them. This in itself would require Tumblr to further adopt Web 2.0 strategies such as harnessing collective intelligence as in other blogging applications, perhaps through comments.

Overall, Tumblr is a very focused application which addresses the more important best practice of the software above the level of a single device design pattern, but has room to grow and take advantage of other parts of the pattern.

Tumblr has given me a new way to reach my audience. How have/can you use Tumblr in your social media brand?