Assignment 4: Exploring Your Problem (Spring 2019)

Last week, you selected some areas you likely want to work within during this semester. This week, you will hone in on a particular problem, define it, and frame it in terms of the literature you’ve found so far.

What to Do

Last week, you selected some areas of EdTech to focus on, either because they are different components of what you want to work on or because they individually caught your eye. In your reading, you likely learned a lot about what is going on in the community, but you also likely learned or can infer what some of the open questions or unsolved problems continue to be. This week, it’s time to define the problem that you’re going to want to explore.

To start this, you’re first going to want to select the track you’re likely to pursue. The three tracks are:

  • Research Track: investigate a phenomenon.
  • Development Track: build a tool to solve a problem.
  • Content Track: develop some material.

The track you select will dictate the kind of work you propose doing in a couple weeks, but it will also guide the way you define your problem. A Research Track problem is typically a hypothesized or known phenomenon, like “Are women more likely to enroll in an online CS program than a traditional one?” or “Why are women more likely to enroll in an online CS program?” The major outcome is an answer to the question (backed up by strong analysis and methodology, of course). A Development Track problem is typically an issue that can be solved technology, like “How can we deliver individualized feedback on Algebra problems at scale?” or “How can we increase feelings of social connectedness in online courses?” The major outcome is a tool, and ideally some evaluation of its success. A Content Track problem is typically some content that needs a better instructional solution, like “How can we teach British poetry at scale?” or “How can we equip CS teachers with novel classroom curricula?”

Once you’ve selected a track you’re likely to work on, start to brainstorm your problem. Depending on how crystallized your idea already is, you may already have a clear problem in mind, or you may want to brainstorm a few of them. Then, select an idea you want to pursue for this assignment. You can change it for the real project if you want; your goal now is to practice defining and grounding a problem.

Using your problem as a starting point, return to the literature. What work has been done on this problem in the past? What are the open questions? What work needs to be done next? In doing this, you’ll want to look at whether similar work has been in other areas besides those you’ve selected. For example, if you’re investigating gender issues in higher education, what has been done in K-12 or professional education? If you’re looking at using virtual reality in chemistry, how has it been used in physics? Note that this is expected to be an iterative process. Your problem idea may change as you discover existing partial solutions or interesting new angles.

Your goal is to build a case that (a) your problem is unsolved, (b) your problem is worth solving, and (c) you know enough about the existing work to solve it.

What to Submit

In research, it is critical to be able to define and support your problem separate and apart from the solution you plan to build or experiment you plan to run. This is often the underappreciated part of research: defining the problem. Too many people jump to solving a problem without understanding what they are trying to solve.

For this assignment, submit a problem definition based on the research you performed above. A problem definition does not just contain what you will investigate: it grounds it in the existing literature, exploring the problem in the context of work that has already been done. Define your problem, explore the literature that has investigated this area in the past, and justify how that literature sets up your problem was one worth exploring. For the Research Track, that will be an unexplained or unexamined phenomenon facing the community. For the Development Track, that will be exploring other solutions and projects, how they are similar, and how they leave your particular problem unsolved. For the Content Track, that will be exploring existing mechanisms for teaching the content, as well as the unexplored potential presented by technology for delivering that content.

Like last week, this work will require significant citations to the literature: after all, the literature is what is setting up your problem as valuable and worth exploring. You will certainly need to look at additional literature compared to what you’ve looked at in the past as well. We would generally expect answers to this problem to feature at least 10-15 citations to more heavily related projects and sources. 

Most importantly, in writing this assignment, do not jump to a proposed solution. Focus solely on defining the problem. Defining the problem in the absence of a suspected solution is a valuable part of research. 

The main goal of this assignment is for you to learn about and define where you might contribute to the community in which you’re interested: what problems are they facing, and how can you help? The secondary goals are for you to be able to find classmates with similar interests and ideas, to provide your mentor and classmates with the information necessary to help you find more material, and to have you learned to drive your own research into a topic.

Your writing is expected to be semi-formal: it is acceptable to use personal pronouns, share your own anecdotes or perspectives, and provide your personal history to explain your interests. However, your writing should be well-organized, grammatically sound, and cleanly formatted.

Submission Instructions

Assignments should be submitted to the corresponding assignment submission page in Canvas. You should submit a single PDF for this  assignment. This PDF will be ported over to Peer Feedback for peer review by your classmates. If your assignment involves things (like videos, working software prototypes, etc.) that cannot be provided in PDF, you should provide them separately (through OneDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox, etc.) and submit a PDF that links to or otherwise describes how to access that material.

This is an individual assignment. Even if you already plan to work on a team for the project, this assignment should still be completed individually.

Late work is not accepted without advanced agreement except in cases of medical or family emergencies. In the case of such an emergency, please contact the Dean of Students.

Grading Information

As with all assignments in this class, this assignment will be graded on an 11-point scale (0 to 10), in accordance with the grading policy outlined in the syllabus. If your deliverable receives a 9 or below, you may revise and resubmit it once within two weeks of the original due date or one week of receiving a grade, whichever is later. Resubmissions may receive up to a 9. Note that this should not be treated as a de facto free pass to submit sorely lacking work initially; we reserve the right to deny resubmission or grade a resubmission more harshly if we perceive the original submission was lacking in earnest effort.

Peer Review

After submission, your assignment will be ported to Peer Feedback for review by your mentor and classmates. Grading is not the primary function of this peer review process; the primary function is simply to give you the opportunity to read and comment on your classmates’ ideas. All grades will come from the mentors alone.

You will typically be assigned four classmates to review. You receive 1.5 participation points for completing a peer review by the end of the day Thursday; 1.0 for completing a peer review by the end of the day Sunday; and 0.5 for completing it after Sunday but before the end of the semester. For more details, see the participation policy.