Remember the days of University? The days of socialising, studying through all hours of the day and night, eating whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted, the nervous energy of a lecture hall. Those memories are engrained in us. But for those who are entering the tertiary world in 2020, and for those working in these powerful institutions; that energy has shifted.
Engagement is a key part of any institution’s success. To engage students, research partners, colleagues, faculty members, stakeholders, fellow academics; and in a world where face to face contact isn’t allowed, a world where group gatherings like lectures, exams or research sessions aren’t allowed, and where communications in general is going digital – how do we not lose sight of quality engagement?
We spoke with industry professionals who are not just experts in engagement, but experts in education, research, in communicating information, and in furthering the minds of so many all around the world with their work. They shared with us their COVID experience, how it has changed their way of working, and how they are addressing engagement in this ‘new normal’.
University of Florida: Human studies in a Covid world
Nikita Soni: Ph.D. candidate in Human-Centered Computing (HCC)
"For my Ph.D. thesis research, I had originally planned to conduct some studies with the PufferSphere. But since it might not be safe to run human-subject studies during these times, we are instead analysing data we previously collected to help inform our design of future interactive experiences with spherical displays.
At the same time, we are also doing some paper prototyping, where our team creates paper/low-fidelity representations of some sphere prototype elements to explore different design ideas and to help test higher-level functionality, usually during remote meetings with my lab mates as users. My next steps include drawing upon the knowledge we gained from data analysis and paper prototyping to update our current spherical display prototype that affords more natural interaction experiences."
National Oceanography Centre: Weathering the storm
Dr Andrew Coward: Marine Systems Modelling
"We've been working from home since April and our engagement activities have essentially ceased since then. The 'big outing' for our Pufferfish kit is usually our annual open day but that was cancelled this year (…) The lab has partially reopened but only for those who need to be there. I can do most of my research remotely so there is no imminent return for me.
Our PufferSphere is still destined to form an eye-catching installation in the waiting area of our entrance lobby, with animations and information content showcasing the work of the centre. Such plans are currently on hold until the centre is fully re-staffed and welcoming its normal numbers of visitors."
Edinburgh University: Social research through Covid-19
Dr Benjamin Bach: Design Informatics and Visualization
"In Scotland, public social distancing restrictions have been more strict (and longer) than the rest of the Europe. The University has been physically closed since mid-March and, from what I can see, will remain closed for some time in the future. This leads to both disruptions, but also opportunities for research, teaching, and social interaction at an institution as complex as a University.
Our work at the Visual+Interactive Data Group is concerned with researching better ways to create interactive data visualisation for the sciences and society. While we design and build working systems and implement prototypes, a majority of our work is based on the interaction with humans - ranging from finding partners for projects, understanding their workflows and working environments, providing prototypes to obtain feedback, evaluate prototypes, and eventually translating our research and measuring long-term use.
In order for such research to work, we rely on workshops, conferences and symposia, discussion meetings throughout the whole research process - between us and our partners, as well as our multidisciplinary team across visualisation - human-computer interaction, design, development, digital humanities, and close contact with the potential stakeholders of our research; A highly social research ambience is crucial to creative research, and technologies that can make a difference in people's lives. With this situation at hand, I see the following challenges and possibilities for our research and with respect to data visualisation technology -
- Performing human-centred evaluations through focus-groups and controlled lab studies where people need to interact with specific devices, such as touch screens or immersive environments.
- Keeping social academic life alive to foster creative exchange, learning from each other, and creating a home for ideas, research, and mutual mentoring.
- Keeping students motivated and engaged through teaching is another challenge. While online learning has turned out okay for me personally, it is hard to know how students are coping. I am missing classroom interactions and group work, especially round creative techniques for brainstorming, discussing project goals, and creating visualisations.
- Building a strong (professional / personal) network has become very hard due to the missing ‘obligatory’ and ‘random’ meetings: University workshops, conferences, public events, etc.
- Working with new staff and inducting them into a research group of project, while it is at the same time easier to work with people from around the globe.
Global collaborations are made easier since we’re, a) more used to spending time in online collaborations, and b) we’re less bound to local partners. While it was previously unfeasible to invite a colleague over from, e.g., the US, it is now very easy to get people to agree to give a research talk or guest lecture. This relief from physical movement will hopefully help us create more global collaborations.
Data visualisation and effective ways of showing information (with data) has been receiving greater attention. This is good news for fields such as data visualisation, visual communication, and explainable data analysis. Where information needs to be distributed widely to diverse audiences and in clear ways, new challenges and applications for respective research emerge. Especially if such communication and information replace in-depth social face-to-face conversations: whether these are clinicians explaining clinical pathways to patients, data about likelihoods of events, or other sorts of personalization of information. I hope this situation will create more awareness for the way we’re sharing and communicating information, and that good communication is not simple.
I also hope this will create new forms of data visualisations and interactive literacy with respect to reading and creating visualisations, understanding and performing data analysis, and critically discussing the results of analyses, and messages in the news or government advice. This will help in building a public skillset necessary to address the (much bigger) challenges such as social inequality and climate change.
New methods and techniques for online learning and collaborative platforms. Since the start of the lockdown, a plethora of new tools have been created for online collaboration. I think there is a lot to learn about how we organize and streamline both online and offline collaboration and information. As we’re used to sharing more content online and interacting more frequently online now, we will need better tools and interfaces to help us perform these involved tasks. For example, analytics that are concerned with tracking students learning progress through their online activities. While this is not a surveillance tool, such analytics might eventually help better understand human behaviour from a sociological perspective. How important are mimics in online conversation? How much time do we spend on specific activities? What of all of this activity is really important, and necessary for our 'real' life?"
University of Florida: Invaluable time to think
Kathryn A. Stofer, PhD: Research Assistant Professor and State Extension Specialist, STEM Education and Outreach
"We had set up our PufferSphere with our latest prototype in our University science library in early February. The library staff were starting it each day, and for about a month, we had a lot of visibility and interest before the campus shut down. In fact, we were approached by at least one student who wanted to work with us and one faculty member who saw parallels to his work in climate history.
These days, the library is open again with limited capacity; we are instead using this time to explore future partnerships to use the sphere in university classes as well as continue our research in the future in museums. The nature of research in general is flexibility; the pandemic has certainly challenged us in that regard because of the collaborative, close-touch and close-contact nature of the interactions. However, we’ve seen how much people crave interaction, so we are using this time to plan for the eventual return to in-person learning in order to refine and create the most impactful experience. In some ways, the time to think has been invaluable."
Special shout out to the U.S. National Science Foundation grant (DRL 1612485) who have funded in part the University of Florida's work.
Ultimately, the world is aligned right now in our uncertainty for what this means for us all long term. But we are also aligned in wanting to have human interaction in the future. To facilitate shared experiences, to move and inspire one another through our work, through our hobbies and through our education.
One thing is for sure – the Education and Research sector will remain strong, and with the knowledge and passion they hold, the professionals within it will use this opportunity to better their capabilities; and the possibilities of their institutions.
Thank you to all our wonderful clients for their participation in this piece!
We will leave you with some words of wisdom from Dr. Benjamin Bach of Edinburgh University: “I hope we will use technology to bring people together, to explain the world, and to work towards an informed and collaborative civil society.”