Promoting competency based education through trade-off thinking

We live in a world of things. Those who make the things define the way we live our lives.  Their decisions impact not only our trivial needs, such as spending a night on Facebook checking the status of our friends.  Technologies that nourish our more fundamental needs, such as those for shelter, food, information, or reproduction are also the product of maker choices. Through these choices, the makers shape our lives in a profound way.

The more embedded is a technology in our lives, the less visible it becomes and less likely for people to worry about it. Even less visible is what makes these technologies truly important: the standards that define their functioning. Standards are conventional, that is, are a matter of choice. Yet, choices are rarely the product of chance. Neither are they completely intentional. They are the product of contingent choices.  They are, in a word, compromises. Standard selection rarely benefits from full knowledge and renewable and cheap resources. Choices should often be quick. The choices are not between good and better options, but between available and unavailable  materials, designs, ideas, or money. Finally, the product of our current choices should fit in with our prior choices.

Standards are, thus, the product of compromise and contingent choices. They reflect, in other words,  multiple trade-offs. Some are explicitly understood, while some become obvious in retrospect; yet, they are always there. Being so central to the world of making things, to building and managing technologies, and more important to choosing standards, trade-off thinking should be one of the first and most important types of critical thinking processes that makers, technology workers, and designers need to understand and work with.

At Purdue University, within the Polytechnic and with prior work in the Transform Stem program, we have developed a seminar that focuses entirely on trade-off thinking. The seminar is a transdisciplinary learning experience. Its core objective is to train emerging technology professionals in the science and art of trade-off analysis, that is, of pragmatic compromise thinking. The learning experience is part of a larger competency-based education program. Trade-off thinking is in this context not only a mere academic exercise, but a framework for training the mind and acquiring the know-how necessary to hone a variety of skills that are immediately usable in professional contexts. The skills span the gamut. They stretch from designing resilient technologies that work well in a variety of contexts and require a small material and intellectual footprint, to creating persuasive messages about technologies that balance the need to convince the audience with bringing the information to a satisfactory level of intelligibility.

The Trade-Off seminar is project driven, yet informed by solid theoretical education. Students are taught how to make choices taking into account opportunity costs and utility curves. In the process, they learn about indifference curves and marginal value. This happens in the context of proposing a new technological solution to common communication needs via practical prototypes or investment pitches.

Six different projects walk the students from considering the technological costs and benefits of inventing a cheap, reliable long distance communication system in a poor area, to asking a venture capital for investment for a new mobile app. In all projects, students work in groups and are expected to deliver oral and written presentations, bolstered by infographics and video clips. All projects are evaluated for student ability to demonstrate specific competencies. If the competencies are present, the projects are incorporated in an online student portfolio that can tell future employers what the student can do and how he or she learn to do it. More important, the messages and the products should demonstrate that the students understand and can present their ideas as products of careful consideration of possibilities vs. constraints.

The seminar learning experience is mentored by a team of educators with expertise in communication technologies and social science methodology (Sorin Adam Matei), economics and professional writing (Michael Smith), public speaking and resilient technologies (Abrar Hammoud), and electronic technology design (Davin Houston). Student teams develop specialized aspects of their project with specific mentors. Educational transfer of knowledge and skills is not just-in-case, but just-in-time. Students study theory and practice skills with each mentor when the project demands them to do so. The learning experience relies on an analytical discussion of theory, user requirement definition sessions, active presentations, and community of practice question and answer sessions. There are no lectures, all learning being situational and student driven.

We hope that our learning experience will make a significant contribution to competency-based education. Its interdisciplinary nature, doubled by theoretical and methodological rigor, represents our vision for educational experiences that stimulates that students to excel as creators and entrepreneurs, as makers and thinkers.

Some of the competencies that can be acquired within the Purdue Polytech Trade-Off Learning Experience

Design Thinking

Design options assessment – developing and emerging

Linking knowledge across domains – emerging and proficient

Unstructured problem solving – emerging and proficient

Systems Thinking

Ability to define technological problems as systems of inter-related parameters, requirements, and constraints

Effective communication

Written communication

Audiovisual communication

Ethical reasoning

Ethical analysis and reflection

Ethical implementation

Innovation and creativity

Embracing contradictions

Integrative thinking



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Sorin Adam Matei

Sorin Adam Matei – Professor of Communication at Purdue University – studies the relationship between information technology and social groups. He published papers and articles in Journal of Communication, Communication Research, Information Society, and Foreign Policy. He is the author or co-editor of several books. The most recent is Structural differentation in social media. He also co-edited Ethical Reasoning in Big Data,Transparency in social media and Roles, Trust, and Reputation in Social Media Knowledge Markets: Theory and Methods (Computational Social Sciences) , all three the product of the NSF funded KredibleNet project. Dr. Matei’s teaching portfolio includes online interaction, and online community analytics and development classes. His teaching makes use of a number of software platforms he has codeveloped, such as Visible Effort . Dr. Matei is also known for his media work. He is a former BBC World Service journalist whose contributions have been published in Esquire and several leading Romanian newspapers. In Romania, he is known for his books Boierii Mintii (The Mind Boyars), Idolii forului (Idols of the forum), and Idei de schimb (Spare ideas).

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