Tech in the Wild

So far in the course, we have considered theoretical approaches to the learner, learning, and knowing, and explored theories that help us understand the ways that technology can be used for learning. In this assignment, we ask you to observe a learning technology in practice, and to attend to the context in which it is used. The purpose of this observation is to ground theoretical and design approaches in real experiences. Hopefully this will also advance your thinking about your final project.

Conduct an observation at a school, makerspace, or informal learning environment (library, community center, museum, etc.). For your choice, think of an environment, space, or technology that seems appealing to you in some way, and that might be the environment of your final project. You can still change your final project topic later, but we would like your observation to be as close as possible to your interests and to your possible final project. To start thinking about final project ideas, you should consider if a given idea is a good fit to this class. There are many worthwhile ideas and projects that might simply not be a good final project idea. For that reflection, you could go back to the Problem Statement / Needfinding assignment and the discussion we had in class.

Note that the "Interface Design" assignment will be connected to "Tech in the Wild" -- you will be asked to redesign one aspect of the learning space/technology/environment you picked.

For this assignment, submit a written report of approximately 1500 words. This project can be done individually or in pairs.


Your report should have the following structure:

  • Introduce the theme you focused on. Where possible, ground it in prior theory on learner, learning, and/or knowing and the theories for technology. Here are some examples:
    • social roles in technology use
    • power dynamics between students and between students and teachers
    • differences in participation or power across gender, racial, or other divisions
    • how the design of the technology enables/does not enable the achievement of the learning goals in the real world
    • how the technology, when used in a social setting (i.e., not at home or individually), does not quite work in the same way
    • how students talk while using technology
    • examples of interaction with a microworld
    • how space design influences what students do
    • depending on your topic, you might also choose to address your positionality and write in first person.
  • A description and justification of your methods. Put the site in context, explain why you chose it, and what you expected to see.
  • Most of the report should be spent presenting and analyzing your fieldnotes. The goal here is to share an experience and help your reader understand what it means, not to defend a thesis. You might choose to progress chronologically or thematically the experience. Use lots of details, quotations, pictures, and whatever else you have. Distinguish between observations and interpretations.
  • Conclude by synthesizing the analyses with respect to the theme you focused on. Explain how this changes your understanding of theories and/or informs your work as a designer. Be specific and personal.


✓ - ✓ +
Evidence Light on detail or vague. The reader does not get a clear sense of what took place. Essay is primarily focused on observations. Methods clearly described. Evocative details!
Analysis May lean too heavily on theory, asserting the meaning of the evidence rather than engaging with it. Observation may not be distinguished from interpretation. Platitudes and overgeneralizations. Language is imprecise and educational terms and concepts are used without rigor. The author thoughtfully makes sense of observations and organizes them coherently. Observation is distinguished from interpretation. Language is precise and educational terms and concepts are used with rigor. The analysis probes and questions the evidence. The author considers how her/his biases and positionality shaped the interpretation.
Praxis Vague or superficial theoretical engagement. Clear connection between theory and evidence. Specific points from theory contribute to productive interpretation. It is apparent that the experience had some significance for the author.


Finding a site

If you need help connecting with an observation site, ask an instructor or TA right away. If you are unsure of how you will engage with theory, or would like to talk through your ideas, please email us so we can set up a time.

Before you go

Your report should have a thematic focus. Before you go, think about what you want to focus on in your observations. For example, consider the following factors:
- The physical environment: Sketch the physical layout of the space. What’s on the walls? How is the furniture set up? How do students move around? Where is attention focused? How does it feel to be in this space? What can you hear? The learning task: Who is setting the goals? What are they? Is there a lesson plan? What roles are people playing? What skills or knowledge are presumed? What preceded this session? What comes after? What kind of assessment is taking place? If possible, it may help to interview the teacher. - Tools: What kind of technological tools are used by the students and teacher? Who chooses which tools to use? Who controls them? Who has expertise? Where are they kept? Are they expensive? Cheap? Are there enough units for everyone? How much time with the tools do individual students actually get? What are the tools used for? - The students: Who is here? Describe their ages, genders, and any other characteristics that you observe. Record as much dialogue as you can. What languages are students speaking? What are patterns and levels of participation? What kinds of relationships exist between students? - The teacher/leader: What kind of authority or discipline structure exists in this space? How does the teacher interact with students? What is the role of the teacher in this space? What does s/he notice and fail to notice?

On site

If you will be conducting an observation in a school, make sure you arrive early and know where to park. Typically, you will be required to sign in at the front desk and get a visitor’s badge. Make sure you ask the teacher beforehand whether it is okay to take notes, take photos, or record audio or video. It is also polite to ask the teacher where you should sit or stand, whether they want to introduce you or have you be a fly on the wall, and whether it would be appropriate for you to interact with students.

Start taking notes early and keep going until after the end of the activity. Take notes on whatever interests you; don’t be afraid to deviate from your plan. The best way to take field notes is with a paper notebook; a computer will impair your mobility and create a barrier between you and the action. You will not be able to keep up—be ready to jot just enough that you’ll be able to recover it later. This three-page document provides a nice overview of how and why to take field notes.

If you are permitted to interact with students, do so! Many students will happily explain what they are doing if you ask them. Try lowering your status by speaking to them as equals, and sitting or squatting so you are level with them. If you want to keep listening to a conversation but the students become self-conscious, try turning toward a different group and keep listening!

For more excellent advice on taking fieldnotes, consult Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes by Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw. Importantly: Make sure you separate observation from interpretation! You have to be aware what of your notes reflects things you have observed without any judgment, and things that reflect your opinions, interpretations, open questions, etc.. This is easiest to do if you structure your notes with observations in one column and your thoughts, questions, and interpretations in a second column.

When you return

You will see and hear much more than you can possibly write down, and it fades quickly. Plan to spend another hour or two immediately after your observation turning your jottings into more fleshed-out notes.

Ethical research

Any generalizable research (that is, work you intend to publish) conducted with human subjects must take place under an IRB protocol protecting the rights of your subjects. As you are not working under an IRB protocol, you may not include field observations from this assignment in published work.