Digital Learning Podcast: Episode 2, The Knight Lab

Welcome to another episode of the Northwestern Digital Learning podcast, where each month we highlight an example of innovative teaching and learning across campus.

In this episode, we’ll be talking to Medill professors Zach Wise and Emily Withrow about their work with the Northwestern Knight Lab. The Knight Lab is a place where designers, developers, students, and educators come together to work on experiments designed to push journalism into new spaces.

Beyond their work on campus, the Lab is probably best known for its innovative suite of open-source tools.  The focus of our episode is not their next tool, but a new multidisciplinary class offered to both graduate and undergraduate students.   

Prof. Withrow (speaking in class): For any guests we have in the room, these are the final presentations from our first ever Knight Lab Student Studio class. They’ve been working on these projects for 10 weeks and are excited to show you the work they’ve done.    

The class works like this: each quarter, teams of students, faculty, and professionals collaborate on projects they believe to be important for the future of media.  The Lab places students at the center of these important challenges, working together to identify problems and to find solutions.

Prof. Withrow:  We're seeding the projects with external partners who are real media companies who have real ideas and problems that are really interesting for us to explore. We're looking at the near-future space so that allows our students, especially with the Device Lab here, to really get their hands dirty and making media that not just not just informed by legacy processes that are really thinking about media production and processes of the future.

Prof. Wise: We also try to create balanced teams and diversity in those teams in every sense both in their discipline – what school there from, what your background is – diversity is very good for these hard problems that the students are trying to solve.  

Beyond using teams that incorporate graduate and undergraduate students from a variety of backgrounds and real-world partners, the pedagogy of the course utilizes a different approach to conveying the material than your typical college class. 

Prof. Withrow:  Students come in with an existing set of expectations from their history of being students of this university and this is a really different environment so seeing how those expectations clash perhaps with what we're doing in this classroom, which we’re trying to not even use the word classroom anymore. I mean, we took out the word class from everything because we felt like it had the wrong connotations for the students coming in so that was a big change.

Prof. Wise: We don't lecture, we don't do any of the typical class…

Prof. Withrow: We are guiding a process of discovery.

Given that this was the first offering of the course, I wanted to know – at the end of the day – what professors Wise and Withrow hoped their students gain from the experience.   

Prof. Withrow: Try something big, I think, is my real goal. We want to create an environment where students are really comfortable taking those risks because they feel supported and they know that they can fall…

Prof. Wise: That’s a big one. A lot of them don't know how to fall, they don't know how to fail, or there's a lot of stigma that they’ve attached to failure whereas we sort of embrace it and that’s sort of the tech culture in general. It's ok to fail, but you fail fast and you learn from your failures.  If you don't fail, you're not trying hard enough. But I think once they learn how to do that gracefully and are able to take lessons away from it, they can learn a lot from it: move forward, change direction is no big no big deal. They're less fearful of other hard problems that may come up after this class.  

Over the course of the 10 weeks, the students gain valuable experiences that give them a taste of what working for a fast-paced media organization will be like in today’s world.  Projects in the first round centered on a number of topics, including: podcasting, data mining, virtual reality, and interactive audio. One of the distinctive challenges of the media world is the rapid pace of change. I wanted to know if any of the groups came up against an unexpected challenge in the course of their work that caused them to reevaluate what their goal was and how they could reach it.  

Prof. Withrow: We have this group working on Podcast Discoverability and they came in and wanted to build this amazing discoverability tool and you could see that they had this vision of where that was going to go. Then in week two or three, they realized that the data to build this tool does not exist…

David Latimore (in student project group meeting): We started off with the goal of creating a tool that was able to find out the things that you liked as an individual and it would take those likes and recommend certain podcasts to you. We were originally dancing around the idea of creating a tool that would just get you a new podcast that you would actually listen to. But one thing that we’ve learned is existing media recommendation tools like Spotify’s Discovery Playlist rely on an existing pool of metadata that doesn’t exist for podcasts. So in the same way we tag different songs or movies, there isn’t really a centralized repository of metadata on podcasts.

Prof. Withrow: That was a really hard thing for that group to come up against. That team had to completely change the focus of their project – same area of investigation, same area of research – but the application that they ended up building was a tool to collect the metadata that then in the future would allow them to build the original application that they wanted to build. That team has been working on that and actually all of them signed on to do a second quarter because they feel passionate about it. 

Prof. Wise: It didn’t dispirit them at all.  In fact, it probably invigorated them because I feel like they discovered something that they didn't know existed they were so immersed in the problem space.

Prof. Withrow: Have you seen this curve, sort of like the joke curve of entrepreneurship, but it's like a curve that climbs up pretty steeply to the highest point and then has a really sharp turn and it goes way down into the depths of the line chart and then comes back up? People talk about that being for the path of any project where the first part is uninformed optimism because you know nothing but you think everything's going to be wonderful. Then the next part is informed pessimism because the more information you have the more you realize either that the path ahead is harder than you thought it was going to be, or the project is different from what you thought it was going to be, or that the answer you're getting are the opposite from what you thought.  

I think about our team and I really think all of them time did that curve at some point during the quarter and Zach and I put in a ton of time with our teams in the conference room helping them rally with the bulk of the information that they have wrestled to the ground and then they start to see how to do it and that moment is really exciting. It's really empowering for the students. So, I think my favorite thing is when they really take ownership of it but they also know the problem so well at that point that the decisions that they're making from then forward you know that they're going to be climbing back up.

Prof. Wise: I think those are real significant milestones for a student when they're like, “Ah, I get it.” That pivotal moment in podcasting was like, “Oh, this is much different than I thought it was.”

And the process of discovery continues this quarter with a mix of new projects, and a few groups continuing their projects from the first round.  

Prof. Wise: We have a couple projects around virtual reality. We have a continuation of one of last quarter’s projects where they were prototyping an idea of making VR more democratized, like easier to create, but also more interactive than what we've been seeing especially news outlets create. They're actually building a product based on the conclusions of the project from last quarter.  We have a more exploratory project around VR and data visualization. It's really exploring what this empathy machine of VR -- how you could take data that is typically abstracted even in the visualization of it -- what happens when you can immerse somebody and get an emotional response from that.  

Prof. Withrow: We have three projects that we're running that we’re calling data stories which is the collaboration between Cognitive Science, the MMSS Program (Mathematical Methods and Social Sciences), and the Knight Lab. Those projects are year-long projects that the students are working on. They had to apply early in the year. It's part of the One Book One Northwestern. Those projects are to tell a really great data story. So, we're taking students from across the University, putting them together, and allowing the journalism students to be the guide for storytelling, for the MMSS students to be the guide for the deep quantitative analysis, and they're coming together to build those.

The final project is a collaboration with the company Harkin, which grew out of Curious City at WBEZ, and they have a platform that’s built to increase audience engagement on stories. They ask their audience questions and they use the responses to guide their editorial process. They have clients all over the globe using our system and our students are working on what they call their engagement management system.  

If you’re interested in learning more, you can do so one of …

Prof. Withrow: … three ways.  We have a website, its Everything is there -- it's geared for students, for faculty -- all of our information is really based there. The second thing would be to drop by The Device Lab. We’ve got open hours every weekday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. That's a really great way to come and experience. The third is that we run a number of events and I think that coming to one of the events you get a real sense of who we are and our work.

I want to thank Emily, Zach, and the rest of the Knight Lab crew for their time and amazing collaborative work they bring to the Northwestern community.

On our next episode, guest host Heather Haseley – a learning engineer with Faculty Support Services – will be speaking with Northwestern-Qatar lecturer Mounir Ouanaimi and students from his class about what it was like to run a massive open online course – or MOOC – in Arabic to thousands of students across the globe while also teaching and learning the same material in a traditional class setting.

Until then…