Helping people, improving lives through informatics

May 11, 2016

Professor Rebecca Black joins the ICS faculty where she will continue her research into bridging education and IT.

Associate Professor of Informatics Rebecca Black bridges education, marginalized populations and information technology (IT) in her interdisciplinary research, which spans numerous projects and groups throughout the community. Black joins the Department of Informatics in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences this year, after serving on UCI’s School of Education faculty since 2006, with the aim of applying the backing of a major research university to her goal of helping people and improving lives.

Below, Black discusses her current research that includes projects as diverse as IT as a resource for homeless, pregnant and parenting women and their children; to projects looking at toys and technologies in relation to gender; to a multi-school collaboration on a system to support peer review and revision in academic writing. She also shares her insights on the most interesting uses of IT in today’s classrooms and young people’s interactions with online spaces.

What Informatics courses will you be teaching?
Video Games & Society, Discourse Analysis, and Qualitative Research Methods.

What are your current research interests?
Broadly, I’m interested in how technology can be leveraged to support people who are struggling in various capacities, be it academically, personally or socially. Along these lines, I’m in the beginning stages of a project exploring how IT can serve as a resource for homeless, pregnant and parenting women and their children.

Tell us about one of your most interesting current research projects.
I’ve been working with Carol Booth Olson in UCI’s School of Education, Robin Scarcella in Humanities and Bill Tomlinson in Informatics, on a project that uses IT to help students who typically struggle with writing and reading to develop their academic literacy skills. Right now, we’re analyzing the data from a system we developed to support peer review and revision in academic writing. We’re not done with the analysis yet, but so far it’s looking like using the system is helping them to improve their writing skills. It also looks like they’re having fun with the system—making jokes, including emojis, while still taking the composition part of the task seriously. I think there’s not enough playful learning taking place in schools today, so it’s nice to see this system allowing for a little more fun with writing.

What are some of the other projects you’re currently working on?
I have quite a few projects in the works right now. In addition to the project focused on IT for homeless, pregnant and parenting women and their children, I’m also working on various projects related to the potential benefits of participation in fan communities. I also have some ongoing projects exploring young people’s uses of technology in their daily lives, and some projects looking at toys and technologies in relation to gender.

What are the practical implications of your work? How does Informatics help make IT tangible and personal?
Digital media are becoming ubiquitous in many children’s lives, and understanding what impact this will have is of critical importance to our future. In addition, learning more about how youth engage with digital media can position us well to intervene productively in these spaces, and both create new technologies and leverage existing ones that can bring about positive change in young people’s lives.

What is your educational background?
I attended graduate school at University of Massachusetts, Boston for my M.A. and University of Wisconsin, Madison for my Ph.D. For my undergraduate education, I initially attended Massasoit Community College in Canton, Mass., and then transferred to Stetson University, a small private college in DeLand, Fla. I’m originally from Miami.

Your work seems to focus on children and adolescents’ interactions with technology, both educationally and otherwise. What are some of today’s
most interesting uses of technology in the classroom?

When they aren’t bogged down by the demands of standardized testing, teachers are doing really innovative things with technology in the classroom. For example, some teachers have students create Facebook pages for literary or historical figures. So, a student or team of students might create a page for Abraham Lincoln and then they would have to decide who President Lincoln’s friends would be, what his favorite quotes or music might be, what sort of pictures he might post, what groups he would join, etc. This sort of activity allows young people to connect history to the modern world in ways that foster greater understanding.

As another example, some teachers are helping students learn about rhetorical techniques by creating multimedia projects instead of simply writing papers. These sorts of projects are important because multimedia is so prominent in contemporary society, and students need to know how to express themselves and how to critically interpret the messages they receive through various communicative channels. This sort of project also allows youth who may struggle with writing to still participate fully in an activity and display their knowledge of a topic while still developing their facility with traditional rhetorical techniques.

You also research children and adolescents’ identity in online communities. What are some of the developments you’ve observed when young people interact with these online realms?
I often focus on children who, for a variety of reasons—like language barriers or social distance—have difficulty expressing themselves in face-to-face contexts. I’ve found that online spaces can often mitigate some of the difficulties and allow these young people to express their identities in a variety of ways—either through written text or by creating images, moving an avatar, sharing emojis or creating a music video, to name just a few.

You’ve authored a book titled Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction (New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies) on the way English language learners self-represent their cultures in online fan fiction. How do online spaces impact this cohort?
English language learners are often positioned as less capable than their peers. In the fan fiction spaces that I’ve looked at, even when English language learners’ youth were writing stories in English, their access to two or more linguistic codes was viewed as an asset. So, even if their English writing wasn’t perfect, the other fans were still interested in the plotlines of their stories, and readers viewed the English language learners’ ability to integrate different languages and cultural knowledge into their stories as valuable.

What are you hoping to accomplish in your new position with the Informatics Department?
I’m hoping to have many opportunities to collaborate with an excellent group of faculty, students and staff to think about problem spaces around IT from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, and then bring these perspectives to bear on developing IT-based interventions for these spaces.

People are inspired to learn in many different ways, and IT can be used to open up new and innovative possibilities for learning and social development, particularly for young people who are disenfranchised by traditional one-size-fits-all approaches.

What makes ICS such a great place to be a scholar in the field of informatics?
The unique characteristics of informatics as a field allows for developing robust understandings of the impacts of IT and designing technological interventions that may have positive impacts on the world around us.

Support for our projects will enable us to reach more children, families and teachers, and allow us to build systems to support learning and social development in the service of research-driven interventions.