UPF Universe: An interactive and participative visual data project about the university context

Authors: Pere Freixa Font (Universitat Pompeu Fabra) and Carles Sora i Domenjó (Universitat Pompeu Fabra) 

Citation: Freixa Font, Pere; Sora i Domenjó, Carles (2010). "UPF Universe: An interactive and participative visual data project about the university context". Hipertext.net, 8, http://www.upf.edu/hipertextnet/en/numero-8/universe_upf.html

Pere Freixa  Carles Sora i Domenjó

Abstract: Within the EEES context, UPF Universe proposes to intervene in the process of anticipatory socialization to academic life that occurs at universities. An interactive virtual map of the UPF has been developed, in which professors and students reveal their vision of the university. The construction of these maps year after year, their interconnectivity as well as pedagogical propositions, offer an innovative way of approaching the design of interactive content.

Keywords: Anticipatory socialization, general competencies, concept mapping, collaborative content, interaction models

Table of contents

1. Introduction
2. Educational context: Considerations related to general competencies and anticipatory socialization
3. Interaction and learning: the design of interaction and content
4. Methodology, objectives and description of the project
    4.1. Visualization of a collective map
    4.2. Critical reading and debate
    4.3. Activity timeline
    4.4. Continuity, system response and control perception
    4.5. Surveys and data collection
    4.6. Map construction. Visualization.
    4.7. Interactive models and the visualization of information
    4.8. Discussion spaces
5. Data obtained and initial results
6. Plans for the future: project phases 2 and 3
7. Conclusions
8. Bibliography

 

1. Introduction

UPF Universe is an interactive and participative project within a teaching environment. It consists of a group of educational goals linked to the creation and implementation of online virtual maps. These concept maps, which represent the perceptions that professors and students have of their university, in this case the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, constitute an interactive application that basically consists of the following five elements:

  • Main map. The start page has 8 circles, each representing a broad disciplinary area: Humanities, Advertising and Public Relations, Audiovisual Communication, Economics, Business Management and Administration, Political and Administration Sciences, Audiovisual Systems Engineering and Computer Science. Each circle is interactive and provides access to a map of the discipline.

  • Navigation bar. Text options in the top navigation bar link to the map of each discipline as well as to information about the project: What is UPF Universe?, Pedagogical goals and Map archives.

  • Maps of disciplines. When a map of a discipline opens, a large circle appears onscreen, displaying all of the approximately 100 items each discipline contains, divided into four categories (concepts and profiles, in all 8 areas; authors and works, in Advertising and Public Relations, Humanities, Political and Administration Sciences, and Audiovisual Communication); authors and economic models in Economics, and Business Management and Administration; and person and artifact in Audiovisual Systems Engineering and Computer Science). Within each category the items are organized hierarchically, by significance.

  • Data windows. Windows to display data are linked to items on the maps. Each item on the map is interactive: when the user interacts with an item, a data window opens with information associated with that item: number of records available, percentages, and comparisons.

  • Hypertext links. When any item is represented in more than one discipline map, a link is created to connect them, permitting hypertext jumps between them.

UPF Universe is the name of this interactive virtual map of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, where professors and students reveal what the university means to them. Organized by program of study, each planet in this great planetary system presents the professional profile, the concepts and the most important and significant points of reference collectively drawn by the university community, year after year. In this way, a great constellation appears, with interlaced ideas and opinions that form a precise panorama of how each university program is seen and how the participants want it to be in the future. UPF Universe defines a broad pedagogical proposition that is developed through creating, understanding and dialoguing with the interactive maps.

In the context of the new European Space for Higher Education, UPF Universe focuses on giving visibility to the processes of anticipatory socialization, exploring in depth the possibility of developing interactive environments that look at learning as a process that incorporates both individual and collective phases. Preliminary project results highlight the value and the necessity of intervening in the student socialization process throughout the period of university studies.

This article reports the current status of the UPF Universe project at the end of its first phase. Computer-based prototypes have been developed, the project's methodology has been finalized, and initial preliminary results have been obtained. The report is divided into three sections:

  • Educational context, socialization process, and interactive model. A preliminary description is provided of the educational context for this project, which defines the overall proposition for interactive discourse. We also define the models and concepts of interaction and learning upon which the development of the project is based.

  • Methodology, objectives and description of the project. Considerations related to the process of definition, creation and use of the virtual maps are discussed.

  • Data obtained, future plans, and results. With the conclusion of the initial phase of the project, preliminary results can be presented, and plans can be made for the next phases of the project.

2. Educational context: Considerations related to general competencies and anticipatory socialization

UPF Universe interprets general competencies in a transversal manner, distinct from specific competencies because of their time dimension and dissociation from the acquisition of specific knowledge or skills [Freixa, Sora, 2008b], as the process by which an individual adopts the values of a group to which he or she aspires, but does not yet belong [Fuente, Sánchez, 2000]. We take into account the fact that the process of anticipatory socialization, according to Fuente and Sánchez, involves both the result of the explicit curriculum, or formal education, and that of explicit and implicit curricular factors, as described by Robert Menton [Menton, 1980]. Therefore, the general competency that we could call the process of anticipatory socialization would basically involve the acquisition of values over a lengthy period of time, and both explicit and implicit factors would have a role. As Rosa María Méndez points out, "through the process of teaching, of relationships with professors, contact with the world of work and with other students, as well as the climate of shared experience, students acquire knowledge, skills and abilities, values and attitudes that correspond to their chosen profession, and it is through all of these processes and within the university context that this process of anticipatory socialization evolves" [Méndez, 2007].

The only current reference the university system makes to the processes of socialization in the acquisition of competencies is incomplete; we find it in the definition of general competency described as the capacity for critical thinking needed for academic and applied research [UPF, 2005; EURIDICE, 2002 and Dublín, 2004]. Nonetheless, recent studies in various universities [Fuente, Sánchez, 2000 and Méndez, 2007] have confirmed our interest in returning to this debate in the Spanish university context. Given the complexity of these competencies [Corominas, 2001], and the difficulty of detailing their plans of study, the general competencies form part of the general statements about the plans of study but their incorporation into specific definitions of the subject matter is difficult to achieve.

The project could intervene in the socialization process, contributing fundamental new approximations of the university environment and its vision. The transverse nature of the maps, which show content from all courses for all class years, permit a projection that is individual, with personal interests. We believe that a representation of the instructional content, constructed by both professors and students, adds credibility and empathy to their relationship and can generate new levels of understanding course content. We would highlight a few of the possibilities for interaction with the project:

  • Students in a program could use UPF Universe as a tool to connect with other subjects, based on the links between items, broadening the transversality of content presented in their courses.

  • Professors could consult UPF Universe to find other classes in which an author, work, or concept used in their class is cited and presented. This could create links between different courses in a program and facilitate a richer, more transversal understanding over time.

  • A student attracted to a particular work, author, important figure, concept, model or profile could look it up,

  • Suggestions from students and professors of items that in their opinion should be part of the coursework but are not being addressed in class.

Finally, we are especially interested in the idea that future students could, through the map, understand the essence of a program in a more direct manner. Using the map, which is full of references contributed by other students, brings the academic program closer to the future student than the official descriptions of a program. The identification that future students could achieve with authors, works and concepts they know or that form part of their academic vision can become a new way of explaining the studies.

3. Interaction and learning: the design of interaction and content

There is recurrent debate about interactivity and interaction in the context of interactive communication. Its use in numerous disciplines permits a large number of definitions, often very different from each other. In the context of digital media, for example, Rodríguez, Codina and Pedraza explain that interactivity equally refers to the incorporation of participatory resources (debates, chats, contributed content, etc.), to the navigation (both structural and in terms of content), and to the use of particular tools (syndication, personalization of content, etc.) [Rodríguez, Codina and Pedraza [2010]. Liberated from the two-dimensional limitations of the computer screen, authors such as Jacob, Girouard, Hirshfield and others argue that the definition of interactivity must abandon technological constraints and focus on what they have called reality-based interaction (RBI), with the understanding that the new generation of interactive projects utilize the real world as the context for interaction: "By 'real world', we mean the undigital world, including physical, social, and cultural reality outside of any form of computer interaction" [Jacob et al, 2007]. Nonetheless, for classic authors such as Rafaeli, interactivity continues to define strictly a communication's contingency capacity, with the possibility of transmitting messages that are noninteractive, reactive or interactive [Rafaeli, 1988].

In a recent review of the term interactivity, Retzinger classifies concepts based on communication models (person-person, person-machine, person-content, etc.), characteristics of the texts themselves (passive, conversational, proactive, etc.), the capacity for user control a system offers and, lastly, the characterization of the time involved (immediate response, perceived error, synchronicity, etc.). Finally, the author incorporates the notion of continuity in her definition, with the understanding that "interactivity is dynamic, a continuum that accounts for how interactivity works in context for a specific purpose" [Retzinger, 2009].

Within the educational environment of our project, interactivity comprises, in a general way, the context and medium of communication (internet, virtual classroom, tools for mail and dialog between professors and students, etc.), the possibilities of intervention or action involving pedagogical content (notes, supplemental material, references) and participation (synchronous or asynchronous) in didactic activities (debates, forums, chats, online exams, etc.).

UPF Universe considers interactivity in relationship to the competency objectives of the pedagogical project. That is to say, we again place content and communication strategies at the centre of interactive discourse [Ribas, Freixa, 1997]. However, recovering the centrality of content does not suppose an abandonment of interest in the modularity of interactive systems or deviation from the discursive possibilities of interactive systems, independently of the content to which they refer. Rather, the emphasis is on the anchorage provided by the centrality of content, whether this is conditional or determining, which permits us to discern interactive discourse. A deeper analysis of the anticipatory socialization process that occurs throughout the period of university studies brings us to suggest interactive communication strategies that develop continuously over time. The educational goal of the project, the analysis of activities, and the timing will determine usage and the choice of one form of interactive communication or another, also taking into account whether activities are in-person or at a distance, individual or collective, online or offline, passive or active, and involve exploration or contribution.

The conceptualization, structure and design of long-term interactive projects, which also combine in-person and distance phases, individual and collective elements, constitutes a challenge for the field of interactive communication and, to our way of thinking, advances the concept of interactivity within the environment of new communication networks.

4. Methodology, objectives and description of the project

UPF Universe is the primary project of the Innovative Teaching Network, XID UPF Universe [contact: universupf@upf.edu], which involves professors from the departments of Communication, Political and Social Sciences, Information and Communication Technologies, and Humanities, at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra. It was developed with the support of the university's Program for Innovation in Teaching in 2007-08 and 2008-09. The network focuses on creating and developing pedagogical resources related to the processes of recognizing, identifying and consolidating the scientific ambit, and strengthening the spirit of critical thinking and analysis and the transversality between studies and disciplines.

This first phase of the project had the following objectives:

  • Creation and visualization of a collective map.

  • Critical reading and discussion of the maps to strengthen the capacity to reflect upon the scientific and professional environment.

These objectives have permitted us to articulate and refine three lines of action related to data collection and visualization, the spaces for debate and, finally, the project timeline and future participation. The project methodology covers five phases:

  • Development of a timeline for data collection and pedagogical activities.

  • Distribution of in-person surveys for data collection.

  • Data analysis and creation of virtual maps

  • Interaction with maps and in-class debates.

  • Immediate and cumulative results of in-class debates.

4.1. Visualization of a collective map

UPF Universe proposes ways of intervening in the individual and collective dimensions of the stated general competency, strengthening those aspects that permit a debate about the sense of community that is implicit in the collective concept of a university. The socialization process is linked to the concept of a reference group, a "group that constitutes a normative reference and a mark of comparison and personal distinction with respect to the social collective" [Fuente, Sánchez, 2000]. The creation, and visual and interactive presentation, of the maps that form the university's "universe" permit the individual student to recognize, localize and configure a personal frame of reference [Freixa, Sora, 2008a]. Its collective dimension also permits participation in defining and specifying a common frame of reference. Developing a conceptual map for each area of study becomes a collaborative project in which the entire university community is invited to participate. Defined as a dynamic environment, it stimulates reflection and debate.

4.2. Critical reading and debate

The collective dimension of the map permits us to face distinct personal opinions, all gathered into the map, with a common configuration. Agreements and differences shape the reading and discussion that the project generated, whether collectively in the classroom or individually by accessing the maps online. For the classroom discussion, the project incorporated a second survey to obtain student evaluations of the product. Periodic discussions throughout the degree program will give the process continuity and bring to light the changes in the student body over the course of their studies. Obtaining the results of these discussions through surveys will provide ongoing project evaluation.

4.3. Activity timeline

During the first year, as we have seen, the project articulates three basic activities: student data collection through classroom surveys, visualization of the available data in interactive maps, and debates. In subsequent years, the timeline adds the possibility of comparing consecutive maps, as well as the creation and registry of personalized maps. In the fourth year of the project, students will have access to the interactive maps of their entire university trajectory.

timeline

activity

user

locus

context

interactivity

s

Survey, 1st year students and professors

Individual

offline / in class

collective / group

contributive

p

Consult previous maps

individual

online

personal / individual

exploratory / active & passive contribution

s + 2t

Survey, Years 3 and 4

individual

offline / in class

collective / group

contributive

s + 3t

Debate: Years 1, 3 and 4

collective

off-line / in class

collective / group

contributive

s + 1y

p

Creation / registry of personalized maps

individual

online

personal / individual

exploratory / active & passive contribution

s + 1y

Survey, 1st year students and professors

individual

offline / in class

collective / group

contributive

s + 1y +2t

Survey, Years 3 and 4

individual

offline / in class

collective / group

contributive

s + 1y + 3t

Debate: Year 1, 3 and 4

collective

offline / in class

collective / group

contributive

s + 4y

Survey, 1st year students and professors

individual

offline / in class

collective / group

contributive

s + 4y

p

Consult maps of 4 years of degree program

individual

online

personal / individual

exploratory / active & passive contribution

Table 1. Timeline, activities, users and interactivity. Units of time: s= start-up; t= trimester; y= year; p= permanent

4.4. Continuity, system response and control perception

The incorporation of continuity over time and the simultaneous presence of short-term and ongoing activities broaden the dimensions of the interactive discourse. To give more visibility to the socialization process, we have proposed and resolved three distinct types of interactions with variable response times.

First, the interactive system that comprises the Universe offers immediate response to user interaction with visual elements of the maps, related to traditional interface design (display maps, activate links, move objects, etc.) and usability (consistence, standardized resources, etc.).

Second, the individual's contribution of content and interactions with the program (active and passive) generate an increased or projected response, the product of the collaboration of a group of contributors, which is made concrete by the creation of the collective maps. In this way, the visual construction of the "universe" simultaneously offers all individual contributions (recognizing personal contributions to the map) along with the combined result (the group of replies that amplify or contradict the user's individual opinion).

Finally, individual participation over time permits an evolving perspective on the project, offering a cumulative record of the results from the very beginning of the process. Annual surveys of first-year students confer continuity and will incorporate the newcomers into the university as a whole.

4.5. Surveys and data collection

On the basis of the survey of faculty and first, third and fourth-year students in each participating program, administered in the classroom, we gathered a collection of data that, once coded and entered into a database, allowed us to draw a map of that academic year. The survey was individual, anonymous, and adapted to each degree program. Data was collected in the four areas under study (see Introduction, "Maps of disciplines"). The survey followed these guidelines:

  • During class time, the survey was briefly introduced to the students. 5 minutes

  • Surveys were completed individually and anonymously. The survey form had four sections, each with five open-ended, non-hierarchical questions. Partial or blank responses were permitted. 15 minutes.

  • Survey forms were collected.

Data gathering for map configuration was also achieved using an individual, anonymous survey that was conducted in the classroom, as described.

The trimester, day and hour were selected a priori: Surveys of first-year students were done during the first two weeks of the first trimester; third- and fourth-year students were surveyed during weeks 2 and 7 of the second trimester, taking advantage of certain classes they share, and finally, the professoriate was surveyed throughout the year.

The data obtained were processed and entered into a MySQL database. The data validation process was done by members of the research team. The professors who form part of the network conducted a first data filtering to ensure idiomatic unity of tabulated references and to create a thesaurus of all terms that appeared. In a second phase, using the thesauri from the profile and concepts section of each area of study, a common thesaurus was created for the whole university, which will provide the basis for interconnecting the data from different disciplines.

4.6. Map construction. Visualization.

Once the survey data are stored in the database, the project's applications (php, java and flash) graphically present reduced-size maps for each area of study on the computer screen. User interaction can open, move and explore the entire Universe. Each item represented, no matter which section it is in, displays a data window when clicked, showing and allowing comparison of all the available data: overall and segmented percentages by area of study, professors, and students in their first and second years of study.


Figure 1. Start page: Main <i>UPF Universe</i> interface with the maps of all degree programs.

Figure 1. Start page: Main UPF Universe interface with the maps of all degree programs

Taken together, all of the maps form what we have named UPF Universe, which contains all the simultaneous presentations of all areas of study at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra. The data in the common sections, concepts and profile, are interconnected between maps, creating interrelationships of shared values, highlighting the level of commonality or difference that characterizes them.

Figure 2. Main UPF Universe interface with the Humanities and Audiovisual Communication maps displayed.

Figure 2. Main UPF Universe interface with the Humanities and Audiovisual Communication maps displayed.

Figure 3. UPF Universe with data windows displayed.

Figure 3. UPF Universe with data windows displayed

4.7. Interactive models and the visualization of information

Decisions about UPF Universe functions and visual representation were part of the research agenda already developed by our team, which focuses on participatory and evolving online content environments, models for accessing and displaying knowledge, and the potential for modular interaction [http://iua.upf.edu/eic/eic_site/eic.php?i=s&s=lr].

As a virtual map, UPF Universe can be considered a data visualization project [Cleveland, W. S.,1993] with a finite group of items organized in a structured manner and visually organized on the basis of their location on the screen. Following Shneiderman's classic data taxonomy, the information contained in UPF Universe maps can be defined as two-dimensional, although their time dimension and the future possibility of modification give it a multi-dimensional categorization [Shneiderman, B.,1996]. These text items are organized on screen using categorization by color, location and size. Therefore, when the same item appears in maps from different areas of study, a relationship or visual link is established that unifies the two concepts. These links permit us to draw a web of links that interconnect all of the maps. In the prototype developed for this first phase, operational only off-line, allowed the user to interact with these items, activate the links that connect it to other maps or display complementary information they contain. In the next phases of the project, we envision that the user will be able to filter and personalize the maps, as well as modifying and adding information.

4.8. Discussion spaces

The virtual map can be read interactively over the internet. In parallel to this public consultation, in the classroom the project envisions the interactive map becoming a tool for discussion and debate with the students. This year the first experimental debate involved a group of 40 students in 3rd and 4th year Audiovisual Communication classes, many of whom had participated in the creation of the first collective map during the 2006-07 academic year [Freixa, Sora, 2008c]. This initial debate followed structured guidelines:

  • Free individual exploration of the UPF Universe maps. 10 minutes

  • Response to an individual, anonymous in-class survey consisting of five sections, each with five open-ended, non-hierarchical questions. Partial or blank responses are accepted. The five sections are: How can I benefit from UPF Universe? What would I like UPF Universe to offer me? What can I contribute to UPF Universe? In what context would I use it? and Open-ended comments. 15 minutes

  • Classroom discussion of the survey topics, basically open commentary. 30 minutes

5. Data obtained and initial results

Two years after its beginnings as the Innovative Teaching Network, the UPF Universe project has successfully concluded its first phase, with results from data collection as well as the creation of an interactive application. We also consider project refinement and definition of strategies to be results for this first phase. Organized into four categories, these include:

  • Definition of a three-phase project strategy.

  • Definition of a survey model for each area of study involved in the prototype, with both shared and program-specific sections.

  • Data from all classes in an academic program in a given year, with a highly representative participation by first and second-year students, and lesser participation by the professoriate. For all classes involved, more than 600 surveys were completed in these two years.

  • Prototype operational and online for the database project.

  • Prototype application for offline execution.

  • First classroom debates and public project presentation in university forums.

Area of study

Participation:1st yr students

Participation:3rd & 4th yr students

Participation: professors

part.

total

%

part.

total

%

part.

total

%

Advertising and Public Relations

67

80

83.75

36

80

45.00

6

70

8.50

Audiovisual Communication

20

80

25.00

40

90

44.44

5

80

6.30

Humanities

67

95

70.53

32

140

22.85

10

109

9.10

Political Sciences

109

170

64.11

28

80

35.00

6

80

7.50

Business Administration and Management

123

180

68.33

42

90

46.66

8

90

8.80

Economics

23

90

25.55

12

120

10.00

Table 2: Percentage of participation

 

Debate

Participation

Results: nº of responses

part.

total

%

0 resp.

1 resp.

2 resp.

3 resp.

4 resp.

5 resp.

3rd and 4th year Audiovisual Communication students

28

40

70

2

1

0

4

7

14

Table 3: Debate: Participation

 

Discussion with 3rd and 4th year Audiovisual Communication students

Question / Responses

nº of responses

What it offers: Global information about my own studies

7

What it offers: Information about other programs

5

What it offers: Global vision of the University / Program / Classes (student perspective)

8

use / context: Research and analysis

4

use / context: Inform students before they register so they have a better idea what to study

10

use / context: Evaluate student satisfaction

1

improvements / comments: Incorporate career options for each area of study and the opinions of previous students into the map

9

improvements / comments: Personalize the maps / define your own space

5

improvements / comments: Offer employment opportunities

3

improvements / comments: Link to student projects / addition of content

9

improvements / comments: Connect students from different areas of study to undertake joint projects

3

improvements / comments: Make it a real discussion / dialog / critique involving students, professors and program administrators

12

improvements / comments: See maps for different years

6

improvements / comments: Make it an index / search portal

5

Table 4: Debate: Selected responses. (Tabulation of similar responses to open-ended questions)

 

6. Plans for the future: project phases 2 and 3

With the end of the first phase, over the coming years we will develop the second phase of the project, the design of which will be based on the accumulation and progressive comparison of the maps, and will expand the data sampling to the entire university, incorporating the programs not included in the initial prototype.

The project proposes to conduct an annual survey of all first-, third-, and fourth-year students, and a four-year cycle of faculty surveys. The data obtained will permit us to generate new maps, following the same guidelines as in Phase 1, that expand the UPF Universe timeline. Parallel to the survey data, the project?'s Internet presence will generate new information about the reading, perception, acceptance or debates occurring around the various maps. These data will compile both active user contributions (online comments and discussions) and passive participation, derived from data on user navigation through the UPF Universe (for example, the paths through the maps, time invested, or links followed).

In a third phase, the project plans to develop new tools for interaction with the maps and their content, opening the possibility of generating maps or tables "made to order", either partial or selective (for example, a transversal vision of the professional profile of all first-year students, or tables for a given value, such as creativity, for the University as a whole); permitting users to personalize their pathways, searches or maps; and finally developing new interactive interfaces to promote online debate. There is the additional possibility of using the map as an index linking various services (employment opportunities, post-graduate and specialist courses). It could also become a tool for evaluating the university process.

7. Conclusions

Reflecting on the project's work flow, as well as the evaluation of participation data and contributions to the discussion, we have drawn the conclusion that the project is useful. At this point we would express the following recommendations and preliminary findings:

  • The project gathers data for the study and analysis of the student body and the university. The student profiles, their goals for the future, the changes in perception that occur over time, or their identifying characteristics as a group provide previously nonexistent data about university life.

  • Students have demonstrated interest in looking at maps from various years and being able to follow their educational trajectory. This confirmed for us the need to develop the second and third phases of the project.

  • The use of the interactive maps in the classroom allowed reflection about data visualization and usage, and the interactive and collaborative possibilities. We have found interest in increasing the project's capacity for interaction, permitting user personalization, filtering and contributing information.

  • From the interactive design perspective, we have a positive view of the project timeline. By considering any project to be an interactive product, ranging from in-person data collection through classroom surveys to the development of virtual maps, we place user participation and interactive dialog at the crux of conceptual and pedagogical development of the project. In this way, each project phase shapes the next and benefits from the results and contributions from the interaction provided by professors and students in earlier phases.

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