My research agenda investigates how people learn in collaborative learning spaces with technologies (e.g., physical classrooms and technology-enabled open spaces, learning environments that blend the physical and digital, and HCI and learning design studios). Currently, this research agenda involves two parallel strands of research.

1) Designs and Affordances of Collaborative Spaces and Technologies
The first strand involves an investigation of how people learn in technology-enabled open learning spaces.  This first line of research began during my time at the Krause Innovation Studio, a future-looking learning space within the College of Education at the Pennsylvania State University. My research explores the connections between the design of a learning space, the development of learning communities within the space, and an understanding of how collaboration and learning can be defined and investigated within an innovative learning space. I am involved as first or second author on the following three projects: 1) a study that investigates the agentic role of space in developing learning communities; 2) conducting design-based research around the development of a data collection tool for learning spaces research; and 3) understanding students’ experiences of group work in an open, collaborative, and future learning space. I have increased the scope of this research to begin to think about the design of learning spaces within smart and connected communities, and to contribute to the conversation regarding the connection between physical and digital environments.

2) Distributed Expertise with Technology and Peer Support within Learning Environments
My second strand of research focuses on how peers become an extension of the teacher and provide just-in-time assistance to one another in a learning environment. This strand of research began with my dissertation and draws from theoretical perspectives on distributed expertise and sociocultural learning. Building on my experiences in both computer science and K-12 education, I am interested in learning how peers assist each other when they encounter learning-technology issues. My dissertation identified and studied the experiences of students who provided assistance to their peers in a teacher-education professional development school. I have found value in thinking of this strand of research in relation to genres of learning technologies, where I see an opportunity to develop future tools that could provide learners with real-time data regarding peer expertise within a learning environment.

Theoretical framework
In my work, I draw from design scholarship (Nelson & Stolterman, 2012), design-based research (DBR Collective, 2004), and also sociocultural (Vygotsky, 1978) and social (Wenger, 1998) theories of learning. I understand design as “the act of evoking the yet-to-be-imagined and the not-yet-existing” (Nelson & Stolterman, 2012, p. 147). In my research on the collaborative nature of future learning spaces, I borrow Vygotsky’s view of learning. Vygotsky explained learning as being mediated by others in a social environment (Karpov, 2005). The use of the word “mediated” is important because it implies that there is a social dimension of learning as well as an individual dimension. The social dimension of learning is culturally and historically contextual. That is, learning is specific to and embedded in the cultural and historical norms of the environment. According to Vygotsky (1978), the social dimension of learning involves interactions with people who assist us through development. My research on distributed expertise and peer support draws from both Vygotsky’s understanding of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) as well as Wenger’s notion of a community of practice. The ZPD seeks to identify all of an individual’s development as it occurs in an environment and culture. Vygotsky’s notion of development could be compared to ethnography (i.e. the study of culture), because Vygotsky is concerned with capturing continuous development acted upon by the environment in which an individual participates (Newman & Holzman, 1993). Stated another way, the ZPD is neither a framework nor a model, but rather a way to explain the interaction of peers and more capable peers in a community and culture.

For much of my work, design-based research (DBR) is a useful method because it is interested in exploring “novel learning and teaching environments,” discovering learning theories that are contextual, contributing to our understanding of design, and finally, providing an opportunity for innovation (DBR Collective, 2004, p. 8). Innovation in DBR can come in the form of “ontological” innovation that involves the iteration of implementations and descriptions of the details of the iterations (diSessa & Cobb, 2004, p. 100). I often investigate the lived experiences of participants to answer my research questions. I employ hermeneutic phenomenological methods (Heidegger, 1927/1962). van Manen (1997) defines hermeneutic phenomenology as “a descriptive methodology because it wants to be attentive to how things appear, it wants to let things speak for themselves” (p. 180). In hermeneutic phenomenological methods, an emphasis is on interpretation based on cultural, social, and historical contexts. Every experience should be described and understood in relation to the prior and current contexts within which it resides.

Future plans
My future plans involve continuing my two lines of research in the following ways. In my investigation of learning spaces, I have plans to redesign a data collection tool that builds upon a tool I previously developed during my time at Penn State to understand learning in open, collaborative, and technology-enabled learning spaces. I envision the tool would assist in my future research on how people learn in spaces. My work on distributed expertise leads to a vision for seeking external funding. I envision seeking external funding for new research on co-created learning spaces that will build upon distributed expertise within a community. A co-created learning space might offer programming for youth to explore topics of interest (e.g., making, human-centered design, earth and space science). The research plan would focus on an investigation into the distributed nature of expertise among peers, and the agentic role of humans, tools, and spaces within the co-created learning space.


  • DBR Collective. (2003). Design-based research: An emerging paradigm for educational inquiry. Educational Researcher, 32(1), 5-8.
  • diSessa, A. & Cobb, P. (2004). Ontological innovation and the role of theory in design experiments. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(1), p. 77-103.
  • Heidegger, M. (1927/1962). Being and time. New York: Harper.
  • Karpov Y. V. (2005). The Neo-Vygotskian approach to child development. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Nelson, H. G., & Stolterman, E. (2012). The design way: Intentional change in an unpredictable world (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Newman, F., & Holzman, L. (1993). Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary scientist. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Rook, M. M., Choi, K., & McDonald, S. P. (2015). Learning theory expertise in the design of learning spaces: Who needs a seat at the table? Journal of Learning Spaces, 4(1), 1-13.
  • Shavelson, R. J., Phillips, D. C., Towne, L., & Feuer, M. J. (2003). On the science of education design studies. Educational Researcher, 32(1), 25-28.
  • van Manen, M. (1997). Researching lived experience (2nd ed.). Toronto, Ontario: The Althouse Press.
  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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