Blog This: Transforming How Students Engage and Learn from Visualization Research

What started out as an experiment by Professor Niklas Elmqvist to make student work more meaningful gave rise to VisUMD. It’s a Medium blog that showcases research in a popular format. In his data visualization course, students not only expose some of the latest technical findings to a wider audience, but in some cases, spark new connections with the research authors themselves. I delve into the blog’s origin story and the experiences of the professor and his students. 

What follows is a summary of our conversations.

Alexandra Khoo: Could you tell us a bit about yourself, the course behind VisUMD, and the profile of students who would take that course? 

Niklas Elmqvist: I’m a professor in the college of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. We currently have three courses on data visualization, and I’m involved in all three. The course in question is INST 760, a graduate course, so the students are master-level or Ph.D. students. A lot of them have technical backgrounds, for example, in computer science or information technology. Some have more design-oriented backgrounds like UX and others with not-so-much technical background at all. In this course, they’re learning data visualization from more of a research perspective, though at the end of it, they should be able to use some tools and techniques, too.

AK: You always seem to be on the lookout to make coursework more than just an academic exercise. What motivates this desire and how did you land on the idea of creating a blog? 

NE: While I’ve always had students read academic papers, it was a struggle to get them to engage with the material. In the past, I tried a few different things, like having students present in class or work in groups on an annotated bibliography. Those didn’t really work well. Every year, I try to improve the course as much as I can and test out new things. It also does start to get repetitive if you teach the course the same way every time.

Then I noticed in the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) conference circles, an emerging practice of writing about research papers as popular science posts. I felt the idea of getting graduate students to explain a paper to a popular audience was ingenious. If you want to explain your research to a person outside the field, like someone’s parent or grandparent, you need to know the material well enough to explain it in simple terms.

This is the third time I’m running the blog assignment, and I find the students engage much more with the research papers because they have to fully grasp the material. 

AK: And you recently introduced an extra-credit element to the assignment. What’s that about?

NE: Someone was tweeting about an assignment where students were asked to write a thank-you note to a researcher in the field and comment on some work they had read during the semester. I thought that was a great idea; I had this whole class of students who have been reading and summarizing some papers.

I gave my students this extra credit option where, if they wanted, they could send an email to one of the authors of the papers they summarized. One of the greatest things about being an academic is when someone else reads your papers. About a third of the class took it up. It’s nice to have the students sincerely email one of the co-authors, comment, and share what they appreciated in the paper they read. 

As an academic, your life is defined by rejections—laughs—well, mostly, you get lots of negative feedback. Even if your paper gets accepted into a journal, the reviews will still have criticism. In a way, this is more a service to my colleagues; getting emails about the work they’ve done from students who have read their research.

AK: You predetermined the research papers for the assignment. What were your considerations? Are there certain traits in papers that lend themselves better to the popular blog format? 

NE: All the papers I tend to pick are from recent academic conferences. I tried to pick those that would be interesting and exciting to students. I probably prefer papers that were given awards in the past year. Those are particularly approachable for students who are learning about the field. 

Also, this is a way to have students read papers that I haven’t had time to read and give a summary of the work. The assignment almost becomes a public service to the academic community, and perhaps even beyond, to practitioners and a general audience. 

AK: What would your advice be to those looking to replicate a similar experience?

NE: There’s a weird paradox here. I’m a professor and I’m supposed to grade the students’ work, but at the same time, I want this assignment to also serve as a kind of a research resource for the community. That means there’s a bunch of things that I want to do to ensure the blog posts are fit for public consumption, if you will: the right level of abstraction, not too technical content, free of grammatical errors, a common format, including a cover image, etc.

I spend a significant time working with the students on each of their blog posts. A lot of the students juggle other commitments and don’t have much time. Sometimes, they’re doing the assignment too close to the deadline. Many don’t have English as their native language so they struggle with the language barrier, too.

One thing to be aware of, if you’re doing this in your course, is that it’s pretty labor-intensive. It blurs the boundary between grading student work and working with the student to have a good blog post. It’s almost like I’m an editor-in-chief of this little publication for the course. It’s not just another assignment.

One of Prof Elmqvist’s tweets on a student’s blog post
One of Prof Elmqvist’s tweets on a student’s blog post

AK: It sounds like a labor of love, and the blog turned out to be a hot topic on Twitter. Was there anything that surprised you about the reception?

NE: The first time I ran this assignment, I thought the blog may be for everyone to read, but no one would actually read it because there’s too much to find on the Internet. So I thought, okay, I would signal boost it by doing a tweet for every Medium post. If the students have a Twitter handle, I would include it, and I tried to tag the authors of the papers, too. That was a way to connect the students and their blog posts with the authors.

What did surprise me was how many academics responded to these blog posts. Maybe in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been surprising. But the tweets brought attention to these things, and academics, like everyone else, appreciate it when other people read their work and comment on it. 

I also found out that at the IEEE Visualization 2021 conference’s capstone address, Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viegas included my student’s post in their slides because she had just written a summary of the paper they were talking about. That was really cool.

AK: How did the students themselves react to the assignment?

NE: The fact that you publish on a public blog is a little daunting to some students. They’re used to only having the professor see their assignment. I always give the option for the students to just send the post to me in private. Then I would review and grade it. 

But this past year, everyone sent their work to be published on VisUMD. I think they are kind of excited about getting their work public. I have seen a few times that students have been approached by other publications on Medium, which gives them even more exposure. The fact that I’m talking to you about this for Nightingale is another potential boost. The students see the exercise as a way to build a portfolio.

I also had the opportunity to learn about the experience from the students’ perspectives. One common thread was how they picked up subtle, but essential, skills in effective communication in addition to learning the actual content of the research papers they summarized. The very act of writing for a broad range of readers encouraged clarity of thought and audience empathy.

A search for blog cover images. Photo by Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash

“The VisUMD Blog assignment introduced me to emerging ideas and conversations in the field. As someone new to the field, it was helpful to get a sense of some of the ongoing debates and novel approaches occurring in data visualization. The blog platform, in particular, necessitated a different writing style than more technical or academic papers. I found the experience of writing on a different platform and imagining a wider intended audience helpful, because it forced me to identify the core components of the research paper and to prioritize clarity. I have kept this assignment in mind as a potential hack for future writing. If I find myself getting too technical on a piece, I think rewriting on a blog platform will aid in distilling the essential elements of the work and in translating them across audiences.” – Caitlin Leach, “Of Graph and Aesthetics

The assignment gave me a chance to work on my written communication skills and introduced me to a new approach for reading research papers. For the blog post content, we were told to focus more on the “what” than on the “how”. However, to explain a research in simple succinct words requires strong understanding of the system. After going through posts of previous cohorts, I chose to focus on typical use cases of the system, and the paper also had an interesting demonstration, which I used for the post. I feel the idea of having casual blogs is a nice, time-saving way of catching up with ongoing research.” – Meghan Lendhe, “Flight of the Shuttercock

“It is always interesting to learn about research, especially in fields I do not know a lot about. I was completely unfamiliar with machine learning (ML) concepts or even brushing before I read the paper, but I think I came out of it with a decent understanding of both. My approach was just to summarize the research in my own words, including the ML and neural network terms, but explain them thoroughly. Since I was less familiar with the concepts, it was easy for me to understand what terms a layperson would not know. Writing for a popular audience is an important skill and I am glad I had this opportunity to practice it and get feedback on my work.” – Mofe Barrow, “Better Brushing Now

When I first read the paper, I barely understood anything. I only got the essence of what the authors achieved. After a few more reads I started to understand their approach. Once I felt like I had a grasp over the paper, I began to write. I wanted to walk the thin line between wanting the audience to know enough but not overwhelming them by using technical lingo. Professor Niklas had asked us to reach out to the authors and inform them about the blog, get their thoughts on it, and so on. I had no expectations when I emailed the author but, to my surprise, he replied and really liked the article. He also told me my article was mentioned during a capstone presentation that I could watch on YouTube. Personally, that made my day. Grad school is tough and sometimes you go about some assignments just because you have to. If you choose to go the extra mile, the results can really be amazing. I also truly appreciate the exposure I got from the VisUMD blog and the help of Professor Niklas.” -Sonica Kulkarni, “When Life Gives You Rainbows

What happens when we take a regular task and give ourselves the chance to make it more meaningful? Professor Niklas Elmqvist turned a class assignment into a public showcase of student work and much more. In the process, his students found a deeper grasp of the research papers, honed essential skills, and gained exposure among their professional peers. I admire the intellectual humility and generosity exhibited by the class in adding to a community resource, while sharing some love with the academics who authored the research papers.

Alexandra is an analyst-designer who lives in Singapore. She creates stories and comics with data to help clarify the complex.