By Julianna Soberanis and Ciara Donley-Burnham
Associate Professor Chris Lam recently published a study with Ellen Biggerstaff, a graduate of UNT's Tech Comm program who now works as a communication and engagement specialist for Southwest Airlines. The study appears in IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, a top journal in the field of technical communication.
Lam and Biggerstaff's study assesses students' ability to use StackOverflow, a question-and-answer website, to solve coding-related problems. Technical communicators often learn about technical subjects by working directly with subject-matter experts (SMEs). Lam and Biggerstaff's study helps us understand whether students training to be technical communicators are able to use online question-and-answer forums as another way to understand technical subjects.
To conduct their research, Lam and Biggerstaff asked 11 participants to troubleshoot broken code using StackOverflow forums as a reference. Students were asked to think aloud as they worked through the task. Lam and Biggerstaff recorded the students and then analyzed what they observed in the recordings.
The researchers found that, in general, students were not able to solve their coding problems using StackOverflow. Their findings revealed that many students did not engage with the forum threads as much as they could have. Forum threads contained important contextual information as well as examples of working code. Lam and Biggerstaff found that students often attempted to integrate the working code examples into their own broken code without taking the time to understand the contextual explanations provided in the thread. Since students were skipping directly to the code examples, they missed important information that could have helped them understand how to change the provided code to fit the particular problem they faced. The few students who did engage with the forum threads were more successful in completing the task.
Lam and Biggerstaff's research can help teachers and students understand the value of online forums, and see them as stories that can provide useful information to help technical communicators gain subject-matter familiarity. Teaching students to read forum threads as stories can also help students think about coding problems more critically, which research has shown to be an important skill for technical communicators to have, especially in more senior positions. Learning to engage critically with information on StackOverflow can help tech comm students prepare for professional roles in the workplace.
Dr. Lam's Previous Research
In addition to his study with Biggerstaff, some of Dr. Lam's previous work on the success of student teams was featured in the 10th edition of Organizational Behavior, a popular textbook by David A. Buchanan and Andrzej Huczynski. Citations in major publications like this show the broad influence of Dr. Lam's research, not only in the field of technical communication but in other fields as well.