Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy


Learning sciences master’s student Patrick Squire investigates the best ways to convey information by combining new media capabilities.

Patrick Squire Explores New Communications Literacies on His Own Terms

By Marilyn Sherman
Patrick Squire
Photo by Daniel Squire

Imagine being able to combine video, animation, audio and text to convey an educational message instantaneously. Learning sciences graduate student Patrick Squire is intrigued with new literacies that allow educators to put media together for getting meaning across.

"I'm interested in the process of conveying information and how we can improve that," he says. His ideal job after completing his master's degree would be in instructional design or learning and development, where he would work to make systems better.

"New technologies are giving people more options for teaching," he notes, whether that teaching occurs in a classroom, a workplace or the world at large. With new media such as digital video, video games and 3D animation, suddenly educators have powerful tools. "New programming languages and literacies like video are giving people a lot of 'pieces' to work with," he says. What's more, the price points have fallen and the skills are easier to learn. For example, someone who wants to convey how to cook an omelette can post a video taken on a camera phone with a few clicks to YouTube, he notes.

Squire's own "languages" include computer programming interfaces such as Unreal Engine, which is used for developing games, and Scratch, which is designed for educational purposes, as well as Xcode and Dashcode tools for developing software on Macs, iPhones and iPads. He also is "fluent" in 3D animation, videography and photography. This self-described "semi-engineering type" came to Northwestern from a job as project manger for a video analytics company. He has also done stints as a videographer, photographer, software trainer and technician, and his bachelor's degree is in mass communications with a specialty in cinematography.

In working with new media, he is excited by crossovers among disciplines such as learning sciences, computer science and media production that expand capabilities, but finds these new capabilities come with new challenges. For example, mobile devices for displaying rich content are now ubiquitous, but few studies are available to guide the design of educational software for users in environments such as museums.

Today's communications skills should include computational literacy, according to Squire, who praises the problem- solving approach that students gain in the process. "The goal is not to make people programmers but to give problem-solving skills," he says. Some of the newer interfaces are more visual, using blocks or boxes instead of lines of code, which makes programming easier and allows more people to engage in it. "We have a predisposition to understanding visual representation," he notes.

Squire was drawn to the Learning Sciences program to attain his goals for conveying information educationally, and he hasn't been disappointed. When he first attended an open house about the program, the interesting projects and ideas made him realize "these are my people," he remarks. He knew he would learn a lot about how cognitive psychology plays into delivering information, but what has surprised him is how much he is learning about education. For example, assistant professor Edd Taylor's class "gave me a new literacy that would allow me to talk knowledgeably to educational publishers about things like implementing large-scale math curriculums," he says.

"This program gives as much support as possible because it's so interdisciplinary," he maintains. Another outstanding aspect of the program is the "balance between theory and implementation," he says. Learning Sciences students not only read and discuss research but also see it implemented in specific projects. In addition, he's impressed with the supportive environment that allows master's students to learn from PhD students, who have offices nearby.

Currently immersed in his master's project, Squire continues to question how best to present information. "I'm looking at how can you take an idea and give it to another person. … You can't increase thinking speed or give them more time, but you can make them more informed," says Squire. "There are benefits in looking at how you deliver information and how it is received — making sure the two are the same."