Natascha Chtena: IS Doctoral Student Swims with Sharks

Former journalist combines interests to study use of technology in higher education, how Twitter can provide a better understanding of ocean’s predators.

While most Ph.D. students at UCLA Ed & IS might humorously consider the end of the quarter as hazardous as swimming with sharks, Natascha Chtena, a third-year doctoral student in UCLA’s Department of Information Studies, really does just that.

“I’ve seen how the oceans have deteriorated over a very short amount of time,” says Chtena, who does scuba and free diving. “I would go diving and I see graveyards instead of corals, and animals swimming with plastic around their necks.

“Through that experience of diving, I’ve become very much aware of environmental issues,” she says. “I’ve also developed an interest in sharks. It makes sense to be interested in sharks because they’re predators and at the top of the chain. [Without] predators, the whole ecosystem is compromised. But apart from that, I am fascinated by the way sharks behave as animals. They are completely misunderstood.”

One of the several projects that Chtena is involved in – using her inquiry skills honed as a former journalist and as a trained anthropologist – is studying the work of the nonprofit Ocearch, to study how their unprecedented methods of using Twitter as a public education tool has helped to inform the public with an insider’s view of the little-known world of sharks.

Natascha Chtena, a Ph.D. student in UCLA's Department of Information Studies, is studying the work of Ocearch, a nonprofit that is using Twitter as a platform for public education about sharks. Courtesy of Natascha Chtena
Natascha Chtena, a third-year Ph.D. student in UCLA’s Department of Information Studies, is studying the work of Ocearch, a nonprofit that is using Twitter as a platform for public education about sharks. Courtesy of Natascha Chtena

“Ocearch is tracking a lot of different sharks – white sharks, hammerheads – and collecting huge amounts of data on how they move, what they eat,” she says. “What they’re trying to do is share that with the public, but instead of writing white papers or publishing articles, they’ve created Twitter profiles for the different sharks they’re tracking. They’ve created profiles of anthropomorphized sharks that engage with their audience. They’re drawing on the data from the tracking, so the sharks ‘share’ information about where they are, or what they’re eating – sharing information about their lives in a way that is very engaging, that we’ve never seen before. The sharks are very popular and have hundreds of thousands of followers.

“My interest in that is I think this is something that really would not have been possible without Twitter as a platform,” Chtena says. “It allows direct communication – people ‘ask’ the questions of the sharks, and the sharks ‘answer’ back. I’m interested in looking at how this particular platform structures the communication of the shark, what kind of narrative does it create, how does it fit into other environmentalist narratives.”

Using her personal experiences to best advantage is second nature to Chtena, who studied optometry as an undergraduate in her native Greece. Although she realized that she would not enter optometry as a profession, she chose to use her education to gain multicultural experience.

“When I finished my degree in optometry, I was between jobs so I had a few months where I could do whatever I wanted,” she says. “I decided to go to Ghana and volunteered with an eye care organization there as both an optometrist and an eye care health educator. I really wanted to gain some international experience and do something useful with what I learned in college.”

While in optometry school and for a time after graduating, Chtena worked as a freelance writer for various publications, which led to managing two magazines and ultimately becoming editor-in-chief of Highlights, which was at the time the leading arts and culture magazine in Greece. Today, she uses her skills and interest in the arts, anthropology, sociology, and media – as well as her experiences as a teaching assistant and German language instructor – to write the blog, “GradHacker” for Inside Higher Ed. Chtena’s posts address issues such as the benefits of reading for pleasure in grad school, studying abroad, and teaching tips.

“I love writing,” she says. “I’m a very curious person and journalism gives you the opportunity to research something enough to get a good idea of what’s happening but at the same time, you don’t spend your life studying one thing.”

Chtena, who teaches German at UCLA and privately, began a project this past summer on the materiality of Skype. She describes her experiences of using Skype to communicate with her students, and says, “If you read the literature on educational technology, there is an assumption that the same learning that takes place in a classroom will take place in with an online platform or something like Skype. But that’s not really what happens. I noticed that Skype really affects lesson planning, the way I communicate, and the language I use [to teach].

“[The interface] shapes your identity as a teacher and how a student perceives you. There are also questions about security, the privacy of online chats. What I was seeing was that Skype was not a neutral tool at all. Materiality relates to many different things. It can relate to the materiality of the iPad – how it affects the way that you engage with the technology. Or it also relates to the interface itself – how does the interface itself promote or suggest a certain kind of communication. We have to engage with technology more and see how it really transforms our teaching and our learning… how does interface shape our communication, how does technology shape our language? These are not the questions that are typically asked in education.”

Chtena’s dissertation will explore another aspect of access, albeit one that hits home for many college students – the growing emergence of open source textbooks.

“I’m interested in questions of affordability and access, especially for disadvantaged students,” she says. I’m interested in looking more into how [open source textbooks] are used in practice: how teachers perceive them, what do publishers think teachers are going to do with them; and what teachers in practice do with them.

“Students cannot [always] afford textbooks,” says Chtena, who often witnesses this disparity as a teaching assistant at UCLA. They share, they make copies. But no matter how hard these students try to catch up, if they don’t have the textbook, it’s [difficult].”

Chtena says that despite the growing use of digital textbooks in primary and secondary education, colleges and universities have been slow to adapt the use of them.

“A lot of professors are concerned about quality – they say they don’t want to use open source textbooks because they don’t think they are as good,” she notes. “But is that really the case, and if so, why is that the case?

“I think that there is promise in the open textbook market. I think that’s going to come to academia as well, and I think that when it comes, it’s important that it’s free or much, much cheaper [for students].”

While studying anthropology at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Chtena had also read the work of UCLA Professors Douglas Kellner, George Kneller Chair in the Philosophy of Education and Peter McLaren, who are noted for their research in critical media literacy. She visited UCLA and met with Kellner, whose support cemented her decision to pursue her Ph.D. in the division of Social Sciences and Comparative Education (SSCE). She completed coursework for her master’s degree, feeling that it prepared her for her current research, but decided to move over to the UCLA Department of Information Studies for her doctorate.

“My background was in anthropology and media studies, and it was really important for me to get an understanding of the main theories and philosophies of education,” says Chtena. “It was preparation for what I’m doing now. But after finishing my first year, I wanted a field that engages more deeply with technology questions. I’m interested in how people think about technology and the way they understand technology: what it is, what it means, what it does, and how it influences educational practice, teaching, and policy in the context of higher education.

“In the literature on educational technology, I saw that technology was presented as a background object or a neutral tool,” she says. “We have predetermined learning outcomes, and if something goes wrong, we assume that either something is wrong with the technology, or that we need better design. If we don’t blame technology, we blame the human [using it].”

Chtena says that despite the push in teacher education toward digital literacy for teachers over the last ten years, technology in education has not yielded the desired outcomes.

“What I argue in my work is that the problem is more fundamental than fixing humans or designing better technology,” she says. “The issue is the way that we think about technology. We don’t spend enough time engaging with technology and understanding how it alters communication, which is really important in an educational context.”