Ebb and Flow – Monitoring Systems Without Intrusion

I’ve been wishing a lot of people “Happy Thanksgiving” today because, despite being frightfully Antipodean, I have a lot of friends and family who are Thanksgiving observers in the US. However, I would know that something was up in the US anyway because I am missing about 40% of my standard viewers on my blog. Today is an honorary Sunday – hooray, sleep-ins all round! More seriously, this illustrates one of the most interesting things about measurement, which is measuring long enough to be able to determine when something out of the ordinary occurs. As I’ve already discussed, I can tell when I’ve been linked to a higher profile blog because my read count surges. I also can tell when I haven’t been using attractive pictures because the count drops by about 30%.

A fruit bat, in recovery, about to drink its special fruit smoothie. (Yes, this is shameless manipulation.)

This is because I know what the day-to-day operation of the blog looks like and I can spot anomalies. When I was a network admin, I could often tell when something was going wrong on the network just because of the way that certain network operations started to feel, and often well before these problems reached the level where they would trigger any sort of alarm. It’s the same for people who’ve lived by the same patch of sea for thirty years. They’ll look at what appears to be a flat sea on a calm day and tell you not to go out – because they can read a number of things from the system and those things mean ‘danger’.

One of the reasons that the network example is useful is because any time you send data through the network to see what happens, you’re actually using the network to do it. So network probes will actually consume network bandwidth and this may either mask or exacerbate your problems, depending on how unlucky you are. However, using the network for day-today operations, and sensing that something is off, then gives you a reason to run those probes or to check the counters on your networking gear to find out exactly why the hair on the back of your neck is going up.

I observe the behaviour of my students a lot and I try to gain as much information as I can from what they already give me. That’s one of the reasons that I’m so interested in assignment submissions, because students are going to submit assignments anyway and any extra information I can get from this is a giant bonus! I am running a follow-up Piazza activity on our remote campus and I’m fascinated to be able to watch the developing activity because it tells me who is participating and how they are participating. For those who haven’t heard about Piazza, it’s like a Wiki but instead of the Wiki model of “edit first, then argue into shape”, Piazza encourages a “discuss first and write after consensus” model. I put up the Piazza assignment for the class, with a mid-December deadline, and I’ve already had tens of registered discussions, some of which are leading to edits. Of course, not all groups are active yet and, come Monday, I’ll send out a reminder e-mail and chat to them privately. Instead of sending a blanket mail to everyone saying “HAVE YOU STARTED PIAZZA”, I can refine my contact based on passive observation.

The other thing about Piazza is that, once all of the assignment is over, I can still see all of their discussions, because that’s where I’ve told them to have the discussion! As a result, we can code their answers and track the development of their answers, classifying them in terms of their group role, their level of function and so on. For an open-ended team-based problem, this allows me a great deal of insight into how much understanding my students have of the area and allows me to fine-tune my teaching. Being me, I’m really looking for ways to improve self-regulation mechanisms, as well as uncovering any new threshold concepts, but this nonintrusive monitoring has more advantages than this. I can measure participation by briefly looking at my mailbox to see how many mail messages are foldered under a particular group’s ID, from anywhere, or I can go to Piazza and see it unfolding there. I can step in where I have to, but only when I have to, to get things back on track but I don’t have to prove or deconstruct a team-formed artefact to see what is going on.

In terms of ebb and flow, the Piazza groups are still unpredictable because I don’t have enough data to be able to tell you what the working pattern is for a successful group. I can tell you that no activity is undesirable but, even early on, I could tell you some interesting things about the people who post the most! (There are some upcoming publications that will deal with things along these lines and I will post more on these later.) We’ve been lucky enough to secure some Summer students and I’m hoping that at least some of their work will involve looking at dependencies in communication and ebb and flow across these systems.

As you may have guessed, I like simple. I like the idea of a single dashboard that has a green light (healthy course), an orange light (sick course) and a red light (time to go back to playing guitar on the street corner) although I know it will never be that easy. However, anything that brings me closer to that is doing me a huge favour, because the less time I have to spend actively probing in the course, the less of my students’ time I take up with probes and the less of my own time I spend not knowing what is going on!

Oh well, the good news is that I think that there are only three more papers to write before the Mayan Apocalypse occurs and at least one of them will be on this. I’ll see if I can sneak in a picture of a fruit bat. 🙂

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