ITiCSE 2014: Monday, Keynote 1, “New Technology, New Learning?” #ITiCSE2014 #ITiCSE

This keynote was presented by Professor Yvonne Rogers, from University College of London. The talk was discussing how we could make learning more accessible and exciting for everyone and encourage students to think, to create and share our view. Professor Rogers started by sharing a tweet by Conor Gearty on a guerrilla lecture, with tickets to be issued at 6:45pm, for LSE students. (You can read about what happened here.) They went to the crypt of Westminster Cathedral and the group, split into three smaller groups, ended up discussing the nature of Hell and what it entailed. This was a discussion on religion but, because of the way that it was put together, it was more successful than a standard approach – context shift, suspense driving excitement and engagement. (I wonder how much suspense I could get with a guerrilla lecture on polymorphism… )

Professor Rogers says that suspense matters, as the students will be wondering what is coming next, and this will hopefully make them more inquisitive and thus drive them along the path to scientific enquiry. The Ambient Wood was a woodland full of various technologies for student pairs, with technology and probes, an explorative activity. You can read about the Ambient Wood here. The periscope idea ties videos into the direction that you are looking – a bit like Google Glass without a surveillance society aspect (a Woodopticon?). (We worked on similar ideas at Adelaide for an early project in the Arts Precinct to allow student exploration to drive the experience in arts, culture and botanical science areas.) All of the probes were recorded in the virtual spatial environment matching the wood so that, after the activity, the students could then look at what they did. Thus, a group of 10-12 year olds had an amazing day exploring and discovering, but in a way that was strongly personalised, with an ability to see it from the bird’s eye view above them.

And, unsurprisingly, we moved on to MOOCs, with an excellent slide on MOOC HYSTERIA. Can we make these as engaging as the guerrilla lecture or the ambient wood?


MOOCs, as we know, are supposed to increase our reach and access to education but, as Professor Rogers noted, it is also a technology that can make the lecturer a “bit of a star”. This is one of the most honest assessments of some of the cachet that I’ve heard – bravo, Professor Rogers. What’s involved in a MOOC? Well, watching things, doing quizzes, and there’s probability a lot of passive, rather than active, learning. Over 60% of the people who sign up to do a MOOC, from the Stanford experience, have a degree – doing Stanford for free is a draw for the already-degreed. How can we make MOOCs fulfil their promise, give us good learning, give us active learning and so on? Learning analytics give us some ideas and we can data mine to try and personalise the course to the student. But this has shifted what our learning experience is and do we have any research to show the learning value of MOOCs?

In 2014, 400 students taking a Harvard course:

  1. Learned in a passive way
  2. Just want to complete
  3. Take the easy option
  4. Were unable to apply what they learned
  5. Don’t reflect on or talk to their colleagues about it.

Which is not what we want? What about the Flipped Classroom? Professor Rogers attributed this to Khan but I’m not sure I agree with this as there were people, Mazur for example, who were doing this in Peer Instruction well before Khan – or at least I thought so. Corrections in the questions please! The idea of the flip is that we don’t have content delivery in lectures with the odd question – we have content beforehand and questions in class. What is the reality?

  1. Still based on chalk and talk.
  2. Is it simply a better version of a bad thing?
  3. Are students more motivated and more active?
  4. Very labour-intensive for the teacher.

So where’s the evidence? Well, it does increase interaction in class between instructors and students. It does allow for earlier identification of misconceptions. Pierce and Fox, 2012, found that it increased exam results for pharmacology students. It also fostered critical thinking in case scenarios. Maybe this will work for 10s-100s – what about classes of thousands? Can we flip to this? (Should we even have classes of this size is another good question)

Then there’s PeerWise, Paul Denny (NZ), where there is active learning in which students create questions, answer them and get feedback. Students create the questions and then they get to try other student’s questions and can then rate the question and rate the answer. (We see approaches like this, although not as advanced, in other technologies such as Piazza.)

How effective is this? Performance in PeerWise correlated with exam marks (Anyadi, Green and Tang, 2013), with active student engagement. It’s used for revision before the exams, and you get hihg-quality questions and answers, while supporting peer interaction. Professor Rogers then showed the Learning Pyramid, from the National Training Laboratories, Bethel, Maine. The PeerWise system plays into the very high retention area.


Professor Rogers then moved on to her own work, showing us a picture of the serried rank nightmare of a computer-based classroom: students in rows, isolated and focused on their screens. Instead of ‘designing for one’, why don’t we design to orchestrate shared activities, with devices that link to public displays and can actively foster collaboration. One of Professor Rogers’ students is looking at ways to share simulations across tablets and screens. This included “4Decades“, a a simulation of climate management, with groups representing the different stakeholders to loo at global climate economics. We then saw a video that I won’t transcribe. The idea is that group work encourages discussion, however we facilitate it, and this tends to leading to teaching others in the sharing of ideas. Another technology that Professor Rogers’ group have developed in this space is UniPad: orchestrating collaborate activities across multiple types of devices, with one device per 6-7 students, and used in classes without many researchers present. Applications of this technology include budgeting for students (MyBank), with groups interacting and seeing the results on a public display. Given how many students operate in share houses collaboratively, this is quite an interesting approach to the problem. From studies on this, all group members participated and used the tablet as a token for discussion, taking ownership of a part of the problem. This also extended to reflection on other’s activities, including identifying selfish behaviour on the part of other people. (Everyone who has had flatmates is probably groaning at the moment. Curse you, Love Tarot Pay-By-The-Minute Telephone Number, which cost me and my flatmates a lot of dollars after a flatmate skipped out on us.)

The next aspect Professor Rogers discussed was physical creation toolkits, such as MaKey MaKey, where you can build alternative input for a computer, based on a simple printed circuit board with alligator clips and USB cables. The idea is simple: you can turn anything you like into a keyboard key. Demonstrations included a banana space bar, a play dough MarioKart gamepad, and many other things (a water bowl in front of the machine became a cat-triggered photo booth). This highlights one of the most important aspects of thinking about learning: learning for life. How can we keep people interested in learning in the face of busy, often overfull, lives when many people still think about learning as something that had to be endured on their pathway into the workforce? (Paging my climbing friends with their own climbing wall: you could make the wall play music if you wanted to. Just saying.)

One of the computers stopped working during a trial of the MaKey MaKey system with adult learners and the collaboration that ensued changed the direction of the work and more people were assigned to a single kit. Professor Rogers showed a small video of a four-person fruit orchestra of older people playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. (MORE KIWI!) This elicited a lot of ideas, including for their grandchildren and own parent, transforming exercise to be more fun, to help people learn fundamental knowledge skills and give good feedback. We often heavily intervene in the learning experience and the reflection of the Fruit Orchestra was that intervening less in self-driven activities such as MaKey MaKey might be a better way to go, to increase autonomy and thus drive engagement.

Next was the important question: How can we gets to create and code, where coding is just part of the creating? Can we learn to code differently beyond just choosing a particular language? We have many fascinating technologies but what is the suite of tools over the top that will drive creativity and engagement in this area, to produce effective learning? The short video shown demonstrated a pop-out prefabricated system, where physical interfaces and gestures across those represented coding instructions: coding without any typing at all. (Previous readers will remember my fascination with pre-literate programming.) This early work, electronics on a sheet, is designed to be given away because the production cost is less than 3 Euros. The project is called “code me” from University College London and is designed to teach logic without people realising it: the fundamental building block of computational thinking. Future work includes larger blocks with Bluetooth input and sensors. (I can’t find a web page for this.)

What role should technology play in learning? Professor Rogers mentioned thinking about this in two ways. The inside learning using technology to think about the levels students to reach to foster attainment: personalise, monitor, motivate, flexible, adaptive. The outside learning approach is to work with other people away from the screen: collaborate, create, connect, reflect and play. Professor Rogers believes that the choice is ours but that technology should transform learning to make it active, creative, collaborative, exciting (some other things I didn’t catch) and to recognise the role of suspense in making people think.

An interesting and thought-provoking keynote.


Beautiful Corrections

(Sorry about the delay in today’s post. Yesterday afternoon, I took an early minute, and my wife and I went to view Australian Aboriginal art at the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide, had a drink in a pub and then had a long and relaxing dinner at a local ethically-sourced Italian restaurant with a wickedly good pizza oven and a great Langhe Nebbiolo. This didn’t leave much time for blogging. Work/life balance-wise, however, it was a winner.)

Yesterday, I referred to an article on New Dorp high school and I wanted to bring out one of the other things that I really liked about their approach to a ‘get the kids writing’ program. As the article says, thinking, reading and speaking are all interconnected and are reinforced through sound instruction in good writing. This immediately leads to the conclusion that teaching people to write is going to lead to improvements across the board and, as a Probationary-plated social constructivist, I immediately think about constructive interaction between students based on great confidence in speaking, fuelled through a greater depth of understanding and ability to express your ideas.

The article discusses this, because classroom discussion became an opportunity for students to listen, think and be more precise in the way that they discussed their ideas. This can be a trap, as most educators know far too well, if students feel that they have to say something rather than that they have to say something that they can defend, explain or shows signs of reflection. (We see this in writing, too. “What I did on my holiday” is a relatively unassailable personal anecdote with no great guarantee of depth or need for defensible statement, yet “What was the most useful thing that you did on your holiday?” requires thought, comparison, reflection and review. To a degree, obviously. I’m not going to start early writers on a detailed comparison of Yves Klein blue and its apparent lifting from Picasso…)

It is very easy to take classroom discussion in the wrong way. You don’t always have to be cheerleadingly positive (warning: not a real adjective), but framing a critique or a question makes a big difference when you want to encourage discussion and build confidence. That’s why I like what I’m reading about in New Dorp (and I’ve seen elsewhere to a lesser degree), in that the students have a poster at the from of the class that lists ways to respond. For example:

  • I agree/disagree with ___ because …
  • I have a different opinion …
  • I have something to add …
  • Can you explain your answer?
  • I agree with ___ but I disagree with your conclusion (because) …

This is a far cry from the passive responses to a tired questioning approach of “Now, hands up if you think that John is correct”. With this framing, students are encouraged to contribute, contest and expand, but using a formal approach to the argument that reduces dependency upon ad homimen or genetic fallacy issues: we have to address what was said rather than the person or the group that it came from. It’s very easy to say “You’re wrong” or “That’s stupid” and it’s an easy answer that completely undermines what the faculty at New Dorp are trying to achieve.

It’s easy to see how this approach is useful in the higher educational sphere, especially once we get into student-based activities, because we can’t always be the facilitators ourselves, so the training of our sessional staff becomes crucial. One challenge for our sessional staff is how to respond to questions without ending up giving the answer away immediately or doing the work for the student. We expend a lot of time on training (Katrina does a great deal of work in this area) and this simple set of guiding questions and framing, as a training device for our staff as well as a template for our students, will allow us to keep the important lessons fresh and in everyone’s mind. We focus a lot on Contributing Student Pedagogy (CSP), a pedagogy that encourages students to contribute to other students’ learning, including valuing other contributions, generally using a high degree of role flexibility (sometimes you lead, sometimes you support and sometimes you organise, for example). We have a paper in the upcoming special issue of Computer Science Education on CSP, where we talk about this at length, but a simple semi-formal structuring of questions to assist people in thinking about how they are about to contribute or evaluate someone else’s contribution is a valuable component of this kind of approach.

To return to what New Dorp is attempting to do, these questions encourage all participants to think about the why and the because and how their contribution will work in with what has already been said. However, and this is non-trivial, having a semi-scripted start to a response also encourages the correct use of language, familiarity with key phrases and the correct use of modifiers and conjunctions. One of the issues identified at New Dorp was that poor writers couldn’t pull a U-turn in a sentence with much success. Although, despite, and words like that were effectively a mystery – sentences had to be artificially short, tightly focussed and lacking in complexity. Such a limitation greatly limits the degree of expressiveness available to the writer. Sentences don’t have to be long, but they have to be long enough. Sentences don’t have to contain long words, but they have to contain the right words. Ideas need to be expressed in a way that makes them easy to understand but this requires practice, practice and even more practice.

The script on the poster at the front is not a rigid proscription. The poster doesn’t say “Explain the use of adjectives in the sentence.” Instead, it provides a hook that a student can hang their own ideas upon, the leading sentence that starts the invasion of text into the bleak white space of a new page. It encourages discussion, support, interaction and the development of thought.

It appears that New Dorp’s approach is working. Students are improving. Students can write. Students can communicate their thoughts to other people successfully. They can use language. What a great improvement!

Rush, Rush: Baby, Please Plan To Submit Your Work Earlier Than The Last Minute

Sorry, Paula Abdul, but I had to steal a song lyric from you.


This is the one of the first pictures that comes up when you search for ‘angry Paula Abdul”. Sorry, Lamar.

I’ve been marking the first “process awareness” written report from my first-year students. A one-page PDF that shows their reflections on their timeliness and assignment performance to date and how they think that they can improve it or maintain it. There have been lots of interesting results from this. From about 100 students, I’ve seen many reports along the lines of “I planned, I assigned time, SO WHY DIDN’T I FOLLOW THE PLAN?” or “Wow, I never realised how much I needed a design until I was stuck in the middle of a four-deep connection of dynamic arrays.”

This is great – understanding why you are succeeding or failing allows you to keep doing the things that work, and change the things that don’t. Before this first-year curriculum restructure, and this course, software development process awareness could avoid our students until late second- or third-year. Not any more. You got run over by the infamous Library prac? You know, you should have written a design first. And now my students have all come to this realisation as well. Two of my favourite quotes so far are:

“[Programming in C++] isn’t hard but it’s tricky.”


“It’s not until you have a full design [that you can] see the real scope of the project.”

But you know I’m all about measurement so, after I’d marked everything, I went back and looked at the scores, and the running averages. Now here’s the thing. The assignment was marked out of 10. Up until 2 hours before the due date, the overall average was about 8.3. For the last two hours, the average dropped to 7.2. The people commenting in the last two hours were making loose statements about handing up late, and not prioritising properly, but giving me enough that I could give them some marks. (It’s not worth a lot of marks but I do give marks for style and reflection, to encourage the activity.) The average mark is about 8/10 usually. So, having analysed this, I gave the students some general feedback, in addition to the personalised feedback I put on every assignment, and then told them about that divide.

The fact that the people before the last minute had the marks above the average, and that the people at the last minute had the marks below.

One of the great things about a reflection assignment like this is that I know that people are thinking about the specific problem because I’ve asked them to think about it and rewarded them with marks to do so. So when I give them feedback in this context and say “Look – planned hand-in gets better marks on average than last-minute panic” there is a chance that this will get incorporated into the analysis and development of a better process, especially if I give firm guidelines on how to do this in general and personalised feedback. Contextualisation, scaffolding… all that good stuff.

There are, as always, no guarantees, but moving this awareness and learning point forward is something I’ve been working on for some time. In the next 10 days, the students have to write a follow-up report, detailing how they used the lessons they learnt, and the strategies that they discussed, to achieve better or more consistent results for the next three practicals. Having given them guidance and framing, I now get to see what they managed to apply. There’s a bit of a marking burden with this one, especially as the follow-up report is 4-5 pages long, but it’s worth it in terms of the exposure I get to the raw student thinking process.

Apart from anything else, let me point out that by assigning 2/10 for style, I appear to get reports at a level of quality where I rarely have to take marks away and they are almost all clear and easy to read, as well as spell-checked and grammatically correct. This is all good preparation and, I hope, a good foundation for their studies ahead.