Technology in PI and ERA projects

Liveblog notes from IET Technology Coffee Morning by Eileen Scanlon and Mark Gaved on Technology in PI: Personal Inquiry and ERA (Enabling Remote Activity) projects: Challenges and lessons learnt.

(I liveblogged a previous talk on ERA (Enabling Remote Activity) last December.)

Personal Inquiry

PI – 3y EPSRC/ESRC TEL programme funded. Scripted learning envrionment to guide learners through inquiry process. Oakgrove School KS3 geography students (N=300); GCSE Urban Heat Islands, across MK and Northampton; Year 8 Microclimates, around school grounds. First pilot run with 80 (!) students in 2008, second one large too – so calling them ‘trials’ rather than pilots.

Social issue: the flight from science in schools. Difficult to persuade young people of relevance of science to their lives. So inquiry important theme in project to make the learning of important scientific principles relevant to you as a young person – hence Personal Inquiry. Focus on formal and informal settings, and devices including personal mobile technologies and shared classroom displays.

‘Scripted inquiry learning’ has some ‘studied ambiguity’ – building on the  ‘discovery learning’ literature.  Also more technical meaning of ‘scripted’. Inquiry learning lit review as first stage, shared model of Inquiry Process. Took that representation, rendered it as an Activity Guide (or orchestrate, direct, or be ordered about the inquiry process), with support for what you need at each stage: Find our focus, Decide our hypothesis, Plan our methods, Collect our data, Present my data, Write my report.  Shift from collective to individual – exam board requirement to be individual – so working in groups to collect, but then individual inquiries.

Lot of technology: ultramobile PCs – Asus Eee PC; Scienscope data loggers and sensors (CO, temperature, IR irradiance, anemometer, humidity) – rugged, precise, quick to report; standalone GPS – Garmin eTrex; digital cameras – Canon A460 Powershot digital cameras (‘Sir, we’ve taken 500 photos already and don’t have room for any more’!); wifi – standard 802.11; OU web server; web-based Activity Guide as coordinating interface. Data saved locally on Eee when mobile and don’t have the network.

Enabling Remote Activity

Remote access: Enabling mobility-impaired students to participate in geology fieldwork and complete learning objectives. SXR 339 Ancient Mountains, one-week residential school in Scotland.

Remote collaboration: Group work involving students split between field and lab locations; one-day trial.

Geologists want to see both the big picture (view of whole land feature) but also very close-up.

Technology: server/client – Sony laptops, Asus Eee PC; video – IP security cams, Eee built-in; images – digicams, wifi cams; audio – walkie talkies, VoIP phones; transient wireless network – Linksys access points, external antennae on lighting stands, 12V batteries; local web server; web-based interface.

The ideal mobile device – looked at PDA, phone form, normal laptop, Asus Eee – Asus Eee settled on, but not perfect.  Portability is a challenge – but groupwork helps since can distribute some problems, e.g. weight. Multiple cabling and multiple devices not helpful – so built-in webcam in Eee halves number of batteries; wifi camera simplifies cables/card transfer; walkie talkie headsets free up a hand.  Power another one – full days in field, battery/generator, overnight recharging.

General points across both projects

Web-based interface big win in ERA and PI. Interface very familiar, little training needed. Continuity of field and built environments on different machines.  Issue of field machine browser connecting to local server (need later sync – challenge with large numbers of machines) or connecting to remote server (requires connectivity – challenge in the field).

Connectivity on the edge: tension between interesting locations and well-connected locations.  School networks not designed for roaming connectivity; poor line-of-sight in field.  Firewall issues too.  Local connectivity hard but backhaul even more tricky.

Bridging environments tricky. Solutions to technical issues may work (network keys, proxies, transitions) but social issues may override (e.g. teenagers grounded from internet use!).

New ways of teaching – technology fitting in to existing practices. Challenge of orchestration between multiple tutors and researchers – scaffolding by scripting (PI) is one solution.  (Although this requires intensive preparation and thinking-through by researchers beforehand; not ideal for lightweight usage that’d facilitate abduction/appropriation by the teachers/tutors themselves. Always a big challenge for tech innovation learning research projects – including at the OU. How do you get the great mass of teachers able to pick up the tech and redeploy it to meet their needs? Good examples as models from research projects help.)

Need pragmatic, participatory design – tutors/teachers and students crucial input but are very busy.

Graceful degradation – always have a Plan B – teachers/tutors do this by instinct anyway, technology needs the same approach, including fallback technical solutions: spares, redundant communications routes, etc.

Scaling issues: identical setups helps, but takes time to set up/turn around 30 machines – real challenge on a daily basis. Needs room and power to do it. “How many sockets do you want in the new building?” “Oh, 88 should do us.”

Summary points

  • technology intervention changes the learning activity – transformation of practice
  • test in field (in authentic contexts) as much as possible
  • important to co-design activities (participatory approach)
  • evaluation of interventions crucial but challenging (practicality, control groups)
  • need sustainability and exit strategy

(… which I think stand as very good general points for most technology interventions in teaching – or indeed any teaching innovation)


Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.