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)

ERA: Enabling remote geology fieldwork by transient wireless networking

Trevor Collins (KMI) and Mark Gaved (IET)

The Enabling Remote Activity (ERA) project provides opportunities for mobility impaired students to fully participate in fieldwork learning activities. Over the last three years ERA has developed a rapidly deployable, lightweight, battery-powered wireless network that can be used to transmit video, audio, and high resolution still images between a field geologist and a nearby student. This is used on The Open University’s ‘Ancient Mountains’ residential course (SXR339), a one week series of field trips in locations throughout the Scottish Highlands. In this course our students get as close as they can, ideally within sight of the field location, and use the wireless network to work remotely with a field geologist. The technology is used as an enabler to facilitate the inclusion of students in fieldtrips without compromising the learning objectives of the course. In this seminar we will present an overview of the technology, the actions it can support, the use made within the ‘Ancient Mountains’ course, and the feedback received from the students and tutors involved.

Getting out there with real geologists was key – your ideas about what they might want (as an informed technologist) is different to what they actually want to do the teaching. Hazards and difficulties include trees and huge rocks in the way. Lots of different levels of mobility, from no restriction, to walk short distances with stick, to negligible unassisted walking. So vary response as appropriate – if the rocks are right next to the road, may not need to set up the kit; if it’s a hard walk away, more people stay at the car park ‘driving’ a field geologist.

Geology fieldwork is fundamental to the learning experience.

SXR339 Ancient Mountains, residential school in Scottish Highlands. Visits to lots of rocks. Drive for 3h, on the rocks for 5-6h, 30 min at each site; moving around, drive some more, etc.  Also variability of individual students on different days. Jessica Bartlett (Course Manager) asked about alternative learning experience for mobility-impaired students. Previous tech was binoculars  and walkie-talkies – not fantastic.  Geologists want to see things in the large (context and layout of the rock formations), down to the tiny (down with hand lens at the crystal structure of the rocks), and switch between the two. (Scale from individual mineral grains to continents!)

Standard geologist tech is cameras and GPS/GIS tools. But we don’t allow photos in field reports, in order to get them to do the sketches which do the abstraction.

Much previous work on virtual field trips. RAFT – remote accessible field trips – similar project from OUNL.

Approach: transient wireless networking. Rapidly deployable, lightweight, battery-powered wireless network. (Contrast with Ambient Wood project which had a lot of infrastructure in it.) Sites are all away from mobile signal, and satellite costs a bomb.  Mark’s background in grassroots community networking (the Pringles cantenna).

Wireless routers (Linksys WRT 54G/GL) because firmware opened up – (freifunk OpenWrt, dd-wrt), plus custom-made batteries (12V 2.8Ah DC lead-acid), external attenae (8/18dB omni, 14dB panel) with telescopic stands. Also Eee PCs at either end. Also 21″ monitor driven by car battery recharger.

Runs in parallel with main student body – student by roadside with dedicated tutor; field geologist reports from locations, with the other students, carrying network, driven by the student in/near the car.  (Needed to use hi-vis jackets to see each other at the distances required.) Extra tech bod (Trevor or Mark) there to help too.

Sense-of-presence video, to contextualise features; detailed stills. Two-way audio to direct field geologist.

Everything lightweight … and then the geologists walk down the hill with 20kg of rock in their rucksack. Issues: very sunny (visibility), very wet.

Web interface, very simple: live remote video, image bank, local video (useful diagnostic tool).

Feedback – one student very focused on the collective student experience, strong group identity, and physical presence was important. Other more about grounded (!) understanding. Side benefit – can take the images away with you. (Other students wanted the pictures too.) The quality of student sketches varied, not really dependent on mobility impairment or not.  But … you’re not actually there (3D, kinaesthetic experience?) and fundamenally it’s a 2D representation of a 3D thing. Hand samples also crucial.  Measurement generally done by the field geologist, not taken off the picture because picture-taking tricky physically. Was slower – takes longer to fix irrelevancies. A lot of communication/prep between the tutors about how to teach the specific outcrops/settings.

Suggestion: stereoscopic camera(s) with eye headset.

Weather a challenge – used drysacks to protect the kit. Fog reduced signal strength but they never lost it entirely.

More/future stuff:

  • ERA fieldwork kit
  • Personal Inquiry project (EPSRC/ESRC TEL, mobile tech to support evidence-based inquiry learning).
  • ‘Portable’ WLANs (JANET / Cumbria mountain rescue – Lancaster University).
  • New OU geology residential course 2010.

It’s low powered, so don’t need a licence to turn it on. Cheap kit is good because easily replaceable, which tends to make it low power.

Laptops and internet bans

After the (very mild and minor) fuss about me using a laptop at last week’s Making Connections, I said we have a mountain to climb in embedding technological change across the university.  It’s reassuring in some ways to see that our mountain is not, perhaps, quite as huge and daunting as some other people’s.  The University of Chicago Law School has removed Internet access in most classrooms, and some professors even ban laptops.  According to the Dean, Saul Levmore, the problem is that students

may overestimate their ability to multi-task during class and that some students have expressed distraction due to their peers’ use of computers during class time

The latter is a very reasonable concern, and I think it can and should be addressed through policies about acceptable usage of computers during f2f teaching sessions (which is apparently what Stanford have done).  But the former is more contentious. Levmore sums it up by saying the question is “How do you best learn? That’s for the faculty to decide.

Prawfsblog spots a certain amount of paternalism in the announcement, and urges them:

Be honest, and admit that you’re banning wireless access because the plugged-in student is usually a disengaged one and has sucked the fun out of the classroom experience.   Students are more likely to accept a top-down policy change if it’s justified based on faculty morale than student learning.

B2fxx goes a bit further (and links back to me, spurring this post) and says:

Banning laptops in class is a bit like the education sector’s equivalent of the entertainment industry wishing the Web had never happened.

That’s more what I’m thinking. It does seem like a panicky over-reaction to an irreversible technological change, which will harm both the legislators and the punters.

I do buy Levmore’s argument that the question is “How best do you learn?”.  I completely reject the idea that the faculty (or teachers or whatever) know the best answer.  Particularly if they think the answer is traditional lectures, which we’ve known since 1972 (Donald Bligh’s What’s The Use Of Lectures) are no better than other methods for information transmission, and almost entirely useless for getting learners to think.

Almost any teacher can help a student learn more effectively than the student can alone, and a good teacher will help the learner understand and improve their own learning processes.  But the idea that the teacher knows how best their learners learn is … wrong.  How can you possibly know that?  You can have a lot of good ideas about how your learners might learn, and if you teach the same topic over and over again, you can accrete a comprehensive toolbox of ways of helping learners learn those particular subjects and a lot of experience in judging which are likely to help which learners with which aspects.  But that’s a very long way from what Levmore is saying.  And all of that presupposes that what you’re teaching (or should be teaching) hasn’t changed profoundly as a result of new technologies – and there are few if any courses where that’s true.

Stephen Heppell has long lamented that most (British) kids have great access to some of the most extraordinarily powerful learning tools (e.g. mobile phones, word processors), but are banned from using them in (many parts of) the formal school system.  It’s a bit depressing if (parts of) higher education are heading down that same “Teacher knows best” route.  At just the time when teacher is freed from having to know best!