Monday, 17 September 2012

ALT-C 2012: Day 1 - Eric Mazur - The Scientific Approach to Teaching

It’s been 5 years since I last got to ALT-C but thanks to a long desired reduction in our September workload I got there last Tuesday. ALT-C is a great chance to meet people and overdose on ideas, and I was quite looking forward to Eric Mazur’s keynote called "The Scientific Approach to Teaching: Research as a basis for course design" [slides]

Mazur’s work has been key in the development of Peer Instruction methods and the use of Clicker systems. In this keynote he talked about the importance of using evidence and the scientific method to guide the way we teach, rather than just anecdotal evidence. He presented three projects where data had been collected in classes, and where the data had played a role in guiding the development of the class in unexpected ways.

Firstly he looked at gender issues. In his ‘Force Concept’ class he noticed that women were getting lower marks on the section. Introduction of Peer Instruction into the class raised everyone’s grades, especially women’s, removing the gender difference in results. He didn’t suggest reasons why the women benefitted most from this method, but he argues that in education we often focus on information transfer which is the easy part of education. Assimilation of the information into students understanding of the world is the difficult part, and the part we often neglect. Using Peer Instruction type methods in the classroom is a way of focussing on the assimilation of information.

You can read more about some of his work in this area in “Reducing the gender gap in the physics classroom”.

Next he talked about using demonstrations in lectures. Researchers have found that while students enjoy watching demonstrations, tests a month after the lecture suggest that they don’t tend to learn well from those demos. Eric notes that students don’t remember facts, but models. If a fact doesn’t fit with their mental model of a concept, you need to give them time in the class to redevelop that model. Otherwise in their memories they will change the fact to fit with their mental model. It is worth noting that Eric’s classes last 3 hours which allow time for peer instruction and similar activities. If we only have one hour to present a subject, it might be more difficult to find time.

An episode of the Learning about Teaching Physics podcast, “Seeing isn't believing: Do classroom demonstrations help students learn?” talks through the research.

Finally he talked about confusion. Student surveys include questions asking if teachers provide “clear explanations”, but confusion doesn’t indicate a lack of understanding. In a research project where student results were compared with student reported levels of confusion it was found that 44% of students who said they were confused about the ‘capillary action’ topic gave correct answers about it, while only 25% of not-confused students gave correct answers. It was suggested that those who aren’t confused haven’t even began to understand it, and this might be a danger with the clear, non-chaotic lecture. We need to teach by questioning not telling and confusion is an essential step in learning.

This research reminded me about some of Derek Muller’s research where students labeled videos that helped them learn best “confusing”, and the ones which resulted in them being more confident about their own misconceptions as “clear”,”concise” and “easy to understand”. Others have linked it to the Dunning-Kruger effect.


There is an overview of Mazur’s work in Harvard Magazine which brings up some issues with the ‘flipped classroom’ and interactive approach, such as students thinking they’ve paid for you to do all the work “Not realizing that they learn precious little by that”, and classrooms generally “built with just one purpose: focusing the attention of many on the professor”.

If you are interested in using Clickers and Peer Instruction, the following resources might be of use:



Monday, 3 September 2012

Augmentation vs. Immersion: Some Initial Thoughts

I've been working on some guides to help teaching staff decide which tools and technologies to use for different learning activities. I was interested by the ideas of 'Affordance Analysis' and 'Faceted Classification' as possible ideas to base the guides on.

Both Affordance Analysis and Faceted Classification seem to try and pick out the aspects of tools that are most influential on learning activities and put each aspect on a spectrum, and I've been trying to spot these influential aspects in the technologies that I've been using.


So I was interested by an article by Botgirl Questi (the Avatar of David Elfanbaum) on her thoughts on the lack of growth of 3D Virtual Worlds which contained this quote:


It seems to me that what people want today is technology that demands as little attention as possible. No one would have predicted thirty years ago that text would be the dominant form of teen communication in a future where voice and video were almost universally available. Although my teen children and their friends have smartphones and laptops that can run Skype, they almost never choose video and seldom voice, even for extended conversations.  It’s because texting allows them to control their attention and split it between conversations and whatever else they’re doing.”

One of the reasons that young people aren’t generally using tools like Second Life may be that these tools designed for ‘immersive’ activities don’t fit in with their lifestyles. They seem to be using tools that ‘augment’ their environment rather than replace their perceived environment as the ‘metaverse’ would.

I’ve also been reading Jesper Juul’s ‘Casual Revolution’ book from 2009 where he looks at the recent growth of ‘casual gaming’ as opposed to ‘hardcore gaming’. He talks (p36) about ‘interruptibility’ as an aspect of these new games, where you are less committed to playing for long periods of time without stopping. Again we see indications that people want to use technologies that allow us to share attention. While there is still a community of hardcore gamers who play without distraction for long periods, gaming as an activity is made more accessible by designing casual games that offer other possibilities.

Perhaps a facet that we can use when examining the potential use of technologies, is the spectrum from ‘immersive’ activities that require our whole attention for a considerable period of time, to activities which are less visible ‘augmentations’ of our environments.


There is of course a considerable literature on the concepts of immersion and presence, and growing work around augmented reality which would have to be explored to understand the concepts and issues better. However at the moment questions I would like to answer are:



1. Is this a valid facet/framework that can be applied to educational uses of technologies? - There seems to have been debates on aspects of these ideas both within the Second Life community, and the educational community, although their focuses and definitions look different. However looking back at these might either guide my thinking, or discourage me from going down this road.



2. In which situations are ‘immersive’ technologies more suited, and for which tasks might they meet our needs better? Where should we look at using the less intrusive technologies that ‘augment’ our environments?