Ben practised a talk on 31/10/2014 for delivery at Aberdeen University on Motivation in Learning. You can find a PDF of the slides here.

…or a book or a journal article, anyway! This was the question facing the group this week, in the first meeting focussing on a lab member’s goal. Ben has been trying to write something quite specific in content, but the format has been a little unclear and that has been causing him issues with the writing. 

Ben’s initial task for this week was to produce a 2-page book blurb, to send around prior to the meeting for us all to read. Without giving too much away (he is trying to publish this, after all), he wants to produce an overview of current research in the area of intelligent tutors. He presented his ideas to us, sketching in some of the detail around why he wants to do this. Ben has been interested in the general area of intelligent tutors for a long time now (as he kept emphasising by referring to work he did in the last century!) and feels that the area currently needs this overview, looking at how the various pieces of the current research fit together but also to show where the gaps are. He says he isn’t really interested in providing the filler for these gaps. Ben has his imaginary reader as a would-be PhD student, looking for an interesting hole to plug. 

The discussion about what the format of the piece should take was interesting. Everyone agreed there was enough material for a book. Some felt that Ben didn’t need write the whole book himself, but should ask for chapters from people currently researching in the various areas. The resounding group opinion was that Ben was in the perfect position to introduce the subject and pull all of the threads together. The big difference was around the journal paper. Some felt that an initial journal paper should also be written, almost as a call-to-arms for possible contributors. Ben actually rather liked that idea, and felt that quite apart from anything else the journal paper would be a less daunting proposition! 

So the process has hopefully given him a good, clear next step. He even thought he might be able to commit to finishing the journal paper by mid-summer. In management-speak he now has a SMART objective, rather than a vague goal. Witness the power of presenting to the group! 

In other news, Jim and Ellie’s African Farmer Game has been attracting attention, with contact from a journalist reporting for El País recently. Also, Eric let us all know that he has managed to find a new job with Rica working on consumer research for older and disabled people, which fits right into his recent research interests but sadly means he won’t be around much. Still, we have him for a couple of weeks yet. 

At this week’s lab session we were discussing a paper put forward by Marianna – Dual processing streams in chemosensory perception, from Frasnelli et al*. As the title may suggest, this is somewhat outside our normal fare. It is a short paper on the processing of smells and the areas of the brain used in the process. Marianna’s current area of research is in taste and smell elements of HCI, and as such she is using papers like this to give herself a background in the understanding that has been reached on these senses in other disciplines.

Short papers are not necessarily the most accessible way into a new area, with little space for defining concepts for the beginner. This was therefore a surprisingly taxing read, with a certain amount of googling of terms happening on the side. The paper basically tested and showed that the processing of the chemical sense of smell demonstrates a sub-division of processing between localisation and identification, and that this processing separation is similar to that seen in processing the physical senses, such a vision and hearing.

The main reaction of the group was “so what?”. By which we didn’t mean that this was unimportant, just that we couldn’t see what we, in the field of HCI, could do with this information. Marianna’s response was two-fold: first, she wants to know not only what the other sciences know about the senses, but also what they don’t concern themselves with. In this case, the experimenters were very interested in where the smell gets processed, but she is much more interested in how the participants make sense of that smell. Secondly she is looking for new techniques to try (although this paper’s procedure is not something she would use!), as these areas are so new to HCI. And finally she is interested in potentially feeding back to neuroscience. For example, in some cases, explicitation interviews (a technique that Marianna has used with some of her experiments on touch) have been carried out alongside the fMRI scans, and these have helped to explain some of the differences in processing found between the participants.

The discussion as ever veered through a range of topics – some more closely related to the original paper than others! One of Marianna’s interests is in trying to generate taste and smell sensations by stimulating other, more HCI-compatible, senses. We felt that at least this paper suggested that the processing pathways were not entirely dissimilar, so there may still be a chance of this working! Other group members were interested in seeing how the pathways might change if people were missing a sense – e.g. Marianna had interviewed someone born without a sense of taste. There were some questions around the differences in gender and the effects that may have, although given our lack of knowledge of the field there is a good chance that these questions have already been answered.

It was fascinating to read something so far from our normal focus, and to try to understand how we could perhaps bring it into our area. All in all, a very interesting read and discussion.

*Frasnelli, J., Lundström, J. N., Schöpf, V., Negoias, S., Hummel, T., & Lepore, F. (2012). Dual processing streams in chemosensory perception. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6(October), 288. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00288

Most importantly this week, Liz graduated in the Winter graduation ceremony (in the video of the second ceremony at 1:37:30). Congratulations Dr Thackray!

This week’s lab session concentrated on the goals that the lab members have for the coming months, and how, as a group, we could support each other in reaching these. When we are all busy with teaching and other term-time activities the larger goals can get lost in the minutia of the every day. So what can we do to prevent this happening?

The goals offered ranged from writing a difficult paper with no target publication (or maybe even a book…) to a fellowship proposal with a strict deadline, with a smattering of conference papers and grant proposals along the way. The two things requested most frequently by way of help were people to talk through the ideas with and accountability – give us intermediate deadlines to force something to happen!

Both of these things are perfect for the lab meetings. Presenting ideas to the group forces you to think them through, to pull them into some kind of sensible and logical shape. The deadline pressure is there, because in a strange way it can be just as nerve wracking to present your ideas in front of a few people you know and see almost daily than to a room full of strangers. Turning up with nothing really isn’t an option! And we are not a reticent bunch when it comes to providing feedback or suggestions, and whether you agree with the feedback or not helps you to better hone your ideas and arguments for the future.

Suffice to say the next few lab sessions were swiftly filled, and we will be hearing more about lab members’ goals and ideas in the coming weeks. Looking forward to it!

The Spring term (a misnomer according to Edgar, who feels like Spring is still a long way away) has begun and the lab meetings have recommenced. The first meeting back is for catching up and planning, and although it didn’t feel that long since the end of the last term we appear to all have been quite busy.

Ellie has spent three weeks in Orlando, Florida, warming up a little, shopping a bit, and visiting a famous mouse. She was at pains to point out that this was all totally unrelated to work. She did, however, run a marathon.

Ben has had some issues with a proposal he has (along with Judith) in with ESRC. In spite of some extremely promising reviews, they are still waiting to hear whether the proposal can be funded or not. Maybe soon? He’s also been working with his remote PhD student Alison on results analysis and attempting to write a paper that he keeps getting stuck on. To distract himself from that he’s been enjoying(?!) the frustrations of HTML as he and Judith continue preparations for PPIG.

Edgar also went to warm up, spending time in Thailand and Malaysia over the break. He also spent time marking learning diaries from the course he and Kate taught last term, which he has found interesting in terms of feedback on the activities they used.

Marianna has started teaching this term, and was having a little difficulty reading the reactions of the UK students. She went home to Italy over the Christmas break, but the weather wasn’t as cold and snowy as she was hoping (each to their own!). She has a trip to Utah next week for one of her many projects, and has continued to work on proposals. She’s also hoping to set up a study on taste in the near future, but didn’t want to say too much in case she needed to use the lab group as guinea pigs.

Jim went back to Scotland, and even he was impressed by the sheer volume of rain that fell while he was there. He’s been working out how to add agents into a single-player game that are credible replacements for the other players in a multi-player. Fun!

Eric has been working on analysing and writing up the TRACE project reports. He went to Bristol and the South West over the break, where it was also wet. But he got new shoes, so all was well.

Kate said she was the least travelled of us all! Alternatively you could argue her carbon footprint is smallest. She’s also teaching again this term, so has been focussing on preparing for that. This is in addition to working on TRACE with Eric, and preparing to kick off another project after pilots last term.

Judith spent Christmas in Brussels, and had a fabulous time. She’s teaching two courses this term, so prep for those has taken precedence since. She’s also been working on Athena Swan stuff, rewriting a paper with Kate, going through CHI workshop submissions, and working with Chris Frauenberger on submitting another workshop proposal. Amongst other things!

So, much going on. Plenty of teaching and writing all round, and hopefully over the rest of the term we’ll be hearing more about how all of the proposals, workshops and studies pan out.

Way back in one of the first meetings of term Kate made reference to a project called TRACE. Well, they finally revealed more about it! The Trajectories to Community Engagement (or TRACE) project has been running over the last 6 months, and is a collaboration between Kate and Eric from our lab and Dave Harley from University of Brighton (and also an alumni of an earlier incarnation of this group). The aim of the study was to examine the way that older people (as self-defined by the participants, but over retirement age) engage with community. This included both online and face-to-face community engagement, in an attempt to understand what drove people to become more involved in either and if there was any link between the two.

This has been accomplished by interviewing a number of older people recruited from a variety of different areas, including an online social network aimed at older people and a local community centre. When analysing the data from these interviews, the group found a series of overlapping themes emerged:

  1. Roles
  2. Loss
  3. Spaces/places
  4. Family

The roles of the individual change with retirement, whether that is retirement from a paid job or otherwise. With retirement there appears to be less repeated contact with people (when compared to going to the same workplace regularly) and the sense of purpose changes. However, many of the people interviewed had filled the voids, either by volunteering, joining societies or in other ways. There was a sense of people finding new roles coming through in the interviews, as trustees, or committee members and so on.

Loss is most obviously shown by bereavement, with this leading to many people wanting to get more involved in their community. However, bereavement is only one type of loss. Others that emerged included the loss of role discussed above, or the loss of mobility or other abilities. There was also a shift as people got older, moving from an active role to a more passive one.

The spaces or places that enable community engagement are varied, and may be online (e.g. some had apparently become friends via an online bingo site) or not (e.g. the local community centre). There were differences amongst the participants in their use of the word local too. Those who found friendship online used ‘local’ to refer to their familiar online forums or groups, whilst for others it was geographical local that was important, and for that group an online friendship couldn’t be as fulfilling.

A shared interest is an important aspect to engaging with a community, and for many this was spurred by family. Many participants were engaged with communities because other family members were, e.g. involved in a theatre group because their daughter had been. This was an area that was felt to have changed over the lifetime of the participants. Because family members often move away, the family was felt to be less important in the life of the community. However, some of those who were involved in online communities were able to be so only with the help of a family member (although many did report family members who were slightly less than helpful!).

The group discussion was interesting. Ellie found a lot of resonance with the findings of the group and having moved away from friends and family (sadly a long way from retirement!). Ben felt they had two distinct populations within their participants – those who had been familiar with the online world before retirement (an increasing proportion perhaps, but by no means all), and those who were not. This second group will now be needing to get more proficient with computers due to changes in government processes, whilst also dealing with the other changes identified. They may have interesting coping mechanisms.

Good to finally find out about this project, and hope the team manage to find more funding to continue working on it.

First and extremely importantly, we have more lab celebrations. Gareth popped back to Brighton from his new job in Shanghai this week to mount a successful defence of his thesis! Definitely worth making the trip. There were some bubbles shared after the event. Huge congratulations to Gareth.

So from a departing lab member today we turned to a new lab member. Marianna Obrist joined at the start of October, and today she gave us a little more of an introduction to her previous work and where her research is heading. She joins us after spending two years with the Culture Lab in Newcastle as a Marie Curie fellow and prior to that Marianna was an assistant professor for HCI and Usability at the University of Salzburg. This has allowed her to work on a wide variety of projects, of which Marianna described just a handful.

The first project she talked about was the Citizen Media – Social Change project, which ran from 2006-2009. It focussed on engaging communities in user-generated experiences (of the type that we are now, thanks to smart phones, extremely familiar with) and how to use those to allow the communities to change things in their areas. One of the big things that Marianna took from this experience was that engaging with and building interest in a local community for research purposes was really interesting, but dealing with that community at the end of the project, when there is no further funding and the researchers are moving on, is difficult.

She  was the lead of a module in the Christian Doppler Laboratory on contextual interfaces. One of the main aims of this module was to examine the way that traditional HCI methodologies carry over into less traditional settings – e.g. in the case she showed us a clean room environment. Clean rooms are kept as free of contamination as possible, with all objects coming into and out of the clean room needing to be carefully controlled. This precludes the use of paper, making note-taking rather difficult.

Then there were a couple of games that Marianna has worked on. One of these is called Ludwig. This is an Austrian game looking to teach people about renewable energy sources and other ideas in physics. This has moved on quite a lot since Marianna worked on it, and is being integrated with the Austrian school curriculum. The other game that Marianna told us about was the Emotional Flowers (“EmoFlowers”) project, which used the facial expressions of players as the game mechanic. This was a result of a participatory design process with groups of children.

When Marianna became a Marie Curie fellow she had more space to define her own research projects. She noted that almost all of her work so far, and in fact in HCI in general, focusses predominantly on visual and auditory channels. She started to wonder about the other sensory channels, such as touch, taste and smell. How can we study these areas? So last year she started with touch, and found that a language for discussing the different sensations was needed. Different haptics designers and engineers needed a shared language for different sensations, and an understanding of how those sensations could be generated. So Marianna worked with a neurophysiologist (where another shared language needed to be developed!) to identify the different receptors in the skin and to design ways to stimulate these receptors. This device was then used with an explicitation interview technique. The different descriptions were then analysed and the results were published at CHI last year.

Touch work

This year she has been working on taste (gustatory experiences) and smell (the olfactory channel). The research sounds interesting and tantalising, and happily she will be talking about it at this year’s CHI!

Again, this is a much-delayed write up of a meeting that happened earlier in term. Many apologies to Ben. 

Occasionally at our lab meetings we are privileged enough to get sneak previews of talks that our lab members are going to be giving elsewhere. Some may call us the guinea pigs. This was one of those times, with Ben giving us a first run through a talk he had been asked to give on “the past, present and future of educational technology”.

Ben started his talk with the past technology that he had started his educational career with – slate tablets(!), log tables, and a leather ferula for motivation. He reminisced happily about the slide rule he had at university, before moving on to his PhD, showing us a picture of a darker-haired Ben with possibly the first ever Logo turtle made of Meccano. However, rather than a screen and a programming language for people to work with, they built a box with buttons that controlled the turtle and allowed them to record subroutines and build them into programs. The widespread use of computer screens happened sometime later.

Ben du Boulay

Ben sans turtle.

What he found with that turtle was that technology can facilitate communication, whether between teacher and student, or between the students themselves. Technology is also very good at providing information – which is as distinct from education as a library is distinct from a school or university. This is one of the central ways that technology is used currently, with the internet providing more information than ever before. The third way that technology is increasingly being used is tutoring. It can help to increase the skills and develop the knowledge of the users in a variety of ways.

Ben went through a list of different pedagogies, and the various ways that people have used them to inform the design of online tutors. He then moved on to an area of future research that he is particularly interested in. He has noticed a trend in the area over recent years of measuring the affect of the learner, of trying to automatically recognise the state that the learner is in. His feeling is that whilst this is an interesting area there has been little work done on what to do with this information. How should it inform the pedagogical approach of the tutoring system? Perhaps even more basically, what is the ideal state for learning? We have seen in papers reviewed by the group that some people feel that flow may be, but flow is poorly defined and a level or period of frustration would also appear to be beneficial. Ben also feels that the approach to the emotions of the learner has focussed very much on their use of the learning tutor (understandably), but as teachers and learners we know that the attitude and emotion that someone brings to learning may have little or nothing to do with either the subject or the type of learning, but everything to do with external events. Can the writers of these systems cope with a learner who’s attitude changes between every session?

These are things that the very best human teachers grapple with on a daily basis. Creating online systems  that can approach that is still some considerable way off if it is even possible, but it’s a fascinating area to investigate! Many thanks to Ben for sharing this with us.

This post got somewhat delayed by various events. Apologies to both Pejman and Reza. 

Crucially at this lab meeting we had to start by congratulating Pejman on his successful viva! This was done in style, with many cakes from what appears to be the lab group’s favourite, Patisserie Valerie. Ignore the healthy-looking apples in the middle there – we certainly did!

Celebratory cakes

Once we had finished with the cakes, the rest of the lab session was a guest presentation from Reza Rawassizadeh, who is currently working at the Open University in the UK. Reza is currently looking at the problem of personalising public transport, with the grand aim of persuading people to leave their cars at home.

The project he is currently working on looks at the buses, and the various mobile applications supplied by bus companies. In particular he is focussing on buses in Milton Keynes in the UK, and Lisbon in Portugal. The buses in Lisbon are apparently pretty well networked, with automatic fare detection in operation. Analysing this auto fare information has allowed them to show that most people are creatures of habit, riding pretty much the same route at the same time on a given day.

He has found that the apps focus very much on providing info on timetabling, which provides only limited information for the passengers to choose which bus they are going to get. There are often several ways to get between two points, which may have different things to recommend them depending on the traffic or the time of day. These include the amount of crowding on the bus, or perhaps the temperature on a given bus and so on. He also found that the apps on offer were not well-designed. His early studies identified that the main use-case for these apps is whilst walking towards the stop, and most were not well designed for someone who is not concentrating fully on the application.

He produced a number of alternative application designs, attempting to integrate the bus crowding data with the arrival times for the buses. These were then shown to bus users in Milton Keynes, who were asked for their feedback on the designs.

The solution that Reza found was very popular featured an animation of the bus and where it currently was on its route. The problem with that is that the data shown is only an approximation, as the bus company do not have precise data on where their buses are at any given time. It would be interesting to take this design beyond the mock-up stage and give it a more thorough test, to see what implications the lack of accurate data has for the usability and how much the bus users like it in day-to-day use.

It was great to hear about this kind of research, and understand some of the challenges that come about due to the design of the bus system in a given country. The auto-ticket functionality in Lisbon provides much more complete information about who travels where and how many people are on the bus at any given time, whereas UK buses make no record of when or where someone gets off the bus. The fact that the buses cannot be accurately located at a given moment means that one of the big questions (how long until the bus gets to this stop?) cannot be answered as accurately as users might like. He also highlighted some of the trials and tribulations faced by a researcher in this area – the passengers were all too willing to share their frustrations with the entire bus system!

We wish Reza all the best with this challenging project, and hope he succeeds in improving the lives of bus passengers everywhere (and maybe specifically in Brighton…).

In today’s lab meeting we were discussing another paper, this time on the emotions experienced by novice programmers during their very first programming lesson. It was presented by Bosch et al* at the 2013 conference of Artificial Intelligence in Education.  The study participants were undergraduate students from the Psychology Student Pool who had no experience of programming. These students underwent a 3-stage process over a period of 2 hours: first they completed a series of “scaffolded” problems, with hints and help available. Then they completed two “fadeout” exercises, with no help available. Finally the students were asked to review the videos of themselves completing the first two exercises and asked to select what their emotions were at various points from a subset of Pekrun’s taxonomy of academic emotions.

The authors found that four emotions were experienced more frequently than the others: flow/engagement, confusion, frustration and boredom. The proportions of these apparently varied depending on which of the first two stages of the experiment (scaffolding/fadeout) the students were performing. They also correlated the emotions with the success of the students at completing the tasks, and attempted to systematically link them to three student behaviours (running the code, idling, or constructing the code).

As ever, having a paper to start the conversation produced a lively debate! One of our big problems as a group centres on the idea of flow/engagement being the desirable state for learning. As teachers and learners, we have found that periods of frustration are not altogether bad, and the joy of passing through that frustration to understanding is sometimes one of the key highs of learning. Equally, what externally looks like flow/engagement may very well not be. There have been other studies that the group knew of where people looked like they were in this flow/engagement state, but when the researchers examined what they had produced it was rubbish. What was felt might be a better approach would be to try to examine the routes through the different emotional states, and correlate those routes with different outcomes. The challenge then becomes how to identify that someone is on a destructive pathway and, crucially, what (pedagogically) to do about it, rather than reacting instantly to prevent frustration.

The use of the thirteen emotions also raised some issues for the group. By limiting the responses, in a sense the researchers are pre-determining their outcomes. There also didn’t appear to be any agreement with the subjects on what the terms actually meant to them. Jim’s experience in counselling suggests that when dealing with emotions you sometimes have to explain what the word refers to before people understand what they are feeling. Equally some of the group remembered working a project with Madeline Balaam where they negotiated the terms to be used in reporting the emotions with a group of students, rather than predetermining them.The group also thought this would have been quite an interesting project to use the same techniques that Pejman used, where he used biometric data to highlight areas that were worth talking about with a player, rather than asking them for feedback on blocks of around 20 secs at a time.

We also came up with some interesting ideas for follow-up studies. Obviously in this experiment they were relating the emotion to results within the same session. However, we felt it would be valuable to do a slightly more longitudinal study, and relate the emotions in the first lesson to outcomes after an entire term of study. This would help to demonstrate the importance (or maybe unimportance) of the first lesson. Also, we thought it would be interesting to try the same study with a group of computer scientists, or at least with students who had expressed some level of interest in trying to learn to program. The comparison in the emotions experienced in the two groups could be helpful in exploring the role of motivation in the emotions and outcome.

The group were very definitely thoroughly engaged by this paper, which touched on so many areas of expertise for all of us. An entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable discussion.

*Bosch, N., D’Mello, S., & Mills, C. (2013). What Emotions Do Novices Experience During their First Computer Programming Learning Session. In H. C. Lane, K. Yacef, J. Mostow, & P. Pavlik (Eds.), Artificial Intelligence in Education (Vol. 7926, pp. 11–20). Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-39112-5