Archives for the month of: November, 2012

We had a new attendee this week. We have Trevor Nesbit visiting from Christchurch, New Zealand until the end of December. Hopefully we will find out a little more about his work in a later lab meeting, but for this meeting we let him off with a quick introduction and let him settle in and listen to Judith.

Judith was talking to the group about the results of a course she taught last year – Technology Enhanced Learning Environments (TELE). A core component of the course was a group project, and to help to make this project more interesting and relevant Judith asked contacts from a group called Digital Education Brighton to get involved. Three different schools came forward, and the groups were asked to go through the process of gathering requirements by a range of means and producing a motivating learning experience for secondary school children around programming. Judith had three of the finished projects that she wanted to share with us.

Project 1 was a very nicely produced set of resources for teachers, including YouTube tutorials and a PowerPoint self-guided learning system that lead the students through creating a small game in Scratch. The graphics were fantastic, although Judith felt that the material itself was somewhat behaviouralist and not particularly ground-breaking.

Project 2 was a great little game called Blobs, which made use of a puzzle-solving mechanic not unlike lemmings to explore the differences between classes and objects with properties and methods. A series of different types of blob with a variety of different properties and methods had to be used together to solve levels. Pejman had a little difficulty with the third level, so this is by no means straightforward! Again, high production values and a lot of thought had gone into this, but it would be interesting to see whether this did actually help children understand coding. Ben asked if in later levels they introduced actual code, which would be an obvious next step that hadn’t been completed.

Project 3 was awesome. Rather than teach programming (the school they were working with already did rather well at that) they looked at software design, with a particular emphasis on user-centred processes. It was a flash program (I’m hesitating to call it a game) that students could go through, collecting requirements from a school that needed a particular piece of software building. Different parts of the scenario required different data-gathering methods – e.g. A recorded message from the headmaster, a questionnaire for the parents, focus groups etc. There were extra bits of information available on all the methods in program, which was very polished. In addition to this, they had prepared lesson plans for the teacher, work sheets to go with the lesson plans, presentations for the teacher to go through for each lesson… It was extremely complete, and a very interesting angle to take on the problem.

Judith’s main problem is that she wants to make these resources available (along with others from other years), either for teachers to use as is, or for further development/modification. The obvious way to do this is via the web, and the group had a variety of suggestions for how that could be achieved (many featured undergraduate labour – if you are an undergraduate who fancies building this let us know!). It was good to hear about the course and the projects.

Next week features a change of venue, as the Interact Lab is being used for some teaching. We will therefore be colonising the IDEAs lab from 11-12 next Tuesday instead. We remembered biscuits for this week, so those frozen cakes still remain and will be out of reach next week. There’s a good chance the cakes will make it to Christmas at this rate!


This week we had a paper to review, courtesy of Edgar. The paper was “Using HCI Techniques to Design a More Usable Programming System” by Pane, Myers and Miller*, which was recently jointly awarded the “Most influential paper from approximately one decade ago” at the IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing (VL/HCC) 2012. That alone makes it worthy of reviewing, but a number of the group also have an interest in visual languages and designing systems to help novice programmers.

The paper gives quite a high level account of the design and initial testing of the HANDS programming system. The design is aimed at children of grade 5 and above, which Judith kindly translated for those of us not familiar with the US grade system as age 10 and over. The authors begin by undertaking a user study to see how non-programmers approached problems they designed, and what sort of constructs and language were used. The programming language and environment were then designed together, with the visual metaphors aiming to underpin the coding structure. This design was then re-tested.

The group (as ever) had a lively debate about the code structure they hit upon, some people saying they hadn’t simplified enough, others (Ellie!) saying that it looked a little ambiguous in places. Some people questioned the methodology (always). Eventually (via Jim) we hit on an apparently old question that is at the heart of the visual languages research: are you trying to come up with something to teach people how to go on and learn other programming languages? Or are you trying to create a new, complete, usable language?

After we finished with the paper we had a slight extension to the meeting. Katy had asked us to provide a student with some feedback on a paper prototype for a visual programming learning tool he (Chris) is designing. It was a lovely prototype, with some really nice touches. It followed on really well from the paper, and hopefully he got some useful feedback and ideas on what to do next. It will be great to see where he takes it.

Sadly no cake this week, but none of us were quite desperate enough to defrost the cakes in the freezer! Fortunately no one was harmed as a result of the lack of sugar (some slightly elderly mini-rolls were “tidied”). Next week we will have to remember biscuits…


*Pane, J.F., Myers, B. a. & Miller, L.B., 2002. Using HCI techniques to design a more usable programming system. Proceedings IEEE 2002 Symposia on Human Centric Computing Languages and Environments, (Hcc), pp.198–206. Available at:

Jim gave a presentation describing his proposed research work on assisting emotion regulation in young persons with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) is an Autism Spectrum Condition that causes impairments in communication, social interaction and empathy. Rigid and repetitive behaviours are also characteristic features of the condition, though levels of impairment vary widely and can change with age and environment.

Living in a world that often seems baffling and inimical to their needs places great demands on the emotion regulation abilities of persons with AS. However the impairments of the condition make emotion regulation very challenging. Persons with AS often have difficulty recognizing or describing their feelings and deficits in the social sphere make managing stressful situations problematic.

The goal of the research is develop a system to help young people with AS better manage their emotions. The proposed system will gauge the young person’s emotional state from physiological data (a wireless electrodermal activity sensor housed in a wrist band), user input via a “stress button” and keyed input of emotional states, and contextual information e.g. from the phone diary or GPS data.

Proposed Phone App structure

The phone app will process the captured data and trigger an alert when it detects a problem may be developing. The app will then offer personalised options to help manage the situation e.g. suggest taking ‘time out’, launching a favourite mobile game as a calming exercise or discreetly texting the teacher warning of a developing problem. More advanced options such as CBT support or suggestions to deal with specific situations could be added later. Manual triggering, giving the young person immediate access to the options, will be supported. The app will be designed to make setting detection thresholds and options as simple as possible for the user. Research questions might include:

  • can the system reliably detect heightened states of physiological arousal?
  • can the system help young people with AS better manage their emotions?
  • can the system be designed to be used by a range of young people with AS?
  • what impact does the system have on the lives’ of users and their families?

A lively discussion followed the presentation with many interesting comments and suggestions. Liz asked about the age range of the intended users (it’s 12 years and above) and pointed out that, for younger children with AS, the onset of a meltdown can be very rapid, allowing little time for an effective intervention. Liz also suggested initially targeting the development of the system for a particular situation or scenario. There was some discussion as to whether the alert alone might be a sufficient intervention. Ben wondered how minimal the system could be while still having a positive impact, suggesting a study with 3 system setups:

  1. a non-functioning “stress button”
  2. a stress button that triggers an alert
  3. a stress button that triggers an alert and offers options to help with emotion regulation.

Liz cautioned that there may be significant changes in the emotional lives study participants over a short period of time. There was some discussion of the possible use of the stress button for ‘stimming’, in a way reminiscent of the children recorded ‘bubble popping’ in videos from the ECHOES project.

Today the lab meeting was more of an extension of the lab reading group, reviewing and discussing ideas from “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines” by Jan Meyer and Ray Land*.

Threshold concepts came to the attention of the group via a comment Liz made on Ben’s talk on learning to program. This paper identifies a threshold concept as a core concept that involves a change in perspective, as opposed to a core concept that doesn’t involve that shift, that without understanding the learner will be unable to access further parts of the task. We started out by spending a lot of time discussing the examples used, as there are many scattered throughout the paper. The group agreed that the examples were quite difficult to understand, perhaps because they were threshold concepts we hadn’t quite grasped!

Jim commented that the concept of a threshold concept is actually intensely personal – what is difficult to understand for one person is straightforward to another, and as such, how useful is the concept? The paper appears to have gathered data from experienced teachers, who are picking areas that they see students having trouble with, so in this case the information is targeted more at the teacher than the student – kind of a danger sign, alerting the teach that some topics may need more time than others. As such, it may be useful to work out what kind of problems missing these concepts may have further down the line.

There was a lovely quote apparently from Veterinary Sciences: “where students encountered severe conceptual difficulty such areas of the curriculum were quietly dropped”, which led to us wondering what kind of things were dropped and how important they might be (and lead to the title of this post – is telling a horse from a goldfish a threshold concept?!).

Section 4 in the paper was all about forms of “troublesome knowledge”, using a pre-existing definition of knowledge that is counter-intuitive, alien or incoherent, and discusses the forms that that kind of knowledge can take. This caused some confusion, as some of the terms used in the paper were familiar to members of the group from cognitive science but were being used in ways that didn’t quite fit their definitions. A great example of one of the sections on troublesome language! This section led to an interesting discussion on whether we agreed or disagreed with the distinctions and the terminology used.

Another query that the group raised was who controlled these thresholds? They seem to only be identified as such after you’ve been through one, which often serves to bring the way you think or see the world closer to the accepted norm for a particular group or community of practice. The way that you “know” things then becomes as important as what you know – so it is more important to be able to understand why things work is more important than just knowing that they do, as this may limit your ability to apply in different situations.

(I’ve realised how difficult it is to talk about these things in the abstract! That explains all of those examples in the paper… )

As always, a lively and interesting discussion. After the meeting, Edgar found the following video that has a clearer sense of what the “threshold concept” may be (although different from the one portrayed in the paper):

Liz has provided us with further papers, and a link to some research done in 2006-7 at Cambridge on teaching threshold concepts.

(In less lofty news, Ellie did remember cakes!)

Next week we have Jim talking us through his new area of research. Lesley has told us there may be some cake in the lab freezer. Is next week the time to find out? Be there…

*Meyer, J.H.F. & Land, R., 2003. Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the discipline. … Student Learning: Improving Student Learning Theory …, pp.1–16. Available here  [Accessed November 5, 2012].

Just a handful of links have come round recently! Hopefully that’s not because everyone is a little shy about them going on the blog…

Jim sent this link around that followed on from Ben’s talk on looking at what new programmers struggle with. It’s an article on Ars Technica, that asks if maybe not everyone is cut out to be a programmer?

Ben suggested that some of us might like to look at the UMAP 2013 Doctoral Consortium. UMAP is the international conference on User Modelling, Adaptation, and Personalization, and next year it is in Rome in June.

Ellie sent round a couple of really rather long links on gestures, with the following description:

The blogger (Dan Hill) has started out by mapping gestures he’s noticed have become common in conjunction with technology – e.g. the “Wake-up waggle” – shaking the mouse to wake the screen. It’s quite a long article but I thought it was an interesting set of observations.

Then he’s recently found a 1963 book on Italian gestures, called a “Supplement to the Italian dictionary”. I like the way the gestures are captured in both cases, and it’s something that I would forget to observe in participants I think. (This one has more pictures than text, I promise!)

Lesley sent a link to a project from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) on technoprogressive solutions in Africa.

Edgar sent us a video about the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead.

And finally Ellie sent another couple of links:

The first is about some research a 12-year-old did (with some prompting from his psychologist dad). He managed to show that people look for eyes on creatures, rather than just at the middle of faces, which actually follows on from shared attention by following where someone is looking.

The second is about something the (slightly controversial?) One Laptop Per Child project have tried. They left a box of laptops with no instructions in an Ethiopian village, and in the course of the next 5 months the kids of the village learnt how to use them, some English (reading and spoken I think), and how to hack the laptop permissions settings. I think the software they left installed on them for teaching English sounds intriguing, and like I ought to read Neil Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”!