Archives for the month of: December, 2013

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.