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Multidisciplinary project attacks teaching

[This is a version of an article for the Dept. of computing science newsletter, to be published Sept. 2001.]

The start of the summer term saw a first study by the GRUMPS project (, in which the level 1 lab was invaded by researchers, tutors were equipped with PDAs in order to provide just-in-time information delivery, and student machines "bugged" by monitoring software. Students could now be asked to signal for help, not by keeping their hands raised, but by clicking on a custom web page. The resulting help request queue for that tutorial group was supplied, via a ColdFusion server and a wireless link, to the a device carried by the tutor. Other information on that student, such as their name and photo, their history of requesting help and the time since they were last seen, was also available in various views of the group offered to the tutor. However the most important view was a map, showing schematically where in the lab the group's members were, and indicating the order they had requested help by superimposed numbers. Tutors could thus choose to visit students in the order of their requests, or in terms of who was nearest, or to visit all students in turn in order of proximity regardless of requests.

The Grumps team includes an educational evaluator, Margaret Brown. The data she has gathered allows us to say with some confidence and detail that the Lab Support Software was largely welcomed by staff and students, and to identify some changes in the pattern of interactions. The running of an improved version in the first year labs from October is being negotiated.

LSS pictures
Two views a tutor in BO-715 (windows along the top) can see.

A related development is now under way in Australia, where the project's Perth collaborator Richard Thomas has used his Grumps connection to install software that allows lab tutors to enter student marks electronically on the spot. This is proving instantly popular with tutors, by saving clerical paperwork and keeping student progress records instantly up to date. This feature may be introduced here in the autumn term.

The other aspect of the Glagow study was software to record student actions on the computers during labs (24? million action events were recorded during the one month of the study). In the longer term, two educational benefits are sought from this. From the staff viewpoint, analysis and data mining may uncover patterns useful in managing the course. Quintin Cutts will be leading an effort on this from October onwards. From the student viewpoint, it offers personal data collected automatically on which a student could reflect, and learn to manage aspects of their own learning better. Realising this potential may depend on explicitly supporting it as part of the development of personal "metacognitive" and study skills. Initially this data collection was seen as a potential problem: by lab support staff as a danger to software reliability, and by students as a threat to their privacy. The former was addressed by designing and testing for reliability, fail-safe characteristics, and ease of control (including shutdown) of this distributed software: the research interest of part of the Grumps team. The latter was addressed by equipping the students with a software privacy control, and by inviting discussion: privacy issues are now an important professional topic in computing, so this too has educational value.

As this indicates, Grumps is a multidisciplinary project. This study was undertaken partly as a team-gelling exercise to get the project off to a positive start, and in that management sense it has been a huge success (and we even hope to publish a paper on this aspect in a management journal, in addition to the other papers it has generated in the first nine months of Grumps). The study was also designed to exercise all the levels in the project. At the top level is the application domain of education, as discussed above. Whether you regard it as a case of ICT transforming our teaching workplace, or of pervasive computing unobtrusively interpenetrating essentially unchanged activities, is an interesting question. In the middle level is an HCI strand addressing the usability of the various kinds of data created. A paper has already been accepted that discusses the use of maps, and the benefit of rotating them to match the direction the student is facing when seeing the map on their lab PC screen. At the underlying level, Grumps is a DIM (Distributed Information Management) project and this exercise covered small and large data volumes, pre-designed and post hoc uses of data, fast and slow response times (for the help queue and data mining aspects), static and mobile sources, all involving multiple servers as well as clients, sharing a network with other traffic.

Since that study, Grumps has been using summer studentships to further two extensions. One is the instantiation of our international link with Perth, Western Australia: Martin Ritchie was forced to accept a free trip there (see sidebar) to install, develop, and maintain Richard Thomas' marks software mentioned above. This is now already in use (it's winter there) in one of their computing labs. Chris Mitchell, a 3rd year summer student in DCS, is developing software support for Grumps' next educational adventure: promoting interactivity in lectures by the use of handsets that allow students to register their answers to a displayed question, and display the aggregated answers.

What's next? The handsets will be first used in anger in the autumn term (we hope to trial them before that at the Open Day and other smaller venues in September). An issue for both the lab support software and the handsets is managing a transition (of funding as well as the software) from EPSRC-funded research through university-funded development to regular client-funded use and maintainence. Meanwhile Grumps' second application area of Bioinformatics will also be addressed from the autumn. Finally, Malcolm is now so burdened by money brought in that we are struggling to help him spend it. But we're coping because we're brave.

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