16 Jul 1997 ............... Length about 1600 words (10000 bytes).
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Scenarios for using an Answer garden

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A Technical Memo
Stephen W. Draper
Department of Psychology
University of Glasgow
Glasgow G12 8QQ U.K.
email: steve@psy.gla.ac.uk
WWW URL: http://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~steve


AG Answer Garden
Q&A Questions and Answers
HE Higher Education


What are the different ways that a Q&A collection could be useful in teaching and learning? Answer Garden software is for collecting, storing, accessing such collections: what are the different ways that could be useful? The different ways put different requirements on the software, and also suggest ways it could be used in delivering a course. Here I consider some different scenarios in which material stored as Q&A pairs could be used.

In examining the scenarios, some questions to consider are:

Vicarious learning (learning by overhearing)

Learners can learn just from overhearing other learners in dialogue with teachers. Christine Howe and Andy seem to have found (in their studies of peer interaction promoting conceptual learning) that groups of 4 work as well as pairs; and also looked at the dialogue analysis and who spoke most; and found from this that listening without talking is as powerful a way to benefit from "dialogue". It must be that processing other angles/ views is the key added value.

On this view, simply recording such dialogues and getting new learners to hear/read them is enough. This is essentially the position of "lurkers" on email discussion lists, who frequently testify that this is valuable. No indexing is wanted: this learning happens without the learner being driven by their own questions: they learn by having unexpected material thrust on them.

Self-judgement (confidence)

However it may be that some material is specially associated with vicarious learning in HE. One calculation people do all the time is to hear another person's question and judge whether they are ahead or behind relative to the state of understanding implied by the question, and by the teacher's response to it. This is important, as we must all learn to judge the state of our understanding; and this may be one of the most important sources.

Perry status of material

An important kind of knowledge is about the status of "facts" and theories given in the main exposition: whether everyone regards them as certain, whether they are contested, etc. This can be given in any medium, but it may be that verbal Q&A is a main source of it. Certainly scientific papers contain very little of it explicitly, while scientists constantly give off such value judgements. (This is related to the ideas of Perry, who regarded a major but ill-supported aim of HE to be moving learners from simplistic views of black and white truth and falsity to a more complex view of what they were learning as inter-related ideas of varying defensibility.)

Basic answer garden (FAQ application)

A collection of Q&A used by learners to save having to wait for an expert's attention.

Answer dispatch mechanism

*A mechanism for dispatching stored answers (but a human does selection i.e. index function).

A horrid thought: perhaps the AG software will never be that good at automatically finding the right piece, so perhaps we need to aim at something like telephone directory enquiries: the human (tutor) elicits the learner need in real dialogue; then does a command selecting the answer from store, which is then transmitted without the tutor. The benefit would be to allow the tutor to dispatch more good answers per minute.

Is this in fact the main function of tutors?: they have a lot of stored answers, and the human is mainly needed because a) these are not stored b) there is no software or index system to retrieve them satisfactorily for learners. Only occasionally are human tutors required for truly intelligent feedback.

If this is right, then in general our business is a) capture material as/when used e.g. all replies to student queries. b) organise for fast re-transmission.

(Video) Index into exposition monologues

PDG told me how useful it is to have an index into a video. The idea is, that you have a record of a long linear thing e.g. a lecture, a videotaped interview. An index that chops it up into 1-2 min. segments is of great value because, while you may be prepared to sit through it all once, after that you only want to revisit some good bits.

This is a general requirement: a) any linear medium cf. students marking textbooks to find the bits they think are crucial, especially in novels which unlike textbooks do not have indexes. b) It is an example of having an index built for (and perhaps by) the learners. c) it is a prime example of a pre-existing external document, with the AG software acting only to point into it.

Reference manual: Question-driven learning

*Question-driven learning: no primary exposition.

There are cases where users will never read a primary exposition, but always go in question-driven mode e.g. reference manuals, university library Q&A. But actually, can still regard the manual as the primary exposition, and an AG as a way of discovering how to write the index correctly i.e. in a user-centered (task-organised) way.

Minimal Manuals do user task analysis to design the structure/index; an alternative is to study help desk interactions to discover the questions/problems users have and later use that to design the ref. manual. The motivation is similar to that of Minimal Manuals: learners/users who won't stop to learn before acting, but are driven by tasks. Here we extend that a bit to users whose goal is learning rather than a material task, but who nevertheless are too impatient to read the given text before they see how it is useful to them.

This idea is related to:

  • a) Study this year's problems, then use database only as source of evidence for a redesign.
  • b) Use it to design user index.
  • c) Dialogue (Q&A) as a presentational format.

    Dialogue as a presentational format

    *Dialogue may be good as a format in itself.

    A quite different angle: displayed dialogue is a presentational form, useful pedagogically for its own sake. E.g. Plato's dialogues; many TV shows / documentaries. When is this the best form? Can captured dialogues ever really be it? Are their ideal(ised) learners to play a part in such dialogues?

    Dialectic. Looking at multiple claims, counter-claims, resolutions. New Scientist's "The last word" column. [e.g. How do robins make such a loud noise, compared to a radio's loud speaker?]

    This is a bridge between index and questions, as the idea here is that the same old content is to be conveyed, but the chosen format is that of Q&A. So perhaps this is basically a way of structuring (indexing) material, so it is that index or structure that is the specific content. However that index IS questions (that students want to ask). They are typically connections to prior experience and conceptions.

    The difference between this and the previous item is that here the learner probably reads the Q&A sequentially, as designed by the author; and the questions are put by the author (not the learner), and must be explained and made convincing to the learner. Whereas in a reference manual, the questions only have to be recognised by the learner; and the learner will not look at any material they haven't already thought about as a question for them.

    Question Gardens

    The important content may be the questions, not the answers: a question garden (Erica's phrase). A collection of questions, showing what questions are allowed, are good e.g. for debate, .... So an archive of a discussion list, indexed by thread. This might be used by students who have to select a topic for a debate they will lead. Also of course, it reveals implicitly the Perry status: which topics do get resolved, at least for that group of discussants, as opposed to those which are left as debateable.

    Re-authoring aid

    *Questions are only a sign of bugs in the exposition. So AG is really a mechanism for recording the patches that have to be done to delivery in early versions, so they can be re-used with minimum effort in redesigning edition 2 of the exposition. Like recording help desk interactions as evidence for fixing a user interface.

    So here, the AG is only (re)used by the author (not by learners); and for them, the important content is primarily the questions (what students didn't understand without asking), though secondarily the answers that then worked to satisfy the students.

    In other words, AG is only a second best substitute for a proper primary exposition for the topic. It is worth it in HE if/while primary materials are not debugged, or some other function is being served. More and more I see it as a temporary stage before creating or re-writing the inadequate primary source: the textbook or lecture, or the minimal manual if the domain is help with software.

    In fact, it should be seen as an authoring tool for creating primary expositions, given only bugs or questions or a discussion. In a topic that has no proper primary exposition yet (e.g. ACK's design of MM systems; ... or this: the use and function of AG), then you could begin that exposition by either imagining the questions learners will have, or jotting down unrelated points as separate "answers" then authoring the structure. In fact this is just hypertext authoring; or the (usually informal) process of writing a paper from a set of points in the head, then do the structure, then rewrite each point. This is only one step on from artificially creating a discussion.