Last changed 16 Dec 1997 ............... Length about 1700 words (11000 bytes).
This is a WWW document by Steve Draper, installed at You may copy it. How to refer to it.

Current Hot ideas in MANTCHI

The MANTCHI project: official project pages, or my summary

Contents (click to jump to a section)

Stephen W. Draper


ATOM = Autonomous Teaching Object in MANTCHI.
HEI = Higher Education Institution (e.g. universities).
FAQ = Frequently Asked Questions, used to refer to static files listing such questions with answers and provided as a kind of online help.

The concept of ATOMs

In the MANTCHI project we are collaborating in teaching HCI courses across 4 universities. Particularly as this is a short project and, unlike some authoring projects, was not based around creating a new course, we have to face how we can do any collaboration around our existing teaching which cannot be radically changed. Our current idea is to establish a unit of teaching called an ATOM (Autonomous Teaching Object in MANTCHI). These are small enough that we can introduce some without major course changes.

The original idea of an ATOM was that they would be based on some learner task (suitable for use in teaching other than primary exposition i.e. they do not replace lectures, but might replace tutorials or labs). They are supposed to be equivalent to about 6-8 hours of learner work i.e. one week's worth on a typical course. These units are being exchanged: each of the four HEIs are both authoring some and receiving others for use in their courses. The author designs the whole activity, and normally will commit to being available for responsive network interaction during delivery. The recipient teacher (the "deliverer") delivers the material, and remains responsible for local organisation, and assessment.

A second variant on the notion has collaboration between students at different HEIs as a feature. For instance video conferencing between HEIs is a natural exercise; and design and evaluation exercises where groups at different HEIs swap designs at the half way point and evaluate each others' is another. Such designs are good pedagogically but require coordination of teachers and timetables.

A third variant is an idea that might take place over a whole term as an ongoing minor activity: for instance a discussion forum for the students on a course, or an exercise requiring each student in turn to produce and publish model lecture notes for one lecture. These are exercises, and are of the right scale in terms of student time, but have a different relationship to the timetable.

The distinctive benefits of this small unit of exchange are:

Against these reasons for a small unit of exchange is a lot of pressure from authors to cram in more material, and to design bigger chunks with more internal structure. The EUROMET project is experiencing this tension too.

In fact the time an ATOM "should" take shows several factors: hours of work by students, elapsed time i.e. the time over which the work is spread to allow students both to manage their own time and to do some reflection rather than handing work in the moment it is done, and authors' desire to provide lots of material and further directions.

Link to our working pages relating to ATOMs.
Link to a paper on the origin of the notion in the project

Evaluate not just learning objectives but teaching activities

In performing integrative evaluation we elicited learning objectives from teachers and attempted to measure how well they were achieved. Our implicit assumption was that every activity and resource put on for the students had the aim of supporting the learning stated in the learning objectives. We are now developing the view that we should elicit from teachers their rationales for each activity they put on (e.g. a practical exercise, an organised discussion, marking an assignment), and attempt to evaluate how well the activity achieves its aims. These rationales are interesting and very varied, and often mention goals for courses and reasons for activities that are not captured in the learning objectives for courses (as conventionally stated in response to requirements for this documentation).

Learning by Onlooking ("vicarious learning")

Do learners gain significantly from being bystanders at others' learning dialogues e.g. listening to questions from another student? Many learners say they do, yet this is in apparent conflict with many theories which stress the importance of the learner themselves acting. Do students learn more from writing their own essay, or from reading another student's essay? From having to ask their own questions, or from listening to a discussion? From being a lurker, or from actively contributing to an email discussion?

These are important questions for teachers. If students only learn from their own activity, then tutorial groups of more than one student simply waste students' time; but if they learn from others, then solo tutorials actually deprive students. Similarly, should we delete last year's email discussion or leave it for next year's students?

The many applications of a question and answer format

There are many essentially different applications for a question and answer format, such as an answer garden, a FAQ file, or a class discussion email or netnews forum. For instance (1) the questions could be driven by students, and answered by the tutor (like questions at the end of a lecture), or (2) set by the tutor and discussed by the students (like a seminar). Another one (3), which we shall trial, is to set students the task of identifying the key question(s) associated with each lecture together with its answer, and assembling these as a form of lectures notes for revision. A challenging application (4) for teachers to consider is converting a course into a reference manual: imagine students who would only access your course material to the extent that it answered prior questions they had. What use has each bit of your material? what question does it address, that someone might actually want to know the answer to?

More on scenarios for using an Answer garden

Theatre vs. film metaphor: the nature of re-use

If you say you are going to produce reusable material, we normally think of something like a textbook or set of lectures that will be re-used directly each time a course is run and furthermore is represented as a physical artifact such as a book or video. Films are like that. However some learning activities, particularly the ones often referred to as "tutorials", are not like that. When you stage a discussion, you do not expect that the individual contributions will be re-used: instead the teacher's job is to put on an activity: more like theatre than film. Watching a video of last year's tutorial is not the same as participating in one this year.

If this is wrong, and learning by onlooking is enough, then tutorials could be filmed and shown instead of being performed next year. If this is right, then reusable material will not be a record of what happened, but instead a structure or script for teacher and learners to perform again next time.

Developing best practice for each medium or genre

The outcomes of using either a medium such as netnews or a piece of courseware do not depend on the artifact alone, but at least as much on how it is used. This should be obvious, yet very little work shows any sign of acting on this statement.

There have been many studies of video conferencing in comparison to, say, telephoning, yet virtually all of them compare subjects with decades of experience of the phone to subjects with minutes of experience with video conferencing. It is not just that such experiments are poorly designed, and cannot tell us whether video adds value to audio. Rather, no-one yet knows how new media might best be used. We should not just seek "experts", but rather seek out the unusual subjects who happen to perform best, and seek to teach this best practice to other users before doing a study.

This applies equally forcefully to educational applications. Mass market textbooks have copious teacher materials to support its use, yet most CAL is still delivered as software alone, with the result that much of it fails mainly because suitable delivery techniques are not transmitted (or often not developed in the first place). This becomes even more important in the area we are in, such as organising discussions. It will not be the technical features of the software that have most influence, but the social organisation created by the teacher. This is true in face to face tutorials (where tutors vary enormously in their inter-personal and group skills), but is still more important in new media where good practice is still to be discovered. It is important not least because higher education is particularly poor at sharing good practice between staff in the same department, much less at greater (social) distances.

We must address ourselves to developing this practice -- the human social procedures for using the medium -- and then to how it can be transmitted to other teachers. That is the kind of reusable "material" that is crucial.

Use of the MANs

The MANs are basically electronic pipes with unusually large virtual diameters ("bandwidth"). The obvious justification for them is applications like real time video that use big bandwidths in one go. The MANs have a bandwidth of 155Mbps, but only 10 Mbps is currently available for regular internet use. The rest is reserved for things like ATM video. This was of no use to our project. We have used video conferencing in several ways: partly over Superjanet using non-MAN links before the changeover to ATM was in place (half way through our project), and partly desktop video. The latter uses only the narrow 10Mbps subchannel. To use the main MAN would require special and expensive equipment which is not available to us (UMI would not pay for this in phase 2), and in any case would it would probably not be conveniently available in classrooms, and so is unlikely to become widely used in teaching.

However our project may establish the need for substantial bandwidth in another way, as the cumulation of many small demands.

Most university internet traffic is currently communication between researchers. In some of our applications, we will be arranging for students at different HEIs to interact over the net. Since students outnumber staff by about 15 to 1, the need for a factor of 15 (a qualitatively greater bandwidth) is already clear. (Email student:student)

In other applications, a remote teacher who authored an ATOM will be providing substantial interactive backup over the net. This kind of intensive email is currently characteristic of traffic within a department, but here it will travel over the net. The ratio of department traffic to cross-HEI traffic is perhaps 1000 to 1, but includes research, teacher, and student interactions: let us just suppose that the part attributable to student-teacher interactions is 10 to 1. (Email student:teacher)

Not insignificant is the communication between collaborating teachers. If you look at your email (and now web page) traffic, then a substantial proportion is communication with collaborating teachers. Again, this is now all intra-department, but in our project will be cross-HEI. Perhaps another factor of 10. (Email teacher:teacher)

It therefore looks as if, simply using old technology of email and web pages for essentially intraweb applications, the move to collaborative teaching beyond one's department may require 1000 times more bandwidth on the internet if all teaching were to go this way. This is probably a greater exercise of the MANs than dabbling in video is, although our project will only show a few bursts, not what it would be like if all of our teaching were done remotely or as part of remote collaborations.

To give these guestimates some basis, we will need to analyse our web and email traffic, both over a few weeks of normal use, and in the periods of ATOM delivery.