Engaging students in Learning Analytics

This article was originally posted on Medium.

LARAe.chi14

Learning Dashboards, which visualize Learning Traces left behind by students, have many applications, e.g. they help teachers keep track of their students (with all privacy concerns that follow) and they assist students in keeping track of their progress.

Teachers love these dashboards. The more data available, the better it can help them steer a course, find struggling students and assist in grading. Students, however, tend to experience elaborate dashboards as a Big Brother tool straight out of 1984 (even though none of them probably read the book or saw the movie).

But it is important to get students aboard. The Quantified Self (QS) movement has shown that tracking and being aware of your own data can help change and improve your ways, and learning should be no different.

But students are busy. They have no time for this QS nonsense. They have exams, tasks, projects, … they are pretty much the “busiest” people you will ever meet. So introducing “one more thing” that, to them, has no direct impact on their ultimate goal, a good grade? Probably not going to be a success.

I believe one way of solving this problem is by taking a little detour. Figure out what it is students want, what is lacking in their workflow and how we can help. And if we find a problem we can solve, we might as well do it in a Learning Dashboards kind of way. (Of course, if the problem cannot be solved by putting Learning Traces to a good use, find another problem)

Meet LARAe (Learning Analytics Awareness & Reflection environment), a dashboard created specifically for teachers and students of our User Interface course of 2014. From our previous work and by talking to both teachers and students, we pinpointed a bunch of issues in their workflow and created a dashboard that attempts to do just that: improve their workflow.

In this course, students generate lots of data in the form of blog posts, comments and tweets. 13 groups of 3 students, blogging 3-5 times a week with each group commenting on posts of the others, difficult for both teacher and student to keep track of. Many use RSS readers, some manually explore the blogs on a weekly basis. A workable process, but not ideal for everyone.

So LARAe tries to make this workflow a bit more straightforward. When it does, teachers start using it, and so do students. And suddenly everyone is looking at Learning Analytics data…

Being regularly confronted with these visualizations of Learning Traces, students might start visiting the dashboard for reasons other than their original intent. They become curious and start to explore, gain awareness of their activities and that of others. And maybe they learn something along the way, improve their learning process and who knows, get that better grade.

Learning Dashboards have many applications. Taking them beyond mere visualizations of numbers and statistics will not only help broaden their range of applications, but also get them in the hands of more people. Like students. And in the end, it is all about the students.

Reflection with Interactive Tabletops: an Evaluation

navi-inaction

Last Tuesday Jose and I had the opportunity to experiment on a couple of students during a thesis poster presentation taking place just before the last #chikul13 class. While Jose was focussing on making students more aware through ambient displays, I did my first test-run of the Navi Tabletop Application. As you may remember, we’ve been awarding students with activity and progress badges. This app visualises these achievements and gives students a collaborative tool to reflect upon their work.

Prologue

The rapid prototyping with my custom HTML5/CSS3/Javascript framework works! I managed to get a fully functional tabletop prototype with actual badge-student relationship visualisations working in a weekend. Here’s a quick before-after screenshot comparison.

navi_before_after_crazyweekend

(please ignore the English in the screenshots, I have no control over the badge descriptions sent back to me by the data repository ;))

The bezier curves are courtesy of Paper.js. While I moved away from using a canvas element to draw my interface, it’s great as an extra layer to draw more demanding objects, like the relationship lines.

As I explained before, I want to create a tool to support collaborative reflection between students and teacher. The teacher would then guide this process. However during my testing on Tuesday I decided to let them freely explore the app by themselves and see what happens.

Navi Tabletop App

Let’s start with a quick explanation of how the app works.

navi_v2_step1 navi_v2_step2

Badges can be dragged onto the playfield (the top 70% of the screen). Students who have been awarded this specific badge will light up (in blue) in the student container. The opposite is also true: dragging a student onto the playfield will light up the badges in the badge container that this specific student has earned.

navi_v2_step3 navi_v2_step4

The highlighted items together show the union of the relationships with the items in the playfield. Touching an item in the playfield will show its relationship to other items in the playfield through connected lines. This will also limit the highlighted items (students or badges) to the ones related to the touched object.

Badges are awarded every 2 weeks. The user can cycle through these time periods in the badge container.

Test Chamber 1

I decided to use the think-aloud protocol, give no scenario and see whether the students could make sense of the tool and data by themselves. I filmed the whole process using a camera on a tripod and asked them to fill in a survey afterwards. For students who weren’t part of the #chikul13 course I gave a bit of background information on the badge system.

During the one hour poster presentation session, 14 students tested the application. 2 groups of 3 people and 2 groups of 2 people used the table simultaneously. The remaining 4 people used the application by themselves.

Almost everyone figured out how to use the app without guidance. Users started dragging items onto the playfield and started seeing and understanding the relationships between names and badges.

The most interesting events occurred when students of the #chikul13 course grouped up with their actual #chikul13 group members (they work in groups of 3 during the course): At one point they became interested in seeing their group badges per period. They dragged out their names and started cycling through the time periods. When noticing a low amount of awarded badges, they started reflecting about that period and found reasons for the lack of badges. They also saw which periods what person was more active and had an awkward but funny moment when 2 of them had a negative badge for not commenting at all during a 2 week period.

Reflection

That group I just mentioned was a perfect example of our ideal target audience. It was interesting to see them behave the way they did: discussing and reflecting over their progress in the #chikul13 course even though the amount of data they were given was limited.

As for people using the tabletop app by themselves, results were less interesting. They were struggling to continue exploring and needed a little push now and then to have ideas on what to do. But as I am aiming for a collaborative tool, this isn’t a big issue.

The survey showed similar results. Students would like to use the tool with others, however there was more interest in using the tabletop with other students than with a teacher. The word “fun” was used a few times when asked if the collaboration added anything to the experience. They also admitted that using the tool together invites for more communication and quicker understanding of the data. Almost everyone agreed that more information would certainly improve the application as the actual comments, posts and tweets (on which the awards are based) aren’t yet available through the tabletop.

It was clear that the UI wasn’t flawless. People tried double tapping and wished the lines would remain visible when letting go of objects. Due to some issues with the time period selection and a lack of a time period spanning the entire course timeframe, people weren’t convinced the tabletop app helped them get a good total overview of the class’s progression

The survey also contained a SUS questionnaire. This resulted in a SUS score of 71 counting all students, 76 counting only the #chikul13 students. An above average score which is not too bad for a feature-limited prototype with a very specific purpose.

What’s Next

I am pretty happy with these results and it was exciting to see the students play around with the Navi Tabletop App. But there is a lot of room for improvement.

Period selection

First up is the time period issue. While I could fix the button’s responsiveness and provide the user with better visual feedback, I believe cycling through the periods is not necessary at this level of the interface. I will remove it and bring it back at badge level (including a default full course timeframe selection).

Hightlighting

Items light up when related items are dragged onto the playfield, but this wasn’t obvious enough to some users. A more visually striking highlighting (e.g. animation) that catches users’ attention might solve this problem.

Double Tap

Quite some users attempted double tapping, something not very common on touch screens. I believe the lack of actions available on items might be the cause of this double tapping reaction. Some users expected the lines connecting related items to remain visible while the “correct” action was holding a finger down on the item. Adding action buttons to items in the playfield to support these kind of features could indirectly solve this behaviour.

Badge Information

People had to drag the badge all the way onto the playfield to see its description.  A simple touch should already show that information.

Lack of Information

The big next step is showing the actual blog/comment/tweet data. Most people agreed this would make the application more useful. Once Jose’s StepUp! backend can provide me that information, I’ll be adding that functionality to the tabletop. This will hopefully bring the reflection process to a whole other level.

Another Time Perhaps

Great, you got this far! I bet you were hoping on a video and… there isn’t one. But fear not, one will be posted soon! Screenshots and text can only say so much right?

Feedback, comments and ideas more than welcome as always, so feel free to fill that comment box below!

Reflection in Learning: Tabletops & Beyond

Last Wednesday our HCI group had the opportunity to meet with the folks of CUO, the Centre for User Experience Research, at the Social Science department of our university for a little brainstorm session. I was asked to present a bit of my work with which I threw a few ideas into the group and which provided me with some nice feedback. The slides of my presentation are available here, but they are pretty visual so won’t make much sense without me yapping along to them. The first half is much in line with what I’ve posted here and here though. As for the second half, let me give you an update.

CUO_pres_navi

We want to promote reflection and think our badge data is a good starting point. The badge data is an abstract, high level representation of the activity and achievements and can be a central access point from which we can further drill down into the raw data. While a student can figure things out by himself, input and guidance from a teacher through this reflection process can greatly improve the result. Putting students and teacher around a table for discussion seems like a good idea, so why not use a digital tabletop?

Tabletop Reflection

Let me explain how the first few steps of this process would work:

We put the teacher and a couple of students around the tabletop. The teacher drags out the names of the present students onto the tabletop. These expand and become the students’ personal consoles.

The teacher then pulls up the badges. As the tabletop app now knows which students are standing around the tabletop, it can adjust its badge visualisation and limit it to data relevant to these students. Dragging a badge onto the tabletop will expand the badge, provide more options such as showing its relation to the students and the class and provide a drilldown point to more information, in our case: tweets, blogs, comments, etc.

This provides the teacher and students with the basic elements required to facilitate discussion and reflection. The teacher has an immediate overview of the progress and the data of the students. He/she can give feedback, discuss the artefacts and guide the students in their learning process with the data available on the tabletop. The students can study and discuss the artefacts and compare their own work to that of their peers.

A couple of screenshots of the rough tabletop prototype:

Fullscreen_07_05_13_11_52 Fullscreen_07_05_13_11_51-4

HTML5/CSS3/JS

Let’s do a quick tech intermezzo, before we lose half of the audience ;) While the goal is to create a tabletop reflection tool, we also want the technology to support multiple platforms. I walked away from the pure Paper.js idea I mentioned previously though and have now created a custom Javascript framework to suit my specific needs. The framework logic is built on a mix of Object-Oriented with Component-based design, the visual design is all HTML5 and CSS3. This allows me to quickly create classes that support multi-touch, animations (CSS3 and custom) and event triggers and can easily be hooked up to the DOM elements. No rocket science, just very helpful for rapid prototyping ;) As an example, the above prototype was developed in a couple of days.

Outside

The features required in our process aren’t all available yet in our prototype but will be developed soon. The next step (after some evaluations) will probably be about how we can expand this to collaboration. We want the students to collaborate around the tabletop but also collaborate with people out in the field. Imagine students outside or even out of the country being guided by the tabletop users and in turn providing the class with realtime data from these locations. Google Glass as a direct stream to what’s happening there? Why not!

We think there is potential in not just taking learning outside and the outside into the classroom, but also bringing these learning artefacts and analytics into the real world. We have more interesting ideas on this and how to involve the parents into the process, but more on that later. If I tell you everything now there’s no reason to come back right? ;)