Saturday, 23 February 2013

Interactive Documentary, Shared Experience and Better Theory in Education

I've recently been playing with the Wookie Widget Server for the iTEC project in producing a kind of interactive video. Basically, I have a movie (an instructional thing made with CrazyTalk) which (because it uses the HTML5 video component) can fire events at particular instances. Those events trigger changes in the Wookie widgets. As a result, the audience of the movie (eg. kids in a classroom) can be invited at particular points to engage in activities with the movie, and be automatically provided with tools (widgets) to do this. It doesn't matter what platform they view it on, providing the technology within particular widgets is compatible (so no Flash!).

Video

Participant widget screen (in Moodle in this case)

It doesn't look like much as a screen shot, but in reality, it creates a very interesting dynamic in the classroom.

I'm fascinated by the shared experience, by the sequencing of activities in this way simultaneously, and by the way the teaching can do other things whilst the activities are running through and the participants engage in the video.

There's a lot happening at the moment in terms of real-time collaboration in this way. Smart Technologies (the Interactive Whiteboard people) have just launched something called Extreme Collaborate which appears to use a web-socket style connection system for direct interaction with any kind of web-enabled device and the whiteboard. Then, Microsoft are doing some remarkable things with their 'SmartGlass':


I think there is something in this. My wish is that it opens the door to a contrasting approach to open education than the one currently being explored by MOOCs. I think convivial experience matters, and that there is no reason why Universities shouldn't create rich convivial experiences that can be engaged with by groups of people all over the world - but something which is more like an interactive cinema presentation that a website that people look at on their own: with this technology, the lecture is an 'interactive documentary'. Currently, we are seeing arts organisations broaden their reach (the National Theatre and Royal Opera in London, and the Metropolitan opera in New York are two examples), with the use of live broadcast to global venues. These are powerful events. Why shouldn't Universities do the same?

It would require Universities to really think about the "theatre of the classroom" in ways that they perhaps haven't done before. It would offer the opportunities for Universities to continually improve the experience of the lecture, or the classroom theatre, by monitoring participant engagement, and getting live feedback on the learner experience. It would set a standard that they would then have to live up to. And why shouldn't anyone be able to attend?

But I'm interested in the research opportunities presented by this technology. It provides a way of exploring 'conviviality' in learning. The fascinating thing in my experiments has been the extent of discussion amongst participants - particularly when they are all engaged in the same activity. "What do you think?" they ask each other. What if their activities were all different, rather than all the same? What if the coordination was different? There are parameters of investigation here which can be easily explored and data collected. Indeed, it may be that the face-to-face classroom provides a richer opportunity for data collection and the examination of experience than the online world, where it can be so difficult and time-consuming to encourage engagement.

What am I after? There are a number of questions:


  1. What is the relationship between the 'content' of learning and the communication dynamics in classroom?
  2. What is meaningful in the experiences?
  3. What is the relationship between the manner of coordination of activities and the meaningfulness of the experiences?
  4. Is meaning related to anticipation?
  5. Is anticipation related to shared experience and knowledge of one another?
  6. Is what we learn that which we learn about each other?
  7. Do patterns of communication stimulated by shared experience reveal what we learn about each other?
  8. Is shared experience related to shared absence?
  9. Is the mechanism whereby shared experience affects patterns of communication essentially one of focusing on what's there, or is it drawing attention to what isn't there?
  10. How might the differences in communication dynamics in relation to the manner of coordination be modelled?


Probably enough questions for now. But the point is that there is a technological way of investigating them which can be reproduced in different contexts. I find that most exciting.

After all, any scientific investigation requires a degree of reproducibility in the experimental conditions. Despite the fact that education is clearly not physics  (it's mechanisms are transitive, as Bhaskar would say), we do identify 'demi-regs' (as Tony Lawson would call them) of 'things that tend to work'. Explaining the 'things that tend to work' in ways where new kinds of coordinations can be produced and tendencies predicted is a very important step to understanding educational processes a bit more.

But at the bottom of it all is the fact that I think one of the reasons why education is in such a mess at the moment is because our theories of education and learning need critiquing and investigating. This is certainly the case with e-learning. We need a better ontology.

Maybe technology can provide a means to working towards a better description.

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