A massive slice of pi

On the March 14th at 1.59pm (3.14159 in geek speak) we ran Pi Day Live, a free online event ‘rediscovering’ the famous number hosted by Professor Marcus du Sautoy. During the event participants were invited to use one of our Find Pi methods to derive pi and then upload it to our website as part of  a crowd sourcing experiment. We had around one thousand participants pre-register for the ‘Online Lecture Theatre’ (Blackboard Collaborate run by JISC Netskills (Massive thanks to them for providing such a professional and friendly service) from 17 different countries. About 800 of these were schools who signed up as classes via teachers. The pupils ranged from 11 to 18 years old. We also had circa 1500 participants who simply turned-up on the day and got involved via our YouTube ‘Big Screen’ (Google Hangouts on Air).

You can watch a recording of the event and run your own Find Pi activity here: http://oxfordconnect.conted.ox.ac.uk/

Pi Day Live was a pilot event for an engagement format I designed called Oxford Connect. The thinking behind Oxford Connect is to create a conversational and involving way to engage with ‘concepts, ideas and research’ from the University of Oxford. This is a Public Engagement approach but it also has potential for Widening Participation and the Impact agenda. The emphasis is very much on the live aspect of the event i.e. what differentiates this from a pre-recorded video, what would motivate participants to get involved at a particular moment in time? In the case of Pi Day Live we did everything we could to make it worthwhile engaging live. There was the opportunity for discussion, for your questions about pi to be answered and of course the Find Pi activities with associated crowd sourcing. In essence the event had all the technicalities of a live television broadcast coupled with the complexities of an online discussion and social media with some crowd sourcing thrown in for good measure.

We threw everything at Pi Day Live to see what worked:

1. The live event
I can’t overstate how compelling delivering a live event was. From the moment we received Tweets showing our live feed on screens in classrooms there was a real feeling that everyone participating was involved in something unique. Marcus started by giving a few shout-outs to some of the schools and individuals who had pre-registered. After the event Marcus discovered that he had many requests for shout-outs from schools via Twitter. I wasn’t expecting Twitter to be such a live channel in this case. Reporting on the changing crowd sourced value of pi was also a compelling aspect of being live.

2. The Find Pi activities
These appeared to be popular and as far as we can tell focused people’s minds during the middle part of the event. We currently have circa 300 results and a value of pi at 3.104. Our expectation was that we would have a few hundred people hitting the Oxford Connect site during the event. On the day we got well over 2000 which choked our server and cut down the number of people who could submit results.

Can you see when our server got so busy it couldn't even send data to our logging software? :)

Can you see when our server got so busy it couldn’t even send data to our logging software? :)

3. The discussion – responding to questions
This aspect of the event went less well, we didn’t receive many questions and the discussions in Blackboard Collaborate were relatively quiet. I think we threw too much at the participants who were happy to watch, Tweet or get on with the Find Pi activities. We also split people’s attention by leaving Marcus on screen commentating on his own Buffon’s Needle experiment during the Find Pi section of the event. I suspect that some people had gone into sit-back-and-watch mode which we need to balance with the interactive elements. We had provided more than one mode of engagement in parallel which isn’t ideal but was a side effect of our piloting approach.

My View of Pi Day Live

My View of Pi Day Live

Reflecting on the event I’m thinking there are probably discursive and an activity focused versions of Oxford Connect events. It’s also clear that Twitter or something as ‘light touch’ as Twitter can be enough of a ‘conversational’ channel to sustain live engagement when everyone is also running their own experiments and uploading results. I’m hoping that we can run similar event for other departments here at Oxford in the future. We are also talking about using the live format as an anchor for a quasi-open online version of our department’s face-to-face day schools. Overall I’m pleased with how the pilot ran, we learnt a lot and the technology held up well. We got plenty of positive feedback and some people disappointed they couldn’t get to the Oxford Connect webpage as our server tried to keep-up. The complexities of going out live were more than outweighed by the buzz and sense of connection that came with it. I’m confident that we can run a more streamlined version of Pi Day Live for other disciplines which is less risky while increasing the level of engagement for those who get involved live. Success in terms of ‘massive’ numbers is a dangerous thing though, especially for live events – we are going to need a bigger server…

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