Archive for the 'Projects' Category

Electronic Management of Assessment (EMA)

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014


In the last few months JISC have been doing some great work looking at EMA, electronic management of assessment.  This has produced a really useful landscape review and there is more to come. For TALL this has brought back lots of memories of the Cascade project, and in particular our focus area: Online assignment handling. This was a few years ago and it may seem that many of our outputs might be outdated, but it is amazing how much of what we were dealing with remains the same.   In particular the recognition that so many issues in this space are about business processes rather than technology, really resonates with our Cascade experience. Certainly we are still working with colleagues to identify where processes can be improved to make things better for everyone and make using technology to support them even more effective.  A good example of this has been the  time it has taken to agree a universal submission time of day (2pm to ensure there is always support available to students immediately before and afterwards) and identify submission free periods (Mondays, Fridays and 2 weeks a year over Christmas and in the summer). Simple in principle, lots of benefits, but a big change from previous norms.

Our work on EMA in the department has come a long way since the Cascade project. Online submission and feedback is now our default mode for assignment handling (with a very small number of exceptions) and the understanding of staff and students of how EMA works, the real benefits and issues, makes discussion of future options and opportunities a much more valuable process.  It is this last point that ties us back around to the EMA work that JISC is undertaking.  While we have achieved a huge amount in this area, there is no doubt in our minds (and those of our students, tutors and administrators) that we could be doing more – and we have made sure we have participated in consultations to share what we are learning and what we want to know. What it is great to see is that we are not alone! The areas we are grappling with are ones that everyone else is dealing with too.  We will be closely watching this space to see what comes next.

Image found at  /CC BY 2.0

What exactly are your students up to online?

Monday, January 6th, 2014

This is probably not a question you want a comprehensive answer to but it would be handy to know how they are using the Web to engage with the learning challenges you are setting.

I’m currently leading a project with the Higher Education Academy which uses the ‘Visitors and Residents’ mapping process to help teaching staff to gain a better understanding of how their students are using the Web for their learning. Successful applicants will receive £1500 to attend two workshops (12 Feb and 7 May 2014). The first workshop will teach you how map your own online practice to set you up to run the process with a group of your students. The second workshop will review the maps generated by your students and provides an opportunity to explore how you might evolve your teaching practice to engage them in new ways online.

V&R map

Simple Visitor & Resident map

The pilot version of this workshop format proved very successful, with a number of institutions going on to run further mapping sessions at their institutions to get an holistic, high level, sense of how the Web is being using in teaching and learning by both staff and students (with the view to informing overall teaching and learning strategy/policy).

Obviously I’m biased but I like to think that the mapping is a pragmatic way of understanding online learning practices which often go undiscussed in education. It has proved to be a good starting point for reflecting on overall approaches to teaching and for informing how best to work with students online: for example, negotiating the complexities of connecting with students in platforms which are based on a ‘friendship’ paradigm.

It’s only a 500 word application process so if you are part of a higher education teaching team in the UK please take a look at the form on the HEA website. The deadline for applications is the 20th of January. Perhaps I will see you at the workshops? :)

Climate modelling for a global audience

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

As the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Assessment Report is released, it is a good time to find out more about the science behind it. Over the last few years we have developed two courses through a project in conjunction with the Met Office Precis team and climate scientists here in Oxford, that gaims to encourage the sharing of high quality information about climate science, modelling and the interpretation of climate change modelling experiments.  This project has used online learning explicitly to target students in the developing world, aiming to reach areas where face to face training has not been able to make a widespread impact – although being online they are available to anyone anywhere so everyone can benefit.

To do this we developed a free course ‘An introduction to the science of climate and climate change‘  so far this has see just under 4000 students enrol, and this number is growing all the time. When last analysed we had students from 171 different countries and about 45%  of these were from the developing world.  This has been followed up by a second course ‘Constructing and Applying High Resolution Climate Scenarios‘ which enables small cohorts of fee paying students to learn more advanced content in small groups supported by a tutor. This again has achieved a truly global audience with students from Eritrea to Nepal, definitely reaching people who could never come to Oxford for a face to face course.  With so much of the scientific understanding on climate based around modelling, understanding how this actually works is information everyone can benefit from – and with our second course due to run next  on the 28th October, there is still time to sign up.

Mapping online engagement

Friday, October 11th, 2013

Back in June I wrote a post about the Visitors and Residents mapping process. Since that posting I have run mapping sessions with people in various roles from a range of institutions.  This has helped me to refine and simplify the process.

During those sessions I got requests to produce a V&R mapping kit that people could use to run the process with groups at their institution. I haven’t got as far as I would like with that yet but in the meantime I have extracted the most relevant 10 minute segment from the original mapping video. I’m hoping that anyone who watches this extract will have all the info they need to create their own map.

A single engagement map is all that is required for an individual and should drive a useful discussion if the mapping is done in a group situation. It should also be useful to then create a map of your department/library/project/group. This way you can assess the digital footprint (The character and visibility of your group online) of your section of your institution and the various modes of engagement you may, or may not, be using. It’s worth noting that if you are mapping with students some of them may relate better to the word ‘course’ instead of  ‘institutional’ on the vertical axis of the map.

I have collated a few maps from various people (including my own from the video) on this Padlet wall so you can get a sense of how varied the process can be depending on the context of the individual:

Created with Padlet

The maps on the wall have no commentary attached to them to preserve anonymity.

The mapping process originates from research funded by Jisc

Visitors and Residents mapping process: the video

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

This is a video of the mapping process which we first piloted at Educause last year. It’s designed to help you explore and reflect upon how you engage with the digital environment and then investigate how your students/users/staff engage with what you provide. Feel free to use the video to help plan your own mapping session and let me know how you get on. The video is CC licensed so it’s ok to embed it into your work/courses directly with an attribution if that’s helpful.

Firstly, I should apologise for my appalling handwriting in the video. I hope that the gesturing opportunities of the whiteboard outweigh the lack of legibility. As a back-up I have included the two maps I draw in the video in digital form at the end of this post.

This video has been created for ‘The Challenges of Residency’ project I’m piloting as academic lead for the Higher Education Academy. The project is exploring the way Resident forms of practice might differ across disciplines. A larger call for that project will be coming out in the autumn, so if you are interested and UK based keep an eye out for it.

As mentioned in the video the mapping process is an output of the Jisc funded ‘Digital Visitors and Residents’ project which is a collaboration between Jisc, Oxford, OCLC and the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. The Jisc project has run the mapping process a number of times face-to-face in the US and the UK, with design sessions planned for a library focused ‘infokit’ on V&R being run at SUNYLA and ALA. The video will hopefully become part of that infokit, recontexualised to shift the emphasis toward information seeking.

In conjunction with this we are going to use the mapping process in a course we are developing with Jisc Netskills based around V&R. The course is designed to help higher education teaching practitioners explore and possibly incorporate Resident forms of practice into their work.

In the video I also make a passing reference to some work facilitated by Alan Cann at Leicester who used the V&R continuum to map the preferred modes of engagement of a complete cohort of students.

The process itself is in three parts:

  1. Map your personal engagement with the digital environment
    This is a good way to tune-in to the issues and will make visible how Visitor or Resident you generally are in different contexts.
  2. Map how you think your students/users/staff engage with what you provide
    This can include your practice online (teaching, support, information provision etc) or the services you provide in terms of platforms (VLEs, catalogues etc). In most cases your practice and the service you provide will be interwoven.
  3. Gather a small group of students/users/staff and ask them to map how they engage with what you provide

Depending on your role you may find large overlaps between maps 1 and 2. The overall aim here is to compare maps 2 and 3 to explore where expectations are being met or are being miss-interpreted. As I mention in the video discussions around the process tend to move from a technology focus to the underlying motivations and attitudes which inform the modes of engagement employed online. I think this is the strength of the process as it helps to avoid the technology-as-solution approach and instead focuses on practice and what it means in a range of contexts or online ‘places’.

For more information on Visitors and Residents:

  • The original video outlining the V&R idea and continuum
  • Our paper on Visitors and Residents for First Monday
  • The progress report of the Digital Visitors and Residents project (pdf)

Or you can contact me at david.white at

More legible versions of the maps I create in the video:

My personal map (with a little more detail):

Personal map

My map of how I imagine students engage with what I provide online

Student map

MOOC: Self-Service Education?

Monday, February 18th, 2013

As the IT director for Sainsburys pointed out at BETT a couple of weeks ago ‘self-service’ caused a revolution in retail during the 20th century. It allowed for greater choice, efficiency and of course scale. It put the ‘super’ in supermarket in the same way that the web has put the (potential) ‘massive’ into MOOC.

At first glance the current wave of publicity-garnering MOOCs appear to be the equivalent of self-service education. Big out-of-town locations for education with an increasing range of products that you are free to browse at leisure.

Pick a product and pay for accreditation as you pass through the tills…

Lost in the supermarket


This perhaps is a little disingenuous though as there is more effort required than simply putting a course in your basket to gain validation. Automated testing and peer assessment are legitimate ways of assessing levels of knowledge and, if properly designed, increasing understanding. This is the real challenge for MOOCs, as it is for any course; how can we encourage students to think? How do we best mix the ingredients we have available to increase the chances that those engaging with our courses will finish them with *both* increased knowledge and increased understanding? – I hope we can all agree that teaching with a view to increasing understanding is a large part of what higher education institutions are for(?)

I have heard teaching described as ‘what you have to do because there are more of them than there are of you’, it’s inherently about dealing with scale. In this sense many of the pedagogical challenges faced by the designers of MOOCs are the same as those to be found in face-to-face or non-massive courses. The danger though is that xMOOC style self-service education favours those who already equipped with the intellectual and academic techniques required to interrogate a subject. How do we encourage those who don’t have the necessary higher-education ‘literacies’ to wade through swathes of video lectures and online resources? One answer is already hiding in the MOOC format: the ‘event’.

MOOCs generally have a start and finish date which makes them a form of slow-burn event. Even though the web has an always-on, always-connected, constant-flow paradigm it is still largely event driven. We are drawn to specific moments in time which act as way-points in the ceaseless river of information and social noise. MOOCs are useful island in this river with a beginning, middle and end, a simple narrative we can organise around and hopefully contribute to even if we don’t choose to listen to the whole story. The principle of the event can be taken further though as I believe it is highly compelling, especially in an online context. This is what I’m focusing on with the new Oxford Connect format.

Educators and technologists have become adept at putting-the-curriculum-online but we have yet to master the nuances of the live event outside of the lecture theatre. Pi Day Live, the pilot event for Oxford Connect, is designed to be a moment in time where hundreds of participants gather online to take part in collective activity. It will be highly ‘Evented’ (an idea originally attached to ‘virtual worlds’ but which is broadly applicable), encouraging participants to be as Resident as possible for a short period. My hope is that in time this live format will become a valuable way of communicating ideas, concepts and research from Oxford. I envisage this format being used as part of large-scale online courses, incorporating the fellowship of live events to support communities of learners and to act as milestones in a larger pedagogical structure.

Perhaps the live event is what is missing from xMOOCs and the expertise of the connectivists is what’s needed to counter a self-service mentality which disenfranchises those without with the literacies required to go-it-alone in online learning?


V&R mapping at Educause

Monday, November 19th, 2012

What I was first reminded of at Educause 2012 in Denver was how much money is tied-up in educational technologies. The Expo was a daunting journey into the world of CIO budget power – the kind of issues my research makes visible did not appear to be top of the agenda. I fended off my feelings of alienation with the reflection that the attendees of this conference were exactly the kind of people who I should be ‘disseminating’ our findings and approach to. This was not going to be cosy preaching-to-the-converted situation in which we got to discuss the esoteric side of becoming-a-legitimate-participant, digital fluency or the shifting nature of credibility on the web. Add to this the fact that our session was scheduled for 8am on Friday and you can probably see why I was expecting a handful of participants who may have accidently wandered into the wrong room.


My view of Denver

I was encouraged somewhat though by the number of people who approached me to discuss the challenges of ‘MOOCing’ the Humanities after my question on this to Harvard’s CIO who was speaking about edX. (I’m not saying that projects like edX aren’t game changers but they seem to have confused experimenting with business/access models with ‘revolutionising learning’. At least that’s how the presentation came across.)

Friday, 7.30AM – and myself, Donna Lanclos & Lynn Connaway were so focused on trying to find enough dry-wipe markers for our session that we didn’t notice the room filling-up. By the time we were due to start we had about 60 people and some of them looked fairly awake.


Proof that some people were awake while ‘mapping’

In the room were Heads of elearning, Deans, Library Directors, Senior Learning Technologists etc. People who are paid to make high-level strategic decisions about the approach of their staff and institutions.

The format of our session was very interactive: Starting with a brief overview of Visitors and Residents (the project and the idea) and then straight into attendees mapping their own personal engagement with the web on the Visitor/Resident–Personal/Institutional quadrant. I had shown a version of my engagement map created in a Google Drawing and put my Gmail address up on screen in the hope that people might share their maps. Almost everyone got stuck into the exercise and against my expectations over the next 15 minutes a few Google drawings did arrive along with a couple of photos of whiteboard maps. This meant we could talk through the results of the activity on the main screen using some examples drawn from the room. We had gone from outlining the Visitors and Residents idea to producing and discussing participant’s modes of engagement with the web in less than 30 minutes. It was the ultimate workshop turnaround and it got people talking because we had quickly moved from discussing an idea in the abstract to deconstructing the actual engagement behaviour of those in the room.

We then asked the attendees to map the engagement of their ‘clients’ (e.g. academics, student, researchers, library users etc.) with the services they provided in their institutions. Again I received a couple of Google Drawings which led to a brief discussion about the challenges of providing institutional services that are designed to engage in a Resident mode. In hindsight we could have done with about 20 minutes longer but I felt we had cracked the Visitors and Residents workshop format. We certainly got good feedback, including one participant who said that if we could put the workshop format online he could use it “all the time” at his institution. I started to wonder if we should extract the mapping elements of the proposed Visitors and Residents course and post them as a do-it-yourself workshop format.

During the hour after the session I received a few more personal engagement maps in a variety of formats, Google Drawings, pics of whiteboards/notepads and an Evernote Skitch. I gathered some of these together on the plane home:

Educause V&R maps

Educause – Personal V&R maps

Full-size version

There is a wealth of intriguing information here but the aspect which is most immediately striking and which came out during the session is how the same platforms are engaged with in a variety of ways. To demonstrate this I have highlighted the location of Facebook across the maps.

V&R maps with Facebook highlight

V&R maps – Facebook highlighted

Full-size version

This didn’t come as a surprise to me as the data from our Visitors and Residents project shows that many people use Facebook privately (Messaging or 1-to-1 IMing) or organisationally (keeping track of friends/colleagues but not posting or communicating via the platform). This supports one of the original tenets of the Visitors and Residents idea which is that discovering *what* technology people use does not give an insight into *why* they are using it or even, it would appear, what they are actually doing.

Skype & IM

V&R map – Skype and GTalk highlighted

Full-size verison

A pointed example of this can be seen in the most detailed map submitted wherein the functionally equivalent technologies of Skype and GTalk are mapped to different places because they are being used as a method of keeping certain areas of life compartmentalised (as an attempt to fend off personal/institutional convergence, or the ‘decompartmentalision’, that tends to be a side effect of Residency)

It was very rewarding to see the Visitors and Residents idea being used as a tool for reflection and planning. I hope that many of the relatively senior people who attended our session will be taking V&R thinking back to their institutions. I felt it was worthwhile equipping some of the Educause delegates with this approach as it should prove to be a useful way for them to understand their students/clients when they are bombarded with claims about efficiency, student retention and ‘intuitive’ platforms at the next big edtech expo.

Twitter Sprezzatura

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Deconstructing approaches to Social Media is similar in character to explaining why a joke is funny. It’s a form of analysis that sucks the life out of an activity which is more ‘art’ than ‘science’, something which is performative not administrative. Personally I don’t know why any Social Media policy should say more than ‘Be a person not an institution’ and ‘Don’t Tweet/post after you have been to the pub’. However, whether formalised or not, it would be dishonest to pretend we don’t have Social Media strategies. Not unlike stand-up comedy a guiding principle where the professional and Social Media converge is to appear to be speaking as if the thoughts had just occurred to you. The Not-Quite-Real-Time nature of most Social Media gives us all the chance to look clever/witty. Thanks to @nosnilwar my new favourite word is Sprezzatura, an approach/characteristic which all of the people I know who are a great ‘success’ in Social Media share. If you look like you are trying you are doing it wrong…


CC- Darkroom Productions

Sara Tindall ran our Social Media activities during the Maths in the City project, this included running the @mathsinthecity Twitter feed. As part of reflecting on the project I asked Sara to muse on her Tweeting and give a few examples. We hope this mini-qualitative review of our Social Media activity will be of interest to those of you embarking on project-based or representing-an-institution style Tweeting and that we haven’t spoilt the childlike magic of Social Media too much. :)   David White (Creative Director for Maths in The City)


My most popular tweet

My most popular tweet hit the bullseye as far as pure mathematicians were concerned. It got retweeted 205 times. The tweet was about a cartoon, which was originally tweeted by Tim Harford. I repurposed his tweet to make it about maths. Whereas Tim was retweeted 22 times, my tweet was retweeted 205 times. Despite having fewer followers (2k+ to his 50k+), my tweet had the further reach because I am funnier than Tim. I have a bunch of followers who could really relate to the cartoon.

An example of banter

A tweet starts as a maths challenge and ends up making an appalling play on (French) wordsChristian Perfect regularly communicates with me on Twitter, so I am able to be more direct in my humour with him. When Colin Beveridge joined the conversation, the ever-versatile emoticon helped to show I wasn’t trying to be confrontational.

An example of interaction/conversation

I started following The Quadratic Girl simply because her self-description is a clever pun using maths. She occasionally tweets about maths. When she tweeted “I will take a photo of all my maths books <3”, this is how I responded. This resulted in a nice geek out over books. Making these sorts of connections is the point of social media – people just want to have fun.

Interactions with project participants

The core activity of Maths in the City is mathematical walking tours of London and Oxford. People who have been on/are about to go on these tours get in touch via Twitter from time to time. Usually it’s to say thank you, although sometimes they want to make sure that the weather won’t stop the tour. There was one time where a tour participant got lost. In the end he couldn’t find the group but he was able to follow the tour using materials downloaded from our website.

It’s a great feeling when I see people connecting with the project both online and face to face because it tells me we must be communicating something that people want to hear.

Examples of how Twitter supported the face to face part of our project

Our mathematical walking tours got fully booked within around 48 hours of announcing them on Twitter. Here are some of the ways tour dates were announced:

And here is an example of how I used Twitter to fill tour spaces that have become free due to cancellation. This was tweeted two days before the tour date and the places were filled within a couple of hours.

An example of how to keep your Twitter feed relevant

Tweeting outside of office hours and commenting on national events are a good way to look human. Here’s one from the Olympics. Everybody likes a little joke at the expense of the Australians…

And now for something purely self-serving…

I took Maths Dave on holiday with me and shared this snap on Facebook. That’s right, you’re looking at the space shuttle Discovery, in the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA. Oh yeah.


Leading a walking tour – a step by step guide

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

There are many facets to the Maths in the City projectpublic engagement, connecting through social media and working with volunteers. The central goal of the project was to develop and lead mathematical walking tours of the ‘city’ – we wanted to tell the stories of the maths in the city to as wide a range of people as possible.

The people telling these stories were mathematics students, many of whom had no public speaking, science communication or teaching experience at the start of the project.  They didn’t even necessarily have experience in the areas of mathematics they were communicating but what these students did have was enormous enthusiasm about their subject and for the Maths in the City project.

In order to make the walking tours a success we had to harness that enthusiasm and make it as simple as possible to lead the tours. We found that there are four steps to designing walking tours that are simple to lead:

1. Take care of the practicalities

Minimise the amount of walking, traffic hassles

We quickly realised that if we were to have enough time for discussion at different stops on the tour we weren’t going to be able to walk very far.   It seems that the walking pace of a group of people exponentially slows down with the size of the group (NB – this may not be a mathematically rigorous conclusion!)

Keep an eye on your group size

We also found that the ideal size of a group on the tour was around 15 people.  The tours still worked well with larger and smaller sizes (we ran tours for 4-30 people) but 15 meant that everyone could participate without feeling constantly in the spotlight.

The best location to talk about a site isn’t always where the site actually is

The locations for the sites on a tour are an exercise in compromise. You need space available for a group of people to gather, the levels of background noise need to be taken into consideration, and you need to factor in the distance between the previous and the next stops on the tour.  For example our site about the Gherkin in London is on the opposite side of the river to the building, which allows the group to have a view of the skyline and has the space to build structures out of garden canes.  Similarly, our site for the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford often ends up being outside the adjacent building due to space available on the busy pavement.

2. Make the maths accessible

Revealing the depth of simple ideas

We wanted our tours to be accessible to as wide a range of people as possible: grandchildren to grandparents, maths graduates to maths phobics, teachers and interested bystanders.  Simple concepts, such as the strength of triangles or the efficiency of hexagons, proved enticing to people who might initially think maths is daunting.  Guides then explored the deeper mathematical consequences of these simple ideas or wider applications, which provided interest for the more mathematically experienced.

A model that demonstrates the properties of caternary curves

“On the occasions when it started out too simplistic, the guides were happy to answer deeper questions.”

Hands-on demonstrations can make complex ideas more concrete

This didn’t mean that we shied away from sophisticated mathematics.  We found that you could make concepts like graph theory, topology, symmetry and group theory more down-to-earth by involving the group in demonstrations that illustrated and explored the ideas.

A demonstration about GPS using chalk and string

“The practical demonstrations made the concepts easy to understand”

3. Make the communication easy

Telling stories

The most important thing for us to remember has been that we are telling stories, stories that just happen to be about maths. It helped to emphasise that these stories should have a beginning (often pointing out the link to the location), a middle (revealing the maths) and an end (perhaps a surprising demonstration or revealing the maths in a wider context). We particularly tried to provide a final sentence that would provide a punchy and conclusive end to the story, enabling the guide to wrap up that site and move onto the next.

Crib sheets

Some of the stories involved maths concepts set in a historical or modern context and a number of hands-on demonstrations using multiple props.  We quickly discovered that for these more complicated sites it helped to provide a crib sheet at the end of the notes highlighting how to weave together the main points of the story with the demonstrations.

Questions and conversations

We asked our guides to think of the tours as conversations.  We suggested lots of questions in the tour notes that guides could ask to engage the group and they encouraged people to ask them questions too. We found this advice from our EPSRC mentor about asking and encouraging questions very useful:

  • Start with easy questions that anyone could answer (eg. what shapes/patterns can you see on this building?) and build up questions in layers of understanding.
  • Give people time to think and respond, don’t be worried by silence, it’s just a little thinking time.
  • When someone answers a questions, clearly repeat their answer.  This makes sure that everyone has heard the answer and is a nice affirmative response for the person concerned.  It also is an opportunity for you to use the language they have supplied, helping you establish the group’s vocabulary and level of understanding and building from there.

People on the tour often had information about sites that we didn’t know or their questions and interests that meant the story we told on our walking tours was different every time.  The tour notes were just a suggestion and guides were encouraged to tell the stories their own way and respond to the interests of the group.

 4. It’s personal

Marcus du Sautoy discussing maths with tour guides outside the Tate Modern

“The tour guides were fantastic!”
“ I’m appreciating the things around us in a different way, looking afresh at things.”

In the end it was our tour guides, as much as our content, that made the project such a success.  This personal interaction with mathematicians, both on the walking tours and through our social media, has had as strong an impact on our audience as the mathematical stories we told.  For many tour participants meeting the maths students who led the tours and hearing about their personal journeys in maths has created a lasting image of mathematicians as creative, entertaining, passionate and ordinary people.  We hope we have helped people see mathematics, as well as the city, in a new light.


This post was written by Rachel Thomas, Public Engagement Officer for Maths in the City, and is part of a series of posts that discuss our approaches to public engagement.


Let them eat cake: thoughts on managing volunteers

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Over the last two years we have had the pleasure of working with a wonderful group of students from the University of Oxford on the Maths in the City project.  In fact, as you will have no doubt realised from our previous posts about the project, these student volunteers have been vital to the success of the project.  Over the last two years they have:

  • come on maths hunts in London and Oxford to take pictures and get ideas for mathematical sites;
M3 think about examples of maths in the city of London

“If you have other students who can present like these two, mathematics outreach is in good hands.”

  •  created mathematical sites as examples for a public competition;
  • brainstormed new ideas for the tours and developed existing ideas further in workshops;
  • helped out at a competition event, engaging with visitors and assisting with the inaugural the tours;
  • trained as guides, learning storytelling and communication skills as well as the content of the tours;
  • lead 35 tours (reaching around 450 people): 31 for the general public, 3 for school groups, one for university students and one for university alumni;
  • provided feedback on tours, suggesting improvements in their design and content;
  • and used social media to promote the project and interact with the growing community, enabling us to reach an audience of over 2,000 people on Twitter and around 500 people on Facebook (this online community meant many tours were filled within days of being announced through our website and social media).
Testing the strength of a structure with books

“The tour guides were absolutely delightful – if the two young presenters find mathematics too restricting, a life on the stage is clearly an option :)”

We were very fortunate to be able to build on the success of M3, the group of volunteers founded by Marcus du Sautoy to visit schools and science festivals promoting mathematics.  The core group of these students that were actively involved in Maths in the City grew from eight students in 2010 to around twenty in 2011.

In order to make the most of the time and enthusiasm of these volunteers, we discovered it was important to keep the following things in mind over the course of our project:

  • Availability: We had to accommodate their schedules and manage expectations of how much time they could contribute during busy periods in the university calendar (eg. most were busy with exams in Trinity (summer) term) and holidays.
  • Travel costs: It’s not fair to expect students to pay for travel between cities for all elements of the project (workshops, training, as well as the tours themselves).  This restricts access to the project for some potential volunteers.
  • Reminders: The students are very reliable but they do have busy lives.  We put in place a system of reminders, checking they were aware of upcoming events they were involved with (say a fortnight before and again a few days before), sending all necessary information (eg. meeting place, time, expected participants, tasks for the day).
  • Backup system: It’s good to build in some redundancy, for example having three volunteers for each tour if you really only need two so it doesn’t matter if someone drops out but this wasn’t always possible.  We were lucky enough to have paid staff who were always available to back students up if one of them was unable to run the tour.
  • Use their strengths: The students were very happy to work hard in the workshops and other events but didn’t necessarily have time between events to work individually on the project.  We focussed on priming them for a workshop or event with material they could use on the day but designing the workshop so it didn’t matter if they hadn’t been able to read the material beforehand.  We realised their strength was generating ideas in a workshop, which the project team then developed into full resources that the students would go on to use on the tours.
Two people tied together in a demonstration about topography

“The tour guides did a wonderful job at putting across often complex mathematical concepts in simple straightforward language”

Some of the previous points are specific to a project that requires volunteers to travel to and run events.  We’ve learned, however, that there are some factors that would help any volunteer-based project succeed.  Here are our top tips for making the most of your volunteers…

  • Emphasise what they will get out of the project: As well as asking them to help us we also made it clear what they would gain from their involvement – communication skills, experience in public engagement and science communication and an excellent addition to their CV.
  • Have them involved from the ground up: Some of the students have been involved in the project from the very first meeting.  We have tried to involve them in as many aspects as possible and kept them informed of how the project as a whole was developing, as well as the parts they were involved in.  Not only did this build their expertise, which was a great benefit for their and other student’s involvement in the project, but it also created a sense of ownership of the project for the group of volunteers.
  • Give them ownership: We fully supported their growing sense of ownership.  They we acknowledged at all times, on all material, as being a core part of the project, we asked for, and responded to, their feedback.
  • Let them jump in at the deep end:  After giving them initial training, we made sure they felt fully supported.  For example the week before the initial run of pilot tours a team member and the kit were available every afternoon for practice runs.  We also gave them the project mobile and help numbers to call so they felt like they had backup on the day.  Then the project team essentially stepped back and handed the responsibility over to them – they lead the tours themselves with very little assistance from the project team.  Expecting the best of them seemed to give the students confidence which grew each time they worked face-to-face with the public.
  • Use peer to peer teaching: After initial training workshops, the best way of training new guides has been to team them up with an experienced guide and learn from them on the job.  Not only has this meant we can continue to deliver tours while taking on new guides, it seemed to give both the experienced and inexperienced guides confidence in their abilities.
  • Have a variety of involvement: Students could volunteer at any time during the project, they could attend and contribute to any of the workshops and they could volunteer to lead or just assist on tours or to join our online team.  This meant that people could be involved in whatever way felt most comfortable for them and for whatever time they could contribute.  And often once someone was involved in one aspect (say attending workshops or assisting on tours) they gained the confidence to participate in other ways.
  • Say thank you: We regularly acknowledged, individually and as a group, the efforts of the volunteers involved.
  • Let them eat cake: We provided snacks and drinks at workshops and meetings wherever possible.  We also covered their lunch on the days they ran tours (they could claim up to £8 in expenses). Although this might seem a frivolous thing to include in a budget this was an important part in the success of our volunteer team.  It encouraged people to come to meetings, particularly when they ran over lunchtime or in the evenings.  Providing snacks and drinks also creates a positive atmosphere around the project as it is a physical manifestation of our respect for the volunteers and a recognition of their efforts and commitment to the project.  We couldn’t have done it without them.

I hope you found this helpful. If you did or think we’ve missed anything, tell us by commenting below or dropping us a line on Facebook and Twitter.

This is part of a series of blog posts which discuss our approaches to public engagement on the topics of; teaching/public delivery of complex material, what makes the public participate in public engagement initiatives and using social media for public engagement. There’s also an intro post that gives an overview of the Maths in the City project.

This post was written by Rachel Thomas, Public Engagement Officer for Maths in the City.