Archive for the 'teaching and learning' Category

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.

Seven secrets to successful public engagement via social media (plus a diagram)

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

The Maths in the City is a public engagement project that, in short, went really well. There are many factors that contributed to its success and in this post I shall share the secrets behind our effective public engagement through social media.

Diagram time!

The broadcast approach

The broadcast approach

This is the classic institutional mindset, all forms of engagement  being ‘broadcast’ to a public ‘out-there’ from behind institutional lines.

 

Loop

The conversational approach

Our approach was de-centralised and more conversational. The offline activities promoted online  ways to engage and vice-versa. This created a virtuous circle and a kind of many-to-many relationship between all of our activities. This was supported by a project team with overlapping skills and responsibilities (i.e. we all moved ideas and items around the loop). Key to this approach was constantly ‘drawing-in’/responding to opinions and artefacts from the public and the co-production of materials with our group of student tour-guides.  This we felt was a more honest form of engagement and in keeping with the conversational tone of social-media.

This is how we applied our approach (yes, there are seven points):

1) Tone. I went for a fun, slightly irreverent tone while also expressing a wonder for the beauty of mathematics. I adopted this tone based on what I observed to be the majority tone adopted by maths communities on Facebook and Twitter.

2) Content. I only had a basic background in mathematics. However, I found that the ability to find funny and interesting material was more important than depth of knowledge.

Our most popular tweet

This tweet really caught the pure mathematician zeitgeist… 205 retweets! It linked to this cartoon: http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2674

In the first year I relied on posts/tweets from others in the maths community, pictures of the project mascot (Maths Dave) and, I am not too proud to admit, Google searches. In the second year of the project, a group of student volunteers got involved and they added a layer of further interest by setting puzzles and teasers for people to solve.

3) Message. The majority of tweets and posts communicated the joy of mathematics and included a push to the project website when relevant. We found that this maintained a sense of community and presence, which in turn led to a swift response to any project-specific news and calls to action.

4) Frequency. In the first year of the project, I tweeted three times a day and posted on Facebook every 1-2 days. Initially, I set aside 15 minutes every morning, lunchtime and afternoon in which to tweet/post content. This time got less as I identified reliable sources for content. In the second year, I visited the project Twitter feed and Facebook page just once a day as student volunteers contributed to content.

5) Critical mass. We wanted to get our follower numbers on Twitter into the hundreds and ‘likes’ of our Facebook page to 100 as soon as possible so that we could get the flow of communication going. In the first month of launching our Twitter feed and Facebook page, friends of the project who had significant followers of their own were asked to publicise the project and encourage their followers to follow/’like’ Maths in the City. They were happy to do so because they were asked by people whom they respected and we had already placed strong content in our Twitter feed/Facebook page.

6) Volunteers. Volunteer students from the University of Oxford were an important part of the project deliverables and we had a pool of talented and motivated students who were passionate about sharing their love of maths with the public. Some of them did not have time to participate in the face to face aspects of the project so our social media channels provided them with a volunteering opportunity that fitted in with their study commitments. Those who joined the online public engagement team helped to double follower numbers in the second year of the project.

Student volunteers working on content for Twitter and Facebook

We meet in the pub because there is free wifi. There’s no other reason. Now what’s the budget code for a pint of bitter?

They could either use the project Twitter account or their own and  if using the project account, they followed some simple guidelines regarding the tone, message and purpose of their activity.  Becoming the voice of the project or interacting with the project under their own accounts seemed to contribute to the volunteers’ sense of ownership of the project.

7)Sustainability. We put a lot of thought into making sure Maths in the City had a life after the end of the project. The student volunteers who have been an integral part of this project are part of Marcus’ Marvellous Mathemagicians, a public engagement team run by the University of Oxford’s maths department. Their social media networks are small so the project Twitter feed and Facebook page will be repurposed so that they can take on the networks established by the project to support their own public engagement activities.

 

So that’s how we did public engagement through social media. 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 the management/encouragement of volunteers. There’s even an intro post that gives an excellent overview of the Maths in the City project. (Dave White made me say that.) If you find any of these posts useful, let us know by commenting below or dropping us a line on Facebook and Twitter.

Engage! (Please)

Friday, September 21st, 2012

To paraphrase Dave White in the first blog post in this series about the Maths in the City project, engaging the public is a delicate business, particularly when you want meaningful levels of involvement.

Getting involved in Maths in the City takes effort. We ran mathematical walking tours in the snow, hail and pouring rain and in most of these tours, everyone who booked turned up. Creating an example of maths in the city on our website requires registration and then at least ten minutes to post a picture and write about it. The quality of some of the examples suggest that far more time than this has been invested. We are in regular communication with followers/fans on Twitter and Facebook who don’t know the names and faces of the people behind the tweets and posts.

A tour happening in the rain

“Exceeded my expectations! The tour was interesting, exciting and FUN, even in the pouring rain! Thank you”

So why are all these people so keen to participate? Here are our top four reasons.

1. Everybody loves a competition
We launched Maths in the City on an unsuspecting world by announcing a competition. We offered serious prizes and the quality of entries were superb. To see a list of winners and what they won, visit this page on the Maths in the City website. The competition is responsible for 60% of the examples of maths in the city on this site.

Winners and runners up included a man from Ireland, a group from Spain and a young lady from Hong Kong. Despite the fact that we could not pay for travel, all winners and runners up attended an award day at Oxford except for the girl from Hong Kong, who sent a video message. Pictures from the award day are available on Flickr.

The winners of the Maths in the City competition, with Marcus du Sautoy

The winners of the Maths in the City competition, with Marcus du Sautoy

2. Everybody loves a Dave
Maths in the City has a mascot, named Maths Dave. Placed as a resource on the project website as piece of whimsical fun, the cult of Maths Dave quickly grew, as evidenced in the Maths Dave forum. (Get your own Maths Dave here.)

One maths teacher from Walthamstow School for Girls used Maths Dave in her lessons; her class did such a great job with their Maths Daves and Davinas that the teacher and two students were invited to the competition award day to receive a special prize on behalf of the class. A year later we had the pleasure of taking 60 girls from the school on our London maths tour.

The Maths Daves and Davinas created by the year 1 maths class from Walthamstow School for Girls

The Maths Daves and Davinas created by the year 1 maths class from Walthamstow School for Girls

3. Everybody loves seeing their homework on the fridge door
The Maths in the City project is produced and managed by us lot at TALL. We also design online courses, including The Number Mysteries, which is based on a book written by Marcus du Sautoy of the same title. This course includes an assignment option in which students write an example of maths in the city, which they can add to mathsinthecity.com once it has been marked. Here is an example on Umhlanga Pier, written by a South African student. Students of the Number Mysteries course appear to enjoy the opportunity to share their work in a public place and the project benefits from a steady stream of high quality examples of maths in the city from around the world.

Add your mathematical stories to mathsinthecity.com

Add your mathematical stories to mathsinthecity.com

4. Everybody loves a delightful and articulate student who is passionate about their subject
The lifeblood of this project has been the student volunteers who have helped to design the walking tours, lead the walking tours and engage with the public through our social media channels. A journalist from the Oxford Times was so charmed by one of our volunteers that I think he fell a little bit in love. Read his article ‘Oxford by numbers’ and judge for yourself.

Two of our fabulous maths walking tour guides

“I would like to thank our guide for making the mathematical concepts very clear, and the tour very enjoyable”

 

These are our top four reasons why we got meaningful engagement with the public. Do you have other reasons that have come from your experience in public engagement? Please tell us by  commenting below or by dropping us a line on Facebook and Twitter.

(And when you’ve done that, keep your eyes peeled for the rest in our series of posts on our approaches to public engagement. Topics to come are; teaching/public delivery of complex material, community facilitation/the use of social media and the management/encouragement of volunteers. We’ll be announcing them on Facebook and Twitter.)

Break out of the loop and see the helix

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

I was reminded by the writings of King Solomon of an idea I had a few years ago but neglected to write down. In Ecclesiastes he draws a picture of the never-ending cycles of life which could be seen as having a beautiful balance and harmony but perhaps more commonly as acting like a monotonous cage.

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Spring

CC – tidefan http://goo.gl/LE4Jl

Certainly my recent experience online  has felt like being trapped in a loop. I have been on/in Twitter for about five years now and most of what I see sailing past about education and/or technology appears to me to be a rehash of ideas I heard in previous years. Similarly in the land of shiny-tech there seems to have been very little of interest. It’s all higher rez, faster and thinner but in essence it’s not moving on. Witness the bored response to the latest iPhone. It’s as if we greedily consumed technology, are now feeling queasy and couldn’t possibly consume another Smartphone. We talk of elegant consumption but it feels bloated to me. Where has the dynamic, frontier-like web gone? Am I suddenly too old to ‘see’ the leading edge or is a large part of what happens online just the passive reception of main-stream media?

I worked on digital projects for the BBC at the turn of the century. Back then us young-guns felt as if we were on the verge of something genuinely new – outside of the loop (we were enthusiastic and a little naive). Looking back now it appears that the moment the iPlayer started to work smoothly the BBC stepped away from Social Media engagement and many there heaved a huge sigh of relief when they realised that ‘online’ could be used to distribute TV and Radio. Despite the promise of the web are we trapped in our classic producer-consumer cycle? Perhaps advertising a hash-tag at the start of a programme is all that is needed, maybe that’s what taking-part was always going to mean? The truth is that there are very few people out there with something to say and the skills to express it, those that do are quickly assimilated into a broadcast mindset. Beyond 150 people it’s all celebrity and performance?

The never ending loop

A surface view only sees the loop

This is all surface though and the reality, as ever, is far more complex than my rant. There are fascinating and disruptive things happing out there in the unpredictable currents of the tide fight where society and tech wrestle. Our immediate perspective is often of a Solomon’s recursive loop but if we know how to ‘see’ rather than to just look we gain a much more interesting view.

A new perspective

A different perspective shows the slow forward movement of the helix

I think of socio-technical phenomenon as a helix. Viewed with an end-on limited perspective everything appears to be travelling repetitively around the same loop, it appears to be a closed circle but if we put more effort into seeing beyond the surface, into new methods of data collection and analysis, we can gain a side view, revealing a helix.  This perspective shows us a  slow but powerful movement forward. Often though, we are so trapped in the loop of the ever-new present that this progression is only seen in hindsight. Getting past the upgrade-now, 10 tips for teaching with iPads, HD, 3D, faster, better, stronger noise of the loop – sidestepping it if you like and seeing the real morphing/evolution of science and society is, for me, what higher education should be all about.

The single biggest factor that can give us the side-on perspective is the ability to critique and to ask pertinent questions. It’s the role of education to equip students with this ability to ask questions rather than to only seek the answers to questions posed by others. Historically the effort required to seek-out answers encouraged students to ask additional questions of their own but now we can find answers online so efficiently we don’t have to engage in critical thinking. Generally these answers are correct and appropriate – this is an issue which is more fundamental than ‘quality’ or ‘validity’, it’s part of a paradigm shift in what in means to ‘know’.

I joked that Google’s strap-line should be “Think Less – Find More”. I’m finding that idea less and less amusing, especially after seeing Google Now which is the current apex of not-thinking tech. I’m not against instant access to answers or technology that makes our lives ‘easier’, what I do want though is pedagogy that equips students from an early age with the ability to question the answers thrown back by this kind of tech. The huge cognitive offsetting the web offers us creates a space in which we should be able to ask more and better questions and yet our pedagogy and our assessment is still focused largely on answers until around second year of university (if you are lucky).

‘Bring Your Own Device’ or ‘Smuggle-in Your Own Device’ ensures that students are taking advantage of the cognitive offsetting of the web, it’s time to accept this and take-up the slack. Our Visitors and Residents project is finding that the digital literacies students develop at Secondary/High school are taken through well into university. We haven’t interviewed students younger than 17 years-old but I suspect that the digital literacies (and in some cases the critical literacies) of a 9 year-old are similar to those of a first-year undergraduate. As educators we have to teach critical thinking at a much earlier age otherwise students will be trapped in the highly pervasive info-factory of the web. Yes they will be able to find correct answers but will they be capable of questioning the loop conveniently designed around them (whether well meaning or not) from about the age of 8 by Google, Facebook and the like?

This brings me to the knotty problem of serendipity which as been bothering me for some time. It’s not possible to capture it’s essence without it slipping through your fingers. It is in this regard nicely Truth and Beauty in a romantic, dreaming-spires kind of a way and generally a bit of a headache for those outside of the social sciences and humanities. Proponents of the importance of serendipity such as Aleks Krotoski make the crucial point that the individual has to have the ability to be able to recognise the moment it happens (or the moment of potential). In other words they need to be able to bridge two apparently unrelated pieces of information and “…have the creativity to do something new with them” (Here I am talking about the individuals role in taking advantage of putative serendipity rather than technologies possible role in increasing the potential for serendipity to take place) . I now think of the moment of serendipity as jumping sections of the helix. It’s a transverse movement across the traditional corrals of understanding.

Serendipity and the helix

The transverse leap of serendipity

If the helix is imagined as a spiral staircase then those that can ‘see’ serendipitous moments have the ability to jump beyond their floor and leap multiple storeys in a single bound. Not only can they make this leap but they have the perspective to see the distance they have travelled. I would argue that this is unlikely to happen if the individual has been educated to only find answers to questions set by others.

In this era of instant answers where technology (or the business model of those providing the technology) is winding the loop around us ever tighter I’m pro equipping our students with the ability to make serendipitous leaps. I’m for stretching the helix so that each turn pushes us further. We need to promote critical pedagogies which put pressure on students to ask questions. Questions that gain perspectives beyond recursive consumption. Instead of falling into “Think Less – Find More” we should be encouraging our students to be suspicious of the loop, to be anxious to make leaps, and hopefully to “Question More – See Further”.

Who’s excited about maths?

Monday, September 17th, 2012

For the last two years I have been the Creative Director of the ‘Maths in the City’ project. At the helm was Marcus du Sautoy, that maths guy from the TV and Radio who also happens to be a member of my Continuing Education department here at Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. The idea for the project came from discussions Marcus had with secondary schools in London. The overall aim being to ‘engage’ the public with maths by demonstrating how the science of numbers is integral to the urban environments most of us inhabit. The 2 minute video below gives a flavour of what it’s all about.

Funded by the EPSRC (who fielded an excellent and experienced mentor for the project)  via a public engagement grant the project ran a series of walking tours around Oxford and London which anyone could attend for free. The tours were highly interactive (string, chalk, sweets, springs, sticks, marbles etc.) and designed to interest people of all ages with potentially a very basic understanding of maths. The guides for the tours were all maths students drawn from Marcus’ cabal here at the university called M3. An important aspect of the project was giving these students the opportunity to practice their public speaking skills at the sharp end of maths-communication i.e. in a street with a group of strangers that have  random levels of subject understanding. To support and promote the tours we built a nifty website. Nifty because it allows anyone in the world to create a maths ‘site’ and, if they so desire, a tour of their own. The M3 group used the site to help author our main tours of Oxford and London. It also gave us an opportunity to run a competition to increase the visibility of the project and to help populate the website with maths from around the world.

The officially funded part of the project is coming to a close but I’m happy to say that the M3 group will continue to run and develop the tours. Overall the project was a great success:

  • over 2500 people engaging with us via social media
  • over 460 people attended mathematical walking tours of Oxford and London
  • over 130 examples of ‘maths in the city’, from around the world, posted on www.mathsinthecity.com, the vast majority from members of the general public.

Having a world renown mathematician and broadcaster as a figurehead certainly helped promote Maths in the City but the project team who were all assigned 1.5 days a week or less were the real behind-the-scenes workers: designing the details of the tours, putting together the website, encouraging an online community, training the tour-guide students and generally dealing with all the nuts-and-bolts involved in running public walking tours. What I am most proud of is that we designed multiple ways to engage with the project, for example:

  • To promote the project and to give it a ‘friendly’ face (we don’t underestimate how daunting contributing to an Oxford University project might be for some) we provided cut-out-and-keep template of our logo/mascot ‘Maths Dave’. Much to our delight people began to submit photos of their very own versions of Maths Dave.
Maths Daves' in Turkey

Maths Dave’s in Turkey

  • People could submit a mathematical site from their city. These ranged from elementary maths such as this site on triangles (one of our competition winners) through to sites such as the ‘Squeaking Labyrinth’ (which is certainly beyond me) and everything in between.
  • The tour ‘sites’ were essentially neat chunks of teaching material (all openly licensed as ‘Open Educational Resources’) which all included great hands-on activities. The project used the tour sites to give ‘stationary’ walking tours or ‘talks’ as they are normally known as part of public lecture series i.e. you don’t have to take the walk to get the maths. One of the most widely appropriated was the Sheldonian Roof site which inspired a whole morning of teaching at one secondary school culminating in this spectacular model.

No glue was used!

  • If balancing a ridiculous amount of rulers across desks is not for you then there was always the geeky banter to enjoy over on our Twitter stream and Facebook page or the opportunity to read about the project in one of our many write-ups including the New Scientist.
  • The hub of the project’s activity was of course the physical tours themselves. I went on a few to check everything was running smoothly and remember a six year old and his older brother happily helping to make triangles, rectangles and hexagons with a loop of string in one of the quads of St. Johns college while the adults discussed the shapes which most efficiently tessellate on a two dimensional plane.

A maths student leads a London tour across Millennium bridge with the aid of Maths Dave on a stick.

Engaging the public both online and offline is a delicate business especially when your tour-guide group  is made-up of volunteers new to public speaking, trying to complete Oxford degrees and acting as the public face to an institution which has very refined views on ‘reputation’ and ‘credibility’. Instead of writing a dusty report on the project which would end its days in unread pdf purgatory on the outskirts of a funding council website we have chosen to write a series of blog post 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, community facilitation/the use of social media and the management/encouragement of volunteers. Watch @daveowhite or @mathsinthecity as we release the posts over the next few weeks. I hope they will be insightful for those of you considering public engagement projects.

Analysing digital literacies – four headlines

Friday, July 13th, 2012

One of the recent activities of the Visitors and Residents project has been the development of an analysis framework to help us to gain a deeper understanding of how our participants are engaging with technology for their learning. During the process of coding our interviews we noted down recurrent underlying themes and used these as headlines for the framework. We query the data in NVivo using our original coding e.g. “(ANY: Social Media, Facebook, Twitter, Blog) AND (ANY: Authority, Relevance, Reliability)” – the results are then mapped into the framework which captures the nuances of participants views and motivations.

4

CC – http://goo.gl/Ib7eb

Getting involved in discussions at a couple of JISC Developing Digital Literacies project cluster meetings I found myself using the high-level themes from the framework to respond to reporting from the projects. I was tentative about this as the framework is still evolving but the feedback from the cluster meetings was positive so I promised to make the high-level themes available as a reference point to help structure evaluation and/or dissemination. What follows is a brief review of the four top-level themes in our framework:

1. Genres of participation

This is the overarching perspective with Visitor (web perceived as a collection of tools) and Resident (web perceived as a series of co-present spaces) as the principle genres placed at either end of a continuum of engagement (see our First Monday paper). With regard to digital literacies it’s possible to equate the ‘skills’ based (learning the essential functionality of technology) approaches with Visitor and the more experiential/personal-professional identity approaches with Resident. Of course there is no hard-line between these genres of participation, for example many of our participants use social media only for organisational purposes. They are using an apparently Resident technology in a purely functional, Visitor manner. Having said that for reporting or evaluation it’s often useful to initially separate skills based approaches from experiential approaches as measuring their ‘impact’ requires different methods.

2. Attitudes

In the Visitors and Residents project we are exploring ‘motivation to engage’. Often the participant’s motivation is influenced by an underlying attitude or ideology. This can be as simple as not trusting ‘crowd sourced’ resources or as complex as their views on what ‘learning’ is or should be. For the most part these attitudes will not have been closely considered or deconstructed by participants and in some cases simply boil down to forms of prejudice. Good examples of areas which can be highly attitudinal and effect motivations to engage are:

  • Views on the authority and role of Wikipedia and other non-traditional sources.
  • Views on the legitimacy and validity of academic blogs and blogging.
  • Views on the role of social media as a valid space for learning.
  • Views on the relative authority of various media e.g. the ‘a printed book always has more authority than a blog post’ stand-point.

The majority of these areas can be related back to issues of credibility which is proving to be a very useful concept to ‘take the temperature’ of many of these underlying attitudes. What is or isn’t credible in the service of learning and academia is highly contested and has been massively broadened and disrupted by the affordances of the web. There are some very interesting tensions between credibility and convenience emerging from our data which we hope to explore further.

3. Transition points

Whether a particular ‘moment’ or a slow incremental slide it is useful to consider what factors encourage or force individuals to shift their mode of engagement. The majority of the transitions we see in our data are from a Visitor to a Resident mode as the Visitor mode tends to be the ‘default’ state in an institutional context. However we do have examples of participants who have transitioned back into a Visitor mode having found a Resident approach to be inefficient, distracting or uncomfortable. Good examples of transition points include:

  • Geographically relocating – engaging with social media to keep in contact with remote friends and family or students from a previous institution.
  • Course requirements – assessment being attached to a Resident mode of engagement such as blogging.
  • Social tipping point – participants discover that the majority of their peer group are organising social events via social media and so they have to create a profile to ‘stay in the loop’
  • Professional identity – participants decide that it is of value to be ‘active’ online and to develop a visible online profile around their professional role.
  •  Efficiency – participants discover that a Resident approach is ultimately a reasonably efficient/effective way to gather trusted sources and to further their thinking.

A key factor here is the participant’s attitude towards open practice. Being required by an institution to post work in ‘open’ online spaces is counter to most participant’s experience of the educational process. While they might be happy to be part of, for example, a student run Facebook group attached to a course that is very different from being required to engage in a Resident manner. If a participant is generally suspicious of ‘open’ they are unlikely to make any transitions and they are also less likely to trust non-traditional sources (or a least admit to using them…).

4. Management

This again is useful to consider via the genres of participation. The methods participants develop to manage their engagement with technology tend to vary based on whether they are in a predominantly Visitor or Resident mode in a given context. Often participants in a Visitor mode want to retain control over what they engage with and when. There is a desire to keep their time and their roles compartmentalised so that work and personal activities remain distinct making it easier to predict the time and effort that will be required when they log on. Participants with a compartmental approach tend to decide what they want to achieve before they go online. In contrast to this the almost inevitable decompartmentalisation that is an effect of Residency means that participants in this mode are more likely to go online a ‘see what’s happening’. The principle management issues for the Resident mode are likely to be around addiction, distraction and the artful maintenance of the blurred boundaries between differing roles and personas e.g. the perennial ‘do I friend my students?’ conundrum.

 

These high-level areas have been a useful in making-sense of our data and we are busy discussing more granular sub-themes. I hope you find them a useful starting point when considering digital literacies and reviewing your approaches to facilitating new forms of learning and teaching practice online.

The project is also designing a four session learning resource based around these thematic areas. It will be an Open Education Resource under an appropriate Creative Commons licence and we hope that in the first instance it will be a helpful resource for staff developers and those involved in professional development programmes. We will be releasing a first draft of the structure of the ‘course’ for comment in the next few days so watch-this-space.

 

The future is not quite real-time

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

In a discussion with Lawrie Phipps (@Lawrie) I was reminded of something I was thinking about last year around the advantages of not quite real-time (NQRT). It’s one of the few genuinely unique affordances of the web. Asynchronous communication has been with us since cave painting and synchronous since two people first clapped eyes on each other. What is relatively new is the cultural acceptability of having anywhere between 10 seconds and 10 hours between contributions to a discussion or conversation (although between 10 seconds and around 5 minutes is the more interesting time-frame).

Egg Timer

Photo by Ian Barbour: http://goo.gl/Kojve

I’m thinking here about ‘Instant’ messaging, a Twitter stream, a Facebook wall and even ‘rapid’ emailing or forum posting. For example, I can receive a text message in Skype, check the web for information or speak to a colleague in the room and then respond. It’s powerful because it doesn’t demand the immediate attention of a f2f encounter or a ringing phone and it also gives me time to gather my thoughts/cross check information.

Not quite real-time is the main reason why most people are wittier, cleverer and all together more attractive online than they are f2f (note, I say ‘are’ not ‘appear to be’ – the web is real and so are the things that happen there…). It’s also a key reason why more people are comfortable to be perfomative on Facebook walls and in Twitter streams i.e. visible social interaction. This is a communication mode in which we feel a sense of interpersonal connection but also have some level of control over pace/timing. It’s a powerful because it’s social but doesn’t aggressively demand attention. This is why text will always be the dominant visible form of communication online and why many of us chose to not put our cameras on when Skyping.

The downside of NQRT is when it’s used as part of a focused event or discussion with more than two participants. In these cases the pace tends to increase rapidly until NQRT becomes achingly close to f2f speeds (4 seconds is about the maximum time between responses in a f2f conversion ) and the thinking-time gaps are crushed. When this happens the quickest thinkers and fastest typists win-out (or those who have pre-prepared text which they paste in…). This is why text-chats are often feel so exclusive, especially in an educational context – the usual suspects take the floor. It could be one of the many modes of engagement which erode when shifted from a personal to an institutional context?

It would be fascinating to study the nature of NQRT communications because it appears to be unique to the web and a relatively new cultural phenomenon. What is effect of NQRT on maintaining relationships and/or supporting communities? Is it a more inclusive form because it levels out the playing field and those who like to muse before expressing themselves can be part of the flow or is it fated to always speed-up and lose its advantages as soon as a discussion becomes interesting? It’s certainly something that warrants research, assuming a practical methodology could be developed…

Education should move us

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Last week I was involved in the ‘New Places to Learn’ HEA event held at the Said Business School in Oxford. The focus of the event was Flexible Learning and online Residency. It was my job to frame the day by laying out the Visitors and Residents metaphor and encourage the participants to consider the relevance of the Resident end of the continuum.

It’s a complex area and one which the HE sector is only just beginning to consider properly. It’s not clear where the boundaries lie (or even if there should be boundaries) in terms of ownership, roles and time.

Academic and Personal Development in the context of Visitors and Residents

Academic and Personal Development in the context of Visitors and Residents (Photo by Josie Fraser)

What is becoming clear, as mentioned by Alison Le Cornu, is the cultural shift away from the institution and towards the individual. With the erosion of the job-for-life principle our learning and professional progression is rarely framed by a single institution. Over time we are likely to become temporarily tethered to a sequence of institutions or to clusters of institutions. Any continuity is likely to be provided by our activity or presence online, the web providing the meta-place in which, to a certain extent, all the institutions we encounter exist. The continuity I’m referring to goes beyond the notion of the CV or even the ePortfolio, it includes the knowledge we produce and the communities/networks we belong to. The web allows the individual, beyond the institution, to become the hub that knowledge and value clusters around. Our relationships with institutions lend weight to the knowledge we produce and to our influence, but they no longer own those aspects of our persona as wholly as they used to.  As an example consider the movers and shakers in the field of Edtech – do they mainly blog under an institutional banner or as ‘themselves’?

This has always been the case for the high-flyers or the ‘thought leaders’ in many fields but the ubiquity of the web is giving those of us in more humble positions the opportunity to operate beyond the institution.

Will this be the predominant professional and learning mode-of-operation in the near future?

Those promoting Digital Literacies as more than a simple set of skills, such as JISC, certainly seem to think so. Their descriptions of ‘Digital Literacies’ often incorporate words like ‘professional, ‘lifelong’ and ‘personal’ in the same sentence. This broad remit which has been fostered by the social-web is also reflected in many of the graduate attributes universities aspire towards. For example, Brookes University talks of graduates ‘…engaging productively in relevant online communities’ while Southampton University promotes the importance of  using technology ‘…to work, research, learn and influence others in an increasingly digital world’. In my talk at New Places to Learn I proposed that to gain these ‘attributes’ individuals would increasingly need to engage with the web in a Resident as well as a Visitor mode.

At the event Dave Cormier proposed that the role of education should be to equip learners with the ability to cope with uncertainty, that we should be encouraging agile, innovative thinkers who can move and create in rapidly changing sectors. He suggested that having a ‘Resident’ approach online is now an important element of that agility.

Lindsay Jordan and Dave Cormier

Lindsay Jordan and Dave Cormier - (Photo by Josie Fraser)

It could be the case that building an extra-institutional persona and engaging with professional communities online is a good way to respond to increasing uncertainty? Is a Resident approach an opportunity for individuals to become more resilient at a time when institutions are becoming less so?

Even if this is the case many find being visible in their practice online stressful. Reflecting on her own teaching practice Lindsay Jordan highlighted that moving students from a Visitor to a more Resident mode online is often a painful process. She spoke of how distressing encouraging her students to start sharing in an open manner via blogging was – distressing both for her and for them.

Alan Cann spoke about his use of Google+ with students and showed that although they all had profiles on the platform their modes of engagement were actually spread evenly along the Visitor Resident continuum. It was clear that some students were tentative about sharing their thoughts and themselves online and engaged only because activity within the social media platform was being assessed. As a sector we struggle to engage students at the Resident end of the continuum and haven’t yet found elegant ways of activating learner-owned-literacies in an institutional context.

Last year I blogged about how I felt education should make us anxious. It’s a fine line to tread but I think it’s the role of the educator to push learners in this way. This is what Lindsay has been doing and it sounded like a tough but ultimately rewarding journey.  If we are going to equip learners to live and learn in an uncertain world it will surely involve a certain amount of pain and anxiety?

While I don’t think that a Resident mode of engagement is ‘better’ than a Visitor mode I am beginning to realise its importance in equipping individuals to become resilient beyond a single role or institution. Moving is always a painful process and this holds true when we move to inhabit ‘places’ online. The anxiety that this causes is, in my opinion, part of what it is to learn. Whatever our direction of travel education should move us.

My slides from the day:

New Places to Learn

Friday, March 16th, 2012

Yesterday I tweeted:

“Annoyed by the ‘Digital Natives’ idea? Explore alternatives: ‘New Places to Learn’ Oxford Apr19 http://goo.gl/Sdf3w

The (free) event I’m referring to is being run by the HEA and is using the Visitors and Residents metaphor  as a broad framework to explore the implications of the web as a ‘place’ for the education sector. The intention is to break away from outmoded age or tech skill related correlations to discuss new modes of engagement which are emerging based on co-presence online. To put it in ‘Visitors and Residents’ terms: exploring pragmatic approaches to operating at the Resident end of the continuum.

Visitor restrictions

CC: A-NC-SA Flickr: 'Celita'

The danger when learning is moved online is that the focus tends to be on curriculum and content rather than the less instrumental aspects of what makes a course work such as social cohesion and a sense of belonging. The traditional lecture in a physical space may not be pedagogically ideal but it has inherent co-presence, giving students the sense that they belong to a particular cohort and that they are legitimate members of their institution. These ‘side effects’ of traditional modes of engagement are easy to take for granted and often forgotten in the move online.

This move is a response to increasing student numbers, the need to deliver learning with greater flexibility, the availability of online resources (some of which are in ‘beyond text’ formats) and the desire to attract oversees students. The underlying drivers here are efficiency, flexibility and scalability. As we discovered in our HEFCE Study of Online Learning one of the key pedagogical design approaches that can address these drives is that of peer learning.  This is a form of inter-student support and collaboration that is well supported by the physical institution. The library, the coffee shop, the pub etc have all evolved to create ‘places’ for, amongst other things, peer-learning. As a sector we haven’t been very successful to-date in creating or using similar places (or places which facilitate similar forms of interaction) online and we often underestimate the importance of co-presence when trying to encourage peer-learning on the web.

It is  generally accepted that it’s  easier to discuss learning with a fellow student you ‘know’ than with a stranger so if that learning is taking place predominantly online it’s crucial that your fellow students have an online social presence. If the majority of a cohort have a social presence online  it is more likely that individuals will feel that all important sense of belonging and accountability which will support them though the challenging aspects of their study (especially when the course is large scale and tutoring staff don’t have the time to keep a close pastoral overview).

Understanding the role and value of Resident/presence based modes of engagement should be a high priority for a sector that is moving online. It should no longer be the exotic preserve of the ‘high tech’ or the ‘innovator’ and needs to be taken up by the ingenious pragmatists amongst us. I am very happy to say that the ‘New Places to Learn’ event has secured the services of a number of these ingenious characters who will discuss the challenges of working at scale online from different perspectives:

  • Dave Cormier comes to the ‘web as place’ as one of the early instigators of the ‘MOOC’ format which builds on the inherent connectivity of the web to form agile learning scenarios. I think of this approach as highly Resident, emerging from the culture of the web and loosely tethered to the traditional institution where necessary.
  • Martin Weller has been involved in moving large scale Open University courses online as well as initiatives such as Open Learn. He understands what is involved when a large organisation reaches out into the web and what it means to be a ‘Digital Scholar’ online.
  • Lawrie Phipps and Ben Showers from JISC will be facilitating an activity which aims draw on the collective expertise in the room to map the pros and cons of Resident modes of engagement.

Alison Le Cornu the academic lead for Flexible Learning for the HEA will be chairing the day and drawing together the thinking to inform the strategic direction of the academy in this area.

I myself will be picking up on the themes in this post and discussing our JISC funded Visitors and Residents project which is in the early stages of describing educational/online ‘genres of participation’ and mapping the associated literacies which learners use.  We also hope to hear about the progress of  projects in the JISC Developing Digital Literacies strand.

If you are interested in the web as a place for learning or you have your own thoughts or practice to share then sign-up. If you can’t make it to Oxford then visit the HEA booking page on the day for a link to the live stream.