Alan Dix > HCI Education

getting it right

SIGCHI Bulletin HCI Education column Jan/Feb 2003

Some while ago I was in a course meeting and during the conversation I said "I've learnt some really important things whilst marking student exams". To say there was a stunned silence would perhaps exaggerate, but certainly a few of my colleagues looked at me rather oddly.

In fact I often find that when I set open-ended exam questions I find pertinent issues raised in the answers that weren't part of my sample solution. However, there was a particular incident which was in my mind.

Some years ago I was teaching part of a course on visualisation and virtual reality. One of the questions I asked was about factors that lead to a sense of 'engagement' in virtual reality and the question was set in the context of flight simulators and games. I'd discussed a wide range of issues in class: interactivity, realism, etc., but, when I marked the question all the best student answers started with a factor that I had never discussed in my class - indeed never heard of before - sub-seat woofers.

After a moments thought I worked out what these were. In certain arcade games large bass speakers are placed under the seats to produce low frequency vibrations - a form of haptic as well as aural feedback. These students had far more practical experience than me: they spent large amounts of their lives in desktop and arcade VR games ... they were domain experts.

A few weeks ago I was teaching our Masters students in an intensive week on HCI. One morning I talked to them about modelling state and gave them a group exercise to model the state of a four-function calculator. I knew from past experience that students find this more difficult than it at first sounds, but this time was worse than usual and no group made significant progress. I'm not sure what was different from previous years - perhaps a slightly different mix of students, perhaps I explained it slightly differently.

As we came back together I talked through potential solutions but in particular was at pains to discuss three things. First, I emphasised that this was an area that I believed was important but I knew was conceptually difficult. Second, I pointed out (as was already in my printed materials) the places where I have made mistakes in this in the past and how to detect these. Third, I admitted that I had clearly not communicated effectively as they had all had problems and we discussed alternative explanations to see which were more helpful,

I was reminded of both these incidents when I was at the University of Gloucestershire yesterday receiving an Honorary Fellowship. In preparing my acceptance speech I looked back at what I wrote about the University in my column in January 2002 (under its previous name of Cheltenham and Gloucestershire College, CGCHE). I said then that one of the strengths of CGCHE was its constant review of education quality procedures. As I thought about this I considered the qualities of an institution or individual that allow this willingness to change.

One obvious quality is humility. If you cannot admit you are not perfect you cannot improve or grow. Paradoxically one of the qualities that enables humility is self confidence. If you do not believe in yourself you cannot afford to accept your own imperfections.

Think again of my VR students. If I was unwilling to learn from them I would miss out on so much practical experience and knowledge. If I had believed myself too big I would have been less. Even more important with the masters students. If I had been unwilling to accept the inadequacy of my explanation I would have implied that they were inadequate in their understanding. By having enough confidence to say "this is my problem" I have not damaged their self confidence.

Why is this so difficult to do?

Partly it is because we live in social and educational systems permeated with the fear of doing things wrong.

In my last column I mentioned the complaints in the UK that there were too many people passing A levels. Within days of writing that a fresh press frenzy broke out over A levels. Some students who had got top marks in all other modules were failing a particular piece of coursework. This meant that they did not get into the Universities they were expecting, potentially affecting their future careers. It was suggested that the exam boards had deliberately deflated certain marks in order to reduce the grades of students and thus avoid yet more complaints of dropping standards!

As a result of the continuing media coverage the Secretary of State of Education, Estelle Morris resigned. As a woman of integrity she was not prepared to pass the 'blame' elsewhere ... and of course someone has to be 'to blame'.

I know that this blame culture is not just in the UK but also true in the US and worse in some other parts of Europe. Until we are prepared to allow people to admit problems without condemning them, we continue to say to those in high offices of government and education "people of integrity need not apply".