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Rose Luckin
Tuesday, 07 November 2006
The LKL Professor of Learner Centred Design talks about her background and current projects.

Rose Luckin


My background all can be tied to scaffolding - right back to my thesis, which started looking at designing what used to be called intelligent tutoring systems. I built a piece of software, and came up with a design framework that operationalised the 'Zone of Proximal Development'. The key thing for me was to be able to quantify the nature of the assistance that you were giving people, because it was fine to say that the ZPD is this distance between what you do on your own and what you can do with help, but if you don't understand what help is, how can you actually pin anything down?

So we built a Bayesian belief network model of the ZPD, and quantified the amount of assistance that people got. It's a piece of software called Ecolab. It offered learners domain-level help. It was a simulated ecology laboratory, in which you could add animals, make them try and eat each other, make them move; you could start out simple then get more complex so that you had populations. It's still going - I have two PhD students who are submitting soon who built add-on bits to the Ecolab, which is really quite nice.

There was a collaborative assistant, but nothing embodied, not an animated thing. The system would just give the learner help according to the underlying learner model. And there were three variations that we evaluated. One had an underlying model that said, 'I'm going to give you this much help' and made the decisions for the learner - 'now you're going to do this task,' and so on. Then a middle version, which was trying to give learners the opportunity to make decisions for themselves about how much help they took - so, 'The system suggests that you...' and so on. And one that just let them do whatever they wanted. So we evaluated those three.

We found that the system had worked well - clearly the people who got the most from it were the ones who had the right balance between taking on a challenging activity and having the right amount of help - which is exactly what the ZPD is trying to achieve. And yes, the system that had the underlying learner model did perform the best overall - but not for all abilities of learners. And there was some argument that the system that actually made suggestions was quite good.

So the next project looked at 'metacognitive scaffolding' as well as domain-level scaffolding. So not just saying, 'Look, if you make this animal eat that one, you get what you want,' but saying, 'You've taken on these sort of tasks, and they're a bit easy for you, and have you thought about...' Or, 'You've used a lot of help; have you thought about using less help.' To try and give more meta-cognitive notions of scaffolding. Up until that time, it was an area that software scaffolding hadn't really addressed.

'I want to understand what learners are understanding, but also a bit about how they're feeling'

I have one PhD student looking at motivational aspects, with 10 to 11 year old kids, trying to evaluate the motivational state of the learner, and adapt the system to that. The other student is looking at goal orientation, and so-called performance mastery or performance avoidance - the goal orientation that learners start with. Certainly we did have students who clearly were very influenced by how they're performing against other students - and so were performance oriented. And others who weren't. But they don't divide strictly into those categories; it's only quite a small subset of learners who have a very strong disposition.

So that, for me, is about understanding learners and the learning process, not just about outcome measures but looking at affective issues. I want to understand what learners are understanding, but also a bit about how they're feeling and what they believe they understand, to get a broader view of learners.

When I finished my PhD, I worked on the MENO project with Diana Laurillard . I don't have an expertise in narrative, but certainly I'd always been interested in the creation of coherent learning experiences and how you match-fit the stuff together. So that's influenced what I've done.

I met Lydia Ploughman on the MENO project, and she and I then worked on a project that looked at digital toys. That was my first move away from the desktop, but again it had a scaffolding grounding, because for example there were these toys called Animates, produced by Microsoft - cuddly toys, quite cute to look at. They were aardvark characters taken from a storybook that kids were familiar with; this was aimed at five- to seven-year-olds. It had sensors underneath the furry fabric, and you could squeeze its paws and feet, and it would try and engage the kid in gamelike activities like, 'I'm going to hold my breath, tell me when ten seconds is up,' or 'Can you count backwards from 15.'

What we were interested in was that if you bought a PC pack with this toy, it came with a little radio transmitter that sat on your computer, and the character could interact with some software - very simple games around maths and reading. One of the things we were interested in was how kids cope with the fact that you've got an interface through the soft toy, but you've also got a screen interface, and then you've got a character who interacts with the software when they're linked together. In particular, one of the things that would happen was when the kid was using the software, the toy would give them hints about what they should do. There wasn't an underlying learner model, but it was a way of offering help.

'Other kids found it deeply irritating; there's a piece of film where they actually end up beating up the toy.'

When the toy wasn't linked, and you were just using the software on its own, there would be a little picture of the character on the screen, and that would give you the same stuff. So content-wise it was equivalent, but functionally it was different.

It was really interesting because adults would be fazed by the toy, but kids as young as four - no problem whatsoever. We've got some lovely clips of this one little boy who had seriously delayed speech - he was really engaged by this stuff. Other kids found it deeply irritating; there's a piece of film where they actually end up beating up the toy. Absolutely classic: 'It's a bumhead! Yes it's a bumhead!' These were five-year-olds!

One of the things we found actually between kids using the software with the toy and kids using it without it, was that when it was present, the kids interacted more with each other, with the toy, with the researcher, with parents, teachers, whomever. There was much more social interaction when the thing was outside. I thought, 'That's interesting. So outside of the box, there's something going on there.' But we still don't really understand just what was going on. It was an interesting finding, but that's where the research stopped in a way.

I see the augmented reality work I've been doing with the BBC as being in that same territory, in that it does involve a desktop PC, but the mode of interaction is different because you have these paddles with patterns. We've been evaluating it for the BBC. We evaluated three different versions of their AR software and it is quite interesting.

This is the second time I've worked with them on this stuff; I was part of an evaluation a couple of years ago, which was their first sort of evaluation with schoolkids. That was an earth, sun and moon application, and one of the things we concluded was that, yeah, a teacher or a child could put this pattern up in front of the webcam and you'd get this nice revolving animation on the screen. But that's what it was, and it didn't really interact in any other way.

[image courtesy BBC Jam]
So one of the things that they have done in the story software is that you can have multiple paddles, as I call them, with the patterns on them, and they can interact, if that's how the software is programmed. So one of the stories needs the children to make the characters stand on top of each other, and it does different things according to which ones you put together. So that's starting to get a bit more interaction going.

One of the things that's come out is that when children - both at school and at home - seem to be the most engaged with this technology was when they were solving problems. For example, one of the stories is about two little chicks who lose their mum and are trying to find their way home, and one of the things they have to do is sneak past a fox. The kids love this, and they put the paddle up really carefully, but of course there's nothing really on the paddle; it's on the screen.

That's why I love working with young children, because they're not fazed by the technology, and they'll engage with the activities without questioning. They still get the 'wow' but they don't get sidetracked by that. When they have problems to solve - another time they had to tie up some stones to get characters to go through a hole in the fence - those things are slightly harder, and that's when you get much more engagement.

So one of the recommendations we've made to the BBC is that they look at how to build in more problem-solving, because there's a stronger link between the animations and what the kids are trying to learn.

Although this still has to do with desktop computers, it's moving the boundaries, and I'm interested in moving the boundaries of learners what they understand about knowledge, and moving into this space that looks beyond the screen. Not so blue-sky that it's never going to make it into the classroom, because I do like to think of things that actually end up being used. Blue sky stuff is really interesting and it's great that some people do it, but in the end I like to think that something might actually end up being used.

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The other project that's worth mentioning is the Homework project. Another thing I'm really interested in is learning outside of formal classrooms, but addressing a formal agenda. Actually I don't really like the current state of formal education in this country. But it's what we've got, and I'm interested in helping people see how they meet what's been required of them, but actually enjoy it, and understand why what they've done might be relevant.

So the Homework project is a really nice opportunity for me to push forward this thing that I was calling the 'broadband learner model.' By broadband I didn't mean in a technical sense, but taking on more bandwidth of learner experiences. If you take a primary school child, they wake up in the morning, they travel with their family, they have a journey to school, they're at school, they come home, go to a friend's house for tea, they might go swimming, go to a class, come home...

Networked technology ought to be able to link that together, in some way to make it more meaningful. That's not to say that I think they should be being educated all the time. But they are doing things that are relevant to their learning and development, so why not be able to pull some of that together, in this agenda of trying to be able to say to people, 'Look you're being required to meet this outcome by the national curriculum, or the current educational policy. And actually what you did yesterday when you were swimming is really relevant to that - did you realise that?' It might actually be useful to them in their lives.

But also, it's useful for saying, 'You could tick that box for me now, because now I actually understand it.' So the Homework project is a chance to say, 'Well how do we model what goes on across more than one context?' We took just the school classroom and the home, and said, 'How can we link those together?'

homework We were also working with a filmmaking company and Channel 4 Learning. And that came out of some work I did with Pearson broadband, when they were trying to design an interactive TV channel. I also have an interest in learning through TV, and the Homework started off as a way of looking at this broadband learner model through interactive TV. We had this notion of TV - you want the big screen experience for films, but when it comes to interacting, you want to do it on tablets. When we wrote the application it was for plasma screens and tablet PCs; we ended up using interactive whiteboards instead of TVs, because that is what schools have.

It has enabled us to understand more about to do this link between home and school, and how you can use technology to support it. But the design of it needs to be driven by the activities the child is completing - which is very logical and common sense. Allowing parents to see what their child is working on at school has been universally welcomed - no parent has not wanted to engage with it. And because we log what happens on the tablets, as well as collecting diaries - one of the aspects for me is it's a huge challenge methodologically. When the child is sitting there with the technology and you can't watch them all the time, how do you work out what on earth has gone on? So we have multiple data sources, and trying to get them together - how you match the logs to the diaries - how do you get a story out of that? There are lots of questions there.

Each parent worked with their child, with the tablet at home. Feedback was fabulously positive from the school. This was also about lesson planning with teachers - the idea that the teacher could create an interactive lesson - 'I want to play that bit of video on the whiteboard, then I want this group of students to do that activity, that child to do this, then I want the whole class to do this.' You could pull the lesson plan together, and it came together with the bits of media already allocated to the different resources via wireless network in the classroom. And the teacher has a tablet PC and can control it.

Of course as a prototype it needed lots of technical support, but it worked. I'm really interested in doing more research in the home. One of the things parents said was 'Ah ha - that's what it should be like.' They understood the lessons; one parent said, 'Now when I give my kid her pocket money I'll give her five 10p pieces rather than a 50p.' That's it - that's what you want to be able to do; that sums up what I'm interested in - that kind of linking, seeing the greater relevance.

The Riddles project is another form of scaffolding, but metalinguistic. This was with a colleague from psychology at Birkbeck. She's working with children aged six to seven who are good at decoding text, but not good at comprehending. It's a small but significant percentage of children who fall into that, and it's dangerous because they appear to be good readers, but they don't understand what they're reading. Well, she has found that by using jokes to draw attention to ambiguity in text - looking at metalinguistic awareness - their comprehension improves. So we looked at scaffolding metalinguistic awareness.

That was interesting because it moved away from single learners in desktop software, and looked at kids collaborating. It was in their conversations that, between two of them they would say, 'Oh, it's the sausage roll, not the sausage rolling down the hill...' We came up with a nice interface where children could work in a 'state space', each of them having their own area on the screen, their own mouse, but they were actually doing the same task. That's something we're also trying to take forward - a generalisable interface to help people collaborate on a single screen.

Finally, there's the Kenyan project . I've worked in the developing world a bit, but I don't consider myself to have an expertise in developing world issues, so this is a somewhat new area for me. Basically it's applying participatory design to a rural Kenyan village, with poor or no electricity, poor numeracy, living off the land - and not always very successfully because they don't necessarily have the right information about the best place to sell their products, for example. One feels that technology ought to do something to augment that village in a way that will help people do better, live better. Education seems to me to be the way to tackle that.

So we can work with teachers in that situation, and with farmers - to find out what kind of information farming families need, how we help them to understand that information, and particularly how we help children at school to help their parents at home to understand it. We don't know the issues; we've got to map out the site. But all of it has to be done with a community; otherwise it just stands no chance of being sustainable.

It could be what we need is a sensor network that tells all the farms in this community something about the quality of the soil. Or it could be that we need mobile phones with cameras so that people can take pictures of their crops, and compare them with each other across days, so that they know when they're at their most - things like that. And it could be very low tech, in that children act as 'data bees' and take USB drives with data from a sensor to the school, then they learn about it there. We really don't know; it's the blankest slate that I've ever been given!

'We can change the nature of knowledge. It's no longer the bastion of academics to decide that "maths is this" and "English is this"'

I went to an EPSRC Ideas Factory seminar last December, and the idea that was being discussed was 'bridging the global digital divide.' And I was the only education person who was there. There were experts in development issues, economists, engineers, informatics type people, participatory methods people, HCI people.

So on this project we have Tim Green from Imperial, whose expertise is in renewable energy - nothing to do with education. Tim brings, hopefully, the ability to allow people to access the Internet when they don't have a wired electricity supply, for example.

Ray from Bradford is a radio communications expert. Jaffa from Swansea is a sensor network expert. We have Lynn from Thames Valley who is an expert in cross-cultural participatory design methods. And we have me, with education and technology experience. And a Kenyan partner, in Nairobi.

We fly out to Nairobi in November to the site, to see what it's going to be like and what we're going to do. But it's the project that makes me the most nervous of all the projects I've ever taken on, because I feel personally like, "Oh my God, how am I going to do anything that makes a difference?' But it's really exciting as well, because I would have never, ever met these people - I didn't know any of these people I'm working with.

And if we could learn something, it could link back to the UK. Because I think there are equivalently deprived areas in east Brighton, for example. They don't have the same types of deprivation, but they're hugely deprived. It would be great to have a sort of parallel project there.

The last thing that ties all of this together is that I'm really interested in user-generated contexts. People generate their own contexts; they always have but they don't know that they are. So how can we make those contexts valid in some way. I suppose an analogy would be jazz - jazz musicians are really good at this. They may not have formal qualifications, but they improvise. And what they do is acknowledged by a community who knows about it, but it doesn't mean they've got a certificate in this. They decide what the knowledge of jazz is - they decide what valid jazz is.

It's very much what Richard Noss was talking about at the Open Day - we can change the nature of knowledge. It's no longer the bastion of academics to decide that "maths is this" and "English is this" and "history is this"; actually everybody can have a voice in that. And there is now technology to allow people to produce their own stuff, to interact around their own stuff, and to validate that stuff as being what their community says is right, and represents knowledge in that subject. Then, by doing that, they can have a voice in the bigger debates. And over time, that changes the nature of knowledge. I actually think that's the space we'\re now in.

So I'm really interested in the notion of what a user-generated context is. it's more than just generating content. I love the fact that on Google video you've got countless Asian versions of the Backstreet Boys. There are kids all over the world remaking the Backstreet Boys. That's a new genre, and they've created that; nobody told them to do it. It's a bit like Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs - it's all these people deciding for themselves what it is they want to do, getting together and saying, 'This is OK and we're gonna do this,' and then having a bigger voice because of that.
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