Archive for June 15, 2016

An Ebook Integrating Minimal Manuals with Constructionism, Worked Examples, and Inquiry: MOHQ

Our computing education research group at Georgia Tech has been developing and evaluating ebooks for several years (see this post with discussion of some of them). We publish on them frequently, with a new paper just accepted to ICER 2016 in Melbourne. We use the Runestone Interactive platform which allows us to create ebooks with a lot of different kinds of learning activities — not just editing and running code (which I’ve been arguing for awhile is really important to support a range of abilities and motivations), but including editing and running code.

It’s a heavyweight platform. I have been thinking about alternative models of ebooks — maybe closer to e-pamphlets. Since I was working with GP (see previous post) and undergraduate David Tran was interested in working with me on a GP project, we built a prototype of a minimalist medium for learning CS. I call it a MOHQ: Minimal manual Organized around Hypertext Questions: http://home.cc.gatech.edu/gpblocks. (Suggestion: Use Firefox if you can for playing with browser GP. WAY faster for the JavaScript execution than either Chrome or Safari on my Mac.)

Minimal Manuals

John Carroll came up with the idea of minimal manuals back in the 1980’s (see the earliest paper I found on the idea). The goal is to help people to use complicated computing devices with the minimum of overhead. Each page of the manual starts with a task — something that a user would want to do. The goal is to put the instruction for how to achieve that task all on that one page.

The idea of minimalist instruction is described here: http://www.instructionaldesign.org/theories/minimalism.html.

The four principles of minimal instruction design are:

  1. Allow learners to start immediately on meaningful tasks.
  2. Minimize the amount of reading and other passive forms of training by allowing users to fill in the gaps themselves
  3. Include error recognition and recovery activities in the instruction
  4. Make all learning activities self-contained and independent of sequence.

There’s good evidence that minimal manuals really do work (see http://doc.utwente.nl/26430/1/Lazonder93minimal.pdf). Learners become more productive more quickly with minimal manuals, with surprisingly high scores on transfer and retention. A nice attribute of minimal manuals is that they’re geared toward success. They likely increase self-efficacy, a significant problem in CS education.

The goal of most minimal instruction is to be able to do something. What about learning conceptual knowledge?

Adding Learning Theory: Inquiry, Worked Examples, and Constructionism

I started exploring minimal manuals as a model for designing CS educational media after a challenge from Alan Kay. Alan asked me to think about how we would teach people to be autodidacts. One of the approaches used to encourage autodidactism is inquiry-based learning. Could we structure a minimal manual around questions that they might have or that we want students to ask themselves?

We structure our Runestone ebooks around an Examples+Practice framework. We provide a worked example (typically executable code, but sometimes a program visualization), and then ask (practice) questions about that example. We provide one or two practice exercises for every example. Based on Lauren Margeliux’s work, the point of the practice is to get students to think about the example, to engage with it, and to explain it to themselves. It’s less important that they do the questions — I want the students to read the questions and think about them, and Lauren’s work suggests that even the feedback may not be all that important.

Finally, one of the aspects that I like about Runestone is that every example in an active code area is a complete Python interpreter. Modify the code anyway you want. Erase all of it and build something new if you want. It’s constructionist. We want students to construct with the examples and go beyond them.

MOHQ: Minimal Manual Organized around Hypertext Questions

The prototype MOHQ that David Tran and I built (http://home.cc.gatech.edu/gpblocks) is an implementation of this integration of minimal manuals with constructionism, inquiry, and worked examples. Each page in the MOHQ:

  • Starts with a question that a student might be wondering about.
  • Offers a worked example in a video.
  • Offer the opportunity to construct with the example project.
  • Asks one or two practice questions, to prompt thinking about the project.

Using the minimal design principles to structure the explanation:

  1. Allow learners to start immediately on meaningful tasks.

The top page offers several questions that I hope are interesting to a student. Every page offers a project that aims to answer that question. GP is a good choice here because it’s blocks-based (low cognitive load) and I can do MediaComp in it (which is what I wanted to teach in this prototype).

#1: Minimize the amount of reading and other passive forms of training by allowing users to fill in the gaps themselves.

Each page has a video of David or me solving the problem in GP. Immediately afterward is a link to jump directly into the GP project exactly where the video ended. Undo something, redo something, start over and build something else. The point is to watch a video (where we try to explain what we’re doing, but we’re certainly not filling in all the gaps), then figure out how it works on your own.

Then we offer a couple of practice questions to challenge the learner: Did you really understand what was going on here?

#2: Include error recognition and recovery activities in the instruction.

Error recovery is easy when everything is in the browser — just hit the back button. You can’t save. You can’t damage anything. (We tell people this explicitly on every page.)

#3: Make all learning activities self-contained and independent of sequence.

This is the tough one. I want people to actually learn something in a MOHQ, that pixels have red, green, and blue components, and chromakey is about replacing one color with a background image, and that removing every other sample increases the frequency of a sound — and more general ideas, e.g., that elements in a collection can be referenced by index number.

So, all the driving questions from the home page start with, “Okay, you can just dive in here, but you might want to first go check out these other pages.” You don’t have to, but if you want to understand better what’s going on here, you might want to start with simpler questions.

We also want students to go on — to ask themselves new questions, to go try other projects. After each project, we offer some new questions that we hope that students might ask themselves. The links are explicitly prompts. “You might be thinking about these questions. Even if you weren’t, you might want to. Let’s see where we can explore next.”

Current Prototype and What Comes Next

Here’s the map of pages that we have out there right now. We built it in a Wiki which facilitated creating the network of pages that we want. This isn’t a linear book.

Full-MOHQ-Map

There’s maybe a dozen pages out there, but even with that relatively small size, it took most of a semester to pull these together. Producing the videos and building these pages by hand (even in a Wiki) was a lot of work. The tough part was every time we changed our minds about something — and had to go back through all of the previously built pages and update them. Since this is a prototype (i.e., we didn’t know what we wanted when we started), that happened quite often. If we were going to add more to the GP MOHQ, I’d want to use a tool for generating pages from a database as we did with STABLE, the Smalltalk Apprenticeship-Based Learning Environment.

I would appreciate your thoughts about MOHQ. Call this an expert review of the idea.

  • Thumbs-up or down? Worth developing further, or a bad direction?
  • What do you think is promising about this idea?
  • What would we need to change to make it more effective for student learning?

June 15, 2016 at 7:35 am 12 comments


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