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Technologies for STEM learning

Does the provision of an `own working space’ for tutors enhance the learning experience for students

Project leader(s): 
Hayley Ryder and Toby O'Neil

Adobe Connect has replaced OULive as the OU’s online tuition delivery tool and the current university plan is for tutors to work in shared online rooms for cohort/cluster-wide events. There is significant concern (particularly amongst tutors) that this will not work well since Adobe Connect rooms appears to be designed around the assumption that each room is controlled by a single individual. However, it is also not clear that individual rooms (that are accessible by students outside the tutor’s own group) can work with LEM. For this presentation on M303 we have permission to trial individual rooms for tutors that are open to the whole cohort of students (about 150 students). We hope that providing an individually `owned’ virtual workplace for tutors will enable them to feel more confident about using Adobe connect (if they are nervous about the online tuition) and to be more innovative if they are already confident.

This trial will investigate whether individually owned learning spaces acts as an enabler and results in tutors feeling more confident about tutorials. As a result, the University will gain knowledge about whether individual rooms are a viable alternative to shared ones. We will do this by using semi structured interviews with tutors to ask what they did in their AC rooms during the presentation (and whether they could have done these things in a shared room) and to evaluate how they felt about using the individual work spaces on M303. Using semi structured interviews will enable us to dig down into any individual innovations tried by the tutors and investigate why they felt able to try this on M303 (i.e. did the ownership of the space make a difference).

Ask Programs Aloud ‐‐ Making Programming Concepts Naturally Accessible at a Distance

Project leader(s): 
Yijun Yu and Anton Dil

The Open University commits to redesign programming-related modules so that students could gain first-hand support from the very start, and learn more advanced concepts continuously throughout the course of study.

One of the major obstacles to this goal is to support those students with visual disabilities, who require sound as a modality to drive adaptive user interface design; however, existing accessibility helpers only read out the texts sequentially whilst the presentations of programs are hierarchical in nature. With the advent of voice-interaction technology such as Alexa Skill Kit (ASK), we propose to translate sequential narratives into hierarchical ones, driven by the requirements of students.

The new proposal aims to focus on any part of their programs whist maintaining the overview relevant to the studied concepts. To implement this, we introduce a knowledge map-based pedagogy called ``Program Aloud", a personal assistant that can respond to voice commands that triggers an explanation of programming concepts, a summary of programming contexts, etc. The new hands-free mode of interactions could generate intelligent dialogues that answer students' questions about the program or a programming concept, meaningfully. 

Some tangible outcome of the project include, but not limited to the following:

  • Turning certain types of iCMA questions (including those with structured answers such as programs) into multi-step voice dialogue sessions;
  • Turning the table of contents and the list of learning outcomes per units into voice navigable inquiries;
  • Recommending relevant course materials and reference materials to students given the context of their explorations.

The overall outcomes of the project would be an initial ASK Skill hosted to the Amazon Alexa ecosystem to recommend Open University course(s) just like the iTunes University open course contents.

Yijun Yu presentation (PDF)

Development and evaluation of a software tool for automated Java specification marking

Project leader(s): 
Anton Dil

Students studying M250, our second year object-oriented programming module using Java, are required to complete Java programs according to detailed syntactical, structural, functional and stylistic specifications.

Although software tools exist for code syntax, functionality and style checking, tools for structural specification checking are not widely available. The long-term goal of this project is to raise awareness of these various aspects of correctness in our assessment of students’ code and to support automated assessment of these aspects of code quality for tutors and students.

The project focused particularly on the development and evaluation of a structural specification tool (known as CheckM250), deployed in the 2017J presentation of M250, to allow tutors to check to what extent students’ code met a specification. The tool was provided for use in the module IDE, BlueJ, alongside traditional tutor marking notes. The project also explored the use of automated marking in the module Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), for quick feedback to students, and overcame technical obstacles in this context. 

Tutor surveys and interviews were used to gather feedback on CheckM250 and on other kinds of marking tool support and traditional resources.

Automated structural checks on code were found to have multiple use cases:

  • supporting human markers in assessing students’ code;
  • for markers to assess their own marking (as a kind of e-monitoring tool);
  • in online assessment for automated marking of students’ code;
  • as a step in determining if software functional tests can proceed;
  • for students to perform checks on their code before submitting it for marking;
  • for question setters to check completeness of questions set for students. 

There was evidence of tutors favouring the use of marking tools, or of their distrusting them, or finding them an obstacle. This appeared to depend less on the tool itself than on a predisposition for or against the use of tools. Similarly, tutors’ comparative rating of tools as aids to themselves versus as aids to students appeared to depend on the tutors’ disposition towards tools.

Most tutors using CheckM250 found it to be useful, and some reported that it increased their accuracy in marking. Tutors not using the tool cited lack of time and the simplicity of the assignment it was trialled on. Some reservations were expressed about reliance on automated marking tools, both for markers and for students.  The marking software was also shown to be useful in the VLE for automated student feedback.

The results provided indicators of topics that should be discussed with tutors and students in this context:

  • how automated code marking tools may best be used in tutor and student workflow;
  • how the outputs of the tools should be interpreted;
  • the potential benefits and pitfalls of automated marking;
  • the relationships between the outputs of various automated marking tools.

The project has also suggested ways forward in developing automated marking tools for Java code. 

Related resources

Dil, A., Truby, S. and Osunde, J. (2018) Development and evaluation of a tool for Java structural specification testing. eSTEeM Final Report. (PDF)

Dil, A., Truby, S. and Osunde, J. (2018) Development and evaluation of a tool for Java structural specification testing. Appendix A, Java specification checking: software notes. (PDF)

Dil, A., Truby, S. and Osunde, J. (2018) Development and evaluation of a tool for Java structural specification testing. Appendix B, Java specification checking: survey and interview results. (PDF)

Dil, A. and Truby, S. (2018) Evaluation of a tool for use on M250 “Object-oriented Java Programming”. Presentation from the 7th eSTEeM Annual Conference, 25-26 April 2018, Milton Keynes. (PowerPoint)

Dil, A., Osunde, J. (2018) Evaluation of a tool for Java Structural Specification Testing. Paper presentenced at the 10th International Conference on Education Technology and Computers, October 2018, Tokyo. (PDF)