Frederic Salmen

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Supporting Personalized Explorables

Illustration of paper vs. digital workflow Copyright: © CC0, Source

Motivation

Constructivist theories agree that learning is not a simple transfer of knowledge, but an active process in the student's mind. A practical implication of this principle is the use of worksheets: Instead of laying out information on a blackboard, a teacher may prepare activities especially for their class, providing tasks to be completed individually or in groups. Another pillar of modern education is technology: Many traditional workflows have been augmented digitally, such as organization (using LMS) or access to material (using tablets). Still, worksheets remain mostly analogue (printed and photocopied), even in the natively digital subject of informatics.

Viewed another way, worksheets are an example of layered personalization in teaching: Textbook authors create a pool of material, teachers compose these into a worksheet, and students work on their copy. With each step, material becomes more personalized. This process is best understood as a cascade of making learning resources more specific, with each layer being interconnected:

  • Textbook authors frame a resource by supplying original materials, exercises and so on in form of a textbook.
  • Teachers differentiate the resource for their learning situation by composing them into worksheets.
  • Students customize the resource for their individual needs, for example by annotating text.

Yet, that process is not applied to many digital learning resources. Support for personalization varies widely across the fragmented world of digital learning. As such, there is no system available that considers all layers of personalization.

  Screenshots of two examples of explorables Copyright: © Left: “Parable of the Polygons”; Right: “GPS”

Related Work

What could a natively digital worksheet look like? On the Web, the term explorable explanation, or explorable in short, was coined to describe a type of learning resource. Many examples for explorables are found here. We can define it as highly interactive, open multimedia content mixed with textual explanations, allowing learners to experience a guided exploration of a topic.

Some tools to author this kind of resource exist (e.g., Jupyter or H5P). We consider H5P as especially promising since it is aimed specifically at teachers and has already seen some adoption. These tools offer a great starting point in terms of technology, but also leave the potential for a system focused on personalization specifically.

The idea of explorables has not been the subject of research yet, but digital worksheets have gained some traction in didactics, and some requirements, especially for informatics, were suggested: Teachers require new means and methods to teach more abstract topics, to let students learn at their own pace, to provide feedback, and to gain more insight into their students with learning analytics. It remains an open question whether explorables could fulfill these requirements, becoming a form of digital worksheets.

While explorables themselves have not been a topic in research yet, small, interactive elements that may be part of explorables have a long and rich history in educational technology research. In the area of the STEM subjects, the PhET project stands out. Since 2002, it has been developing interactive math and science simulations, based on education research. It demonstrates that the STEM subjects are especially promising in terms of potential for interactive and multimedia content. We conclude that for our research, focusing on explorables for the STEM subjects could be advantageous.

The layers of personalization introduced above can also be found in a didactical approach called personalized learning, which is about “giving students some control over their learning”, “differentiating instruction for each learner”, and “providing real-time individualized feedback to teachers and learners”. Most current research dealing with personalization focuses on self-adapting resources and systems. This is certainly a promising avenue to explore, but we propose that manual personalization is equally important to consider enabling developers, teachers, and students to each bring their unique experience and expertise to the table.

Planned Research

We pose the following research question: How can the personalization of STEM explorables be supported technically for developers, secondary school teachers and their students?

To answer this question, we intend to use a design-based research (DBR) approach: In DBR, an intervention is designed iteratively using mixed methods, deriving design principles. In our project, the intervention designed is a system for personalized explorables called WebWriter. Summarized shortly, WebWriter offers a desktop (Windows/Mac/Linux) authoring tool for teachers in which they can compose explorables to use as digital worksheets. Teachers can add text and media such as images/audio/video/…, but also interactive elements called widgets. These widgets are provided as downloadable packages by developers. Once a teacher has completed his explorable, he can save it as a website/SCORM package/H5P package and supply it to students via an LMS such as Moodle, host it as a website, or even send it as a file.

To derive design principles for this system, each involved group’s interaction with the system should be investigated with a matching method. In the research design, each group must be represented by a specific sample of people, as well.

The role of developers is filled by students writing development oriented final theses at our chair: They conceptualize and implement widgets, documenting the process extensively in the form of theses. Widgets may provide common interaction patterns (e.g., quizzes, interactive videos), but also content specific to school subjects and topics, such as executable code and simulations. The theses are useful data points to evaluate, offering insights into pitfalls, strengths, and weaknesses of the system.

For teachers and students, we will run usage experiments with specific school classes. To investigate teachers, interviews may be appropriate as the sample size is relatively small and the open form of interviews is appropriate to derive design principles. An investigation of students on the other hand has a larger sample size, making a quantitative method more fitting. Here, the field of learning analytics may allow gathering in-depth usage data to analyze.

Finally, results from all groups are qualitatively evaluated together, deriving new design principles. Considering all results together is key, since the goals and interests of each group may go against each other and create dilemmas. Conversely shared interests may surface.

Since a core principle of DBR is iteration, the research design described above is implemented not only once, but multiple times in a row. In each iteration, each group is investigated and new design principles are derived. Then, the system is adjusted accordingly for the next iteration, and the viability of the new design principles can be investigated again.

Further Information & Publications

The WebWriter project has its own website which gathers information for all groups (developers, teachers, and students) and provides the authoring tool for download: https://www.webwriter.app/

  Poster Copyright: © Frederic Salmen

This poster provides a visual summary of the research project:

Literature

B. Victor, “Explorable Explanations,” 2011. http://worrydream.com/ExplorableExplanations/ (accessed Aug. 23, 2022).

A. Shemshack and J. M. Spector, “A systematic literature review of personalized learning terms,” Smart Learning Environments, vol. 7, no. 1, p. 33, Oct. 2020, doi: 10.1186/s40561-020-00140-9.

S. Serth, R. Teusner, J. Renz, and M. Uflacker, “Evaluating Digital Worksheets with Interactive Programming Exercises for K-12 Education,” undefined, 2019, Accessed: Jun. 29, 2022. [Online]. Available: https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Evaluating-Digital-Worksheets-with-Interactive-for-Serth-Teusner/b942f38e8d0a5b8c1055e3e883efb9f3139bb9c4

T. Anderson and J. Shattuck, “Design-Based Research: A Decade of Progress in Education Research?,” Educational Researcher, vol. 41, no. 1, pp. 16–25, Jan. 2012, doi: 10.3102/0013189X11428813.