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WMB's notes on the embryonic online course for Making Construals

I had hoped to make the task of reviewing the embryonic online course on MC rather easier by rationalising the sources, but have not been able to do this in the time available. So there are really three sources to draw on:

  1. The 'progression of ideas' associated with the sequence of 54 slides set out in the powerpoint presentation given at C5. This is a reworking and extension of the presentation introduced for the C1 meeting in October. See also the pdf versions of slides that were presented in Session 1 and Session 3 that supplement the progression in key respects.
  2. The embryonic Moodle-based course set out in 9 sessions at http://ias2.dcs.warwick.ac.uk/construit/course/view.php?id=3 for which I believe Jonny Foss has supplied logins in an email from a month or so ago
  3. The schedule and more contextualised account of the content of Sessions 1-9 at http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/sci/dcs/research/em/construit/c5

By way of background, note that what has been so far been developed by way of resources for an online course on making construals has been conceived in a way that is deliberately quite different from that of the CS405 module ("An Introduction to Empirical Modelling") taught at Warwick over the last decade. CS405 was embedded in the rich complex of materials associated with the EM webpage in a way that made it difficult for students to navigate a clear path. There are of course virtues in that approach, but in the interests of disseminating ideas beyond Warwick, it seemed to Jonny and myself (as the two people who were mainly responsible for putting the curriculum and resources for C5 together) that we should consciously extract and refine resources for making construals to establish a clear narrative in the first instance. (This is what we were aspiring to in developing Sessions 1-9.) The existence of such a narrative is certainly not obvious from the brief descriptions of the sessions in SRC2, which need revision and should be disregarded. A narrative should be more evident in SRC1, and to some extent from the activities associated with each session as (in most cases) introduced together with a 'learning objective' within the session. Broadly the progression of ideas maps out an ever richer sequence of perspectives on what is involved in making construals and relates these to features of JS-EDEN as the prototype MCE. For the present, there are aspects of making construals that have been illustrated in the older EDEN and Web EDEN environments but have yet to be as effectively illustrated using JS-EDEN. Our longer-term objective is to enhance JS-EDEN so that it has all the expressive power of the older environments (and more).

Once the learning activities that support the core progression of ideas and skills for making construals has been developed, it is to be expected that the online course will be fleshed out in ways that restore some of the richness that the context of the EM webpage supplies. In the first instance, the aim is to carve out a space around making construals that can be visited in a relatively clear and systematic way so that learners have the sort of expertise that is required to collaborate in distributed participatory design exercises such as is exemplified in the MENACE pilot project. For those who prefer a yet more open-ended exploratory setting for their learning, the option of exploring the EM webpage resources will remain. A curious aspect of the activities associated with Sessions 1-9 was that I was having to suppress the urge to include 'interesting exercises' so as to give precedence to routine exercises that were closely related to the learning objective for the session. It is then unclear to what extent learners who study these sessions are prepared for more autonomous activity in making construals.

The further design and development of the online course was a central topic throughout Piet's visit last week. Piet suggested that a systematic exposition of the key principles and skills for making construals (hopefully such as we are putting in place in Sessions 1-9) should be embedded within a broader framework supplying alternative perspectives, entry points and learning paths. He was keen to see support for a philosophical and social science outlook offered through non-technical discussion and potentially through access to construals that were less mathematics, engineering and science focused and had more social content. One possible theme was making construals for 'urban planning'. Another suggestion was that learners might work in pairs (or teams) at the outset, possibly with the idea of making personal construals of each other's interests or of a common topic. Steve expressed scepticism about the accessibility of JS-EDEN, advocating spreadsheets as a more appropriate and accessible point of entry into making construals. A major recent enhancement in JS-EDEN has been support for remote collaboration on making a construal whereby two or more learners can observe and interact with one and the same construal across the net. Collaboration of this kind, with or without expert guidance, could be a valuable technique for introductory study.

I'm sure that you will have much valuable additional insight into the form that an online course might take. What I would most value for the present is feedback on the core path and Sessions 1-9 - but this may be harder for you to give. (It may be as Steve has suggested that exercises on JS-EDEN of the kind that are prescribed in these sessions are far from being accessible by learners who lack a technical computing background and experience.) But in case you are able to review and give useful feedback on the content of Sessions 1-9 (and especially the activities associated with these), I've made a brief summary of the content and motivation behind each session, together with some of the logistic issues raised.

Session 1

The aim of this first session was to give a general orientation on Making Construals. Our perspective is that the illustrative construals so far developed using JS-EDEN are a thin corpus (over 2-3 years with a handful of masters students) that doesn't compare with what has been produced with older tools/environments such as tkeden and Web EDEN (over 20+ years with may hundreds of undergraduate and 15-20 research students). It is also quite apparent that the absence in JS-EDEN of the special-purpose notations for dealing with line-drawing, screen layout and database relations etc that feature in tkeden is a great handicap when trying to present a high-level picture of what's going on. We used the naive room construal for the exercises. The slides presented in session 1 introduced several different examples of construals (from engineering, design, learning and everyday contexts), and discussed the term 'construal' in ways that could relate to the philosophical discussion that Piet favours. There are some 'new' observations about construals here that came out of the Google Group discussion between Hamish, Steve and myself about the nature of construals. I am very happy with them, but they need to be challenged.

Session 2

In SRC2, the content of this session is undisclosed (it actually related to the development of an application for selecting meals from the Varsity menu from a rudimentary JS-EDEN construal, but was only addressed rather sketchily after Session 3). A more appropriate resource that could be used in this slot is a shopping construal that Jonny Foss and I put together as a demo for a presentation to the local CaS hub the other evening - this can be accessed via the pdf attachment, as detailed in slides 12-13. A virtue of that construal is that it helps to clarify the qualifying clause in the title of the CONSTRUIT! project: "[a new digital skill] for creating OERs", which Piet found perplexing in some respects. The everyday construal of the lift adventure described in Session 1 was presented here (this ideally should be implemented in JS-EDEN, but for the time being makes use of a line-drawing notation only available in tkeden).

Session 3

The objective of these activities is to expose the diversity of the agency that can be supported by a single definitive script. An innovation here was to finally embrace new terminology that I have been toying with for several years - the notion of a definitive script as the 'germ' of a construal. I think this is a good choice of term that highlights the key distinction between a construal and a program, viz. the neutrality with respect to context and functionality that a construal offers. The well-developed tkeden examples such as the Sudoku Experience workshops highlight the way in which a single definitive script can sustain myriad different potentially interesting trajectories of interaction and interpretation were used for illustrative purposes here. They have no counterpart in JS-EDEN as yet. An auxiliary role for the Sudoku Experience construals was to expose the importance of being able to access and survey the script, and to associate natural language commonsense interpretations with the observables within it. A major contribution in JS-EDEN has been to transform the access to the underlying script and the scope for tracking its evolution. Adding mechanisms for natural language annotation to JS-EDEN is an additional objective that was clearly motivated by discussions relating to the MENACE construal at C5.

Session 4

The objective of the Session 4 activities was to become familiar with the way in which:

  • the observables, dependencies and agents in a construal are expressed using definitions, functions and actions
  • the process of making a construal is reflected in the evolving script that is being generated.

This is an objective that is much better served by JS-EDEN than tkeden. The vehicle for illustration here is a simple bubblesort construal. The exercises illustrate the role of most of the plugins under the drop-down New menu - each of which is associated with creating views of the script / script history in conceptually significant ways. Session 4 doesn't address the use of the Canvas plugin.

Session 5

This is the first session in which learners are introduced to building a construal from scratch: "This lab will give you an introduction to making your own construals in JS-EDEN, a web variant of tkeden originally developed by Tim Monks in his MSc dissertation. The tasks in the lab focus on drawing to the Canvas and assume a little bit of EDEN knowledge already." It is a friendly practical introduction to JS-EDEN that was devised by Antony Harfield.

Session 6

To become familiar with the way in which:

  • the maker's understanding can be scaffolded and documented using the JS-EDEN presentation environment (JSPE)
  • making a construal is related to writing a computer program.

The exercises here focus on the JUGS construal and aim to use the JSPE to illustrate how the most interesting content of a construal is in the mind of the maker, and specifically in the knowledge of possible interactions and interpretations that is consolidated and extended as the maker gains familiarity with and enhances the evolving construal.

Session 7

The objective for these activities is to highlight

  • the distinctive qualities of construals as interactive artefacts whose meaning resides in the connection with some familiar independent experience
  • the experientially determined nature of the observables in a construal and the possibility of identifying observables experimentally through their characteristic behaviours.

and to assess the plausibility of introducing the notion of an observable to learners who are not yet able to interpret symbolic identifiers.

The exercise here, based on the 'JUGS puzzle puzzle', potentially represents a generic activity that could be used to make puzzles from many construals. The idea is that if the observables that have explicit values are permuted a construal will still support perfectly 'well-defined' interaction, but that this is no longer meaningful. Solving the puzzle involves experimental interaction to disclose how this permuting of observabvles has been done. (The JUGS-puzzle-puzzle may well be best conceived if the set of observables that is permuted is confined to those that feature in the core interaction, such as the content of the jugs - as opposed to 'peripheral' observables, such as the distance between the jugs on the display.) There is probably a more exalted role for exercises of this kind that will emerge when the possibility of natural language commonsense annotation of JS-EDEN construals has been introduced.

Session 8

This session introduces a range of construals that have been developed with educational objectives in mind.

Session 9

This session looks more closely at the semantics of construals and considers the implications of making construals from a cognitive perspective, and with reference to software development and educational technology.