Thursday: Maseno University workshop, day 1

The plan

The plan for the day was simple enough, to introduce "the box" or "education-in-suitcase" to the folks at Maseno University, with an emphasis on the tutor-web and general features but letting nuances such as the Smileycoin and peer-evaluations wait.

So I have an admission to make: I had never actually given a workshop on the tutor-web, and the system was just out-of-the box so there was no way of knowing how much trouble we would get into :-)

Getting to Maseno

The Maseno University campus we went to lies right on the equator and is just outside the city of Kisumu which counts 300 thousand inhabitants. Let's just say that the road from Kisumu to Maseno is interesting.

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But yes, we did make it to Maseno :-)

Setting up 

Opening a box is always a bit like opening a Christmas present!  We started by switching on the Lenovo laptop with the WiFi access point connected and tested the connections.There were a number of cables to be sorted out since we're talking about a mix of UK and European plugs and in addition to the laptop server I had my own laptop as well as a presentation tablet. But everything came up and worked perfectly.

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We got access to a nice facility, the Maths lab, which is a computer room with a projector. Alas we did not use any of the computers, but they were used when Anna Helga visited and introduced the tutor-web over a regular old Internet connection in 2012. At that time the "mobile web" concept did not exist and the students got handed one question at a time over a very slow Internet connection. In spite of considerable interest, that was the tipping point when everyone realised that we definitely needed a different setup with more work done by the user's computer. 

A few people had already seen the concept, e.g. been enrolled in the Computing and Calculus course, and some had also heard of the concept but most were unfamiliar with used the tutor-web.

 

Connecting everyone

As people turned up, each was given a numbered tablet and shown how to register and log into the tutor-web, select a drill and start answering questions the way a student would. This quickly got everyone occupied. 

 

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Internet connections in Kenya are often excruciatingly slow. This was one of the reasons for putting the entire tutor-web system on a laptop. The design is really quite neat: The users' tablets only talk to the laptop server over WiFi which is controlled by the laptop. So a slow or non-existent WiFi or Internet connection in a school is replaced by the WiFi access point which comes attached to the laptop.

This approach immediately proved its worth and connection times were not an issue, even with 15 simultaneous users.

Apart from minor problems such as forgetting the registration information from the previous step, noone had any issue regarding the tutor-web access. The registration process has been refined quite a bit during the past few years and most of the earlier problems should now have been ironed out. Registration is required for two reasons, firstly the system needs to keep track of a student's grades from one session to the next and secondly the tutor-web is in most cases used in conjunction with a real-world classroom, where an instructor needs to keep track of grade development.

Methods and approaches

A good part of the day was allocated to discussing methodologies. Since the tutor-web is intended for learning rather than testing, there is no limit on the number of attempt a student gets at answering questions within a lecture. Nonetheless a grade is required, if only as an indicator for the student, but also for the instructor. Several grading schemes have therefore been developed and the only thing they all have in common is a down weighting of the older answers. Experiments in calculus courses seem to indicate that a useful approach is to include timeout on answering questions and grading schemes which use the last 20-30 questions in a weighted average.

But decisions on an open system, which may be used by many schools, should not be left to a small group of developers and there is a need to open a forum to discuss useful settings of parameters for high school math.

 

Interest and applicability to Kenya

These students are also instructors and have experience from working "in the field", as university students, with high school students and with teachers in primary as well as secondary schools in Kenya. It was therefore quite gratifying to hear a unanimous opinion that this approach would be useful in Kenya, and could be used in many school stages.

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These instructors/students also got the task of trying to find problems and issues with the system. They were very good at this and tried out all of the functionality and several tutorials in addition to the simple one which they started with.

 

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In all, this was an excellent group to start with. Of course their background in teaching and mathematics enabled them to give feedback and evaluate potential. In addition to being good learners, they were also very active in assisting each other. It's hard to get a better start to a sequence of workshops and presentations.