Friday, September 28, 2012

My Processing Workshop Materials

Last weekend I taught a one-day workshop called 'Create Interactive Art and More! Learn to Program with Processing.'  I developed the materials from scratch for the workshop and hope to use them again.  Overall the day went quite well, but as always, there are things to improve.

In the morning, I did a round of intros from the group.  This was for two reasons: first, to allow those who were late to make their way in (the weather wasn't great and even I had a hard time finding the door to get in), and second to build a sense of community.  Although this took a little longer than I would have liked, it seems that both goals were met.  I had some students say how great it was to see how many other non-programmers and artists were there.

The morning largely involved me talking about a programming concept using some analogy, and then getting the students to type in some example code.  I had them play around with the specifics of the code to learn about how Processing worked experimentally rather than just hearing me describe the syntax.

This worked fairly well, though there were times I would have liked to move on a bit quicker.  One challenge was getting everyone's attention while they were playing with code.  Sometimes the TA's would continue helping someone even when I wanted to tell the class something; next time, I should be sure to ask the TA's to pause for a bit when I need to move on.  The analogies themselves seemed to work well.

In the afternoon, I had some programming concepts to finish covering.  Next time, I should schedule more than two hours for this portion of the workshop.

After the formal part, I got the students to look at four tutorials I had written up.  To make the tutorials, I had first programmed four little projects in Processing, then tried to put myself in a beginner's shoes to describe the steps to writing the code.

I tried to keep the tutorials fairly simple, though my last tutorial for a memory game ended up being much more complex.  I decided to finish the tutorial for that one anyway just in case there were some folks who had programmed before (and there were).

My goal in writing the tutorials was to entice the students to ask questions during the class.  I wanted to use a 'just-in-time' teaching technique where things would come up as questions the TA's could help with while they worked through the tutorials.  So there were definitely things in the tutorials that weren't discussed much or at all in the formal portion of the workshop.

However, it seems that my tutorials weren't quite clear enough.  Students had a bit of trouble knowing exactly what to do if they hadn't programmed before.  So, since the workshop has ended, I have modified all but the memory game tutorials, adding specific, highlighted instructions on what to do.

My course notes and tutorials are all available online so the students can try them after the workshop as well.  If you'd like to give Processing a try, or just see whether I've done a good job with the tutorials, I'd love to have you look at them and post feedback as a comment here on the blog.

I'm hoping to collect some more data on how well the workshop went through a survey I sent out to the participants.  It has been challenging to get many responses, but hopefully they'll continue to come in.  I am already considering running the same workshop (with improvements) next semester, perhaps targeted toward students, so hopefully I can get some more data then as well.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Interactive Storytelling Talk at a Local Sci-Fi Con

An unexpected opportunity presented itself when I was asked to speak at a local sci-fi convention, Can-Con.  A friend had referred me as a potential academic speaker who could talk about augmented reality. But, since my thesis topic had taken a turn toward nonlinear narrative and interactive storytelling, and because I figured this audience would enjoy this topic, that's what I ended up speaking about instead.

I focused on the big question of what it would take to create the holodeck in terms of storytelling.  My aim was to explore the creative and technical side to answer which area we needed a breakthrough in most.  My personal opinion is that we need a creative breakthrough first; there's a lot of technology out there that hasn't resulted in many particularly compelling stories. I think we need to figure out how to write for this medium in a mainstream kind of way before we can truly determine what needs to improve technology-wise.

I had a small but attentive and interactive audience, which made the talk not only a pleasure to give, but useful for me, too.  I got quite a few good ideas and references that will help me in my thesis work.  The conference seems pretty interesting in itself, so if you're interested in sci-fi, you should check out next year's edition!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

To Be Published: Understanding the Power of Augmented Reality for Learning

I'm pleased to say that my work on cognitive theories and augmented reality is finally going to be published. 'Understanding the Power of Augmented Reality for Learning' was accepted as a full research paper for the 2012 World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education, happening this October in Montreal. 

This paper has gone through several iterations, each one better than the last.  The version being published here has a learning slant, and although this wasn't the focus when we started, I'm happy it ended up here given my passion for education.

But that's not to say that the ideas are not applicable to other domains.  In fact, I'm hoping that some of you will take the next step.  I'd really love to see future work build on this, applying the advice we put forward to future projects and digging deeper into these cognitive theories and others.  If you're interested in moving the research forward, feel free to contact me and I'll share some more ideas (I won't be doing this line of research for my thesis anymore).

Without further ado, here is the abstract and a link to the preprint version of the paper.
Abstract: Augmented reality has recently become a popular interface for various learning applications, but it is not always clear that AR is the right choice. We provide a theoretical grounding that explains the underlying value of AR for learning and identify when it is a suitable interface. Our list of operational design advantages includes AR's use of reality, virtual flexibility, invisible interface, and spatial awareness. This list is backed by four underlying cognitive theories: mental models and distributed, situated, and embodied cognition. We argue that the more design advantages a learning system incorporates, the better AR works as an interface. We also identify a set of questions to be used in the design and evaluation of AR projects. With this, we can begin to design AR for learning more purposefully.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Making the Most of Conference Travel

When I'm lucky enough to go to a conference through school, I try to make the most of the time spent in a new place.  This year, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is being held in Baltimore, which is driving distance for us, so the whole family is going! As usual, we're going to take in some sights along the way.

Although I don't always need to plan ahead when travelling somewhere (much to the surprise of one friend I spent time with in San Francisco last year), here's what I do when I choose to:
  • Create a new map in My Places on Google Maps.
  • Add the conference hotel and event location to the map.  I like to use the schoolhouse icon for the actual conference, and the bed icon for all lodging.  You can change the icons by editing the map, clicking on the location you want to edit, and then clicking on the icon.
  • If driving, look at the route and see what's nearby.  For this trip, we decided we wanted to stay a couple of nights in Vermont; even though it's not directly on the way, it's close enough, and the fall colours will hopefully be spectacular.
  • For everywhere you are staying, research interesting sights to see and restaurants you want to eat at.  Mark all of these on the map.  You can filter down later if you want to put together a schedule for yourself, or you can just pick and choose while you're there.  Having it all on the map will help figure out distances and driving/walking/public transit routes.
  • If you really want to make sure you're organized, create a Google Doc (or similar) for yourself to track your itinerary, research on hotels and sight-seeing, and conference scheduling.  I've been doing all that and more in my document for this year's Grace Hopper, but I'll soon start using the conference's mobile app to get even more organized.
Hope you find some fun ways to make the most of your conference travel, and maybe I'll see you in Baltimore!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Grad School + Baby: Why Tracking Time is Useful

Last week was the official start to the fall semester, which also marks my official return to being a student. This time, things are a little different: I have a baby to look after in addition to figuring out my thesis.  I'm turning to some time tracking techniques I've used in the past to ensure I still get the chance to do fun things with the family (like camping).

My most valuable tool in tracking time is Google Docs spreadsheets.  They are accessible everywhere, and I love that I can have a tab open in my browser all the time to quickly make note of time-related things (I pin my spreadsheets as 'app tabs' in Firefox so they don't clutter my workspace).

Lately, I've been keeping a spreadsheet to track when the baby sleeps.  Up until now, we've always let her nap whenever she fell asleep, wake up when she felt like it, and put her to bed when we went to bed.  But as I start to have others look after her, it'll be well worth having more of a routine (babies love routines anyway).  By noting when she sleeps, I'm hoping to notice patterns so I can start to get her into a set routine.  We've already managed to (mostly) get her bedtime routine started around 9pm, so that's a good start!

I'm also resurrecting the time sheet I used a few years ago to manage my school-related time.  Basically, I list the activities I'm working on for a week, separating them into thesis-specific tasks and other endeavours.  These days, I'm using the stopwatch on my phone to track my time exactly, since I get interrupted often when I'm alone with the baby.  You can check out this semester's template here.  I'm hoping this will help me determine where I need to put more effort, and help me get used to a much more disjointed way of working.

This semester is a bit of an experiment to see whether I can work in new ways and whether my intention of mixing me watching the baby with having family come watch her will work.  We'll see what happens by Christmas!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Anita's Quilt Launches Today

I'm excited to announce that a project I've been working on all year with some awesome women from the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology is launching today! We believe a personal story has the power to inspire, transform and shape others' stories.

Here is some info from the committee who put this together:

Anita's Quilt is an ongoing dialog of inspirational stories from women in tech supporting each other and individually striving to have more impact as technologists.

Today we begin publishing personal stories of actions that have increased impact. We start with a set of stories that highlight inspiring Systers. There are thousands of Systers (current and past) eligible to write stories, but we solicited just a few for this launch.

We are starting out with a story from Robin - Her Systers Keeper - on the general history and accomplishments of the Systers community, and will have new Systers stories through the Anniversary celebration at the Grace Hopper Celebration.
Help to spread the inspiration and forward the message to your communities!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The First Time I Don't Want to Go Back to School

Today is the first day back to school for a lot of people. It's been the same for me for many years, given that I have yet to leave school behind for good. But this time, I don't really want to go back quite yet.

I was only able to take 8 months of maternity leave. Well, I suppose I could have taken a whole year, but we decided that we couldn't afford to miss my income that long.  (Even though most people in Canada get a bit of employment insurance while on leave, I didn't due to being a student.) That 8 months didn't last nearly long enough.

The good news is that the transition into student life shouldn't be too abrupt.  I've actually been working on a couple of projects this summer, giving me a bit of a head start.  I've also got a taste of how things might go with me and Molly at home while I work.

I'm not getting full time day care.  I'm going to try working while looking after her some of the week, go into campus while her grandparents look after her once a week, and have her other grandfather entertain her a couple of afternoons while I work at home.

It will be interesting to see how this works out.  If it does, I will be very grateful that I can be working but not miss all of Molly's firsts.  (She's got a lot of them out of the way, including crawling, pulling herself up, cruising, and even standing a bit on her own, but she's still got walking and talking to do!)

And if it doesn't... well, I'll still be grateful that I got even the 8 months.  Not every country is so lucky to have good maternity leave policies and attitudes.