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Centre for Advanced Research Computing


ARC is UCL's research, innovation and service centre for the tools, practices and systems that enable computational science and digital scholarship


Hack the (ARC) Teaching workshop

By David Pérez-Suárez, on 4 July 2022

Two weeks ago (20th – 23rd June) we ran an internal workshop in our group to reflect about our teaching activities. As any good workshop, it also included a fun hack day at the end to work on pet projects or ideas that we haven’t had the time to work on it before. This is a summary of these four days and a reflection for the future.

The workshop was set with two main purposes: review all the teaching activities we are involved, and learn some techniques to become better teachers. The workshop was attended by roughly 8 people every session, this contributed to allow everyone to participate. The event was fully hybrid, with roughly a 50-50% participation of people joining physically and remotely (the trains and tube strike shifted the participation towards a 30-70% towards the end of the week).  Thanks to the big screen and the semi-separated areas we have in our collaboration space, together with how the workshop was run with smaller physical and virtual small groups, contributed to a nice flow of the workshop.

Each day of the workshop was broken into two 2-hour blocks, one in the morning from 10:00 to 12:00 and one in the afternoon form 14:00 to 16:00. This helped to disconnect a bit, catch up with other commitments or have time to enjoy lunch in the park while recharging our solar batteries.

In terms of tooling, we used MS Teams as the conferencing tool (our calendars and the big screen are linked to it) – we also explored the breakout rooms feature it provides; HackMD and Etherpad for note-taking; Google’s Jamboard for collaboratively moving cards in a digital medium; IdeaBoardz to collect feedback; and tried (with only partial success) Visual Studio Code’s Live Share to pair-program during the hack day.

Now that the logistics and tooling has been explained, let’s dive into the content of the workshop.

The workshop started with a short review of the Carpentries instructor training lessons. That workshop lasts two full days, and this session lasted only two hours. Therefore, many things were not covered (like practising the teaching), however, we covered some basics about how learning works and how to create a positive learning environment. As any Carpentries workshop, they are full of activities and discussions, and we had good and interesting discussions. The afternoon of that day, we spend it discussing a set of uncomfortable scenarios that may happen during a teaching activity. These scenarios were created by Yanina Bellini Saibene for Metadocencia and translated by J.C Szamosi. They are a very useful resource to explore before they manifest in a real situation. The scenarios were distributed between the different small groups and then shared with the bigger group our suggested actions. Of course, sharing it in the bigger group was also a source of new point of views and ideas. We highly recommend doing this exercise to everyone who takes part in any teaching activity! The day finished with a review of the Science of Learning paper. As with the previous exercise, we distributed the sections across us and discuss it first in small groups and then as a whole. This is a nice quote about the paper from Sarah in our team:

I want to print this out and stick it all over my office so I can see it whenever I teach.

The second day was focused on our teaching activities and an overview of Submitty, the autograding tool we use in a couple of master courses we teach. We started with a set of lightning talks (aiming for 1 minute each, but all of us overran a bit) for each teaching activity we are involved in. Each talk has to describe the teaching activity with its topics, the audience to whom it is aimed to, the format, what is going well and what can be improved, and finish it with the challenges presented for next year – all that in one minute! We had 13 talks, some of these talks are from courses or workshops we run once a year, others are about courses that happen multiple times. Two of them were from the UKRI Data Science Training in Health and Bioscience (DaSH) projects we are involved with: IDEAS and Learn to Discover. The last one was a short summary of the teaching activities from our friends at Digital Education. The afternoon was focused on Submitty. First with an overview of how the system looks from the different point of views (student and instructor) and then how to set up the exercises. We completed the day with an exercise about thinking how to plan the autograding of two questions from past assignments. The main conclusion of this exercise was that for autograding to work, we need to be more specific on what we ask the students. This, however, may have its disadvantages as it limits the freedom of how the students may approach a problem.

The third day was an ABC Learning Design workshop led by Nataša Perović from UCL’s Office of the Vice Provost Education & Student experience. The workshop starts with an overview of the different learning activities types as described in Diana Laurillard’s work “Teaching as a design science”. We spent the practical side of the workshop, focusing on three of our courses. It was a very useful exercise that we should do more frequently to keep improving and fine-tuning our courses. In the afternoon, we learnt how to migrate our notes from Jamboard into the Learning designer tool from UCL’s Knowledge Lab at IOE. One cool feature that Nataša demonstrated to us is how our Learning Design structure can be exported into Moodle.

The last day was the hack day. We have a collection of mini-projects that we would like to work on, but that normally get postponed till we have the time… Well, finally the time arrived! We tackled four of these projects, two were completed quite quickly, and the other two got started (and that’s sometimes the harder bit!) and hopefully the inertia keeps them moving to a complete state soon. One project that involved an analysis of students grades included a good discussion at the start about the ethics and privacy of the project. This helped to make some decisions of which dataset we were going to use (e.g., the anonymous dataset provided by Moodle before the marks get released), and future ideas about how to clarify to the students how the assignments get graded anonymously.

That was how we’ve spent four days last week learning how to improve our teaching, reflecting on what we’ve done so far and planning what we can do to have better courses in the future. After the positive feedback and seeing how useful a focus week without other distractions can be, we may make this a recurrent annual activity!

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