InfoVis Course Diary: Flipping My Class and Other Innovations

flipped-classroomLast week I started a new edition of “Information Visualization“, the course I give at NYU Tandon, my university. With this blog post I am starting a new series, similar to the one I did a couple of years back, in which I write about the course and ideas that originate from my experience while teaching it.

In this first post I want to talk about new ideas I am implementing, in the hope this will be inspiring and helpful to other instructors like me. Last summer, I spent quite some time reviewing education research and reading books on the topic (while preparing my NSF CAREER), and I felt I really needed to change a few things in the way I am teaching. Here are some of the more most prominent ones.

Flipped classroom model. For the first time this semester I will be using a flipped classroom model. In this model students read assigned material and watch my recorded lectures (which I had recorded in previous semesters) at home. Time in class is entirely spent on feedback, discussions and exercises.

Why do I do that? First, because throughout the years of teaching I learned that I am the most valuable when I am giving feedback to my students, not when I am lecturing. The get the best out of me when I show them what is a better way to solve a given problem. Second, because lectures allow (encourage?) students to be totally passive and to disengage (a weird kind of luxury given how much it costs to be an NYU student). When this is then compounded with how pervasive digital distractions are in today’s classroom, this is a perfect recipe for disaster. Finally, I am just bored of spending two and a half hours talking and seeing everyone progressively “fade away” (together with my voice).

Last week I gave my first “flipped class” and I believe it went very well. There are a few things I’ll need to fix, but overall it seems to work. It’s work in progress and I expect to learn a lot.

Each week I ask my students to answer a few questions about the readings/videos I assigned them to read/watched and I use their answers to provide feedback to everyone at the beginning of each class. Three benefits: (1) I now have time to review all students’ responses before going in class (as opposed to preparing the lecture); (2) I can cluster them into major themes/issues and use this information to improve the course; and (3) since I discuss this in front of the class, everyone can hear what I have to say and still reacts and benefit from it. Next week, I’ll assign the first hands-on exercise in class. I am hopeful this also will work just right.

Decoupling grading and assessment. This is another no-brainer I figured out only a few months ago: assessment and grading do not need to coincide. The main goal of assessment is not to assign a grade to each student, but: (1) to inform the instructor about how much and what students are learning and (2) to inform the students about what aspects of the assigned material they still need to work on. When you see it this way, it transforms completely the way you think about assignments and exercises. I am relieved by the burden of turning everything into a grade and at the same time I now see this as my little tool I use to decide what to talk about in class and tweak it.

In my new model, assessment and grading are decoupled. I use assessment to guide myself and the students, and grading, through a test later on to give a final grade to a given set of modules.

Of course, I still need to check that students are actually doing the work I ask them to do at home. For this reason all my assignments are mandatory and graded only on a pass/fail scale. My students know that their final grade will be affected only slightly by these assignments but at the same time they know they must submit and take it seriously. In short, it’s hard to fail and your grade is rarely affected, unless you do not take these assignments seriously (in which case you fail badly).

Promoting self-awareness and ownership. This is a hard one. One I am still struggling with. What I noticed in the way we teach, is that we give too little responsibility to students to “own” the burden of becoming knowledgeable in a given topic. While structure, syllabi, grading, etc., have their role, they also have a dark side: they allow students to just blindly follow whatever they are asked to do as automaton; without self-reflection and criticism. This is not a good model. Life out of school does not work this way. It does not matter how good your grades are, what really matters is learning about how to be responsible for your own education and empowerment. In the real world, nobody is feeding you with a spoon, you have to figure things out on your own (jobs where this happens tend to be crap by the way) and this is a way bigger lesson than actually learning the very content of the course.

So now … How do we encourage self-awareness and ownership? It’s hard. And I can’t say I have figured it all out. But I am carefully inserting little exercises and questions to encourage students to reflect more on what they are learning an why. For instance I would ask in the reading response things like: “why do you think this is important?” or “how are you going to apply this in the future?” or “how does this fit in your current and future knowledge?“. This is an area where I want to learn more. For now, I am just moving baby steps. If you have some ideas to share with me, I would be more than happy to learn!

Putting even more emphasis on “vis basics” and UI design. As a visualization designer and researcher, what I have learned throughout the years is that: (1) it is very rare for an “unconventional” chart to beat a conventional one; (2) it’s much more effective to learn how to use (and tweak) a few basic charts, then to explore a very large set of new fancy solutions as a first step; (3) you always need to start from the basics to realize they don’t work, and then change it. With this in mind, I am putting even more emphasis than usual in teaching students how to use well the most basic charts that cover fundamental combinations of 2 or 3 attributes (most charts out there don’t go past beyond 3).

Other than basic charts such as bar charts, heat maps, line charts etc., I’ll spend some time on maps because they are pervasive and are used in virtually every single data visualization job out there. Whereas I am growing way more doubtful about networks and trees. The heretic side of me is willing to heavily reduce the amount of time I’ll spend on them or even cut them out completely. I know many will harshly protest about this, but that’s the way I am thinking right now. Apologies.

A second aspect of my course is my focus on “analytical interfaces“: I teach students how to build interactive visual applications to help people make sense of data. I am teaching CSE students and I want them to acquire a special skill very few people have.

What I noticed in past editions of my course however is that students inevitably end up in a situation where they know how to design a single good chart/view, but have no idea whatsoever how to tie multiple charts and interactive components together in one complex UI. When you think about it, it’s astounding how little information and guidance exists out there on how to do this properly for analytical interfaces! This semester therefore I’ll put even more emphasis on this aspect and I’ll design new material to address this gap.

Asynchronous real-time communication tools to use in class. I started using Slack to communicate with my students inside and outside the classroom. I was fed up with the jurassic tools my university provides to communicate with students and I felt I needed a more direct connection. Slack is just perfect. Now I have a specific team for the course and receiving messages from students does not clutter up my (sacred) email inbox anymore.

But the most surprising advantage of Slack is that I can use it to communicate with my students in class! I know … It looks counterintuitive. But the thing is that in class, especially now that everyone is very active, there is often the need for me to: (1) send a link or document of some sort to everyone and (2) ask students to provide information to me asynchronously but in real-time. This second use is particularly useful. I can for instance ask a question and tell students to write an answer in Slack. This way they have time to work on it and I have time to process the results and produce feedback of some sort while they are working.

I am doing something similar with Google Docs: I assign an exercise to groups of students and ask them to produce the results in a Google Doc. As they do that, I can monitor what they are doing and intervene when necessary. For instance, I can identify issues with one group and help them directly, or sometime I can simply write a comment in the document and they’ll see it coming from me. I will experiment much more with these tools. So far, my experience is extremely positive.

Book suggestion. There is much more I have learned about new/better ways of teaching over the summer. I could go on forever. I just want to conclude suggesting an amazing book I read which inspired many of the changes I am making in the course. The book is “McKeachie’s Teaching Tips“. There are many good books around, but this one covers a lot in a small space. It’s a fantastic starting point to get the basics on a given aspect related to teaching. It provides an overview and lots of references you can then use to dig deeper if you want. It’s highly recommended.

This concludes my first entry for this semester’s course diary. I’ll write again as soon as I have more to say.

Hope you’ll enjoy it!