InfoVis Course Diary: Update on Class Flipping

Flipping ClassroomMy adventure on flipping my InfoVis class is moving on. Here is a brief update on what is happening in class and a few small lessons learned during the first four weeks of the course.

Please keep in mind this is work in progress and pretty much a brain dump. I may in the future find that some of these ideas are not as brilliant as they look right now.

Students need more time than you think to develop their exercises in class. During the first three weeks I have consistently underestimated the time it takes to students to develop solutions for their exercises. My class lasts two hours an a half and it is barely enough time to develop an exercise fully. In the first two weeks I planned to have time for three different activities, now I know I have to basically focus on only one. Yesterday, I assigned a data analysis and presentation exercise (to be developed with Tableau) based on a real-world data set and the two hours an a half have been barely enough.

The exercises need to be broken down into smaller (timed) steps. It is very hard for students to mentally “digest” a complex exercise as a single unit. A much better strategy is to break the exercise down into smaller steps that lead to the final solution. A big advantage of this strategy is that at the end of each step I can comment on what the students have just done and how it connects to higher level concepts. I try to enable this generalization by providing comments and also asking a few direct questions. This seems to work really well. For instance, I broke the data analysis and presentation exercise down to: (1) familiarize with the data and its meaning; (2) generate analytical questions; (3) do data analysis in Tableau; (4) collect the results and organize them in a narrative; (5) write a final document. At each of these steps there are plenty of comment one can insert. I have also found that timing these steps and making the timing explicit and visible to the students upfront helps organizing the work and make sure that groups are mostly in sync.

Individual or group work? So far I have experimented exclusively with group work. None of the exercises I have assigned in class require students to work on something individually. My biggest fear is that group dynamics may actually play against students who are particularly shy or simply do not feel like doing the required work for that day. This is an aspect I still need to perfect. What I found so far is that simply walking around and offering help seems to keep the students alert and active. I also try to actively spot students who seem to be on the verge of  disengagement and encourage them to participate more. Yet, at the same time, in a few instances I found that my interventions was not needed and that students have a very clever and natural way to alternate between solitary reflection and sharing with the group. If anything, what I am learning is to trust the process and my students much more and give them freedom to organize their work as they wish.

Am I useful/needed after all? Let’s admit it. Standing in class and walking around without uttering a word does not feel as good as doing the somewhat self-righteous work of giving a lecture. I am no longer the main deal. Students don’t look at me, they have their heads buried in their problems. Is that bad? No. It’s actually good. But I keep asking myself, as the class unfolds, what is the best way for me to be useful here? It feels like swimming in a new kind ocean. My sense is that I still have a lot to learn. For now what I am doing is the following: (1) I make sure to be available for everyone and to devote the same amount of time to every group; (2) I check that no one is having major problems and/or being overshadowed by other students within a group; (3) I follow in real time what students are producing (see note on GDoc below) and make sure to stop at regular intervals to comment on what they are doing right/wrong and to channel their thinking towards elements of the exercise that generalize to other cases. An important note: I am not allowing myself to check my emails or use my phone, it’s so easy to be sucked in and lose focus. I am now some kind of coach and need to be totally focused on the class dynamics.

Room space and arrangement is crucial. In my room there is not enough space and we don’t have tables, only chairs with folding tables (which by the way I always hated as a student also). This is definitely not optimal. So, if you are reading this and are making plans for your class, try to get a spacious room with tables! In my case I literally force students to turn their chairs in a way that they are arranged in circles. I truly believe this is crucial to make sure students are actually working together. I actually tell them they should do it because I am worried they would develop neck pain if they do not turn their chairs, but it’s more because I want them to face each other :)

How about theory and principles (a.k.a. do they get it?)? I was explaining to a colleague the other day my flipping experiment and her concern was: “but are they getting the theory right?“. Good point. Is all of this active work going to translate into higher-level knowledge students will be able to internalize and transfer to other situations? The honest answer is: I don’t know. Yet, a few reflections are due here. First, there’s tons of education research in support of active learning. Students to get the higher level knowledge that is needed. Second, my experience is that students won’t get it when you lecture them either! This is the real reason why I am doing this. My hope is that applying the principles in practical exercises is going to cement the knowledge they acquire while reading and watching the video lectures. I am planning for some additional assessment later on in the course. Hopefully the results will be positive.

Real-time exercise development in Google Docs works like magic. I talked about how I use Google Docs in class before. I totally love it. Let me describe this again. Every single exercise I assign in class requires producing material that goes in a GDocs file (one for each group). I create a folder and ask students to put their files there. Since GDoc files update in real time, I can literally follow what each group is doing without interfering too much with their work. This is such a powerful tool! It feels like magic. Watching how the exercise develops enables me to figure out what is happening and intervene when necessary. Not just that, I can also use examples from one group, to show to all the others group positive or negative aspects of a given solution. And this is priceless.

Tableau is great for teaching. This week the exercise we developed in class requires the students to develop a solution with Tableau. While Tableau is not necessarily super intuitive all the time, it has the big advantage that moving first steps is extremely easy. Students can very quickly produce initial charts. When then they get stuck with something, I explain how to solve it, and some little learning happens. Another practical advantage of Tableau is that students feel like learning it is a good investment of their time: Tableau is very popular and highly requested in jobs applications. Finally, Tableau teaches students to think in terms of mapping data attributes to visual channels, which is the foundation of visual encoding; by far the most important piece of knowledge taught in a visualization course.

Ok … That’s all for now. I really hope you’ll find this useful. Your feedback and questions are very welcome!