The Augmented Classroom
Carrying out group activities in a classroom is a difficult task that requires careful planning on the professor's part, as well as the students' cooperation. This is even more so in a distance-learning setting where the technology isn't always designed to support fluid collaboration and communication.
For our Usability Engineering class project, we conducted UX research and designed a technological solution to enhance the effectiveness of group activities for a distance-learning class. We identified challenges faced by the students and the professor, and created design mockups based on our qualitative insights.
My role involved leading the initial interviews and extracting the users' pain points through qualitative data analysis, as well as creating one of the design mock-ups.
Dr. Joe Gabbard (Professor, Industrial and Systems Engineering-ISE)
Xiaoyu Chen (ISE)
Shuyuan Liu (ISE)
Tianzi Wang (ISE)
Satyajit Upasani (ISE)
Dr. Alejandro Salado (Professor, Systems Engineering Course)
Donald Upham (WebEx Technician)
Interviews, Observations, Contextual Inquiry and Note-Taking
Understanding Technology, Environment, and Stakeholder Challenges
2) Analysis and Synthesis
Generate Design Requirements
Ideation and Metaphors
Scenario Generation and Storyboarding
The 'Systems Engineering' class at Virginia Tech was our candidate for the study. Firstly, we noted down who we were designing for-our stakeholders: 1) The Professor of the Systems Engineering Class, 2) The Online Students, 3) The In-class Students, and 4) The WebEx Technician.
In order to have a deeper understanding of the class structure and the challenges involved, we interviewed the WebEx technician about the tools and technologies used, and their implementation challenges. We also spoke to the professor and students about their technology-related challenges.
We conducted a contextual inquiry and participatory research by attending the class while in session, and logging in as distance-learning students to observe the interactions between the professor, the technician, and the online students in real time.
We created the following visual artifacts to help ourselves better understand and internalize the layout of the environment:
The classroom is equipped with two large television screens which are placed at the front of the room. One of them is used to display teaching materials such as course slides, videos, and the document camera. The other screen displays the WebEx interface with the list of online students and a chat window.
There are two microphones and a video camera in the class to enable the online students to see and hear the lecture.
The technician's room is equipped with computers that allow him to control the movable camera, the loudspeakers, and the microphones. The computers also enable him to manage WebEx sessions, and to communicate with online students via the WebEx interface.
The Stakeholders' Challenges:
The Online Students:
-Online students do not feel connected and involved with the rest of the class. Their questions and comments are significantly fewer compared to their in-class counterparts because they feel like they would "interrupt the class".
-During group activities, their microphones are disconnected from the class, in order to let them have a private discussion. However, this makes it difficult for them to contact the professor directly. They have to ask the technician to call the professor if they need a question answered during the activity.
-Also, during group activities, the online students are forced to form a single, large group, because the software version currently being used does not have a group-making or 'breakout room' feature. This causes some of the shyer students to refrain from participating.
-The professor has to exert mental and physical effort to engage the online students. It is difficult for him to keep track of the online students' progress, for the simple reason that they are "not as visible" as the in-class students. This likely contributes to the feeling of disconnect, leading to lesser engagement and participation.
-The professor wishes for a more reliable way to edit documents collaboratively with online students during group activities. With the current setup, the online students use a Google Document for their activity, which compromises the level of integration with the WebEx software.
-The professor is forced to go to the technician's room to view or edit the online students' work, and to have private conversations with the online students during the group activity.
The WebEx Technician:
-The technician has to act as the middleman between the online students and the professor during group activities. This includes the trivial and repetitive task of calling the professor when the online students wish to ask a question during group activities.
-This reduces the available time for more critical activities such as monitoring the WebEx system and ensuring its smooth function.
The In-Class Students:
- The main cause of frustration for the in-class students is a slowed-down pace, which is caused due to the professor's visits to the technician's room.
2) Analysis and Synthesis
We generated an affinity diagram based on our observations, categorizing our notes on the environmental, software- and hardware-related challenges faced by the professor, the online students, and the technician.
We also generated a work-environment model that visually represented the interactions between the various user roles and technologies. This helped us identify a unique challenge for each 'connection' between two stakeholders represented in the diagram.
Both of these artifacts helped us to generate design requirements from the users' challenges.
We realized from our analysis that the class would benefit from a novel interface that reduces the technician's trivial responsibilities such as connecting and disconnecting microphones, and being the middleman between the professor and online students. Thus we decided to design a direct link between the professor and the online students. These designs would be oriented towards simplifying collaboration and group-activities for the online students.
Thus, we set the following requirements for design:
1) A stronger audio-visual channel of communication between the professor and the online students.
2) A more effective and intuitive system to form online groups.
3) An automated system for controlling the microphone and loudspeaker transmission channels.
We moved on to ideation and sketching, using the insights we gained from the affinity and workflow diagrams. In order to design an intuitive and user-centered interface for the professor-online student interaction, we decided to draw upon the traditional classroom environment, as that is the most prevalent mental model of how learning occurs.
1) A stronger audio-visual channel of communication between the professor and the online students:
NOTE: I was the lead on this aspect of the design
It would be highly beneficial for the professor to be able to 'see' the online students and communicate with them just as easily as the in-class students. This would require, firstly, a large, immersive display showing the online students' faces, that is visible to the professor at all times during the lecture. Also, the professor should be able to interact with this video interface in a way that is natural, as if he were interacting with people who were physically present. An earpiece-microphone for the professor, as well as a gesture-interaction capability would be incorporated to make this possible. The following image is our impression of what this design could look like in the classroom:
2) A more effective and intuitive system to form online groups:
We looked at how students traditionally form groups in class, and realized that it is driven by the proximity to other students, as well as how well the potential group members know each other. Students usually look around the class while trying to balance proximity and level of acquaintance, and then proceed to shift in their seats or move to face each other. This 'clustering' of students was our basis for designing a group-making interface, with the metaphor being 'grouping around a table'. Such an interface would also enable online students to choose their own group-mates, which would help bring the experience closer to that of an actual classroom. The following image represents our idea:
3) An automated system for controlling the microphone and loudspeaker transmission channels.
This is a feature that would be embedded into our other interfaces, and is intended to reduce trivial responsibilities on the technician. We knew that there were specific situations that required the technician to change the microphone and loudspeaker settings, so that audio transmission was restricted between groups. Our design concept allows for more automated switching of audio channels based on the specific situation.
A Text-based Storyboard was used to guide our interaction design, and was particularly useful to visualize points in the task-flow that required switching audio channels. The task scenario involves forming groups in preparation of a group activity, and interactions during the group activity:
1. Group formation begins with the professor assigning a task to the class and asking the online students (OS) to form groups. The professor sets the number of groups that can be formed in the software and clicks on the ‘group-forming’ button to let students start to
*Microphones currently provide transmission through all channels, and all students can hear each other.
2. After the OS form groups, the professor walks around the class, observing the progress of both physical student (PS) and OS. The professor uses a tablet and headphones to connect and interact with the OS. The professor also has the opportunity to do gesture-based interaction with the large video projection, in addition to the tablet interface.
*At this point, the professor's voice should not be transmitted to the OS, as they are in the midst of a group activity.
3. The professor now wishes to speak with the OS. He sends a request to a specific group and the software connects him to that group. He sees and edits the group’s whiteboard using his tablet, while communicating exclusively with that group. After the discussion, the professor opts out of the group by pressing a button on his tablet.
*At this point, the professor and a single online group should be able to communicate with each other exclusively.
4. After the activity is over, the professor starts the class discussion, and all the OS can talk directly to the classroom; their microphones will automatically be connected to the classroom.
*Microphones provide transmission through all channels, and all students can hear each other.
Immersive Projection Screen
The following video shows our design mockup for the immersive video screen on the rear wall of the classroom. The icon represents the professor's gesture-based interaction, and is not an actual interface component. Generic 'person' icons have been used, however, an actual interface would have videos of the students instead.
When the professor selects Group 1, audio is transmitted exclusively between Group 1 and the professor. When the group is deselected, the audio channel to the professor is cut off, so that the Group 1 members may continue their discussion privately.
Professor's View (Tablet)
This design represents our mockup for a tablet interface intended for the professor. It demonstrates how the professor would initiate a group-forming activity and interact with the student groups.
Student's View (Laptop)
This design represents our mockup for a laptop-based interface intended for online students. It shows how the students can make their own groups, edit a document simultaneously, and also have a private interaction with the professor while doing the group activity.
The 'picking seats around tables' metaphor is clearly represented here.
We evaluated our design by conducting a design walkthrough with the professor of the Systems Engineering course, our Usability Engineering Professor, and two online students. The scope and timeline of the project allowed only for design mockups as the end deliverable, and not actual working prototypes. Thus, we decided that the walkthrough was the most appropriate evaluation method.
Primary feedback from the professors was that we had captured all the interaction challenges effectively, and generated solutions with high potential of mitigating these challenges. Our process indicated a perspective that was highly user-focused, with adherence to UX, Human Factors, and Human-Computer Interaction principles. We also submitted our report to the Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies (TLOS) Department at Virginia Tech as per their request, so that they could incorporate our findings into their ongoing research efforts. They were especially interested in our list of user-reported challenges.
The students were impressed with the group-forming feature, however, they noted that there might be confusion while forming groups if seats are blocked by people who you do not want to have in your group. The real world analogy is that ‘tables’ in classrooms are open for anyone to ‘sit’ in at any time, and students cannot control who ‘sits’ at their table. A proposed solution to this problem is to implement a feature that would allow students to click on the names of desired group members in order of preference, following which a computer algorithm would automatically assign students to different 'tables' by considering the top preferences of each student.
This was my first experience doing Usability/UX, and the most valuable lesson I learnt early on, was to not jump into the design/creative phase from the get go. It is of utmost importance to first identify user challenges and the goals of the project, and generate a design aimed at solving these challenges.
It is easy to ideate and 'design out of your head', but UX design is meant to be inspired by user needs and an empathetic, co-creative process.