Ideas on the documentation and interpretation of interactions in a classroom environment

Some rough notes of some ideas I hope to work on, potentially as part of my PhD program.

My Masters degree thesis was based on the use of social network and discourse analysis in an online course to attempt to understand the differences in student activity and interactions in two different online platforms and course designs. Tools like Gephi and NodeXL are available to anyone teaching online, to feed the data (system-generated activity logs, raw discussion text, twitter hashtags, search queries etc.) and get a powerful visualization of how the students interacted. It struck me that the tools are so much richer for online interactions than they are for offline (or blended) face-to-face interactions.

As part of our work in the Taylor Institute, we work closely with instructors and students in classroom-based face-to-face courses, in support of their teaching and learning as well as their research and dissemination about what they learn while teaching (and learning) in the Institute. That is something that could definitely use visualization tools similar to Gephi and NodeXL, as ways to document and share the patterns of interactions between students in various experimental course designs and classroom activities.

There are several layers that need simultaneous documentation and analysis in a classroom, including at least:

  1. Environment. The design of the learning spaces and technologies available in those spaces.
  2. Performance. What people actually do while participating in the session.
  3. Learning. This includes course design, instructional design, and the things that people take away from the session(s).


At the most basic level, this includes the architectural, design, and technology integration schematics. What are the dimensions of the space? Where is the “front” of the space? What kinds of furniture are in the space? How is it arranged? How can it be re-arranged by participants? How is functionality within the space controlled? Who has access to the space during the sessions? Who is able to observe?

This kind of documentation might also be informed by theatre research methods, including scenography, where participants document their interpretation of the space in various forms, and how it shaped their interactions with each other (and, by extension, their teaching and/or learning).


What do people (instructors, students, TAs, other roles) do during the session. This might involve raw documentation through video recording of the session, which might also then be post-processed to generate data for interpretation. Who is “leading” parts of the session? What is the composition of participants (groups? Solo? Large-class lecture? Other?) Who is able to present? To speak? To whom? How are participants collaborating? Are they creating content/media/art/etc? How are they doing that?

There is some existing work on this kind of documentation, but I think it gathers too much data, making it either too intrusive or too difficult to manage. Ogan & Gerritsen’s work on using Kinect sensors to record HD video and dot matrices from a session is interesting. McMasters’ LiveLab has been exploring this for awhile, but its implementation is extremely complicated and couldn’t be replicated in other spaces without significant investment, and would be difficult in a classroom setting.

This layer might also be a candidate for methods such as classroom ethnography or microethnography – both of these methods provide rich data for interpretation, but both are incredibly resource intensive, requiring much time and labour to record, analyze, code, and interpret the data. I think this is where the development of new tools – the field of computational ethnography – might come into play. What if the interactions and performances could be documented and data generated in realtime (or near realtime) through the use of computerized tools to record, process, manipulate, and interpret the raw data to generate logs akin to the system-generated activity logs used in the study of online learning?

There are likely many other research methods employed in theatre which might be useful in this context. I’m taking a research methods course in the fall semester that should help there…


Most of the evaluation of learning will be domain-specific, and within the realm of the course being taught in the classroom session. But, there may be other aspects of student learning that could be used – perhaps a subset of NSSE? Rovai’s Classroom Community Scale? Garrison, Anderson and Archer’s Community of Inquiry model?

What might this look like?

I put together some super-rough sketches of what microethnographic documentation of a classroom session might look like. I have a few ideas for how the documentation may be automated, and need to do a LOT more reading before I try building anything.


on learning spaces and technologies

As an institution, we design learning spaces and select learning technologies, and implement them in ways to make them available to enable and enhance student learning. But, the design decisions made in the development, selection, and implementation of these resources shape what is perceived to be possible. The resources may not be technically restrictive to specific usage patterns and pedagogies, but through design decisions there are paths of least resistance that will naturally be found.

We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.

-Marshall Mcluhan

Rooms will tend to have a natural “front” and “back” if there is a large projection screen on one wall. Even if flexible and mobile classroom furniture is provided, the common usage pattern will be rows facing the front.

Physical structures themselves can be seen as artifacts that communicate nonverbally.

-Strange & Banning, 20011

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Even though tables are on wheels, and chairs are movable, they gravitate toward the natural “front” of the room. In the photo above, there is actually another large screen along the right wall (opposite the windows) with an independent projector. But it’s largely ignored, and chairs might as well be bolted to the floor in this configuration.

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Another room, in the same building, designed without a “front”, and with highly movable and individual furniture. The room looks different every time I see it. There is a projector, but it’s on a cart, because it needs to point someplace different each time it’s used. Even the pillar in the middle of the room gets used as a natural way to divide the room into quarters, without needing walls or barriers.

Rooms typically have a front because it’s easiest to do it that way. It’s easier to set up. It’s easier to reset between sessions. It’s easier to clean. It’s easier to maintain. Many of those reasons aren’t learning-focused, so we wind up with institutional and historical paths-of-least-resistance defining how spaces will be used. But it doesn’t need to be that way. The JISC InfoNet Learning Spaces website contains a wealth of resources that provide suggestions and provocations to design spaces to be learner- and learning-centric.

Learning science indicates that successful learning is often active, social, and learner-centered. However, with the multiple responsibilities of faculty, staff, and administrators, as well as the large numbers of students most campuses serve, ensuring successful learning without the support of IT may be impossible. Individualization and customization are laudable goals for instruction; they are also time intensive. With the appropriate use of technology, learning can be made more active, social, and learner centered — but the uses of IT are driven by pedagogy, not technology.

– Oblinger & Oblinger, 20052

Basic decisions, like “where is the screen, and how big is it?” define what the room will be used for (no matter what the stated goal of flexibility might be). Basic technology like “have whiteboards everywhere” makes the room useful and flexible. Having seats not bolted together, or spread around tables, makes the room inherently more reconfigurable – even if the tables are on wheels. Tables suggest a way to use them. It’s difficult to overcome those subtle suggestions.

Similar patterns exist in learning technologies – whether physical devices like projectors and screens and podiums (podia?) or software-based resources like learning management systems or student response systems or discussion boards.

Audrey Watters is working on a book on the history of teaching machines – Chapter 1, on “Programmed Instruction”, looks at how some intentional (and unintentional) design choices made during the early development of what is now called “educational technology” has saddled us with decades of baggage and historically adopted-and-forgotten-about decisions. Her recent article on the history of multiple choice testing machines uses the concrete example of multiple choice exams becoming hardcoded into optical scoring machines. Multiple choice tests typically have no more than 5 possible choices, because of the physical limitations of printing the sheets and on the optical scoring device on detecting student answers. And yet online exams still maintain a similar pattern despite not being limited by either printing or optical scanning.

What other historical and technological implementation details have framed the perceived possible uses of learning technologies? Why are discussions typically linear and threaded, rather than more network-based and organic? Why are learning management systems typically institution- and course-centric, rather than learner-centric?

More importantly, how can we critically analyze our designs and implementations to question these inherent historical-and-not-learner-centric patterns?

The mission of EDU in the new Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning is to “build teaching and learning capacity by creating networks of practice, supporting technology integration, and promoting evidence-based approaches in order to enrich student learning experiences.” To do this, we will need to constantly critically reflect on what we are doing, on what instructors and students are doing, and how the decisions and actions shape the learning experience.

  1. Strange, C.C. & Banning, J.H. (2001). Educating by Design: Creating Campus Learning Environments that Work. John Wiley & Sons. San Francisco. []
  2. Oblinger, D.G. & Oblinger, J.L. (2005). Is it Age or IT: First Steps Toward Understanding the Net Generation. In Educating the Net Generation. EDUCAUSE. Retrieved from []