For the past year or so I’ve been thinking about classrooms, how they work, and how we might use technology to improve them. I’ve been experimenting and building tools to do this in the online context, and, on Thursday last week, this work came to fruition with the launch of Handl — an app for social learning. We tested an alpha version with 120 BSc Computer Science students from University of London’s online degree. Their response blew me away, and so I want to share the experience with you here, but first let’s start with some context.

When the pandemic hit in April last year I, like most lecturers and teachers, turned to Zoom and Teams to adapt my classes for the online context. The initial sessions went well — in many ways teaching code is well suited to this mode of delivery. There was excitement as I was able to set code puzzles for students and let them answer in the chat, and many appreciated the access to recordings of my sessions accompanied by transcripts. However, Zoom and Teams were designed for business not classrooms, and as the pandemic progressed their now well-known pedagogical deficiencies began to be felt.

A contemporary classroom

To understand these it would be helpful to first consider the contemporary physical classroom. This is a busy environment with numerous intertwined streams of activity. Students learn actively by working collaboratively on tasks with their peers. Social learning in this manner, not only engenders deep learning as students reinforce their understanding through helping each other, but it also forms social bonds between students. The teacher’s role in this environment is one of a facilitator. They monitor students’ progress and engagement and perform interventions to help with points of confusion, motivate and keep students on task. Over time teachers become masterful at assessing the class’ learning through visual and aural cues. With this insight they seamlessly manage the workflow, gathering the class together at key points to review work or address common points of misconception.

By contrast, Zoom and Teams sessions presuppose a single work stream. Only one conversation can happen at a time and all eyes and ears must focus on what is being said. The tools for distributing the activity are scant and insufficient. Chat streams quickly become flooded, and important points get lost to more trivial comments. Polls and quizzes are a poor surrogate for the richness of classroom dialogue. Breakout rooms are equally problematic both in terms of monitoring the large number of rooms produced, but also in terms of the lack of agency that students feel as they are randomly distributed into video chat rooms with online classmates who feel like perfect strangers.

The result of all of this for my teaching was a gradual decline in the quantity and quality of interaction. Over time fewer and fewer students switched on their cameras and microphones, and soon I was talking to just a grid of icons. In this environment, only the most confident students felt able to contribute, and the dialogue quickly narrowed to just myself and them. To compensate I provided ever more material. Classes became teacher-led and passive, the sum total of interaction being a click of a yes/no button on a poll. It’s ironic that these contemporary technologies had led to such a retrogressive pedagogy.

Handl is my response to this situation. It has evolved through experimentation and iteration with Goldsmiths Computing students over the past year. It’s a browser-based platform which combines video-conferencing and social network mechanics to create dynamic multi-stream sessions. In these, instructors are able to move fluidly between different streams of activity, whilst learners self-organise according to their interests and needs.

Handl’s instructor dashboard

The platform has three types of activity: Raised hands, Study groups, and Micro sessions.

Raised hands are initiated by learners and directed at instructors. Learners complete a tweet length description of their query which might be a question, a request for feedback on their work, or a conversation starter that extends beyond the content of the session. The posted hands appear on all learners’ activity feeds so that others who find them relevant or interesting can follow them. The instructor responds by video callback which goes to the originator and any followers.

Study groups are for learner to learner activity and can be initiated by learners or instructors. Like the raised hands they have a tweet length subject and appear on the activity stream. Learners can join and leave study groups freely although there are maximum limits for the number of learners in a group at one time. One useful feature is that study groups can be set to replicate themselves as learners join. In this way an instructor can allow learners to self-organise into study groups according to some criteria or preference.

Micro sessions are solely initiated by instructors and directed at larger groups. Like the other activities they have a tweet length description, can be followed and appear on the learner activity feed. Cameras and microphones are switched off by default as the focus here is on conventional instruction. One useful feature is that micro sessions can be set to compulsory, so that when the instructor launches them all learners are brought from their current activity into the call. This is particularly helpful in gathering learners after a period of distributed activity for a plenary session.

Handl’s learner view

This gives a broad overview of what we presented to the students last Thursday. The module, Introduction to Programming, is one that I co-authored. The cohorts on the module range from 600 to 1200 globally distributed students, so while they are familiar with me through watching tutorial videos, I have no relationship with the students. Although I am very proud of the content we produced, the running of the module had always felt removed and bureaucratic. I was curious to finally meet some of this cohort and a little nervous about how they would respond.

To kick things off, we used study groups to organise the learners according to their interests. The groups had titles such as ‘I love programming for programming’s sake’ and ‘I just want to make games.’ Learners chose the title which resonated most with them and the study groups automatically replicated to accommodate the numbers. Once in their groups we presented the learners with a simple warm up task. As we instructors moved between the study groups we encountered lively conversations in full swing. Affording this small amount of agency to our participants had transformed their perceptions of breakout rooms.

Following the warm up we brought everyone back together via a compulsory micro session to prepare them for the next segment. This was something of a three-ringed circus. There was a group programming activity to be attempted in study groups, a choice of several micro sessions on programming topics, and finally raised hands were enabled and students were encouraged to post questions about their upcoming assignments. It was great to be able to offer the students this choice. At this point many gravitated towards the more passive modes of the micro sessions, but others raised hands and took on the group task.

Throughout the session I was struck by everyone’s excitement of having brought this global community of learners together. At one point I found myself in a study group with participants from Panama, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. Having spent so long watching video tutorials and communicating asynchronously, the students were delighted to meet each other and delighted to meet us. It felt like the module had come to life.

This is just the beginning of the journey for Handl. We have many more features to build and user tests to carry out. However, for me and my students this test proved that we can do better for real time online teaching than webinars. I’ll leave you with a few quotes from the student feedback.

“What I love about this platform is that its way more interactive in comparison to the other real-time formats. It makes it more interesting and less boring. Really loved it. Thank You”

“Considering we all are remote learners, sessions like this really helps in getting to know the teachers and other batch mates. In turn this will help in collaborating better while studying.”

“I really enjoyed this session! I appreciated getting to know my classmates — we’ve actually been continuing our conversations over Slack, which wouldn’t have happened without the session. There was a great sense of community that came out of the session as a whole.”

“The sessions were informative, I really liked the ability to be in groups and interact with my fellow colleagues and get to know them. Also, It was nice to have 1 to 1’s with the instructors and get to know them. Job well done guys :thumbsup.”

“Thank you and this makes the whole learning experience different. Please do it often, I loved it and learnt a lot and it was different from my routine.”

We’re looking for more partners to trial Handl. If you’d like to try Handl for your online class, workshop, or event then drop us a line at info@handl.ac

With support from University of London — Centre for Distance Education, and Goldsmiths — University of London

Classroom image by Metropolitan School — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8268115

Digital artist and educator — I work with hidden mechanisms, emergent behaviour, paradox, self-reference, inconsistency, abstract humour, absurdity and wonder.