APT 2019 Submission

This is the submission that Jenny Scoles, myself and Timothy Drysdale drafted for the APT 2019 conference and which will be presented there on 1 July 2019.

Opening up the black-box of educational technologies: a Non-Traditional Practical Work pathfinder


Students studying STEM subjects are known to benefit from active learning approaches. Large student cohorts, limited estates and staff resources prevent many institutions from reaching their aspired level of active learning, forcing them to consider Non-Traditional Practical Work (NTPW) as a complement to traditional labs. The commercial software market in this area is fragmented, and small. Therefore, it is unlikely to see a strong commercial presence that would preclude the academic sector of making a creative contribution. We argue that this is a fortunate position, which must be foregrounded and protected in future academic practices because the uncritical acceptance of black-boxed technological activities is likely to hinder students’ learning, and reproduce inequalities and perhaps even ‘bad’ practice. Further, relying on external suppliers limits the potential for student co-creation of active learning resources. Adopting an open-source approach, however, which is driven by the sector, for the sector, solves both problems by allowing in-house developments of activities that can continue to evolve under a critical gaze, whether developed by staff, and/or students. This paper presents an exemplar open source approach within engineering education and considers the institutional implications for wider academic practice.

Session Description

With a growing focus on developing graduate skills relevant to professional practice, there is an increased emphasis on active learning approaches within STEM subjects. However, large course cohorts and physical estates pressures mean that it is near impossible to scale traditional laboratory provision. Technological approaches, including non-traditional practical work (NTPW) (such as remote labs, simulated labs etc), offer opportunities for meeting this challenge. Such technologies tend to be niche though, with few commercial suppliers and a relatively fragmented market place. Whilst this can be challenging in a sector of diverse capacity and resource, we believe that the necessity to build rather than buy creates particular educational opportunities that should be embraced and championed where possible (Walker, 2018).

The most potent benefit we see of a build-it-yourself approach is the opportunity to develop learning technologies critically and in ways that are well aligned to professional practice. If academic practitioners unquestioningly subscribe to bought-in technologies, they accept that the processes and sociopolitical choices of the manufacturer have been folded into the technology and solidified as a “black-box”.  This mode of operation then acts as ‘matters of fact’ (Latour, 2004) and risks prematurely solidifying learner’s attitudes, approaches and practices.

However, if we focus on developing software ‘in-house’ using open source software, then this has consequences for how we treat the learning process because the relationship between the students, staff and technology becomes more dynamic, more local, and hopefully, more critical. The way software is designed is situated in the course design, and more responsive to the needs and realities of the professional practices associated with the discipline. Local staff and student designers are more comfortable with how software works and its possibilities (material affordances), so can support students to enter into learning spaces that invite tinkering, playfulness and surprise. Designers can share the design process with other students to discuss what is being asked of them: What values have been inscribed into the software? What ethical dilemmas does it produce? This positions the technological artefact as ‘matters of concern’ (Latour, 2004).

In this presentation, we will describe a specific learning technology intervention that was built by an academic practitioner for a first year Engineering course, and reflect on some of the implications of this approach for institutional academic practice more widely.

Coding in Context: Engineering Design

Engineering students were tasked with designing and building a solar panel that could track the sun. The course allocated a one hour lecture and a 90-minute tutorial to support this activity. To make this time as useful as possible, a problem-based learning approach was adopted. A web-app was built that simulated a solar panel installed on a hill, with accurate sun movements. To develop student digital literacies as part of the activity, a facility for programmatic control of the solar panel orientation was included. There were threshold concepts (Meyer and Land, 2003) that needed to be understood, such as subtracting the signal from one sensor from another in order to work out the error in the orientation of the solar panel.

The design problem was introduced in the lecture, as an example of a control problem found in multiple applications. In the afternoon session, students worked in groups of 6-8 at tables with a large monitor, and collaboratively programmed the simulation via the web-app. No lab sheet was used to emphasise the focus on exploration. Also, there was no formal collection of the final output, and no marks were assigned. A range of solutions were achieved, from some students who were still performing basic exploration of the interface, through to students with near complete solutions. One output was very creative although very inefficient – but the student pointed out that efficiency had not been specified as a criterion!

Although the activity was not assessed, verbal guidance was available in the room and the intervention was designed to provide feedforward into the larger design activity. Through student surveys pre- and post the activity, we detected that it reduced anxiety about the complexity of the design task within the cohort. Logs from the web-app also show significant use on the following day, suggesting that students were compelled to keep exploring or reach a satisfactory conclusion even though the activity was not assessed. The web-app source code has since been released under an open source license for re-use or remix to support future similar activities.

Implications for Academic Practice

  1. Institutional digital education strategies need to reflect on the potential of open source software in supporting innovation and flexibility. Particularly in emergent areas of learning and teaching, practice is not fixed and learning technologies need to iterate and adapt over time. Open source software also offers exciting potential for student co-creation of learning technologies.
  2. Similar to the emerging role of the Research Software Engineer, a new type of learning technologist role is required; one who can code and re-mix digital assets in collaboration with academic subject experts, and support students in co-creation endeavours. Learning technology designers need to be reflective, critical and modest about the software they create; being able to treat it as ‘matters of concern’ – an on-going, unstable object that should not be taken-for-granted. This will help support students to play, and interrogate the political, social, and ethical decisions that went in to its design. This requires a different way of thinking about the social and technical; that they are not treated as separate domains but are entangled together and perform as sociotechnical enactments (Orlikowski, 2007). This has important implications for educationalists who are used to framing the development of ‘social skills’ and ‘technical skills’ as distinct domains.
  3. In supporting a wider culture of sharing, re-use and re-mix, it is important that academic practitioners’ thinking behind designs is consistently shared along with source code, to avoid the potential for “black-boxing”.
  4. Academic development efforts need to support colleagues to champion the use of feedforward to their students to prepare them for more formal assessed tasks.
  5. Lecturers/tutors need to support students to work in uncertainty while reducing anxiety. Whilst a complex task, we have shown that this is possible through NTPW.


Latour, B. (2004). Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical Inquiry, 30(2), 225–248.

Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practising,
In: Rust, C. (ed.), Improving Student Learning – Theory and Practice Ten Years On. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), pp 412-424.

Orlikowski, W. J. (2007). Sociomaterial practices: Exploring technology at work. Organization Studies, 28(9), 1435–1448.

Walker, J.M. (2018). The future of education is open source. Accessed: https://open.edx.org/blog/future-education-open-source.

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