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Christopher Douce

Computing and Communications: 2023 Research Fiesta

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 31 Jan 2023, 17:02

On 25 January 2022 I attended an event called the School of Computing and Communications Research Fiesta, which took place on the university campus. One of my reasons for attending the fiesta was to try to restart my research activities, having stepped away from research due to taking on a role called ‘lead staff tutor’ for the last three years. 

The last time I attended a school research fiesta was on 10 January 2019 (OU blog) which took place at the nearby Kents Hill conference centre. Following this earlier event, I shared an accompanying post about research funding (OU blog).

This event was advertised as a “… time for us to reconvene and discuss everything research. This event is aimed to help us (re-)connect with one another and understand how we can help and benefit from each other’s research expertise and outputs” and was facilitated by David Bush from Ascolto.

What follows is a summary of the Research Fiesta, in terms of what happened during the meeting, and what I felt the biggest take away points were. This blog may of be interest to anyone who was at the event, couldn’t make it to the event, or broadly interested in the process of research (whether computing research, or research that takes place within other disciplines).

Preparation

Before the event, we were asked to prepare some cards which summarised our research interests. Although I didn’t write the card in advance, I did come to the event with some ideas in mind. Here’s what I wrote down on three cards:

  • Understanding and characterising green computing: what it is, what the boundaries and problem are, and how can we embed this theme into our teaching?
  • Storytelling, soft skills, and software engineering: what role does storytelling play or could play in software engineering practice, and how might storytelling be used to develop soft skills in the next generation of computing graduates?
  • Accessibility of web technologies: how accessible are the current generation of web-based applications, and to what extent are hybrid apps accessible with assistive technology. How useful is WAI-ARIA? It is still useful? Does it have an impact?

Later during the session, I added two more cards:

  • Pedagogy of teaching programming at a distance: innovative tutorials; how to develop tutors, and how to help them to be creative, perhaps by embedding and using drama.
  • Development of writing skills across the computing curriculum. 

This final idea emerged from discussions with tutors, following some discussions with tutors, and might form the basis of a scholarship project. The university has prepared a lot of materials about writing; the question is whether the computing programme makes effective use of them, given the writing requirements from some courses.

Activity 1: Sharing research ideas

Our first activity could be loosely called “academic speed dating”. 

I’ve done this before (both the academic version, and the non-academic version). 

In this version, we were sent to various tables, where we met up with two other colleagues. Our task was to show our cards (our research ideas) and try to create a new card that combined aspects of all of our cards. When we had done this, we had to pin our cards onto the wall to share our ideas with everyone.

Activity 2: Forming research teams

After a short break, everyone was asked to form a line based on how much research experience everyone has. On one side, there were all the new PhD students, and on the other side, there were the professors and heads of existing research groups.

Approximately 6 PhD students and early researchers were asked to review the cards that had been generated from the speed dating activity, and each had to choose a card they found most interesting.  This card (represented by one of the researchers) would then form the basis of a new team of 3 or 4 researchers.

One at a time, the rest of the researchers were ushered over to speak with the new researchers. If you liked an idea, and there wasn’t already 3 or 4 researchers, you could join a team. The longer the game went on, the harder it becomes for the more experienced researchers. Instead, they would have to make use of all the powers of persuasion to try to join an existing team, or to persuade fellow researchers to create new teams.

After some discussion and reviewing cards, I joined two of my colleagues, Dhouha Kbaier and Yaw Buadu. Two project cards were combined together to create a new project. Paraphrasing our cards, our project intended to:

Develop digital technologies to enhance engagement and participation by integrating more physical computing into the computing curriculum. 

Accompanying research questions were: what are the challenges of using physical computing in a distance learning environment, and how might physical computing devices be connected to and integrated within the Open STEM labs

This final question suggests the opportunity to explore costs and trade-offs of a physical computing approach where students use their own equipment, or share equipment with other students through a platform which is accessed remotely.

What might physical computing actually mean? One answer to this is: physical hardware used by students to learn about or to solve computing problems, as opposed to using software simulations. There is a precedent of using (and sharing) physical computing devices at the university. In earlier decades, there was the Hektor computer (computinghistory.org.uk), which was once sent out to computing students (and then later returned to the university).

A more modern and smaller (and much more sophisticated) version is the Raspberry Pi computer (Raspberry Pi website) which can be used with any number of interesting computing projects.

One other aspect that we discussed were about the stakeholders, and who might need to be involved? We identified the following groups: students, tutors, module team members, and administrative university functions.  (The members of module team may include both tutors and curriculum managers, who act as a fundamental link between the academic team and operations of the university bureaucracy). 

Impact: evaluation and presentation

The next bit of the fiesta was a presentation; a double act from two colleagues from the research school, Betul Khalil, an Impact Manager, and Gareth Davies, who is a Research Evidence Impact Manager. 

They began with a question: what is impact, and can we give an example? 

Impact isn’t the same as project outcomes. They are very different things. An outcome might be a report, or some software. An impact can refer to a change that may have led to a positive long term benefit to stakeholders. In terms of the UK Research Excellent Framework (REF Impact case studies), impact could mean a change to society, the economy, and to the natural environment. Also, a measurable change might be on a local, regional or international scale.

The message to us was clear: when working on a project bid, researchers need to proactively consider impact from the outset and define impact objectives, since gathering effective evidence to show how those objectives may have been met takes time. In some respects, impact evidence gathering is a further part of the research process.  To do it well, researchers need an impact plan to accompany a research or project plan. 

We were all given a handout, from which I have noted down some useful questions that researchers need to bear in mind. These are: 

  • Who are the stakeholders, and who might be affected by the change your project may facilitate?
  • What do the stakeholders (or beneficiaries) gain from your research?
  • Why will they engage with your research?
  • How will you communicate with beneficiaries?
  • What activities might you need to run to effect change?
  • How might you evidence change? 
  • How will you connect change to your research?

Later, Gareth talked more about what it means to ‘evidence’ impact. An important note I made from Gareth’s presentation was that “upsteam planning is important” and that the analysis of impact should be rigorous. Researchers also need to consider which methods they use to enable them to find a way to observe what is changing. 

Apparently, one of the most common forms of evidence is a written testimonial (in the form of a testimonial letter). Within this assertion lies the reflection that researchers need to make sure they have the time and the means to gather evidence.

Activity 3: How will we do our project?

Our next activity was to sit around a table to figure out how were going to do to answer our research questions.

We began by asking: what might the outputs from our project be? We came up with some rough answers, which were:

  • Guidelines about how physical computing could be embedded and used within module teams. If used within a module, tutors could then be offered some accompanying guidance.
  • Recommendations about physical kit that could be used (these kits might be bought, or borrowed, or used from a distance); recommendations about the use of software; recommendations about pedagogy and use (which is an idea that can relate to the idea of useful guidelines). 

To produce these, what needs to be done? Our team offered the following suggestions (but the exact order of carrying these out could be easily debated):

  1. Examine learning outcomes within various qualifications and accompanying modules.
  2. Explore the problem space running focus groups with stakeholders to understand how the terms engagement and participation are understood.
  3. Use mixed methods: from the focus group results, carry out a survey to more thoroughly understand how a wider population understands engagement and participation.
  4. From these different information sources (and input from the learning outcomes) facilitate a number of curriculum design workshops to understand how physical computing can be brought into the curriculum.
  5. Carry out a detailed analysis of all the data that has been captured, writing up all the findings.
  6. Implement the findings.

A further reflection was each of these activities needs to be considered in terms of SMART objectives; specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound. 

A new question that we were asked was: what impact will your project have? 

Given that students are key stakeholders, there might be broader impacts in terms of results to the National Students Survey. There might be further impacts both within the university, and to other organisations that provide distance learning. There might also be impacts that could be broadly described as the further development of computing pedagogy. This is all very well, but how might we go about measuring all this? It is this question which the facilitators from the research school may have wanted to encourage us to consider.

What happens next?

 After presenting our plan to all the other groups, we were asked a couple of final questions, which were: how excited are you about the project? Also, how doable (or realistic) is the project?

Given that we all have our own main research interests (which are slightly different to the new project that we have defined), we all had different levels of enthusiasm about going ahead with this project idea. That said, the key concepts of physical computing (in its broadest sense) and student engagement are important topics which other researchers may well be interested in exploring. Even if this particular team may not be in a position to take these ideas forward, the ideas are still worth exploring and studying.

Reflections

I really liked the way that we were asked to focus on trying to get things done. 

When thinking about research (and research projects) impact has always been something that has always been at the back of my mind, but I’ve always tended to consider it as something that is quite intangible and difficult to measure. The presenters from the research school made a really clear point. They emphasised that it is important to plan for impact before your project has started.

A personal reflection is that impact could be thought of as a way to reflect on the success of a project. In some respects, this should be something that researchers should be doing as a matter of course to further develop their professional skills. Of course, the extent and nature of this analysis will depend very much on the nature of the research that is carried out through a project. Given the collaborative nature of research, gathering of impact evidence is likely to be collaborative too. 

It is interesting to compare this Research Fiesta with the one that was held in 2019. One of the differences being that there were a lot fewer people attending this event. This might have been a factor due to the timing (some new module presentations were just about to begin) or a hangover from the 2019-20 pandemic (where so many colleagues switched to homeworking). 

An interesting difference related to the structure: this event was facilitated in a dynamic way, where the research themes emerged from the participants. The earlier event had more emphasis on sharing information about the research groups within the school, and more of the practicalities about how to gain funding for research. There is, of course, no right or wrong way to run a research fiesta. I appreciated the dynamic structure, but equally I’m always up for hearing about new concepts and ideas, and learning about what is happening within and across the school.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Amel Bennaceur for organising the event. One of the impacts has been to get to catch up with colleagues, and to learn more about them! It was a pleasure working with my fellow group members, Dhouha Kbaier and Yaw Buadu who kindly reviewed this blog article before it was published.

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Christopher Douce

C&C research fiesta: getting research funding

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 27 Jun 2023, 16:03

This is the second in a short series of two posts that summarises some of the highlights of a ‘research fiesta’ that has held by the School of Computing and Communications. This post summarises some of the points that were made during a panel session about research funding.

The panel comprised of four professors (if I’ve counted correctly), a research manager from the STEM faculty, and was facilitated by our director of research, Robin Laney. Although the focus was about research funding, it could have also easily had another title: how to become a professor.

Here’s a list of some really useful tips that I noted down about gaining research funding: 

  1. Think about how you might go about forming a working relationship with a funding body. This might mean keeping an eye out for different research related events that they run. Networking is important. Take time to speak to them.
  2. To develop relationships with funders, join mailing lists, check their websites and respond to calls for advice and consultation activities.
  3. Take time to understand the motivations of a funding body and what their priorities are. Simply put, the closer a research proposal or bid fits the aims and objectives of a funding body, the higher the probability of success.
  4. As well as understanding their aims and objectives, take time to understand the processes that they use, both in terms of bid submission and also in terms of how bids are evaluated. A key tip here is: talk to colleagues who have been successful and know what the procedures are.
  5. Always try to play to the strength of the university. Each institution is unique.
  6. Consider projects or proposals that are a little ‘left field’; proposals that are slightly unusual or explores an unexpected area may cause interest and intrigue.
  7. Look for new funding programmes. Getting in early might benefit both the funder and the organisation (and project) that is funded, especially as the funding programme builds up experience and finds its distinct focus.
  8. Successful bids often have components of interdisciplinarity and collaboration. Unsuccessful bids don’t present a clear story.
  9. Find collaborators who are able to work between disciplines; these are rare people who can help with the writing of project bids and proposals.
  10. Find external stakeholders who have a lot to gain from their involvement in a project. When describing this, present a clear project narrative that others can easily understand.
  11. When working with collaborators and stakeholders, make sure that you give them plenty of time to create supporting documents, such as letters of support. 
  12. Think in terms of teams. Working with a team of people means that funders might see certain bids as being less risky. Use your team to read and review your bid.
  13. Learn how everything works. Become a bid reviewer and seek out opportunities to sit on funding panels. The experience of reviewing other bids is invaluable.
  14. Speak to your university ethics committee early (and show that you have done so).
  15. Think about creating what could be described as a portfolio of ideas to work on at any one time.
  16. Smaller grants can be important; small grants can lead to large ones. Small grants can help researchers and research groups to develop their experience and expertise.

Summary

There are lot of really helpful points here. The biggest points I took away from this session was: be strategic (consider your portfolio of interests), look at what funding bodies are doing and what they are doing, and network to find collaborators, and build a team around project bids. In essence, take a collaborative approach. 

Addendum

This is late breaking edit, to share an article that was shared after the fiesta, which has the title: 25 research tips and strategies. It is worth a look.

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Christopher Douce

Computing and Communications: Research groups

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 29 Jan 2019, 08:33

On 10 January 2019 I went to my first ever Research Fiesta that was held by the School of Computing and Communications! I’m still not exactly sure what a research fiesta is, but what I attended was a fun event.

This is the first of a two part series of blog posts about two key parts of the event. This post is a quick summary of all the research groups that exist within the school (including the one that I’m affiliated with). It has been compiled from a series of short five minute presentations that were made by the group conveners. The second post shares some key messages from a panel discussion that was about research and research funding.

Introducing the research groups

All central and regional academics (lecturers and staff tutors) can join a research group which aligns with their research interests. Looking towards the future, where the terms of associate lecturer terms and conditions may change, there may become a point where ALs may also able to become affiliated with research groups in some way (this is a hope and a reflection that is above and beyond my pay grade).

In some respects, research groups in universities come and go depending on the academics that are employed within an institution and institutional and school strategic priorities. What follows is the current configuration of the groups. If you look back on this post after, say, a decade or so, things might look very different.

SEAD: Software Engineering And Design

The SEAD group, the Software Engineering and Design research group isn’t just about researching software that runs in a computer; it also studies how software engineering relates to real world applications. The domains of application that the groups have studied has included: policing, health care, aviation, and sustainability (farming). These external domains of application are becoming increasing more important. An aim of the school is to have more PhD students.

This wider focus reflects the orientation of the school, in the sense that it is about studying and teaching about the connections between computing and people (as far as I understand it).

TERG: Technology and Education Research Group

TERG, the Technology and Education Research Group (group blog) is a large group; it has around 30 members and a third of the group are staff tutors. The focus of the group is to study the use of technology for learning and teaching. It is closely link to another research group called CALRG which is within another faculty, known as the Computers and Learning Research Group (group blog) and has hosted a number of STEM scholarship research projects that have been funded by eSTEeM, the OU centre for STEM pedagogy. TERG has recently run a number of events, including writing away days (for research publications) and workshops about methods and theories.

AI and NLP group

This group covers the subjects of artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing and also aspects of music computing. There is a movement towards an increasing amount of focus on ‘deep learning’. 

NeXt Generation Multimedia Technologies

XGMT (research group website) was formed in 2005. If I’ve got this right, XGMT has got a connection with a number of OU modules, including TM255 Communication and Information Technologies. Some of the areas of research image processing and mobile communications.

Interaction Design Research Group

Interaction design is primarily about how to design usable software systems and devices. Members of this group have got a strong connection with the module TM356 Interaction Design and the User Experience and key areas of research include: digital health and wellbeing, animal computer interaction, designing future interfaces (which means looking at physical interfaces and haptic devices – devices that rely on our sense of touch), and music computing. Recent activities has included submitting research to the CHI series of conferences, and also participating in public outreach events.

Critical Information studies

The aim of this group is to interrogate and to understand the notion of information from critical perspectives. There is an important emphasis on the analysis of power, the application of ethics and the consideration of politics. Subject areas and topics that connect to this theme include artificial intelligence (AI) and big data. A critical question that the group address could be, for example, whether algorithms and the data that they use can inadvertently produce prejudice that is reflected in the data that those algorithms consume. Members of this group have contributed to both undergraduate and postgraduate modules. The group has recently run a successful conference and aims to increase their outreach activity.

Reflections

It was really helpful to hear about the different groups. A thought that immediately came to mind was: I have interests that span these different areas. 

Although I’m a member of TERG, my postgraduate research was more closely aligned to the work that goes on within the SEAD group. My own personal research (and teaching) journey took me off in the direction of interaction design which, of course, has its own group. The point here is that there are many connections and links between these different groups.

There is another link that is really important, and that is the link between the groups and the undergraduate and postgraduate modules. Research carried out within these groups can (and should) directly feed into the design, development and updating of modules that are created by academics within the school.

An important question to ask is: what was the biggest lesson that I learnt from all this? My answer would be: an increased awareness of the breadth of research that is taking place within the school. By knowing about these group and the research that takes place within them I have a more direct understanding of who might be able to help me if I had a question about, for instance, what topics are important in a subject area. In a discipline such as computing, where so much is subject to continual change, understanding who to go to is really important.

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