Why study philosophy? Advice for prospective students

I was asked by our philosophy department to write an almuni profile, to be used at open days etc. This is it, with an explanation of why I think philosophy is such a useful subject to study

Dr Robert O’Toole NTF, Philosophy 1991-1994

I studied Philosophy at Warwick, gaining a first, between 1991 and 1994. In 2015 I completed a PhD on Design Thinking. I’ve worked at Oxford University and Warwick as a pioneer in the field of learning technologies. My current role as Senior Academic Technologist and National Teaching Fellow at Warwick is a kind of consultancy and strategy role, aiming to improve how we do teaching, and to enhance the technologies and services that we provide. It’s an extremely varied, exciting and challenging role that draws on my capability for seeking and synthesising information from many sources, critical and creative thinking, facilitating collaborations, and designing innovative events, systems and services. In fact, it depends upon all the skills that I first developed through studying Philosophy at Warwick!

I made sure that I got the most out of those three years, and took all of the opportunities available. I was President of the Philosophy Society for two years, and organised and chaired lectures and seminars with many guest philosophers, often big names, from around the world. I now get paid a lot of money to do very similar work. I also edited and wrote for our newsletter, helped to set up a magazine/journal, and did my own independent research – all very much like the work that I now do. I’ve got a really good, and highly paid job, with an international profile, because of this. Most importantly, I can apply those powerful philosophical skills, along with a rare combination of other capabilities (designing, IT, teaching, communications, consultancy, leadership) – the kind combination of skills that is most sought after by the best employers today.


How I fell in and out of love with the iPad Mini: a self-reflective design study

By Dr. Robert O’Toole

When I started my PhD in 2010 the bag that I carried around with me everywhere contained the following tools:

Apple iPad Mini 2
Stylus (for writing and drawing in the iPad)
Apple Bluetooth keyboard
Apple iPhone 4S
Canon Ixus compact digital camera

By the time that I finished my PhD in 2015 this had transformed into:

13” Apple MacBook Pro
Apple iPhone 7

It wasn’t that my choice of tools was somehow wrong in 2010. Rather, it was me that changed – my needs, practices, ambitions. When that happens, it’s useful to reflect on the transformation. There might be useful design knowledge to be uncovered about how tools, practices and people fit together differently over time. We might try, as Microsoft have done so, to use that design knowledge to create a device that is broad enough in functionality to the fuller range of needs, to fit in all possible cases. Or we might place more of an emphasis on optimising the fit of each device to a smaller niche. Apple are closer to this quality-first strategy. In any case, we (consumers and producers) need to drive our design decisions based upon an understanding of how tools, services, platforms and content:

  1. fits with the evolving capabilities, needs and ambitions of people;
  2. sticks with them over sufficient time to justify the cost and effort needed to choose and adopt new things;
  3. spread to other people and other contexts, so that more people are able to benefit from the advantages offered;
  4. grows our collective capability to reflect upon the designs that we use, improve them and change them where necessary.

Let’s think about my technology journey, and then think about yours and where it might go next. Back in 2010 I can remember doing a lot of creative thinking, which really means a lot of speculative exploration of ideas, information…all kinds of things, during the process of getting my research into shape. Kick-starting a PhD is in fact nothing like the deterministic process it is claimed to be – you rarely start with a research question fully formed and proceed in a linear fashion from there onwards. Some disciplines are more emergent than others – but even in science there’s great scope for things to change as research proceeds. For me, at the start, I had to capture inputs from many sources. I actually started with an iPad 2, with its bigger screen. The original iPad was of no use. It lacked a key feature without which it would never fit with me: a camera. To be able to photograph things, including pages from books, copy them onto a canvas alongside other images and content, and annotate – that was essential. Then I learned to take screenshots on the iPad. So, I could clip text from Kindle books, PDFs and web pages. Sound recordings, and even video, were occasionally added to the mix. The iPad, especially the Mini, was so convenient a digital canvas, so instantaneously accessible, that it dramatically accelerated the creative aspect of my research. It proved to be what designers call a “ubiquitous computing” device – everywhere, all the time, able to mediate between the digital and the analogue.

The addition of a Bluetooth keyboard to my iPad Mini added something even more powerful – the ability to swiftly move from creative, speculative, playful mode to a more concentrated and serious writing of texts. In her classic book Computer as Theatre, which is a seminal text for interface designers, Brenda Laurel shows how the computer may usefully contain these two modes, and provide conduits from playfulness to seriousness and back when writing (or designing) a document:

“Seriousness in human-computer activities is a thresholdy thing. “Serious” and “non-serious” or “playful” activities can occur within the same context and at different stages in the same basic activity. I fool around with the layout of a document, for instance, experimenting with different fonts and paragraph styles, the placement of illustrations, perhaps even the structural divisions of the paper. At the point at which I make a creative decision and wish to implement a certain feature of the design, I experience a “mode swing” (like a “mood swing”, only different) toward greater “seriousness”. I may then swing back to a “fooling around” mode as I evaluate the effects of a choice on the evolving document.” (Laurel, 2013)

The iPad Mini was a perfect fit when my work focussed more upon the creative side of this seriousness/playfulness dynamic. It fitted with me, my needs and my ambitions (to write an extremely original PhD) perfectly.

Another revolutionary aspect of Apple’s implementation of mobile computing proved to exploit Laurel’s design principle, with massive implications for how we now expect the world to work. The App Store, through which apps are found and installed onto iOS devices, was at the time astonishing. Every other similar mobile platform has now copied it, and transferred it to more sedentary types of computer. Before the App Store, software spread very, very, slowly. Just a few years back in time and we had to buy software by going down to a shop or ordering a CD from the Internet, or even a magazine. But that’s not the most interesting thing about the App Store. It makes innovation spread fast. Many times, I have learned about an app from someone I am talking to, sometimes even a complete stranger, and within seconds I have it on my device. I can explore it, evaluate it, and perhaps very quickly delete it. The App Store approach introduced the dynamic of playfulness and seriousness into the software (and technology-practice) retail business. Many times, I played with an app. A few times I found that it fitted perfectly, or even transformed my understanding of my own needs and ambitions. Stop-motion animation is a good example. I had no idea I would like doing it and actually find it useful, until I tried an app. And then I got serious about it. The iPad Mini proved to be a superb tool for growing my own design capabilities.

So, what happened? A thesis, that’s what. The “fit” between my needs, capabilities, ambitions shifted a little. The MacBook Pro is a little more suited to writing huge quantities of academic text quickly. The keyboard is especially good. The screen is a bit larger. And I can sweep between desktops instantly with a movement over the trackpad. This is especially useful when moving between source materials and a focus back onto the text. At the same time, I started to produce a lot of short videos for my work. There is a version of iMovie for the iPad, but the Mac version is faster and more fully featured. A few other things acted to nudge the balance, and by 2015 the iPad Mini had been donated to my son. The iPhone 7, especially with its superb camera, made up for some of the missing features. I often read and annotate Kindle books with it. I can take a photo on the iPhone, and using the cloud, get it into a canvas on the MacBook almost instantly. It’s good enough. I’ve also started using Keynote, Apple’s (much more stylish) equivalent of PowerPoint. I use it’s diagramming and image manipulation features to do playful designs that can easily become something to use seriously.

What of the future? I haven’t yet tried a Microsoft Surface device, which sits somewhere in between the MacBook and the iPad. Although the astonishing reliability of the MacBook is encouraging me to stick with it for now.

Update – February 2020

I now use my MacBook Pro and an iPad together. I’ve got one of the recent iPads, 9″ – just the standard model, but with maximum storage. And i’ve got an Apple Pencil, which is far more than just a stylus. It is angle, pressure and speed sensitive. So like using real pens, but with the additional benefit of being able to easily switch type and colour of pen. I use it mostly with Apple Keynote. I create diagrams in Keynote, as I’m developing my ideas. Sometimes I later develop the diagrams into finished products. Sometimes I just use them to help me think, write and show things to other people. Using iCloud, my Keynote sketches are immediately available on the MacBook.

20 ways to use ResponseWare

The following activities may be conducted using ResponseWare:

1. Attendance registration – students, signed into the system using their username and password, indicate their presence in the room in response to an attendance poll, the teacher sees a list of students who are present and a list of those who are not, the data may then be analysed, downloaded, or uploaded through a VLE integration (e.g. Moodle).

2. Revision exercises – may occur towards the end of a module, near to exam time, or regularly throughout, often at the start of a lecture to revise what was covered in a previous lecture.

3. Introduction, ice-breaker, warm-up – an intensive series of questions at the start of a lecture, to get the students in the right frame of mind.

4. Maths and statistics – ResponseWare includes a ‘numeric response’ type of question, in which students must respond with the correct number, or within a specified range.

5. Enhancing student engagement by more frequently testing understanding and providing micro-feedback – the most common use of ResponseWare, the aim is to prevent teacher-actions and student-understanding disengaging, as the teacher is able to quickly judge if the students have understood a topic and are ready to move on, and the student is able to recognise their own understanding and progress.

6. Peer learning – the teacher asks the students to discuss a question before, or sometimes after, they answer it, perhaps asking them to discuss their response with someone who has a different response (the method pioneered by Professor Eric Mazur of Harvard University).

7. Confidence-based testing – the teacher poses a question, does not immediately provide the answer, asks the students to state how confident they are (via a Likert scale question in ResponseWare), then reveals the answer and gets the students to reflect on the accuracy of their self-efficacy assessment (especially important in disciplines such as medical training, but also used in Economics – pioneered by Dr Fabio Arico of UEA to address the Dunning-Kruger effect amongst students).

8. Rhetorical questioning – the teacher poses a question that is deliberately designed to highlight misconceptions, contentions, false assumptions, leading to deeper investigation and discussion, and potentially to dispelling errors that prevent students from mastering threshold concepts.

9. Gathering creative responses – ResponseWare includes several mechanisms for gathering ideas from the audience, including a system that builds a word cloud from the responses.

10. Decision making – allow students to make choices, with straightforward voting on a list of options or arranging options into ‘priority rankings’.

11. Crowdsourcing choices and definitions – questions and answers can easily be added during a session, meaning that we can gather ideas from students (for example alternative definitions of a word), add them as questions, and get them to vote on them (this has been used at Warwick in medical research).

12. Working against the clock – the teacher is in control of how long students have to respond to a question, they can do this manually, or add a countdown timer, thus encouraging the students to think fast – this can be used within a rhetorical question to force students to respond intuitively or based on perhaps unsound assumptions.

13. Enhancing student engagement through competitions – competitions may be between individuals or the class may be divided (before or during the live session) into teams, points awarded for correct answers, and scores automatically compiled into a leader board.

14. Speed scoring – when the teacher records and tracks individual student performance, or polling is used within a competition, points scored may be adjusted for speed, so that faster responses gain higher grades.

15. Gathering instant student feedback – in addition to making inferences based upon responses to ordinary questions, the teacher may explicitly ask for feedback at any time during a lecture, simply by adding an anonymous feedback question.

16. Module evaluation – more comprehensive feedback surveys may be conducted quickly and efficiently at any time, combining the benefits of gathering feedback in-class (not later online) with the benefits gained by doing this in a digital (not paper) format.

17. Learner/learning analytics – with the ability to download data into Excel or Access (as csv files) or upload data into the VLE, we may easily apply sophisticated analysis algorithms to data from individual or multiple lectures, looking at learning gain and other dimensions from an individual student or group perspective.

18. Demographic learner/learning analytics – we can create demographic groupings before or during lectures, and analyse responses accordingly (for example, if we are teaching students from two different disciplines, we can analyse the differences between their responses).

19. Evaluating the impact of specific teaching and learning activities – using the learning analytics potential of ResponseWare to evaluate the efficacy of specific teaching techniques and activities, testing (for example) the constructive alignment (Biggs) between Intended Learning Outcomes, Learner Activities and Assessment Activities.

20. Social, outreach and fun uses – we have also seen ResponseWare used in many contexts beyond the conventional lecture, as it is an easy to use and fun set of tools.

A diversity of learning space uses

Design challenge: can we design a single flexible space to support all of these uses? What design tricks can we use to make it possible? What needs to be done to make it sustainable? What are the rules that users need to follow to enable this?

What’s your approach to learning and teaching?

For a series of VR workshops that we are running next week, we want the participants to give us a very brief view of their approach to learning and teaching. This is an example of the kind of thing we are looking for, to put their responses to VR into context. The prompting questions are:

Briefly explain what you aim to get out of the teaching and/or learning that you do. What matters most about the design and implementation of teaching and learning? What values are important in guiding the choices you make in what you do and how you do it?

And an example response (by me as a student, although it could easily be recast as being about my approach to teaching):

I study what might be called “the philosophy of design” and “designerly practices applied to everyday life”. I’m very much motivated by wanting to improve the world, through helping people to work more effectively together in understanding their collective interests and shaping the things that they do. So I’m not a particularly career-minded or instrumental kind of learner. But I carefully choose what I engage in, so as to use my precious time and energy to find ideas and practices that will help me with what I do. I like some lectures – but only when they are really engaging and social. I don’t really like seminars, as I have always found them to be too short and too contrived. I like to formulate my ideas through writing, but am increasingly experimenting with other media, including diagrams, photography and video.

A problem with assessment in super-selective institutions

“As argued in Chapter 1, good teaching narrows the initial gap between Robert and Susan therefore producing a smaller spread of final grades than that predicted by the initial spread of ability. The distribution of results after good teaching should not be bell shaped but skewed, with high scores more frequent than low scores. At university level there is therefore every reason not to expect a bell curve distribution of assessment results in our classes.” Biggs & Tang (2011) Teaching for Quality Learning at University (4th edition), p.200

In a super-selective university this is even more so. If we assume a high quality intake, with very narrow spread of capabilities, then the eventual attainment spread should be extremely narrow. When we look at a student who achieved 65% (student 1) and compare them to a student who achieved 80% (student 2) in reality that difference might mean very little. The difference might simply be the product of entirely extraneous variables, random events (student 1 having a cold during exam week).

Unless we can demonstrate a difference in kind between the high achiever and the slightly lower achiever, this is meaningless. It might be (and I think I see this happening) that academics invest much into the identification and application of those differences in kind – “student 2 really got it, they have become a proper philosopher/physicist/economist”.

“The categories of honours (first class, upper second, lower second) originally suggested qualities that students’ work should manifest: a first was qualitatively different from an upper second, it was not simply that the first got more sums right.” ibid. p.210

But that then is also open to subjective biases. Biggs and Tang don’t really seem to have an answer to this. But they are very much entrapped by their strict adherence to definitive “intended learning outcomes” within the system of constructive alignment. Hussey and Smith’s alternative combination of ILOs and “emergent learning outcomes” within an “articulated curriculum” leaves room for student creative input, risk taking, genuine innovation, individuation and other (possibly) less determinate characteristics of learning as research/innovation/creativity. As such, the curriculum offers opportunities for more significant and transformative student input, and consequently aspects of student transformation-through-learning that can be meaningfully assessed and reported upon. Having experienced such learning activities, and achieved unforeseeable outcomes, the student is more likely to value and build upon their success. Thus the learning itself, and the transformation being evaluated, is a more reliable indicator of the student’s future capabilities. And that IS what we are looking for when we assess students in the university.

“The extent to which emergent learning outcomes (ELOs) contribute to the achievement of intended learning outcomes (ILOs) varies. Some emergent outcomes are relatively close to the intended learning outcomes and can be perceived to contribute directly towards their achievement. The contribution of others is less direct, being capable of inclusion on the basis of their contribution to the student’s knowledge of the subject in general, whilst the contribution of other emergent learning outcomes is to the field of studies in general and might be included on those terms. Yet other ELOs contribute to the overall development of the students as autonomous, self-managing learners, far beyond the field of study.” Hussey & Smith (2003) “The Uses of Learning Outcomes”, Teaching in Higher Education, Vol. 8, No. 3, 2003, pp. 357–368.

Understanding and shaping student engagement live and online

This lecture was originally created as part of the LDC APP PGR course, introducing postgraduate research students to teaching. I’ve done it in various forms now (from 30 minutes to 2 hours) and it is always really good. It is all about designing to gauge and shape behavioural, emotional and cognitive engagement. The longer version includes some advice about using online tools. This is put into the Warwick context, where most use of online is to “sustain and amplify” good class teaching – the Extended Classroom approach.

Peer-learning methods are used in the lecture, with ResponseWare, to illustrate how we can understand and shape student engagement. Simple MCQs are used in some cases, with and without set answers. Text based responses to some questions are also used, with results presented as a word clouds. There is also a numeric response question (about how often one should stop and prompt student thinking and discussion during a lecture) with a range specified as correct.

I’ve added notes to the slides to explain what I was doing and how I used ResponseWare.

Posters about H5P

Here’s a couple of posters that I have made to publicise H5P, now available in Moodle at Warwick. Click on an image to download as a PDF file.

Posted in poster by Dr Robert O'Toole NTF