Tools are not systems – interactive lectures done right

This post is my entry for Indie Web Carnival July 2024 with the theme ‘tools’.

What is a tool, as opposed to a machine or a system? One important property is that a tool leaves you, the tool-user, in full control. A good tool becomes an extension of yourself, increasing your capabilities without restricting you. It doesn’t make decisions on your behalf. It gets out of the way, allowing you to directly interact with whatever you’re using it for – disappearing into the background.

When I teach large scale lectures (dozens or hundreds of students), I want to be able to really interact with students. This means not just running a poll or two, but having actual back-and-forth conversations around those polls and other questions. And I want to do that digitally, because relying on raised hands and students speaking up means I’d only ever be talking with a few usual suspects who are comfortable doing that in a large group.

A tool for live teacher-student interaction must meet the criteria above. If it’s in the way, if there’s too much friction, limits, or distractions – either for me or for students – it just wouldn’t work. But every polling/audience interaction app that I’ve looked at seems dead set at doing too much, too rigidly, and with too much fluff. They’re systems. They get in the way. Which makes them utterly inappropriate for use in teaching, in my view. Education is something you make together in the moment. It’s a creative act. Teaching must be responsive and flexible – otherwise, why be in a room together?

During the pandemic, I built hacked together my own online lecture platform. It was wonderful. It allowed me to have super direct and free-flowing live interactions in lectures with hundreds of students, but without all the distractions and overhead this comes with in videoconferencing apps or on Twitch or YouTube.

A screenshot of a livestream combined with polling buttons and a chatbox.
A screenshot of me during an online lecture under lockdown in 2021, from the view of a student. Note the plain black background. No unnecessary distractions and other fluff.

This past year – back in meatspace – I’ve kept using my system for multiple-choice polls and many-to-one chat in my lectures. My own tool is so simple and direct that it does allow me to feel like I’m actually having a conversation of sorts with hundreds of students at the same time. It’s fun!

Photo of me on stage lecturing in a large auditorium, with a screenshot of the screen superimposed.
Me on the stage of Delft University of Technology’s largest auditorium in September 2023, showing a PowerPoint slide with a multiple choice question, poll results, and an overlay showing one student’s reason for their answer. (Screenshot superimposed over the projection area for clarity.)
Photo of a laptop screen showing PowerPoint presenter view and an OBS window.
What my laptop screen looks like during a lecture: PowerPoint presenter view on the left, OBS on the right with the many-to-one chat and polling controls. I can see students’ names, but those are not show when I put one of their messages up on the projection screen. And they can also choose to be fully anonymous. (Photograph because OBS doesn’t fully show up in screenshots.)

If I’m being honest, ‘simple’ might not be the best description. It’s basic, yes, but it requires hacking together some very amateurish PHP code with Powerpoint through OBS, and it relies heavily on my input for stuff that could (for an actually competent programmer) be automated or otherwise simplified.

But even though it requires skill and concentration on my part, it really does function as a tool. It gets out of the way. It doesn’t require any setup beforehand or shoehorning my questions into fixed formats like all those ‘proper’ polling apps do. I can use it to do what I planned to do, or I can decide – on the fly – to ask completely different questions. Students can ask me anything at any time without disrupting the flow of the class. And I can show those student questions and responses on the screen with the push of a button – if and when I choose to do so.

(Ow, and this thing doesn’t require any sign-ups or cookie banners. After a lecture, all the data just disappears. Zero tracking.)

I think more apps should be tools in this sense. Especially in education. Ed-tech is often way too complex and frictionfull.

If only I had better coding skills and more time to make this thing usable for others 😋.

My sketch- and notepad

This post is my entry for Indie Web Carnival June 2024 with the theme ‘DIY — Something from (Almost) Nothing’.

I like using stuff that’s discarded or otherwise just lying around. Not only from an anti-consumerist and environmental viewpoint, but also just because it’s fun te see how far you can get with scrounging from what’s lying around.

Lots of paper gets discarded while only one side has been used – if that. The recycling bin at work is often filled with good as new, uncrumpled paper printed only on one side: misprints, handouts, once-read reports that were cleaned out of a drawer somewhere, leftover assessment forms or attendance lists, etcera. Sometimes it’s two or three sheets. Sometimes whole stacks.

I collect these to fill my sketch- and notepad: a simple stack of paper with a cardboard back (also scrounged from the recycling), held together by a big black binder clip. I have a 10cm stack of free refills in my office drawer. It grows faster than I can use it up.

My sketch- and notepad
Some of its current contents: leftover forms, datasheets, misprints

The fact that the paper is free and saved from the trash means there’s no ‘is it worth the nice paper in my nice sketchbook?’-decision moment before making a quick drawing, diagram, or list.

And the fact that it’s loose-leaf means that I can easily:

  • spread out stuff on the table during a meeting as I fill each sheet (I’m often the first and only one at the table who starts making a quick diagram or visualization. Works wonders.)
  • collect related notes and sketches that I want to keep in a set of manilla folders
  • leave sheets with explanatory sketches with students after having a discussion with them (they love this!)

I’ve been this set-up it for years now. A+ would recommend!

Diversity and Encounter

“Meaningful diversity”, writes Anna Lowenhaupt Sing in The Mushroom at the End of the World, is “diversity that might change things.” (p38)

The difference between a transaction and an encounter is the creation of a relationship and therefore a change in those who’ve encountered each other. A transaction ends. A meeting is only a start.

Is education – teaching a course – a transaction or an encounter?

On Design Report Structures and Different Kinds of Prototype Tests

When presenting the results of a design project, including a prototype test, I tend to recommend this chapter order:

  • Concepts and Selection
  • Final Design
  • Test / Validation

This order is based on typical peer reviewed papers presenting the ‘design and validation’ of ‘a novel device’ or something. It also assumes a substantial difference between the final design and the chosen concept that is not the direct outcome of exploratory testing with a prototype. This order works well when the test is aimed at validating a specific part of (the performance of) the design. The final design, in this set-up, functions as a type of hypothesis, that is then empirically tested.

In a course that I teach where students usually dive right into prototyping after concept selection, this order doesn’t always work. And it’s confusing for them. Especially for those students who end up effectively using (early versions of) their prototype as a sketch model to discover things about their concept and to iteratively develop their design. There is also little time available in this project (and too little technical knowledge amongst these particular students) to really develop the design as a whole very much after the concept selection.

In these cases, it would probably work better to change the order:

  • Concepts and Selection
  • Prototype test
  • Final design

You might even skip the ‘final design’ section entirely in favour of a discussion of future development. The prototype test, then, becomes not so much a focused validation of one key element within a larger complex design, but more an exploration and/or proof op principle of the chosen concept, more a validation of (the choice for) a certain solution principle than of a full design.

Dust and salvage

In the coda to her book Dust, Jay Owens writes that destroyed landscapes and ecosystems cannot be ‘saved’ or ‘restored’, that it makes more sense to think in terms of ‘salvage’ – to repurpose, rebuild, reform into something new. Improved, but never back to its previous state. Start with what’s still there and nurture it. Regrow, don’t repair.

This seems to be as giving up, but optimistically. Accepting that what is gone is gone, letting crumble and disappear what is beyond hope and salvage, but at the same time hopefully building back.

Perhaps that’s the approach to take with universities as well. Instead of trying to drag the dead wood of the current structure and leadership back to something resembling what it’s supposed to be, accepting that that’s never going to happen and look for ways to start regrowing something in the cracks.

I like it when I can close the door

This post is my entry for Indie Web Carnival May 2024. It’s my first time participating.

I started making little zines like this (this is #4), and this seemed like a good topic for one. It’s fun making these. A cover and three spreads is just enough to make it challenging to come up with enough fun variations on a (graphic) theme. But it can also be done in 10 minutes. Low effort. Low stakes. But you make a thing!

Creativity needs boundaries. In time, physical space, and scope.

Ironically, I wanted to join the Indie Web Carnival last month when the topic was ‘good enough’. But for that round I had an idea to do something too polished. Which means I didn’t even start. Only this month did I commit to just doing it. Quickly and in one go. No polishing. Spent half an hour, including documentation. Good enough is good enough.

EDC

Looking around for a new backpack, I fell down the rabbit hole of Every Day Carry (EDC). It was simultaneously nice to get into a new product category, with all the enthousiasm for good design that comes with it, and kind of troubling to discover how consumption-oriented this supposedly minimalism-loving subculture is.

It’s all men. And even though everyone is super particular about their water bottle and having the correct pouch for it, no-one seems to be carrying any food. No lunch boxes. Let alone fruit. When you search for ‘EDC fruit’ all you get is knives!

The size of these ‘everyday carry’ collections also seems to be based on a car commute. Huge bags with a lot of stuff…

After watching countless videos of people zipping up pouches and tetrissing everything into a bag just right, everything in its proper place, I did get that same feeling as I sometimes get from reading a good novel that really puts you into a different world and atmosphere. Zipping up my headphone carrying case and dropping it into my old backpack, I suddenly noticed how viscerally pleasing that can be. It suddenly clicked why you’d spend so much effort thinking about the way you carry and store your everyday stuff.

I also got another familiar feeling, though. Something I notice at work, with engineering. The feeling of being interested in/enthousiastic about the same thing as an existing community on the surface but noticing a fundamental difference in values that makes me not want to be a part of the club…

Luddites, progress, and mansions

In the introduction to Blood in the Machine, Brian Merchant points out that the workers who started smashing machines at the turn of the 19th century had never been taught to see technology as inherently progressive.

We have. And not just that. Also that technological change – or ‘development’ – is both unavoidable and desirable.

For some reason this remark reminds me of the architecture students I’m working with at the moment who’ve been given a brief to design ‘a sustainable home’. Many of them are designing massive mansions. Constructed of rammed earth, or floating on water to be climate-resilient, but hardly ‘sustainable’. All of them, I think, are designing free-standing single household houses. And most wouldn’t even house a family, they’re one bedroom affairs, perhaps with a study.

Isn’t a sustainable home by definition a collective home? Something terraced, small, or built for collective or multi-generational living?

It really strikes me how little even those in a creative and in some ways highly socially conscious and critical field such as architecture seem to be thinking of redesigning the way we live. The form of our technology.

Perhaps that why that remark by Merchant brings up this experience: the ingrained assumption that the technology and design of society are one some fixed, natural, unavoidable path. We’re just along for the ride. With little more agency that to build a fantasy mansion or two.

Design decisions are a set, not a series.

Design decisions are taken in the context of the design as a wole. That whole is subject to change throughout the design process. Therefore, logically speaking, all design decisions remain up for debate and themselves subject to change throughout the design process.

This is highly impractical, of course. In practice, therefore, important decisions are ‘frozen’ at some point during a design project. In practice, the reason for some decisions then becomes something like ‘because that follows from what we decided earlier’ or ‘it would cost too much to change’.

Aspiration and the View from the Inside

The philosopher Agnes Callard argues in her book Aspiration that it is possible to want to become something you cannot yet understand. That it is possible to rationally pursue a way or view of life of which it is currently impossible for you to judge the value. For example, to aspire to become a music lover, a parent, the kind of person who enjoys long walks – or a designer.

There is a paradox here because it is impossible to (fully) judge the value of achieving such goals before achieving them. So how can you pursue them rationally, Callard asks. Their value is only properly visible from the inside, to those who have already become music lovers, parents, walkers, or designers – those who have already passed through the looking glass.

This may be a good metaphor to use when explaining this predicament to design students and teachers. That experienced designers have stepped into a world or bubble that can be described accurately, but only to those who are also inside. As if they’ve put on a AR headset and now see things the other simply doesn’t. Also similar to the difficulty of explaining or characterizing a new taste to someone who has never eaten a particular snack or food. There is a truth to how it tastes. Most people who’ve eaten the thing will agree to its character. But it cannot fully be explained in words to those who have never tasted it.