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Vachel Lindsay: Dead Poets, Dead Generals, and a 50-year-old Dissertation

March 6, 2018 Leave a comment

2018-03-06-02-19-39-edited.jpgFifty years ago today, my grandmother, Elizabeth Thomas Fowler, completed her dissertation.  She examined the letters from the American poet Vachel Lindsay during the time when he was wooing Nellie Vieira.  My grandmother was looking for a topic to explore in grad school (while also raising four kids), and she was neighbors with “Mrs. Nell”, as the family used to call her.  Mrs. Nell offered her an ordered collection of letters that she had received from Lindsay, mainly over the course of a few years but with a few stretching over the course of a decade, and those letters formed the basis for my grandmother’s Master’s thesis and Ph.D. dissertation.

Vachel Lindsay was a well-known poet in the early part of the 20th century, authoring several books that are still in print today. On several occasions, Vachel Lindsay conducted what my grandmother described as a “begging tour”, where he would walk from town to town on a “sing for your supper” journey across huge swaths of America, reciting “his noisy, booming poems”.  Indeed, Lindsay intended his poems to be chanted or sung, with presentation a big part of their appeal.

Four Generations (edited)

Elizabeth Fowler with her father, daughter, and grandson (me!) in 1971

My grandmother completed her Ph.D. rather late in life, at the age of 51, at a time when she had four kids and when my grandfather was in failing health.  Indeed, she made it a point in her dissertation of acknowledging her family “for uncomplainingly sharing our home for a long period with the ‘Letters of Vachel Lindsay'”.  She went on to take a faculty position at Maryville College for a dozen years after completing her dissertation—after having served as a minister’s wife and taught in public schools and colleges for many years beforehand. She enjoyed leading groups of students, friends, colleagues, and family (including me, as a teenager) on study tours to England, often with themes like the search for King Arthur or tracing John Wesley’s travels. No wonder she was known as the GBOF (Great Ball of Fire) to her children!

Lindsay’s work hasn’t held up as well as some of the poets of his generation, though you occasionally see references to his work.  One of his most famous poems, “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven”, was set to music by Charles Ives (and others) and is still performed today.  Another famous poem, “The Congo”, was featured in the cave scene in the Robin Williams movie Dead Poet’s Society.  But I’ll leave you with a recitation by my grandmother of one of my favorite Vachel Lindsay poems, one that seems to capture the American spirit that Lindsay so desperately wanted to represent, “The Broncho That Would Not Be Broken”.


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A year of Pokemon GO

July 25, 2017 Leave a comment

Pokemon Go turned one year old earlier this month, and today marks the one year mark in which I’ve been playing it.

Pokemon GO is a multi-game, a collection of interconnected games with interdependent success metrics; e.g., you spin spinners at Pokestops to collect items, and those items are useful for catching Pokemon, which are useful in fighting in gyms, and so on. The objects and locations in the game correspond to actual locations, so a Pokestop may be at a church and a gym at a restaurant.  One core idea is that people walk more so they can be successful at the game. Another core idea is that people connect with friends, as these connections can help with game success.

As with many games, there are many ways to “game the game”. The common one I see is cars full of kids who drive from gym to gym and collecting as many points as possible, avoiding the pesky exercise component. And they often drive at low speeds so they don’t trigger a “driving” warning and also accumulate steps. I’ve also seen a few people with multiple phones, playing as two characters at once.  And of course, there’s ways to fake your location and set up bots to play the game for you.

I’ve played on and off for a year now. I played for a while but gave it up–I was bothered by missing the scenery when walking and the way-too-long gym battles. And I found I walked slower than my normal pace when walking with the app open, even if I wasn’t stopping to catch and battle. I only like a few aspects of the game, those related to tracking and rewarding distance that is covered. You can’t play the game unless your phone is on and the game is active, so it’s hard to just put it in your pocket and walk around (though I occasionally do, even though it burns through the battery).

I’d stopped playing for several months, but then when my son got a phone and mobile service, we started playing together. (And I started on my own, since collecting things on your own is helpful in the game.) Also, they improved the gym feature to make it faster and more fair.  It’s nice to have another way to connect with my teenage son, though it increases the screen usage for both of us at times when we might be better suited to pay attention to other things! I’ve also been lured back into the game thanks to changes in the way they run gyms, the number of Pokemon, and the colleagues and friends I’ve found who play it (and like to talk about it). Other academics have written about their own experiences related to Pokemon GO, including a great writeup about Pokemon GO and work-life balance by Amy Bruckman.

In a similar exercise-related vein, I’ve carried a Fitbit for over five years now, a wearable accelerometer-based device worn on the wrist or placed on/in clothing that counts steps by noting changes in acceleration along multiple dimensions. You can set goals, identify friends, take part in competitions, and even traverse virtual hikes (the last of which only makes me long for real hikes). Again, there are ways to cheat to accumulate steps, by shaking the step counter, or putting it in the dryer, or attaching it to the dog. And there are glitches: sometimes riding in a car along a slow and bumpy road can accumulate “steps”. My Android smartwatch and mobile phone do a lot of the same things as my Fitbit One, but I enjoy its simple interface and the connection to Fitbit friends.

The game matches some of my research and teaching initiatives, specifically toward encouraging better fitness through the apps you use. Monika Monk’s MS thesis focused on mobile exergaming among children. She and a number of undergrads developed mobile exergames that were used by nearby Boys and Girls Clubs to encourage exercise through games with tag and capture-the-flag themes.  And Andrey Esakia’s Ph.D. work, recently featured in a VT News article, examined how smartwatches can leverage small group cohesion toward encouraging more exercise. And a senior capstone project by my students, Marmallapic, resulted in an app that encouraged students to take pictures around campus on a different theme each day.


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FitAware: Wearing fitness on your wrist

July 18, 2017 Leave a comment

My Ph.D. student Andrey Esakia has been working hard on FitAware, a smartwatch and mobile phone system for encouraging improved fitness behaviors within and between groups. His hard work has started to pay off, with a work-in-progress paper at the ACM SIGCHI Conference (the top conference in human-computer interaction) and a feature article in Virginia Tech News.

FitAware builds on the FitEx program, an 8-week exercise and diet program that encourages teams to meet individual and group goals. Esakia has been developing ways to alert people of the progress of teammates and other teams, toward encouraging cooperation and friendly competition in the walking portion of the program.

The personal tracking and group connection portions of this program are related to another recent initiative that is wrapping up its first year: Technology on the Trail. A lot of my blogging now takes place there (though posts related to computer science, education, and personal things will remain here).  So feel free to follow that blog if interested.

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FIE 2016

October 17, 2016 Leave a comment

FIE (Frontiers in Education) 2016 took place in Erie PA last week with great representation from Virginia Tech. This conference focuses on education across lots of engineering-related disciplines, including computer science. The Virginia Tech Department of Engineering Education sponsored a table at FIE and had about a half dozen people in attendance, and the Department of Computer Science added four more. VT had its name on 18 papers and chaired several sessions.

My group had four papers. Mohammed Seyam talked about Pair Programming (PP) when teaching mobile software design in an upper level CS course, exploring the balance with traditional lectures and labs. Andrey Esakia looked at a model for teaching mobile software design.  Shuo Niu investigated how large multi-touch displays can be used in creative exercises for teaching. And I was part of a paper with NCA&T colleagues on mobile computing and mobile security that emerged from a workshop last year.  We were able to connect with colleagues at Western Carolina University, UNC Charlotte, CU Boulder, NCWIT, and elsewhere.


The conference has been around for a long time and seems to be managed well by a core group of frequent attendees. Sessions are well-attended, and questions tend to be thoughtful and on-point. Breaks are reasonably spaced and attract a crowd, and there was a reception after the first full day sponsored at the GE facility in Erie, followed by one of the managers from GE giving a keynote at the conference the next day.

Erie PA seems to be in a renaissance phase, with lots of effort to clean up the waterfront area and provide a good conference experience at a relatively low cost. Alas, Mid-October is already off season despite the nice weather, and several things were already closed for the year, but, as one local put it, “You can’t close nature!”  We enjoyed walking around and seeing the sights, hitting a few of the local restaurants, and biking Presque Isle in the afternoon after the conference. FIE next year will be in Indianapolis—worth a look if you have a relevant paper.

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Conference on Teaching Large Classes 2016

July 28, 2016 Leave a comment

In preparation for teaching a junior-level undergrad introductory human-computer interaction class with up to 150 people, I attended the Conference on Teaching Large Classes at Virginia Tech. There were over 100 people in attendance, with about half from VT and the rest from other universities. Peter Doolittle served as master of ceremonies, and a huge group of other people worked hard to make it a success. There was a lineup of educators from a wide variety of disciplines who shared approaches that they feel work for large classes.

My main interests were to understand how to connect with the students in meaningful ways that get them to actively practice the techniques that are important in the field of human-computer interaction. This introductory class doesn’t focus on programming but on methods, so if the students aren’t understanding when and how to use the methods, they won’t get it–and that takes practice. In past years I taught this class with 30-40 people, maybe up to 70 or 80, where I could assign in-class activities to teams of 3-4 with some expectation that I would be able to interact with all the groups. With a group of 150, that no longer seemed possible.

The conference made it clear that the notion of “large” is self-defined; it’s put forth as a size at which one feels unable to use familiar methods in teaching the class. That seemed to be a great match for situations like mine, though sometimes it meant that a speaker might be talking about teaching to a large group of 50, or a large group of 400, and the method wouldn’t be relevant to me. It would have been helpful if the breakout talks were somehow labeled with an indication of what size range “large” meant to the speaker or leader.

Martha Olney from UC Berkeley gave the opening keynote. She talked about iClickers (or free mobile phone equivalents) that encourage participation throughout a class period. She also noted that she often has a rapid-fire handful of quizzes early on to get people in their seats and engaged on time. She noted that students are more engaged and there were fewer D and F grades when even just a few quizzes were given each day. She also talked about other electronics in class and admitted she’s gone back and forth on a policy. A survey of the audience revealed that 58% of attendees allow any electronic device to be used in classes, 16% ban mobile phones, 9% ban all electronics.

Much of the conference focused on breakout sessions, where attendees could choose a session that matched their needs and interests. My favorite presentation was by Gary Green from UGA gave a great and engaging talk that pushed the effectiveness of humor and the need to call people out and keep them off balance. One example he gave was a “what’s in the bag” technique, where good answers (or questions) would give someone the opportunity to pull an object from a bag. The first time he did it, the “bag” was his lunch, and the activity arose because people wondered what was in there. He later created a bag of old kid toys, company giveaways, and the like. He also talked about ways to balance low, medium, and high stakes assignments (worth <3%, 3-9%, or 10+% of the total grade, respectively) to maintain people’s commitment and attention levels. He also surveyed students about their preferred means of communication–in order student preferences are texting, before/after class, mobile phone, learning commons, email, office phone, office hours. Audience members were stunned that he gave out his mobile number to large groups of students, but he noted that he peaked out at 6 messages an hour and most could be answered in a single word (“yes”, “no”, “5pm”, “tomorrow”). I’m not sure I’m going to try that last one!

There were tons of other pointers that were provided that need follow-up as I prepare to teach my class. Michelle Soledad talked about online homework resources like chegg, WileyPLUS, and informal forums. Deborah Good and her colleagues presented an online resource for getting students engaged. Mary Marchant and Kim Morgan talked about lessons from CIDER’s big courses workshop, detailing ways to engage people through projects, activities, and other graded activities. One theme that emerged in multiple presentations noted that many interactive techniques don’t “move the bar” in terms of number of As, Bs, or Cs, but they do decrease the number of Ds and Fs—helping the poor or struggling students. I feel certain I’ll be going through the online proposals and additional readings from the web site as my planning efforts continue.

Greg Justice from VT’s Theater and Cinema Department gave the closing keynote. He acted out lots of positive and negative examples of how lessons from theater can be used in large classes. A smattering of examples: Move from back to center-front, or move from left to right to draw attention (it’s the direction we read), but introduce conflict by moving from right to left. 50% of effective communication comes from what you communicate physically, 40% is vocal, and 10% is from the words that are used. Warm up before you “perform”, and have your students do it too. Lean forward if sitting. Get out from behind the podium. Avoid teen speak, where each sentence falls off at the end. Talk from your heart, talk from your passions.

Overall, a worthwhile experience. It was great to see other folks from my department there, including Dwight Barnette and Anamary Leal. More to come on this topic as my preparation for the class moves forward. And perhaps next year I’ll be presenting here!

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Being smart about games for smartwatches: Preliminary evaluations and feedback

November 18, 2015 1 comment

Smartwatches like Pebble, Android Wear, and Apple Watch provide user interface challenges given their small size and limited input means. At Virginia Tech, we’ve taken part in development and outreach efforts that have explored the use of smartwatches through app development, K-5 outreach, and, most recently assessment. This post presents findings from an in-class investigation in an undergrad human-computer interaction class.

The class explored performance on a game that is common across multiple platforms: Minesweeper. We configured the game to use an 8×8 grid (64 total squares) with mines hidden at 10 of the locations. The game requires players to identify the 10 mines and uncover 54 squares with no mines. A player can select a square to reveal how many mines are in adjacent squares, or mark a square as having a mine. The game ends when all squares are reveled or marked, or when the player reveals (as opposed to marking) a square with a mine. Score is reflected in number of mines found (so 10 is the worst score and 0 the best) and time taken to complete a game (lower times are faster/better).

We looked at Minesweeper on three platforms: laptop (Web), smartphone (mainly Android, some iOS), and smartwatch (original Pebble with 3-button input). We endeavored to find Minesweeper apps that were similar in appearance, though the limited graphics of the Pebble resulted in a less visually appealing game for that platform. Also, we note that the interaction styles are very different across platforms: laptop users used the touchpad and buttons to highlight mines, smartphone users performed a press to reveal and long-press to tag, and watch users scrolled with the top and bottom buttons, revealed with the middle button press, and tagged with a long press.

We explored whether platform has an effect on performance and enjoyment, with the thought that a more interaction-rich platform like the laptop and smartphone would be easier to use. Students in the class played the game for 12 minutes, with encouragement to complete as many games as possible within the 12 minutes but seek to be successful in playing the game. Students divided into groups of 4, with one person recording data and the other three playing the game on the three platforms.

Major disclaimer: this study was conducted in a classroom setting by students with minimal training in running user studies (i.e., a single lecture). Some students didn’t understand the activity, collected the wrong data, and entered data incorrectly. In some situations, the data seemed highly questionable and was eliminated from consideration. I would expect that the results would be of interest toward crafting future studies rather than in and of themselves. This activity was primarily done as a learning experience for the students, but it was interesting to see the results that students generated as part of the activity. Certainly this doesn’t belong in a peer-reviewed venue, but I’m hopeful it will serve as a launching point for future investigations of smartwatch interfaces.

Some key results:

  • Participants attained better scores with the Web (4.9) and smartphone (4.4) than with the Pebble (7.5), p=0.000001. The difference between Web and smartphone is not significant, p=0.21.
  • Participants found the Web (4.3) and smartphone (4.2)  versions of the game easier than the Pebble (0.3) based on a 0-5 point scale, p<3×10-30. Similarly, they found the Web (4.1) and smartphone (4.4) versions more fun than the Pebble (0.5) on a similar scale, p<5×10-31. There was no difference between Web and smartphone for either measure.
  • There were no differences in time spent on each game between Web (40.1), smartphone (45.2) and smartwatch (51.2), p=0.31.

Students expected that Pebble would result in the worst performance and would be most disliked, but they found it surprising that there was not a significant difference between Web and smartphone. People speculated that a more in-depth questionnaire and deeper examination of the tasks (slips, errors, strategies) would reveal more actionable differences. I was glad they saw this as the start of understanding smartwatches and other platforms.

This was the first time that I had the students in my class run a class-wide study of this type, and it resulted in mildly-controlled chaos. Usually I encourage them to take part in user studies run by grad students to get a sense of how studies work, but I feel there was a lot more participation and understanding by having them take part in all aspects of a study.

Games is one of the six categories of apps for Pebble, with 44 games that have over 100 downloads (compared to 29 for notifications, 44 for health and fitness, 66 for tools and utilities, 34 for remotes, and 56 for daily use as of 11/18/2015). Some of the games leverage definitive characteristics of smartwatches (e.g., Maze, Pong, and Ledge Jumper’s use of the accelerometer), but many are ports of common games (e.g., Tetris, chess, Flappy Bird, Minesweeper) that aren’t good matches for the Pebble display and interface capabilities.

We focused on games in this investigation because of the breadth of knowledge of our participants—everyone was familiar with Minesweeper and understood basic strategies. I would consider undertaking such a study at the start of a mobile computing class, to get across to people that apps should be targeted wisely for their platform. However, our research efforts continue to focus on health and wellness apps, leveraging lessons about appropriateness for the platform but considering how the smartwatch can provide unique value to the user.

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Pacesetters 2014: The Final Chapter

November 19, 2014 Leave a comment

The National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) Pacesetters program consists of a group of companies and universities committed to adding Net New Women to their institutions through targeted recruiting and support programs. The group commits to meeting twice per year to review approaches and track progress. November 2014 marked the last meeting of the current cohort of Pacesetters, with a slate of interesting talks and discussions.

Exploring more deeply the (lack of) diversity revelations by Google, Facebook, and others, there were several talks and presentations by companies of varying sizes. The keynote talk by Carol Mullins, Associate Commissioner of the Office of Technology and Survey Processing (OTSP) gave a candid view of diversity in her office. The numbers seemed better than in most tech-related organizations, but there was still room for improvement. It was interesting to see the desire in the workplace to do things to help diversity, but sometimes a lack of will to commit resources (e.g., employees are told they can work from home vs putting security in place; encourage tech employees but not paying them). Representatives from SendGrid and Google discussed challenges and opportunities at their companies, along with the sensitivities in releasing numbers (particularly for big companies).

Another focus point for Pacesetters relates to bias that can occur in job ads that discourages participation by women and other minorities. Pacesetters created a checklist to help craft job ads to reduce this unconscious bias. The goal is to focus on gender-neutral descriptions of the job and workplace. Several groups worked very hard in crafting their ads using this checklist, though in the discussion several people noted that HR offices often have rules and guidelines that can require certain language. (I ran into that at VT, as much of the language in job ads seemed to be because of some guideline or regulation or requirement.) Charlie McDowell put forth an important suggestion: to compartmentalize the steps that need to be done, and hand those off to the appropriate person in our organizations. It seems vital to do that with an eye toward the existing myriad guidelines that exist, ensuring (perhaps consolidating?) them into a coherent and consistent package.

I’ll end by circling around to the central focus of NCWIT that was discussed at the Pacesetters meeting: net new women. We talked about the definition of net new women, and the advantages and dangers of “counting” them. For one group, a net new woman might be a new faculty or grad student, for another it might be a woman retained due to an extended maternity leave, another possibility is a scholarship that helps ease the burden on attending school, and still another is a visit with a group of women that points them toward a technical career. At Virginia Tech, we’ve counted women from several of these categories (and more), which seems a bit like adding apples and oranges—which are then added to the pears and cucumbers and other assortment from other places. Numbers are important, but these numbers may not best quantify the goals of Pacesetters.  It seems this issue will be addressed for the next Pacesetters cohort, slated to start in 2015.

So what’s next? The NCWIT Annual Summit take part next May—a celebration of diversity that has had notable speakers like Chelsea Clinton, Michael Kimmel, Michael Schwern, and others. Since the event takes place in Hilton Head—in the “neighborhood” of Virginia Tech—we’re hoping to have a big presence. Ruthe Farmer suggested having undergraduate Aspirations award winners at VT as ambassadors at the summit, with access to a great slate of people and activities. More then!

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