The role of Constructivism in teaching Data Science for Internet of Things

The role of Constructivism in teaching Data Science

 

Constructivism, Data Science and Online Learning

I enjoy teaching.  I teach at University level (Oxford and UPM – Madrid). I also teach young people the principles of Computer Science using Space technology using a live Satellite in collaboration with Ardusat. Over the last decade, education itself has changed with more emphasis on Online education. This allows us (as teachers/tutors) the opportunity to explore new modes of  learning.  However, the principles of learning have not changed. I believe, in many ways, we now need to come back to the more traditional/timeless principles of teaching in a Digital world

This document explains the learning philosophy and the principles underpinning the Data Science for Internet of Things course. Specifically, it discusses a learning technique called Constructivism which I have been exploring for the teaching  of complex topics like Data Science for IoT. I  am thankful to Jean Jacques Barnard (a participant in the course) for his comments and feedback to this post.

Constructivism (constructivist learning philosophy) is based on learning mechanisms in which knowledge is internalized by learners through processes of accommodation and assimilation. The learner has an internal representation of a concept. They then encounter new ideas and concepts. These ideas and concepts are assimilated through learning. In doing so, they may incorporate new experiences into the existing framework. Alternately, if they find that the new experience contradicts their existing framework – they may evolve their internal representation or change their perception.  Thus, learning is an ongoing process of concept assimilation. We incorporate constructivist ideas into the course content, Projects and the methodology. Here are the implications and findings of this approach.

To summarize

a)   To acquire new knowledge in complex domains, the context is important. Specifically, the starting point of the Learner.

b)   New concepts and ideas have hierarchical dependencies and also lateral connections. These need to be incorporated into the learning process

c) The process is slow and personalized. It is not possible to use this approach in a mass/massive mode

d)  The Physical context matters. But Projects need to be seen in the wider context. Projects and Methodology go together. Projects provide the Physical context. The methodology provides the panoramic view to the problem in context of the Big Picture

e)  There is a broad structure to acquiring knowledge but not a fixed path

 

 

1)    Greater learning agility and flexibility

When I first met course participant Priscila Grison a few years ago in San Francisco, she mentioned an interesting Spanish language book by Julio Cortazar called Rayuela(in English Hopscotch). The author has a unique structure for the book. An author’s note suggests that the book would best be read in one of two possible ways, either progressively from chapters 1 to 56 or by “hopscotching” through the entire set of 155 chapters according to a “Table of Instructions” designated by the author. Cortázar also leaves the reader the option of choosing a unique path through the narrative.

I find this idea fascinating i.e. that the author should create one structure but the reader could assimilate it in more than one way. Why could that not be true of Online Education also? The ‘Educo’ in ‘Education’ is to draw from within. Online learning offers us that unique ability to learn from within – a concept now becoming more common through ideas like ‘Learning agility’ i.e. an individual must the ability to learn, adapt, and apply in quick cycles. By using the constructivist philosophy, we incorporate a ‘structure’ a linear flow of modules but also an ‘unstructure’ through various means – such as Personal learning plans, choice of programming languages etc. This leads to greater learning agility.

 

2)    Implications for Projects in a constructivist sense

Projects are the core of our course – but we use the idea of Projects in a wider learning context. The key idea in constructivism is: The starting point is familiar to the learner. Hence, we spend a lot of  time in the first few months trying to understand the learner’s current state of understanding. After this, the next phase is spent on the core modules which correlates new ideas to the existing understanding thereby building on existing concepts. In turn, these are further expanded in the  project.  The project itself is contrasted against a methodology Creating an Open methodology for Internet of Things – IoT analytics and Data Science (created by me, Jean Jacques and another course participant Shiva Soleimani) which shows the learner how their knowledge fits into the wider context of the problem.

 

3) Acquiring new and complex skills

Constructivism is very suited to acquiring new and complex skills because new knowledge is both hierarchical and also laterally related. For example, PCA  needs understanding of Eigenvalues .. which in turn is based on Matrix multiplication. Similarly, many concepts in Python and R are related(lateral co-relation of new concepts)

 

4) Not Massive (Not a MOOC)

The strategy of Constructivism will not scale – because it needs greater direct engagement with the participants. That may be for the good!  I have never heard a teacher use the word ‘Massive’ in context of teaching.  VCs use ‘Massive’ for MooCs  i.e. Massive Open Online Courses – but then again VCs have been known to search for mythical beasts like Unicorns.  If you really think about it – the word Massive is associated with teaching only as a Business model.  We do not believe that ‘Massive’ helps teaching because it is really not possible to give attention in the massive model

5) Not Free but Affordable

An education system based on Constructivism will be not free but affordable. To create a large/Massive system we need a free service – with minimal personal engagement.  In contrast, everyone remembers from their childhood at least one teacher who took an extra interest in their work. Such personal attention is not possible on a large scale. Instead of free – a more affordable model is possible. Such models are not  likely to be funded by traditional VCs. But, they could be still be viable and niche institutions.

 

In industry – the analogy would be the German concept of Mittelstand companies (common in Germany, Austria and Switzerland) . Mittelstand companies have no real equivalence outside of Germany. It would be wrong to call them an SME (Small to medium enterprise) because they operate on a specific ethos  which includes qualities such as: Long-term focus, Independence, Emotional attachment to the business, Investment into the workforce, Flexibility, Lean hierarchies, Innovation, technical excellence, craftsmanship, Social responsibility etc.  The point here is: It is possible to create a viable venture on the Web which serves a niche customer base – taking a long term view.  This model is not so common – but is still very achievable.  That’s our aspiration.

6) Community and personalization

This strategy makes us rethink the word ‘community’. Everyone on the Web likes to think of themselves as a ‘community’. But this is yet another word that has morphed into a different meaning in a commercial context. Take the case of LinkedIn. Is LinkedIn a ‘community’? Or more many people trying to sell things to others(with very little in common other than that function).  On the Web – communities reduce to forums where involvement of the tutor is minimised.  But with a smaller group, it is possible to have calls/ meetings etc.  So, we encourage lots more communication between the tutor and the participant i.e. actually speaking/Skype calls etc. Again, you cannot do this on a mass scale.

To Conclude ..

To summarize

a)   To acquire new knowledge in complex domains, the context is important. Specifically, the starting point of the Learner.

b)   New concepts and ideas have hierarchical dependencies and also lateral connections. These need to be incorporated into the learning process

c) The process is slow and personalized. It is not possible to use this approach in a mass/massive mode

d)  The Physical context matters. But Projects need to be seen in the wider context. Projects and Methodology go together. Projects provide the Physical context. The methodology provides the panoramic view to the problem in context of the Big Picture

e)  There is a broad structure to acquiring knowledge but not a fixed path

To conclude, all this sounds less like training but more like going back to the first Principles of Teaching or even Coaching for complex topics such as Data Science for IoT. Going back to timeless values(even when they don’t quite scale!) may well be called for in the next generation. Dr Hessa Al Jaber ex Minister of ICT for Qatar (with whom I was honoured to work with at the World Economic Forum) says in an insightful  post Why my daughter’s generation faces challenges mine didn’t   In the midst of this digital age, and global connectivity fueling all of these conflicting ideas, her generation might start to feel lost.  Values that seemed immutable have begun to shift.

I  welcome comments (ajit.jaokar at futuretext.com ). I believe this is a new approach – and it’s a learning experience for us all!

Image:  Jean Piaget – the founder of Constructivism – source – Wikipedia