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Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning


Computer Laboratory: Online tools for small group teaching

Screen shot of the online Otter systemThe Computer Laboratory, led by Andy Rice and Alastair Beresford, submitted a successful bid for funding to run a ten-week summer project with one full-time staff member and four undergraduate students in order to improve the quality of supervision in Computer Science and to reduce the administrative burden on staff. A summer project was chosen as the Computer Laboratory have many years of experience in this format, and it has been demonstrated as cost effective.

As supervising and small group teaching is the essence of a Cambridge education, they set out to develop a website for supervisors to manage their interaction with their supervision groups and to encourage more peer learning and feedback within groups themselves. Features were to include mechanisms to collect and share work for comment, mechanisms for diagnostic-based feedback on practical exercises, and ways to share expertise between supervisors and lecturers. The initial scope covered just the Prolog course in Part IB of the Tripos, but the tools were intended to be applicable to a large number of Computer Science courses.

As Andy and Alastair are more widely involved in the development of online material, and Andy with the development of the Raspberry Pi, it was felt that significant integration would be possible. A structured evaluation of the implementation was planned.

The project was successfully completed and implemented to specification, and the new website Otter was demonstrated to the University on 29 August 2013. The software that was used to create the website is open source, available on Github, but the system is protected by Raven. The features that it offers include scheduling, a central database of supervision questions, and notifications, upload/download, and deadlines systems. The website has also been created with possible mobile apps in mind.

Otter has potential for application across the University, but it has become clear that differences in the style of teaching across Triposes may create challenges to be overcome.

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