eTALK: enchanced Teaching Assistance to aid Learning with Kitlabs Project
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eTALK: enchanced Teaching Assistance to aid Learning with Kitlabs

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The Paesler research group has developed complementary instructional activities that involve small collections of equipment, hence the name kitlabs, along with sets of instructions designed to lead students through laboratory exercises in remote — and student-selected — settings. Novel synchronous teaching assistant (TA) guidance and the use of students' personal electronic devices for data collections distinguish this project from similar efforts.

The Development of Kitlabs

Extramural laboratory activities have emerged as alternatives to in-lab settings for laboratory courses for several reasons. In some cases — often in high schools, two-year colleges, or over-subscribed institutions — lack of facilities drives programs in this direction. Of course, distance education courses by definition necessitate the inclusion of extramural laboratory instruction. Whatever the cause, a relatively new delivery system initially referred to as a hobby lab and now more frequently described as a kitlab has emerged as an alternative to the traditional in-lab physics activity.

Kitlabs come in various forms. Common to most are kits comprised of small collections of equipment ands sets of instructions designed to lead students through laboratory exercises in remote — and usually student-selected — settings.

A boxed energy conservation kit
Energy conservation kitlab equipment

While some exceptions may exist, kitlabs appear to be universally asynchronous. That is, students performing kitlabs do so at self-determined times within a broad window of kit availability. Although direct student-instructor interaction is widely considered a hallmark of all teaching, including laboratory teaching (Chickering and Gamson 1987), this important aspect of laboratory learning is almost always sacrificed in the kitlab setting. In the kitlab arena, the instructor is absent from both content delivery and active student engagement.

A secondary consequence of the asynchronous nature of current kitlabs results from the absence of a real-time TA to troubleshoot unforeseen problems that may result in learner confusion or even the catastrophic failure of a laboratory. Considerable research on information design takes issue with this approach to instruction, emphasizing that, as Brockmann (1990) argues, most learners are impatient, skip around online documents, make errors, are motivated more by self-initiated exploration than detailed procedures, are discouraged by instructions that break tasks into yet smaller tasks.

Data-gathering and data-reduction devices are notably absent from kitlabs, whether provided commercially or institutionally. Indeed, only the simplest devices— such as stopwatches, rulers and protractors — are typically employed in kitlab instruction.

eTALK Program

eTALK is a transformative effort aimed at developing a kitlab program that emphasizes the social constructivist pedagogy of a meaningful laboratory experience while avoiding the twin pitfalls that typically plague such extramural laboratory activities. First through electronic contact that can involve student laptops, smart-phones and/or tablets, the program reintroduces real-time student-instructor interaction to kitlab activities (Anderson 2003a). As well, the same student electronic instruments will allow for enhanced data-gathering and data-reduction — often more accurate and always more familiar than traditional student laboratory data devices. Consider these two transformative features of eTALK:

  • Remote Synchronous Instruction. With ever-increasing electronic capabilities, instructors are finding more and more means of interacting remotely with students. Most institutions through their information technology offices offer to their faculty a suite of software that includes in some form or another the capabilities mentioned above. At NC State University, for example, a software package named Elluminate Live!® is available for instructors and includes audio and video communication, black-board features, and the ability to share applications, data, and even entire desktops. The addition of this type of software can provide remote interactions to the instructor's arsenal of educational tools and allows for the addition of synchronicity to extramural laboratories. Traditional on-site learning and face-to-face instructional support can be designed effectively to support remote activities and virtual support (Mehlenbacher 2010). The eTALK program features real-time TA interactions during kitlab sessions through the use of Elluminate Live!®.
  • User-friendly data collection and manipulation. Most students taking general physics courses today have achieved a level of electronic sophistication unimaginable to previous generations of students. They routinely move Gigabytes of data about on laptops with clocks operating at Gigahertz. They use smart phones to capture video images in optically challenging situations and isolate single frames in playback. They maintain nearly continuous electronic social networks (Greenhow 2008). They record and share information wirelessly among each other, and they enjoy diversions of high audio and video fidelity with earpods and tablets easily slipped into a pocket or backpack. The eTALK program takes advantage of these capabilities through the use of user-friendly devices for data taking and manipulation.

A kitlab in progress.


Anderson, T. (2003a). Getting the mix right again: An updated and theoretical rationale for interaction. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 4 (2). Available online.
Brockmann, R. J. (1990). The why, where, and how of minimalism. In J. R. Talburt (ed.), SIGDOC'90: Proceedings of the 8th Annual International Conference on Systems Documentation (pp. 111-119). New York: ACM Press.
Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education. ASHE Bulletin, 39, 3-7.
Greenhow, C. (2008). Connecting informal and formal learning experiences in the age of participatory media: Commentary on Bull, et al. (2008).Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 8 (3), 187-194.
Mehlenbacher, B. (2003). Documentation: Not yet implemented but coming soon! In A. Sears & J. Jacko (eds.), The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications (pp. 527-543). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Mehlenbacher, B. (2010). Instruction and Technology: Designs for Everyday Learning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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