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Research pause pays off for students

3 November, 2020

Matt Thompson

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When smoke, hail, and a global pandemic conspired to press the pause button on Dr Matt Thompson’s research aspirations this year, he turned his immense technical skillset to ensuring an engaging remote learning experience for his Physics students. The net result was the development of a new web platform, enabling maximum interactivity in a subject area not suited to physical distance between student and teacher.

Matt labels his platform as one that was developed out of defensiveness, rather than initiative, in response to fear of a potentially disastrous drop in student engagement. Chief among his concerns was a potential lack of rapport between teacher and student. At a time that he would have otherwise been immersed in research, Matt was industriously developing his platform, designed to maximise visual engagement and student interactivity.

The platform is coded in JavaScript, which is basically the web language of the internet – you can do a lot in it and in this case, it is set up largely to do presentations in an interactive format.

“The first lecture I set up was based on one of the topics that is probably the most visual, which I thought would be the most difficult to teach via distance. It [the JavaScript-enabled platform] highlights the crystal structure, which is the way the atoms are organised inside the material. It shows the structure, and it illustrates concepts, just a little bit at a time,” he said. 

It has also allowed me to build animations to allow students to see how we have this repeating structure, and the mathematical properties of it.

Within the platform, Matt integrated quizzes as a method of continually gauging student understanding. He has also used it for presentations, with its interactivity allowing for complicated concepts to be broken down strategically, and highlighted where necessary.  

“You can have interactive elements where you can look at what the Research School of Physics looks like on the ground, for instance, or what the lab facilities look like, and correlate that with a map.” 

“From an educational point of view, you can make a fairly intuitive interface where students are able to interact in a natural way. It’s about, I guess, trying to make learning a bit less passive, instead of just having slides that you read, or referring to a text – through this, they have a way that they can actually interact with you, and are able to increase their engagement.”

Matt is happy with how his platform was received among students, and has plans to build upon it in 2021. He is currently pursuing further possibilities, including the option of distributing it to an App. On a purely developmental level, he has no shortage of ideas as to how the platform could develop into something bigger and better in the near future, while maximising that all important communication and interactivity.

“Allowing for – if a student has a question about a slide, they can just pin a picture and then add a comment to it. So you can have a comment attached to a slide, either I can pick up on that, or peer to peer communication can take place.”

“Those are probably the next steps, thinking about how to get those things into the package, and how to enhance learning through improved communication between the students and myself.”

Dr Matt Thompson is a Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer within the Department of Electronic Materials Engineering, in the ANU College of Engineering & Computer Science.
Kristie Broadhead is the Team Leader of Promoting Excellence in the Education Communities and Environments (ECE) team – one of the three teams within the ANU Centre for Learning & Teaching (CLT).

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