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What is 'Making Construals'?

In the CONSTRUIT! project, the term 'construal' refers to the combination of someone’s idea of something (how they think about it) and an artefact (interactive and shareable) which complements and renders that idea. Each part, the idea and the artefact, is enlarged by the other without ever being completed. A construal is something personal, partial and provisional: it is someone’s understanding, or view, of something. A poem, a painting, a piece of music, a medical diagnosis, a theory, a cartoon, or a piece of gossip are all construals in this sense. Making construals whose artefacts are computer-based represents a new use of computers which is especially well-oriented to learning.

A computer program written in text-book style has many characteristic features: it has a specific function which reflects an understanding of the domain and a particular viewpoint upon it, it is optimised to achieve that function efficiently, and has a pre-conceived scope for user interaction. Making a construal reflects an alternative way of thinking about computing, better attuned to contemporary software development practices and trends, that typically presumes none of these features. We have developed software environments in which a construal-maker can explore imaginative hypotheses about a domain with no particular function in mind beyond gaining confidence in a provisional understanding and where there is no distinction between building the construal and interaction with it. A useful comparison is with a spreadsheet – for example a sheet holding the marks for a given class in a range of subjects. Here a cell might hold Jane’s total mark in History of Computing for example, defined by a formula that combines a coursework mark and a test mark, while the lecturer is able to apply a scaling factor to all the test results on finding the test was inappropriately hard. These features illustrate the three basic concepts of our approach to making construals: observables (the various marks), dependency (definitions of total mark, average mark etc), and agency (e.g. applying a scaling factor, dealing with absences and zeros). The same three concepts pervade the design and use of the tools for making construals. It is often natural to blend a variety of viewpoints on the same environment, for example in the marks spreadsheet: those of different academic and administrative staff. Such blending of pre-existing, or new, viewpoints or construals is an integral part of many of the construals we have made so far.

Our efforts to make sense of new experience are often not based on numerical relationships but rather on qualitative experiential ones. For example, approaching a familiar city at night, by air, we might try to make connections in experience between patterns of lights we can see and what we expect to see knowing what is there. Our observations range back and forth, new lights come into view as the plane descends. This is beyond the usual scope of a spreadsheet to model. But the making construals environment (MCE) affords a radical generalisation of a spreadsheet where we give up the tabular interface, allow arbitrary multi-media elements and independent agents, and introduce time to allow for animations. Making construals is based on the premise that "making connections in experience" is crucial for the human way that we make personal models of new phenomena.

Imagine two people in front of a diagram discussing a problem. As they talk they extend and revise the diagram, and their thinking, all at once. The changing diagram, and the meanings they discuss, are a construal of the problem. It is in the nature of a construal to have a private part (thinking) and a public part (diagram). Because of this public part we propose a construal as an 'object-to-converse-with' - generalising Papert's 'object-to-think-with' (as in his book Mindstorms). Such construals have been commonplace in the context of scientific discovery: e.g. Galileo's amazement, and his drawings, as he realised he was looking for the very first time (by telescope) at moons of Jupiter, and Faraday's experiments and drawings as he learned about electromagnetism. Even more significant for educational technology is that construals of this kind are used by everyone throughout their lives in their learning. We suggest that skills in using, modifying and creating interactive computer-based artefacts - construals in our sense - could be transformative for education if their potential could be realised. The CONSTRUIT! project seeks to make this idea accessible to everyone.

The key underlying idea in our approach to modelling is to construct open environments offering interactive experience that is continuous with experience of the domain being modelled. Both the construal (or model), and the domain to which it refers, are the sources of direct ‘lived’ experiences which are of comparable kinds.

The CONSTRUIT! project has the goal of sharing good practice in educational technology, albeit from an unconventional position. Each of the six partners has played an important part in this sharing and they will be at the core of CONSTRUIT 2017, but we also want this conference to open up the vision, resources, results, and future of the project to a much wider audience. With this in mind we welcome expressions of interest from anyone involved in educational technology and with a readiness to engage with the themes outlined in this Call.

To join the CONSTRUIT 2017 Interest Group, click here.