Teaching InfoVis in Stellenbosch

In week 40 (that’s Monday October 4 to Friday October 8 for those of you not so much into week numbers) I had the privilege of giving a week-long Information Visualisation course to a group of post-graduate students (a mix of B.A. Honours in either Socio-informatics or in Decision-making and Values Studies) at the Centre for KDD of the University of Stellenbosch in the building previously-known-as “The BJ”.

With this post, I want to summarise, extremely compactly, my impressions:

  • In spite of the odd publication at an InfoVis venue, and in spite of putting significant effort into broadening my horizons also into InfoVis, I’m strictly speaking still a Scientific Visualisation (SciVis) guy. In this context, developing and giving an InfoVis course was a fantastically educational experience. I aspire to be equally fluent in SciVis and InfoVis when I grow up.
  • I designed a course based on a mix of lecturing, paper reading and discussion and hands-on exercises. I can now highly recommend this combination. Next time I will put more effort into involving everyone more actively in the discussion. What also seemed to work well was the course website that students could add their work to during class.
  • I sourced almost all of my material from generous InfoVis colleagues, primarily Dr. Tamara Munzner, but also Dr. John Stasko, Prof.dr. Jarke van Wijk and Dr. Maneesh Agrawala. Thank you!
  • Having spent 7 years at the Stellenbosch Engineering Faculty (1500 guys all wearing t-shirts in jeans; furthermore, social skills are frowned upon) and the past 10 years at the TU Delft, a kind of Ultra-Engineering-Faculty, spending the week at The BJ interacting with socially adept and skilled communicators was a truly interesting experience.
  • I was otherwise also impressed with the level of cooperation between the students and their willingness to work hard (and long).
  • Laptop-use during lectures in a relatively small class: It’s an interesting phenomenon, having to deal with your own little communication backchannel. Banning laptop use is obviously not an option as there are too many possible advantages, but I’m not sure yet what a good solution would be towards making sure that the laptops are being used to augment learning.
  • Most students chose ProtoVis (from a list of 8 possibilities, and they were free to use anything else too) to implement their final mini-projects with. This was probably due to their previous web-programming experience, and also that ProtoVis requires more or less zero setup.

Conclusion: Much learned, hopefully the students did too. :) All in all a positive and energising experience!

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