Otago Polytechnic
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The eyes have it

David Rozado

The eyes may be our windows to the world – but could they one day be able to move exoskeletons simply by thought?

David Rozado believes that by coupling eye pupil size together with Brain Computer Interface (BCI) technology, our eyes will, one day, be able to control exoskeletons - robotic devices that fit around limbs. BCI systems establish a direct connection between the human brain using electrical impulses and electronic or mechanical devices.

BCI technology could have a huge impact on individuals who cannot make, or have difficulty making, voluntary muscle movements.  This includes patients with advanced stages of motor neuron disease and those suffering from specific types of brain stem strokes that lead to locked-in syndrome.

“These patients are in desperate need of innovative ways to communicate with electronic devices,” David explains, “and if their sensory and cognitive functions are not impaired then there is a window of opportunity to use a mental switch to do that.”

But electroencephalograms or EEG-based BCIs are expensive, bulky and invasive.  They’re also relatively unreliable.

“An 80 per cent accuracy rate is an issue if we want to use the technology to reliably move our body. We need to move with close to 100 per cent precision,” David says.

David has used his studies on pupil size to improve the accuracy of BCI technology by ten percentage points.  “In 10 or 20 years from now, BCI technology will become a reality and it will be used to control exoskeletons and move limbs.”

David’s aim is to make the currently expensive technology available to all.  “I want to create a web hub where anyone can access such software accessibility solutions, and use them free of charge.”


Rozado, D., Duenser, A., Howell, B. (2015) Improving the Performance of an EEG-Based Motor Imagery Brain Computer Interface Using Task Evoked Changes in Pupil Diameter. PloS one 10.3., March 27 2015.

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Improving programming skills and pass rates

Dale Parsons, Krissi Wood and Patricia Haden

Computer programming educators currently work in a very stressful context. On the one hand, industries around the world are complaining about a serious shortage of skilled programmers. On the other hand, programming is one of the most difficult academic subjects for students to learn, with some of the highest reported failure rates across tertiary institutions. Naturally, researchers in the area are working very hard to determine how to teach programming more effectively.

A few years ago, Dale Parsons, Krissi Wood and Patricia Haden from Otago Polytechnic’s College of Enterprise and Development participated in a large multi-institutional study of programming assessment. This involved computer science educators from several countries submitting their exams and other assessment tools, and a meta-analysis being performed. The results showed that many of the assessments consisted of multiple choice questions which tested obscure points of computer language syntax and theory. This did not align with what the researchers believe a student needs to know in order to be able to program at a professional level.

“The results of this experiment have directly informed our teaching practice,” says Patricia. “We have continued to refine the use of activity diagrams for teaching and assessment in our introductory programming papers. These tools allow us to observe the developing understanding of students long before they are experienced enough to write large working programs, they give us insight into what aspects of programming syntax, semantics or pragmatics a student is struggling with, allowing us to tailor our support for that student most effectively.”

The team’s research is already proving promising. Student pass rates have risen, and the team has had the great joy of watching most of its students mature into information technology professionals.


Parsons, D., Wood, K. and Haden, P. (2015) What are we doing when we assess programming? 17th Australasian Computing Education Conference, Sydney, Australia. Conferences in Research and Practice in Information Technology, Vol. 160. D. D’Souza and K. Falkner, Eds.

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Helping computers think like humans

Christopher Frantz

How can computers model human behaviour accurately? Christopher Frantz, a lecturer within the College of Enterprise and Development, says software can easily deal with black and white rules but is not well versed in navigating grey areas. These grey areas may include behavioural norms that vary between cultures.

Typically, software programmes have relied on modellers’ intuition, additional rules or randomisation techniques to help fill in these grey areas, however these may not produce accurate results, let alone realistic behaviour.

Christopher explains it like this:  Assume you have two rules – Rule 1. You have to be at work at 8am. Rule 2. You shouldn’t run over pedestrians.  What do you do if a pedestrian runs out in front of you and you are late for work?  “The choice is logical for humans as we know that being late to work is preferable to killing someone.  However, computers have no road map for how to handle this type of situation, but need to be able to deal with this in an ad hoc fashion.”

This is where fuzzy reasoning comes in.  It allows software to integrate numerous opinions. and represents human behaviour more accurately.

Christopher’s research is a unique application which uses fuzzy modelling to examine underlying social norms and behaviour which opens up a raft of interdisciplinary uses.

One example of this considered the effect of the same word said by people of differing levels of authority. How does a command from the Chief Executive compare with an instruction from a colleague? The directive subjects followed depended which opinion they perceived to be more relevant or important, an effect possibly linked to authority levels. Such insights can be fed into artificial society models to allow differentiated, human-like behaviours to be represented by computers.


Frantz, C., Purvis, M. K., Purvis, M. A., Nowostawski, M., Lewis, N. D. (2015) Fuzzy Modelling of Economic Institutional Rules in Alireza Sadeghian, Hooman Tahayori (Eds.): Frontiers of Higher Order Fuzzy Sets, Springer, 2015, pp.87-129.

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Glimpsing the past

Professors Khyla Russell and Samuel Mann

An innovation that brings history to life, digitally recreating landscapes of times gone by, is the result of collaboration between Kai Tahu and Otago Polytechnic.

The Polytechnic’s Professor of Information Technology, Samuel Mann, was interested in digitally rebuilding landscapes and settlements that are now vastly changed.  Through the whakapapa, waiata and stories recounted to him by local rūnaka, he was able to bring past scenes to life using 3D game technology. This interactive simulation was called SimPā.

“SimPa reflected and explored the relationships between Kai Tahu whakapapa and landscape and all the ways in which we define the concept of whakapapa,” explains the Polytechnic’s Kaitohutohu, Professor Khyla Russell.

“We connect ourselves to landscapes through whakapapa, and perceive these places as being a part of ourselves,” she says. “Over time, these scenes have changed enormously, but when you listen to the old stories and waiata, you can imagine what it was like.”

One such story from Otākou describes a deafening birdsong right down to the shoreline – something Professor Russell herself remembers.

“As kids, everybody had a few cows, pigs and chooks, and an orchard. We were only 25 minutes from town [Dunedin], but it was a different world.”

One of the goals of the SimPā project was to facilitate cross- and inter-generational storytelling, and allow learning through play.

“This contemporary technology affords us a new means of imparting our stories to our iwi members,” affirms Professor Russell, “wherever in the world they may be.”


Russell, K. & Mann, S. (2013) The many indigenous bodies of Kai Tahu. In J. Fear-Seagal & R. Tillett (Eds.), Indigenous Bodies: Reviewing, Relocating, Reclaiming. Albany NY: SUNY Press. 179-190.

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Support = success

Krissi Wood, Dale Parsons, Joy Gasson and Patricia Haden

Worldwide, the failure rate for first-year computer programming students is alarmingly high. Recent research has identified that those who ended up failing, often had problems with computer programming in the early days, or weeks, of the course.

The Pair Programming in CS1 research project at Otago Polytechnic – one of the first of its kind – used an existing software development technique to support novice computer programming students.

 “We believe in the importance of supporting all students,” explains project collaborator Krissi Wood, “especially those who might otherwise struggle, or even fail.”

Wood and her co-researchers Dale Parsons, Joy Gasson and Patricia Haden are all lecturers within the Bachelor of Information Technology programme at Otago Polytechnic.

“The project took an industry-standard technique for collaborative software development and modified it for use in the classroom with novice programming students,” Wood says. “We use a ‘banding’ technique when pairing students up, ensuring that students with similar levels of confidence work together.”

The project’s success has already changed teaching practices within the course. The lecturers have presented and published their research internationally, which has helped strengthen Otago Polytechnic’s global relationship within computer science education.

 “It has really boosted student success, as well as improving students’ social interaction skills,” affirms Wood. “For the future, we’ll continue to explore new teaching techniques that make learning programming more accessible and enjoyable for all students.”

Wood, K., Parsons, D., Gasson, J., Haden, P. (2013) It's Never Too Early: Pair Programming In CS1. Fifteenth Australasian Computing Education Conference Adelaide, Australia, 29 January - 1 February 2013 http://crpit.com/Vol136.html


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Like me

Sam Mann, Lesley Smith and Patricia Hayden (not shown)

Build it and they will come. And so it seems, with a new school-specific academic Facebook page proving a big hit for staff and students alike at the School of Information Technology.

“Our goal was to tap into the enthusiasm students have for Facebook, as a means to create a sense of belonging and community,” says Lesley Smith, Head of School.

Information Technology students’ focus is predominantly online in an immersive environment, she explains, in contrast to other students who tend to share more about themselves in a class setting, thus helping to build a sense of community. The page therefore aimed to mitigate the sense of isolation that many new students experience, while also serving as an accessible conduit between students and staff.

Once the idea of a student-specific Facebook page was mooted it became easy to track their responses and attitudes.  Students responded quickly to the idea: by the third week 52 students were actively engaged in the page. There are now over 200 regularly using the site, with topics as diverse as technical support requests to posts of links to professional interest.

Staff use the page to post information on orientation, health and safety guidelines and assignment updates, while moderating discussions to keep the page topical and ethical. The page also helps them support and engage with their students on a different level.

“The page continues to be an intriguing social experiment which builds in value and interest for both the students and staff.”

The results of the Facebook experiment were presented at the Computing and Information Technology Research and Education NZ Conference in Christchurch last October in the paper  ‘Can we be Friends? Building Student Communities with Social Media’, co-authored by Smith, Patricia Hayden and Professor Samuel Mann.

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Getting practical sooner

Hamish Smith and Professor Samuel Mann

Graduates of Otago Polytechnic’s Bachelor of Information Technology say it’s the thing that gives them jobs: more than a third of their final year of study is project based.

“In a job interview, candidates can talk about a real problem they’ve worked through,” says Professor Samuel Mann.

In recent years, capstone projects in the degree programme have been as diverse as a GPS-based virtual walking tour of central Dunedin historical landmarks to Pestweb, a system that gives farmers interactive information about pests. Now, wanting to transfer the benefits of project-based learning to all students, Mann and Programme Manager Hamish Smith researched how to translate the capstone approach to a lower-level course.

“We didn’t find much at an introductory level. So we looked at what is different and what works at a certificate level.” Smith says. The Certificate involves 12 ½ weeks of four different classes, with conventional teaching methods, followed by four weeks working on a project event full-time. Given a brief, students in groups of two or three follow differing pathways through the task.

The experiences of ICT students at Otago Polytechnic suggest project events in computing at certificate level are a successful innovation.

Smith, H. and Mann, S. (2011) Students' Experiences of Project Based Learning within a Pre-Degree Programme. Journal of Applied Computing and Information Technology, Volume 15, Issue 2.

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Tackling the numbers

John Maxwell

A more efficient and cost-effective way of monitoring inshore fishing has been developed by a team of Bachelor of Information Technology students.

The students worked with the Ministry of Primary Industries to help eliminate the difficulties it faces when attempting to keep track of all inshore fishing, and devised Cameras on Boats.

“Traditionally, data is collected by hand on the boat using paper-based forms, and is occasionally verified by an observer,” explains team member, John Maxwell.

“The Cameras on Boats method of digital data collection employs a satellite and a camera system to gather the information. A process that once took four weeks now takes just one, resulting in up-to-date data for the Ministry to use as it makes decisions regarding New Zealand’s fishing future.

In their third year of study, Bachelor of Information Technology students work to solve real business problems for real clients in innovative and creative ways, harnessing the latest technological advancements.