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Familiarising with the students through cultural probes

Keywords: cultural probe; community; technology; education; career; learning.

Aims and Rationale

A cultural probe is a technique that sees the use of material (in this case, a handwritten letter) to inspire people’s responses about their thoughts and experiences. This activity is designed to be carried out at the very early stages of the learning experience. Its aim is to facilitate both the educator and the students’ subsequent experiences in the activities.  It helps both educator and students identify and raise their own awareness of the influence of students’ perceptions, cultures, and backgrounds. Therefore, is it is designed to help ‘break the ice’ for the rest of the activities they and you will undertake together.

The probe should be creative and engaging.

In a curriculum designed to address the ways by which technology could help documenting ICH, two crucial themes around which to elicit students existing conceptions are “community” and “technology”. Understanding students’ views on these two crucial themes can help in structuring the activities in a way that a common conceptual ground is reached. For instance, students may have a monolithic idea of community and associate the concept mostly with family and friends. However, the concept of community is much more complex and involves transversal or sub-communities that may have conflicting versions of cultural heritage. This probe is a good opportunity to address simplistic conceptualizations. Besides, the probe helps in eliciting students’ perceptions of interesting technology to pre-emptively explore potential applications of students’ favored technology in the documentation of ICH.

In contexts where HCI is not advanced and/or frowned upon by computer scientists, a third theme we suggest exploring is the relationship between education, career, and learning. This may elicit interesting answers about the likely separation between these three concepts. Within this space, it is easier to find ways of bridging the gap between what is learnt outside the traditional curricula and ways of advancing careers. To pursue a career, it may be useful to go beyond the standardized university curricula, and the additional learning required may be provided by innovative offers such as the one proposed in this toolkit.

Learning Outcomes and Associated Areas of Knowledge

Express current views on different thematic areas of the HCI-ICH dynamic from a personal perspective

Illustrate through examples personal perspectives on issues arising out of the HCI-ICH dynamic

21st Century skills

  • Critical Thinking
  • Self-Direction
  • Public Speaking and Presentation


A letter for each student (the cultural probe used in this activity). See the Student Assignment Editable Word File at the top of this page.

Other cultural probes could be: maps, photos, videos, postcards, etc.

How to

Provide each student with a welcoming letter. This may be done even before the start of the educational experience, so that the students can bring their responses the first session and use them as icebreakers. The letter should list three tasks, Task A for “community”, Task B for “technology”, and Task C for “education, career, and learning”.

Task A is about the students choosing one or more communities they feel they belong to. After choosing, they must represent these communities with a moodboard. It can be a printed or digital. For digital moodbards, Moodboard is a good option.

Task B invites the students to select a digital technology or an engineering project (made by them, colleagues or friends, or even a national/international project) that they admire. They could either bring a representation of the project (photo, video, prototype, etc.) or submit a link to a shared drive (such as Google Drive or Dropbox). It is important that the students explain why they chose a particular technology or project.

Task C asks to draw a figure/graph (by hand or digitally) that represents (from the students’ perspective) the relationship between Education, Learning, and Career.

All the responses to the three Tasks will be presented by the students in front of their colleagues and be subject to peer-review and educators’ comments.


As suggested in the ‘How to Use this Toolkit’ advice and elsewhere in the subsequent Activities, when experiencing a different kind of learning environment for the first time, our own experience has shown us that students need to see the personal value and relevance of merging ideas from other disciplines (Humanities based or Computing Science based) with their own learning. Students in one particular discipline will have had years of learning and development in that area and so both the topic matter and the ways in which they meet new ideas will be heavily influenced by previous experience. The main challenge this ice-breaker activity also addresses is enabling both educator and student to think more flexibly about teaching as something they also contribute to as well as ‘done to them’. You may find it worthwhile to have an open conversation about this with your students and relate their experiences to real-world career contexts of working with different disciplines and people.

A further element to note is that when participating in very student-led activities, especially over a short period of time if you wish to apply a number of activities together, students and educators may find the experience tiring. The ice-breaker is a further opportunity to talk about ‘working smarter not longer’ – again with an emphasis on employability skills.

We have found that it is not actually learning new topics which students find hard but the implications of those topics on new ways of learning, like merging two areas. So supporting ‘learning to learn’ is of central importance to support your students through the process and help them make the best of what they can contribute to the learning experience.

Assessment for Learning

Assessment for learning is this area is designed to have a very personal impact on the student in aiding their self-awareness about the thematic areas to be covered in all of the subsequent activities. Educators on the other hand, can use this as a rich resource to inform their own localisation of the activities as and when they are applied and personalize the learning experience for the students.

Assessment 'How to'

Assessment for learning can be embedded in the questioning sequences used in the presentations. Open rather than closed questions will allow students to share their thoughts in a more welcoming and non-judgmental way. An open-ended question is designed to encourage a full, meaningful answer using the students’ own knowledge and/or feelings, whereas closed questions encourage a short or single-word answer. For example, asking Why or How or tell us more are more inclusive open question openers.

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Download Word File of activity in English
Student Assignment Editable Word File


  • Keep broad what is admitted as digital technology or engineering project.
  • Explore students’ view on community and technology to better inform the structure of activities.
  • Explore the perceived link between education, learning, and career in contexts where HCI is not completely established, so as to find a better collocation for your proposed educational experience.

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