Birkbeck Case Study
How Gorilla knocked down research bar­ri­ers at Birkbeck

Stu­dents can now col­lab­o­rate on exper­i­ments uncon­strained by time or location.

Dr. Fred Dick — Pro­fes­sor of Audi­to­ry Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science, Birkbeck

Uni­ver­si­ty of London

Gorilla Exper­i­ment Builder

Dr. Fred Dick — Pro­fes­sor of Audi­to­ry Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science, Birkbeck

Uni­ver­si­ty of London

Gorilla Exper­i­ment Builder

What was life like before Gorilla?

We teach our under­grad­u­ate class­es in the evening, which lim­its test­ing time. Also, many of our stu­dents are geo­graph­i­cal­ly-dis­persed across the south­east. So in-lab test­ing and col­lab­o­ra­tion between stu­dents can be real­ly difficult.

We want­ed to get stu­dents more involved in design­ing exper­i­ments; in think­ing cre­ative­ly about answer­ing the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions exper­i­men­tal­ly. But to do this they need­ed to design their own stud­ies. That’s the impor­tant thing from a ped­a­gog­i­cal perspective.

Stu­dents try­ing to design their exper­i­ments were spend­ing too much time on annoy­ing hard­ware issues. This would eat into valu­able, but lim­it­ed col­lab­o­ra­tion time.

Indi­vid­u­als can achieve a lot, but teams can achieve much more

Pre­vi­ous efforts with online exper­i­ment soft­ware were par­tial­ly suc­cess­ful, but had proven dif­fi­cult to scale. Changes were often slow and too expen­sive for broad use. So when Fred and his col­leagues dis­cov­ered Gorilla — an online exper­i­ment builder — they were intrigued. Here was a plat­form where stu­dents could build com­plete­ly cus­tomis­able exper­i­ments and col­lect mean­ing­ful data in large quan­ti­ties. It was fast and cost-effective.

The mod­u­lar design process meant stu­dents could build sep­a­rate parts of the exper­i­ment inde­pen­dent­ly and then deploy the whole exper­i­ment online. Ver­sion con­trol meant stu­dents can draft, and then review each other’s con­tri­bu­tions with ease. More impor­tant­ly, using Gorilla, stu­dents could col­lab­o­rate from any­where, at any time. Vir­tu­al­ly, but together.

These advan­tages con­vinced the Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ences depart­ment to buy a site license for Gorilla straight away so that it could be used across its Research Meth­ods class­es. It was imme­di­ate­ly adopt­ed for under­grad­u­ate research projects. Stu­dents com­ment­ed on how easy it was to get start­ed. Tuto­ri­als and good doc­u­men­ta­tion made the process effortless.

Fred adds:

Gorilla has worked out a lot of road­blocks that stu­dents face, so stu­dents are empow­ered to over­come them. Gorilla comes with a respon­sive sup­port team who help stu­dents and staff solve any prob­lems they encounter. That real­ly stood out for us in our deci­sion to bring it into the curriculum.

From basic exer­cis­es to real pub­lish­able science

Instead of basic cubi­cle exer­cis­es, devised by the tutors, stu­dents can now carry out their own novel research. This is a huge deal for psy­chol­o­gy undergraduates.

We’re also using Gorilla for final year research projects. This year, we had six stu­dents work­ing togeth­er on a bat­tery of tasks. Look­ing at audi­to­ry and spo­ken lan­guage processing—programmed in Gorilla.

It would have been a real strug­gle to get a large num­ber of sub­jects and to get good data before. But over the course of a month and a half, stu­dents got well over 100, recruit­ed from all over Europe — includ­ing 30 musicians.

Pre­vi­ous­ly, it was very unusu­al for under­grad stu­dents to col­lect pub­lish­able results. Thanks to Gorilla — and the ini­tia­tive of our stu­dents – it didn’t take long to col­lect the data. We are now about to sub­mit this project for publication.

Stu­dents use time more effectively

Now, instead of spend­ing 30 to 40 hours sit­ting in a cubi­cle test­ing par­tic­i­pants, stu­dents can recruit sub­jects rapid­ly via social media. Par­tic­i­pants sign up via a link, giv­ing stu­dents access to unprece­dent­ed num­bers of subjects.

These means they can con­duct stud­ies very fast. Stu­dents are sav­ing around 25 hours in sched­ul­ing and wast­ed time. That leads to more hands-on expe­ri­ence with data analy­sis and inter­pre­ta­tion, because they’re spend­ing much less time sit­ting with subjects.

Accord­ing to Fred, design­ing online exper­i­ments with Gorilla has helped make Birk­beck stu­dents bet­ter experimenters:

Now they’re think­ing about ways to bet­ter engage and mon­i­tor par­tic­i­pants. Not just those at the other end of a com­put­er, but inside the lab too.

Pow­er­ful inte­gra­tion that actu­al­ly works

One of Fred’s favourite fea­tures is the JavaScript script­ing tools in the Task Builder. This allows users to sup­ple­ment the drag-and-drop Task Builder with cus­tom code to aug­ment the func­tion­al­i­ty if necessary.

They actu­al­ly work. This is great for peo­ple look­ing to do their own pro­gram­ming but don’t want to man­age their own serv­er infrastructure.

A suc­cess­ful sci­ence career requries collaboration

Ulti­mate­ly, we want stu­dents to learn bet­ter and to have more opportunities,

To become bet­ter sci­en­tists and bet­ter con­sumers of sci­ence by active­ly engag­ing in the design and analy­sis process.

Not just because they can work togeth­er to pro­gram their own exper­i­ments and look at data eas­i­ly. But also because their time is freed up from non-use­ful exer­cis­es. That’s what Gorilla does for us. And that’s a big deal.