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Teaching and learning programming for mobile and tablet devices: London Metropolitan University

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On 24 July 2014, I went to a Higher Education Academy sponsored event at London Metropolitan University.  The event was all about programming mobile devices, and it was the third time I had been to this event.  The previous time I went along, I spoke about a new module: TT284 Web Technologies (OU website).  This time I had two purposes: to share something about the beginnings of a new module TM352 Web, Mobile and Cloud (or, more specifically, its main objectives) and to learn what other institutions are getting up to.

A case study…

The first presentation of the day was by Yanguo Jing from London Met (who has organised the event) and Alastair Craig.  They presented ‘a case study of the delivery of a year 12 summer school on mobile app development’ (I had to ask what ‘year 12’ meant: and it means 16 or 17 year olds…): this was a part of an outreach event that London Met run (where students were selected random to participate).

They described some of the challenges that they faced.  Firstly, the students who joined the summer school sometimes had no programming knowledge, and they had to make the summer school fun.  A really big challenge was to try to scaffold the learning so that the students could create something presentable by the end of the week.

At this HEA event last year, a new programming system called TouchDevelop was introduced.  TouchDevelop is a ‘touch friendly’ programming language from Microsoft Research.  (You can check out the kind of apps that have been created by visiting the apps section of the TouchDevelop site).

The language features a touch screen programming interface that is especially design to work with mobile devices; it allows users to choose only the programming constructs that can be selected (it is also graphical in the same sense that Scratch is).  One really interesting aspect of the system is that you don’t have to install anything.  TouchDevelop also creates HTML 5 code, which means that it can be run on a wide range of different devices.

The summer school lasts for a week.  The summer school begins with an introduction to the tool and a discussion of syntax.  The next two days are all about the basics of a game and the game engine.   The fourth day the students are asked to create their own game, and on the fifth day, students are asked to present their games to each other.  Masters level students acted as supervisors. One point was that it seemed that some students (who had some prior programming experience, invariably using Scratch) got ahead with everything.

A fundamental question is, ‘how do you teach people in 18 hours when you don’t know what they know?’  The trick, apparently, is to get them to do things.

Some discussion questions were: ‘is it a good idea [to run this kind of summer school]?’, and ‘does your department do something similar’, and ‘how might you scale up this type of outreach activity?’

One thing that I learnt from the discussion is that there is a new version of Scratch available.  This first presentation ended with a discussion about MOOCs, and the point was made that MOOCs are very different to outreach.

Considering the cloud: teaching mobile, cloud computing and the web

The second presentation of the day was by yours truly.  The aim of the presentation was to talk about some of the areas that a new module about cloud computing may (or may not) cover.  Towards the end of the presentation, I asked all the delegates the following questions:

  • What do you think needs to be taught (cloud, mobile, web?)
  • How might you teach these concepts?
  • What might the challenges be?
  • How might you carry out assessments?
  • How do we protect and inform about change?

As everyone discussed these questions, I made a few notes.  One of the fundamental challenges (with an OU course) is to choose technologies that are not going to age quickly.  ‘The cloud’ is a really fast moving area where there appears to be continual change and innovation; new software services and releases are coming out all of the time.  One way to counter against this is to teach the underlying concepts and not just information about the services.

Another approach is to perhaps concentrate on building a learning community.  Developers and technical specialists invariably live within a community that shares technical knowledge and expertise.  It might be interesting and useful to expose learners to the dynamics of these environments.

An interesting point was both mobile and web platforms are just different ways to consume resources.  Increasingly the ‘web’ is being equated to HTML 5, and HTML 5 is increasingly being embedded within mobile devices.

On the subject of teaching, one delegate made a really interesting and relevant point.  He said, ‘I’ve given up lecturing… half of them just turn off’.  When it comes to teaching the development of mobile apps the thing to do is to split students in to small groups; it is the learning by doing that really counts.

When it comes to assessment, one delegate said, ‘you’ve got to have a project – if you can’t develop an app, then you fail’, and it’s important to get continual updates on progress.  Other approaches might include the use of computer marked multiple-choice questions, and writing about the bigger reflections and lessons from the module.

Poster session

By way of a brief interlude, Yanguo introduced a series of posters that had been put on the wall of the meeting room.  The posters were all about different apps that students had created.  There were two indoor navigation apps, an app for parking (which made me remember one of my blog-rants about poor interaction design), some kind of ‘cash register’ virtual payment app, a food checker or testing app, and a museum guide app.

Bringing the cloud into the classroom

The third presentation of the day was by Paul Boocock, from Staffordshire University.  Paul mentioned that undergrad students are introduced to a range of different platforms: iOS, Android and Windows (if I’ve understood things correctly).  For postgraduate students, there are a number of interesting sounding modules, such as Android app development and Advanced location aware app development.  These link into different mobile technology postgraduate qualifications (Staffs University), such as their Mobile Device Application Development MSc, Postgraduate Certificate (PgCert) and their Postgraduate Diploma (PgDip).

One of the big recent changes to their curriculum is that Staffs is now including ‘the cloud’ into the different mobile modules.  One thing that I should mention is that the concept of ‘the cloud’ is understood in terms of public clouds (as opposed to private clouds that are hosted by the university).

Paul treated us with some pictures of data centres, and said ‘[the cloud] is changing how we teaching this stuff’.  He left us with an interesting idea: ‘what used to take 30 days to get up and running can now be achieved in 30 minutes’.  The point was simple: you no longer need to buy, configure and commission servers.  The benefits of ‘the cloud’ include potential lower costs, scaling and the potential of gaining global reach.  In some respects, it might become more difficult to become more directly exposed to the physical hardware that runs systems.

We were introduced a term that was unfamiliar to me: cloud computing patterns.  The term relates to the way that cloud systems can be consumed as opposed to how they are designed.  Some patterns include on/off, i.e. an application might experience high levels of demand for a while (a bit like batch jobs), that a product or system might take off very quickly (so there would be increases in demand), or there might be predicable or unpredictable bursts of traffic (such as within computer games, for example).

Paul also talked about different platforms.  He mentioned a good number that I had heard of (but I’m not intimately familiar with).  These were Amazon (of course), Microsoft, Rackspace, HP Public cloud, and Google Cloud.  Given that his focus was on public clouds for teaching purposes, he discounted HP and Rackspace (I think due to cost), and then considered Amazon.

Amazon apparently offer something called educational grants (Amazon website), which allow educators to gain free credits to allow computing students to use their services.  The trade is that students who use the Amazon systems will be able to take their skills directly into the workplace.  Apparently, you can tell them how many students you have, and then they sort out the number of licences (or credits).

We learnt that Microsoft (of course) run a similar scheme, which enable students to use Azure academic passes (Microsoft Azure website).  Google was not considered as an alternative since there are no current discounts for non-profit organisations.  In the case of Staffordshire, Paul opted for Microsoft mainly because they had already made an investment into Microsoft tools and environment.

Before a live coding demo, which featured a pre-built service (from what I’ve noted) we were given a brief description of the different Azure components (or Azure services).  These were: compute, app services, data services, and network (this reminded me that I’ve come across similar terms when looking at the open source equivalent called OpenStack).

At the end of Paul’s session there was a lot of time for discussion.

Points of discussion included the challenge of working with different SDKs, and the emphasis on design patterns.  On the masters course, student were asked to create an interactive chat app that wasn’t not too dissimilar to the hugely popular WhatsApp.

Of course, there are always challenges that educators need to be mindful of.  These include the need to change modules without increasing their difficulties, and the question of how to assess everything if everything exists in the cloud (and students create services using lots of template code).  One way to do this is, of course, to ask students to write a reflective report about what they did to get a sense of what they understand.

All in all, it was both really interesting and really useful to know how another institution had successfully tackled the introduction of programming the cloud into their computing curriculum.

Developing digital literacies

The fourth talk of the day was by Terry McAndrew, which had the subtitle, ‘how students can quickly create interactive media resources for your curriculum’. Terry spoke about the broad subject of ‘digital literacy’ which can be defined as ‘the ability to effectively engage with a range of digital technologies to create, navigate and manipulate information’.  Terry mentioned a resource known as a JISC Digital Literacy InfoKit (JISC website).   The key contains seven different areas, which are: information literacy, media literacy, communication and collaboration, career and identify management (which I understand to be a new bit), ICT literacy, learning skills and digital scholarship.  A two year digital literacy programme (JISC) was also mentioned.

Interestingly, Yanguo mentioned some digital literacy resources that were available from London Met.  There’s also another bunch of digital literacy resources from the University of Southampton.  All these different resources made me realise that perhaps this is an area that I really need to catch up on.

Another part of Tony’s presentation centred upon accessibility.  Tony mentioned a tool called Xerte (University of Nottingham) which can be used to create accessible digital material which can be delivered through a virtual learning environment to different devices.  It’s a tool that is sometimes used by students who are studying a module that I tutor, H810 Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students (OU website).  The content that is delivered is presented using HTML 5, but the editor uses Adobe Flash (we were, however, told that there are plans afoot to develop an HTML 5 based editing environment).

Two other interesting links (and projects) mentioned were JORUM, a repository of digital educational material that can be shared between different institutions.  JORUM has been going for quite a while, and I hadn’t heard it mention for quite some time.  Having a quick look at the JORUM site quickly tells me that it has changed quite a bit since I first looked at it properly (which must have been around six or seven years ago).  The second reference was to a project called ACTOER, which is an abbreviation for Accessibility Challenges and Techniques for Open Educational Resources (of which Terry, who is based at TechDis, is the project manager).

I enjoyed Terry’s talk, and I found his presentation of different digital literacy resources useful, but there was little about the learning and teaching of how to program mobile devices.  This said, accessibility is always really important, and it’s something that designers of curriculum need to always be mindful of: I welcomed Terry’s reminders.

Alignment of mobile learning agenda with learning and teaching strategies in HEIs

The final presentation of the day was by Remy Olasoji from the University of East London.  From what I remember, I understand Remy to be an expert in the field of requirements engineering.  He presentation was about taking lessons from requirement engineering to try to understand how best to make use of mobile technology.

A final question of the day was, ‘how do we drive the mobile agenda forward?’  A simple answer was: ‘mobile is already happening – it’s driving forward of its own accord’.  One challenge lies with figuring out how to teach the fundamentals of mobile technologies to enable students to be thoroughly equipped and prepared when they have to work with new and changing devices.  Another challenge lies with figuring out how to best make use of devices to help students with their studies.

Reflections

All in all, a useful event; it’s always useful to hear what happens within other institutions and to learn about what challenges educators need to overcome.  One area that I would like to have heard more discussion about is information and data security.  The ‘cloud’ exposes these issues quite naturally, along with issues that relate to business and management.

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