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HEA 2017 Annual conference: Generation TEF

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 14 Aug 2017, 10:56

A couple of weeks after attending the European Distance and E-Learning Network (EDEN) conference, I attended a UK Higher Education Academy conference that took place in Manchester between 4 July and 6 July 2017. In some respects, it was good to attend both events so close together, since ideas from the first conference were still at the forefront of my mind when I attended the second.

What follows is a conference of report of the HEA event. Like all of these conference reports, they represent my own personal views of the event; different delegates, of course, would have very different experiences. I should add that I attended two of the days: one that concentrated on STEM education, and the other that was more general.

The second day of the conference was opened by HEA chief executive Stephanie Marshall. Stephanie noted that this was the first annual conference for three years. She also hinted at the scale of the HEA, reporting that there were now ninety thousand fellows. A key point was that ‘teaching excellence is a global ambition’ and that discussions about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has been dominating recent debates within higher education. The notion of the fellowship was an attribute that can change university cultures to foreground the importance of teaching. Other issues that I noted were the importance of student engagement, student satisfaction, student retention and the idea of creating a ‘connected curriculum’.

Keynote: How digital engagement enhances the student experience

The opening keynote was by Eric Stoller. Eric has built a consultancy about using technology and social media to create digital engagement, with a particular emphasis on higher education.

I’ve noted that Eric said that there are social media skeptics and that social media is a subject that can be polarising. There was the suggestion that social media is all about learning, and the learning doesn’t stop when students leave the classroom. A point I noted was ‘life-long learning should be at the heart of the experience’; this is especially interesting since the life-long learning agenda within my own institution has been fundamentally impoverished due to government increases of tuition fees. It is now harder to study for an entirely different qualification, or to study a module or two with the intention of developing skills that are important in the workplace.

We were presented with a series of questions. One of them was: can social media be used for critical thinking? Perhaps it can. Information literacy is an important and necessary skill when we are faced with working out what news is fake, and what news isn’t. Other questions were: how do we use social media to build communities? Also, how do we connect to others when there’s one of ‘you’ and lots of ‘them’? In answer to ‘how’ you ‘do’ engagement through social media, I remembered that one of my colleagues, Andrew Smith gave a talk entitled ‘how our classroom has escaped’ at The Open University about how to use some social media tools (specifically Twitter) to reach out to computer networking students.

Another broad question was about digital literacy and capability. This immediately relates to another question: is there a benchmark for digital capabilities? A challenge about this perspective is one that Eric mentioned, which is: different people use social media in different ways. Another question was: how about addressing the subject of social media in staff appraisals?

A theme that appears regularly is that of employability. Perhaps lecturers should be ‘role modelling’ to students about how to use social media, since these can and do have implications for employability. Social media can be used to engage students as they become acclimatised to working within a particular institution, helping them through their first few weeks of study.

As Eric was speaking, I had my own thoughts: one way to see social media is a beginning point for further engagement with students; it can be used to expose issues and debates; it should, of course, be a beginning point and not be an end in itself. There are other issues: what are the motivations and incentives for the use of social media amongst different communities?

Day 2: Morning Sessions

The first session of the day was by Anna Hunter from the University of Central Lancashire. Anna’s talk was entitled: ‘What does teaching excellence look like? Exploring the concept of the ideal teacher through visual metaphor’. I was interested in attending this session since I have an interest in associate lecturer continuing professional development, and Anna was going to be talking about her work on a PGCE in HE module (which is a subject that has been on my mind recently). Some of the activities echoed my own experience as a PGCE student; activities to explore views and opinions about teaching and thinking about the notion of academic identity. I noted down a question that was about team teaching, but I didn’t note down the response; the issue of how to facilitate and develop team teaching practice remains both an interest and a question. 

Kath Botham from Manchester Metropolitan University gave a presentation that was also in the form of question: Is an institutional CPD scheme aligned to the UK PSF and HEA Fellowship an effective tool to influence teaching practice? Kath’s research was a mixed method approach that aimed to assess the impact of the various fellowship awards. Some practitioners wanted the ‘HEA badge’ to be seen and recognised as someone involved in teaching and learning’. It is viewed as something to validate practice. Also, gaining accreditation is something that can help lecturers and teachers overcome ‘imposter syndrome’. The question remains: does accreditation change practice? Accreditation can help people to engage with reflection, it can represent an important aspect of CPD and can stimulate personal skills and study development.

Day 2: Afternoon Sessions

After attending a series of short five minute ‘ignite’ sessions, I couldn’t help but attend: ‘Removing the elephant from the room: How to use observation to transform teaching’ by Matt O'Leary and Mark O'Hara who were both from Birmingham City University. This presentation directly linked to the theme of the conference and to a university funded project that is all about online and face to face tutorial observations. We were treated to a literature review, and introduced to a six stages of an observation cycle: (1) observe self-reflection, (2) a pre-observation meeting, (3) observation, (4) post-observation reflection, (5) post-observation dialog, and (6) observee and observed post-observation reflective write up. I also noted down that there was an observer training and development sessions. Another note (which I assume is about the feedback) was: ‘we chose a blank page approach; we don’t want to forms corrupting what we see’, which reflects observation reports that I have personally received. The closing points were important; they spoke about the importance of management buy-in, that there is anxiety in the process, and there needs to be time to have conversations. 

Rebecca Bushell from the University of South Wales asked: Can innovative teaching techniques effectively improve engagement, retention, progression and performance? Rebecca’s innovative technique was to ask her students to create businesses that are funded using micro-capital (student groups were given fifty pounds each). The points were that this was immersive problem based learning that allowed students to share experience. It also allowed to reflect on their experience, and it created learning situations for students on other modules; accounting students were asked to audit their accounts. For me, the take away point was: simulations can expose real challenges that can immediately relate to the development of employability skills. 

Day 3: Opening Keynote

The final day of the conference was opened by Giskin Day from Imperial College London. Giskin taught a Medical humanities course which was all about Putting medicine in a social and cultural context. It is a course that explores the connections between the arts and science, with an emphasis on creativity.

An interesting point that I noted was that much of science is about minimising risk and beating uncertainty. With this context in mind, how can we encourage students to tolerate and manage ambiguity? This, of course, is an important skill in higher education; it is something that is explicitly explored within the humanities, where students are encouraged to be ‘creatively critical and critically creative’.

Another point is that there is a change in student expectation: students are no longer willing to be ‘talked at’, which is something that was echoed within my recent blog summary from the recent EDEN conference that I attended. A question remains: how do we engage students in new ways? One approach is to consider ‘playful learning’ (the notion of games and gaming was, again, something that featured within EDEN). Games, Giskin argued, enable students to develop empathy; they allow students to enter into a safe imaginative space where failure is an option and a possibility.

We were introduced to a speed dating card exchange game that had a medical theme. As a part of her teaching, we were told about a field trip to the V&A museum that was connected to skin, sculpture and dermatology. Students had to find exhibits within the museum and had to decide whether the sculpture needed a medical diagnosis, developing student’s communication, sketching and observation skills. Other games involved role playing where students played the roles of doctor and consultants. There was talk of escape rooms and creative puzzle solving.

Giskin offered some tips about creating effective games: consider the audience, make sure that things are tested, and think about a balance of playfulness and usefulness whilst also asking questions about what would motivate the student players. Also, when planning a ‘game’, always consider a ‘plan B’, since things might change in the real world; a game-based field trip to a museum might become unstuck if a museum suddenly loans an artefact to another institution.

In some respects, Giskin’s presentation was in two parts: the first part was about games; the second part was about her research about the rhetoric of gratitude in healthcare (Imperial College). Her point was simple: grateful people want to express gratitude; it is a part of closure, and an acknowledgement of that expression. The language used with both patients, and with challenging students is very important. I noted down the importance of moving from a rhetoric of coercion to a rhetoric of collaboration.

During the question and answer session, I think Giskin referred to something called the Playful learning Special Interest group (Association for Learning Technology). I found this interesting, since the introduction to design module, U101 Design Thinking uses both the idea of play, and explores design through the development of a game. 

I enjoyed Giskin’s reference to different types of learning approaches; her references to field trips and role play echoes various teaching approaches that I have tried to adopt. During a moment of inspiration I once spontaneously ran a field trip to a university corridor to encourage a set of design students to look at a set of recycling bins! Hearing about other practitioners such as Giskin developing a systematic and more comprehensive approach to designing field trips offers real inspiration and insight into how to develop interesting and entertaining learning events. I remain wondering how to embed these different approaches into a distance learning context.

Towards the end of Giskin’s session, we were each given different postcards, and we were asked to write down the response to a simple question: ‘what teaching and learning tip were you grateful to receive?’ Our challenge was to find the same card as another delegate and swap tips. When I found another delegate that had the same card as mine, a card that had some drawings of some craft tools, I made a point of offering a grateful thank you, which was, I believe, graciously received.

Day 3 : Morning Sessions

During the morning, I moved between different sessions to catch various presentations. The first talk of the morning was by Nagamani Bora, University of Nottingham, who spoke about ‘Curriculum Design - Opportunities and Challenges’. There were references to employability, interdisciplinary and the notion of the spiral curriculum (which was recently mentioned during my PGCE in HE studies). Other points included the importance of involving students in curriculum design and introducing them to international and global perspectives. An interesting point was made about the question of programme level assessments.

Siobhan Devlin who was from the University of Sunderland spoke about ‘Engaging learners with authentic assessment scenarios in computing’. Interestingly, Siobhan spoke about the ‘demodularised curriculum’; bigger chunks of curriculum were considered to be the order of the day. A key point was that authentic assessment needs to reflect real world practices. Siobhan also referenced some of her earlier research that asked the question: what does inspiring teaching look like? Some key attributes I noted were: enthusiasm, passion, adaptability, empathy, friendliness and enjoyment. I also noted down a reference to Keller’s ARCS model of motivation (e-learning industry).

Day 3 : Afternoon Sessions

Christine Gausden, University of Greenwich, continued to touch on the authentic in her talk ‘Embedding Employability within the Curriculum’. Christine is a senior lecturer in the built environment and said that although students might have technical knowledge, they may lack the opportunity to apply that knowledge. To overcome this, practitioners were asked to talk to students, and students were asked to study real live construction project, which links to the earlier point of authenticity. 

After Christine’s talk, I switched sessions to listen to Dawn Theresa Nicholson and Kathryn Botham from the Manchester Metropolitan University talk about ‘Embedding Reasonable Adjustments in the Curriculum (ERAC): A Faculty-wide approach to inclusive teaching’, which relates to my own experience of tutoring on an Open University module called Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students (Open University website). The idea was to embed accessibility in the curriculum (MMU) to such an extent so that personal learning plans could be phased out completely. A solution was to look at what adjustments were being applied, provide a set of standard adjustment and to offer staff training. An important principle was to make sure that all learning materials were available online in advance of a session. 

Carol Calvert, a staff tutor colleague from The Open University talked about ‘Success against the odds’. A key driver the research was the principle of student retention; it was hoped that the project would suggest actions to help students to complete their studies. The key research question was: ‘what can students who we think may not succeed, who have been able to succeed, able to tell us?’ Factors that might suggest challenges include: previous study success, socio-economic status, and level of prior educational attainment. Students offered some pointers: (1) that it was important to start early, (2) that it is important to share and to get network (and to tell other people that you are studying), (3) use a study planner.

To conclude, students that do succeed have a can do attitude. The important question is: how can we foster this from a distance? There were some accompanying actions: the module team could take time to introduce the module and gives students some useful study tips. Another action is to ask students whether they wanted to start study early and then try to make this happen. When asked, it turned out that half of the students on Carol’s module said that they might want to do this.

The final presentation I attended was given by my colleague, David Morse. David talked about ‘Truly virtual teams: twelve years on’. It isn’t a surprise to hear that students don’t like team working, but David made the point that group working is an important element of the QAA computing subject benchmark statement. Twelve years earlier, things were different: students didn’t have broadband, but online collaboration is more about people than it is about the details that surround particular technologies. A question is: what must students do? They must set rules, roles and responsibilities. They must also identify knowledge and skills, make regular contributions to online discussions, give and receive criticism, and apply good netiquette. A tutor needs to be a facilitator and not a manager. A tutor also needs to know when to step forward and when to step back. In response to this, David presented an interesting helical model of team working (which reminded me of a spiral model that had been mentioned earlier during the conference). 


I like HEA conferences; they’re always well run, they are interesting and relevant, and represent a great opportunity for networking. In comparison to other HEA events that I had attended this one had a slightly different feel. I think this difference is due to two reasons; the first is the sheer scale of the event. Secondly, due to the fact that it was very interdisciplinary. Whilst I always enjoy meeting people who work in other subjects, I did feel that the sheer scale of the conference made it a more difficult event to navigate and choose the sessions that looked to be the most relevant. These things said, I did feel that the keynotes were well chosen and well presented. The second keynote stood out as being particularly thought provoking, which is exactly what keynote sessions should be.

During the workshop, I also facilitated a session about module design with my colleague, Ann Walshe. We offered a space where delegates could be creative and design their ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ module. The resulting designs were fun and playful, and make significant use of different technologies that had been mentioned during the first keynote. 

I’m going to conclude with a more personal reflection. This conference took place in the grounds of the university that was once known as UMIST, which was where I studied as a doctoral student. Wandering around the campus brought back many memories; I remembered how challenging it was. I was trying to conduct research into what was a very specific aspect of computing: theoretical models of how programmers go about understanding software code. I remembered how difficult it was having a part time job whilst at the same time as being a full time student. I also remembered how alone I felt, and this underlined the importance of community, which was also a topic that had arisen during the various sessions.

It not only struck me that community was really important for researchers, but it is also really important as a way to facilitate excellent teaching too; teachers and lecturers need to talk to other teachers and lecturers. In some ways, this was, ultimately, what the conference was all about.

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Horizons in STEM higher education conference 2016

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This blog has been taken from a set of notes I made when I visited the Horizons in STEM conference at the University of Leicester on 30 June 2016. Attending an event like this, to do ‘something academic’, made me feel weirdly guilty since I had been spending so much of my time doing ‘admin stuff’.

The aim of the conference was all about developing teaching and learning in the STEM disciplines, and sharing practice about what works and what doesn’t. Two speakers gave an opening address: there was the head of STEM from the HEA, and Nick Braithwaite from The Open University. Comments were made about the student voice, commitment to the discipline and the constant importance of professional integrity. I also noted down the words, ‘we want to improve our critical pedagogy; encourage everyone to be critical’. The second keynote speech was especially interesting because it was pretty distant from my know experience and knowledge: it was about how shared laboratory and learning spaces could be used to create an interdisciplinary subject centre.

Day one: first session

The first presentation I attended had the title ‘the educational value of student generated videos’. The idea was to replace a static poster with a five minute videos. As I listened, I thought of the Open University T215 module which requires students to create a short presentation.

One of the presentations that I particularly liked had the title: ‘undergraduate eJournals’. An eJournal is an official university publication for undergraduate studies that was linked to a ten point module. Interestingly, the articles published in an eJournal can be picked up by Google Scholar and the national media. Students could adopt the roles of author, referee and play a role on an editorial board. A new term that I’ve learnt was: synoptic learning. A key point for students was: try to create a paper that links science and fun topics; wacky can be good.

Discussion session

The next session was about discussion. I made notes about issues relating to ‘normative practice’ (without really understanding that this meant), social justice and inclusion.

An interesting question that was posed was: ‘are you aware of attainment gaps [in your programmes and modules]?’ Accompanying questions were: ‘are they discussed in your module team meetings, and do you know why they happen?’ and ‘do you discuss potential solutions?’ There were a series of related points: the importance of transition between levels of study, the importance of data, and the importance of critical reflection. Inclusion was discussed in terms of inclusive curriculum; making a subject relevant to individual students.

Flexibility and Personalisation

Neil Gordon from the University of Hull spoke about two pieces of work: flexible pedagogy and attainment. Flexible pedagogy was defined as giving students more choice about when to learn, where to learn and how to learn (mode, pace and place). Some interesting points that relate to computer science: it is a popular subject, but there appears to be a mismatch between expectations, i.e. computer science does not equal information technology. There are some clear challenges: computer science was noted to be the second worse subject for awarding good degrees (I should add that I’m not sure whether this was a national perspective or an institutional perspective), and 83% of students are male (again, I’m not sure on where this figure was taken from). Are there solutions? Some ideas were: to develop interactive tutorials, to create automated assessment, and look at the transition between school and colleague, and look to community engagement.

The next presentation was by Derek Raine from the University of Leicester. My notes read: ‘personalise the content to match with the aims and objectives for students – usual approach: core, options and a capstone project’.  Other points were: ‘drivers of change include finance, non-standard providers, media, and MOOCs’. The following question could be asked in classes: ‘what would you like to be discussed in the sessions?’

Final session

The final session that I attended was opened by Simon Grey from the University of Hull who spoke about ‘Games, learning and engagement’. Simon presented a brief history of gaming followed by a summary of the concept of gamification and game based learning. I learnt that there were eight different types of fun: sensation, fantasy, narrative, challenge, fellowship, discover, expression and submission (these terms reminded me of usability and user experience goals that are found in interaction design). Other points include the importance of mechanics (rules), dynamics (the system), and aesthetics (the look and feel), before Simon spoke about the concept of flow, and that we needed to give students clear goals, immediate feedback, and challenges that match their skill.

I think it was then my turn to do a bit of speaking. I spoke about a university funded project to study the teaching of a second level module about web technologies. My key points were that students differed significantly in terms of their backgrounds and abilities, and tutors differed significantly in terms of their online teaching practice.

The next session, entitled ‘teaching programming and data analysis with a MOOC’ was given by my colleague Michel Wermelinger. Michel talked about his experience of teaching on a MOOC entitled ‘learn to code for data analysis’ which has been presented through FutureLearn. Michel mentioned some software that students could use: a Python distribution called Anaconda (Wikipedia), something called SageMathCloud (Wikipedia), and Jupyter notebooks (Jupyter website). We were also told of a blog post that Michel had written called the First Principles of Instruction (blog post). The post which presents a very brief summary of five principles of instructional design that promotes learning and engagement. These are: problem centred, activation (of past experience), demonstration (to show new knowledge), application, and integration (of new knowledge into existing knowledge or practice).

It was a good talk. I have one other memory, which was that Michel was pretty robust in his views about much workload running a MOOC actually entails from a lecturer’s perspective.

Day two: first session

The first session had the title ‘development of digital information literacy’ by Eleanor Crabb who was also from the OU. I noted down the terms ‘understanding digital practices, finding information and critical evaluation’. There was a mention of an online pinboard tool, which was a bit like Pinterest, and a presentation about different activities: an icebreaker activity and a collaborative activity where students had to summarise a chemistry paper.

The next session had the title ‘encouraging students’ reflection through online progress files’. All students were required to make comments every week on each module, which in turn, acquire marks – which is an interesting parallel with a scientist’s notebook.  Key challenges included engagement with students and staff and students knowing what to write (which was ameliorated by a set of more detailed guidelines).

A session that I found especially interesting was entitled ‘maths advice and revision for chemistry’.  A key term that I noted down was: ‘the maths problem’; some students didn’t have mathematics as a prerequisite when they started to study chemistry as an undergraduate at Glasgow University. I also noted down bit of research that one of the best indicators of success in chemistry wasn’t having studied chemistry in the past, but instead, having an existing maths qualification. As I listened I started to think about (and remember) my own experience as a computer science student where I had to attend remedial maths classes (since I didn’t study A-level). I had to attend these classes where we were given maths puzzles printed on yellow paper. In Glasgow University, students could attend voluntary labs, workshops and group tutorials. Subjects included complex numbers, vectors, matrices, differentiation and integration. I couldn’t help but feel that such an approach would have been really useful during my own undergraduate studies.

The final session had the title: ‘understanding the process by which students manage their employability’. Employability was defined as ‘personal assets, how they are deployed, how they are presented to employers, and the wider context (such as economic conditions and personal circumstances). Another thought I had was that employability also relates the information that employers might find easily discover about potential employees if they do a quick internet search (which was a theme I think I was introduced to at another HEA workshop). Much food for thought.

Keynote summary:  Future directions in teaching and learning

The second conference keynote was by Derek Raine (who spoke during an earlier session) from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Science from the University of Leicester. Derek mentioned something called the New Directions in the teaching of Physics which presents opinion pieces, pedagogic research and reviews.

Before considering the future, Raine looked to the past to consider the historic and contemporary roles of universities. As well as being centres of study for the sciences and humanities, they can also be considered to be an ‘engine of social mobility, a driver of economic growth, and a cornerstone of our cultural landscape. Points were drawn from the 2016 white paper (THES explanation), and the 1963 Robins Report in Higher Education  (Education England) which states that higher education should be available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue it (page 9).  

According to Raine (and my notes), the 2016 white paper cites problems: that courses are inflexible, that students are dissatisfied, and there are national skills shortages. An important point is that there is increased competition from different types of education providers which is connected with an important change in perspective. Historically, higher education has been viewed as being a public good (the view that an educated and skilled workforce helps all members of society) whereas it is now being presented as a private good (that an education helps the individual to earn money). My view, and those of others that I work with is that the first perspective needs to be protected.

Another point was that there is research that tells us something about what works in higher education teaching. Key points include: time on task, trained teaching staff, the importance and use of collaborative learning, class sizes, quality of feedback, and the sense of community (Gibbs, Dimensions of Quality, Higher Education Academy PDF).

I made a note of some pedagogies (approaches to teaching) that were mentioned: personalised lecturers (that are based on student questions), flipped classrooms (where students listen to lectures before attending a tutorial), problem-based learning, MOOCs (which I’m very cynical about), gamificiation, extension tasks and student journals. As our speaker was speaking, I made a note that I felt important: ‘an alternative division of labour where pedagogic research or scholarship plays a part’.

Another interesting idea was the importance of sustainability (of higher education, and education per se) as a fundamental idea or principle. I also noted that it is important that ‘history is linked with the present, science linked with society, and economies with social justice, and this is achieved through interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary’. I agree: connections are important since they offer us perspective.

These final thoughts inspired an interesting point during the concluding question and answer session: ‘it isn’t just about what a university is for, but also what is an economy for; it’s not just about money, it’s about culture and our place within it’. 

Final session

The first of three sessions was from three of my OU colleagues, Ann Walshe, Anne-Marie Gallen, and Anne Campbell who were studying ‘associate lecturer perspectives on supporting students through tuition in groups’. They were asking: ‘what is tuition?’, ‘what can we learn from tutors?’ and ‘are there some common understandings across stakeholders?’ The research is being carried out through workshops and telephone interviews.

The next talk had the title ‘a student monitoring and remedial action system for improving retention of computer science programmes’ by Stewart Green from the University of West of England. I noted that there was a role of a retention co-ordinator. This is someone who gets different sources of data, such as attendance data, VLE logins, and assessment results. A key task is to periodically review the data, and to choose actions supported by student support advisors. Interventions might include email messages, face to face chats, and referrals to advisors. Students may, of course, be affected by a whole range of different issues, including illness, family issues and caring responsibilities.

In some ways Stewart’s role represents a human equivalent of various learning analytics project that I have heard rumours about in the OU. I really like the human element that underlies the looking of reports about attendance and attainment; this backs up my opinion that what really matters in education isn’t technology, but people.

I also noted down a couple of useful reports. The first that I noted had the title: Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change by Liz Thomas (HEA website). The second was entitled Undergraduate retention and attainment across the disciplines (HEA website).

The final session was called ‘visualising student progress: identifying patterns in the behaviour of students learning databases’. It was given by Andrew Cumming from Edinburgh Napier. Andrew spoke about tutorial exercises, where students had to perform SQL database searches across a number of live databases. I also have made the note ‘can we tell the difference between formal and informal learners?’ but I have no idea what this means.

Concluding thoughts

By the end of the two days at Leicester, I was pretty tired: there had been loads of presentations, and a lot of take in. Even though several months have now passed since the event, I can still remember some highlights. I was particularly interested in three things: the idea of an official ‘student journal’ as a learning tool (it was an interesting pedagogic approach), the idea of a ‘retention tutor’ (retention is a theme which crops up at almost every meeting I attend), and a welcome dose of perspective given to everyone during the second keynote.

There was one theme that seemed to go through every session: the importance of connecting teaching and research. Even though some of us might work in a discipline that doesn’t change very much (such as mathematics), the context and environment in which a subject or discipline sits is, of course, always changing. This means that we must always think about, study and explore ways to engage our students.

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HEA new to teaching workshop

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On 19 February 2015, I went to something called the HEA new to teaching workshop which was a part of a larger HEA ‘transitions conference’.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not new to teaching, but there was a bit of the workshop that I was really interested in: a section that was about how to teach introductory programming.  The reason for my interest is that teaching programming is pretty difficult: some students excel, whereas other students struggle.

The session was facilitated by Karen Fraser from the HEA.  I’ve met Karen numerous times before, but I have never been to a session that Karen ran entirely on her own.  Instead, her role has been always to facilitate and introduce other speakers.

The aims of the day were to think about and reflect on our teaching practice, consider different ways of teaching, consider what things we are doing well, and share practice between each other.  This is a quick blog summary of the event.  I’ve written it for a number of reasons: it’s a set of notes that also contains links to useful resources, a way to tell my line managers what I’m getting up to, and to share some personal reflections about the event with Open University and other colleagues.


Karen opened the session by asking us a couple of questions: ‘is computing a profession?’ and ‘is academia a profession?’  My immediate response to the first question is: yes, because there’s a body called the British Computer Society ( which aims to develop the professionalism of those working within the computing and IT industry.

I noted down that the purpose of the HEA is to enhance professionalism in higher education.  There are a number of issues that it addresses: reward and recognition, career progression, and continuing professional development.  In some respects, these areas can be connected to something called the Professional Standards Framework (PSF) where HE professionals can apply to gain different levels of professional recognition.  Karen briefly summarised the PSF, telling us that it contained six aspects of core knowledge, five areas of activity, and four professional values.

Returning to the original question, did we hold the view that higher education is a profession?  From memory, I believe the consensus was that higher education should be viewed as one.  It was also interesting to hear that the HEA has applied for a charter to become a professional society in the same way that the BCS is.

Teaching and learning

It might sound obvious, but one of the key aspects of professionalism in higher education is the need to foster and continually update knowledge and understanding about how students learn, both generally, and within their subject or disciplinary areas.

These key points led us to a discussion about the different types of teaching techniques that we could use in our discipline.  These ranged from the use of role play, applying a technique called action learning and demonstrating, such as showing students what code looks like in a debugger.  At this point I had a thought about the virtues of animations.  When I was industry I learnt a lot when I watched another more experienced programmer at work.  This short discussion was immediately making me think about what might help students to get to grips with the fundamentals of computing.

In my notes, I made the comment: ‘pair programming: advantages and disadvantages’.  I’m not exactly sure what I meant by this, but gently picking apart this theme immediately suggests a broad range of different issues: the importance of continuous learning within the computing and IT industry, the question of what skills industry is looking for and what universities can do to help, and the importance of soft skills in subjects such as IT and computing.

Teaching introductory programming

The next part of the session moved from considering the academic as a profession to the specifics about teaching of introductory programming.

We discussed some of the problems and challenges: students need to know about different programming languages and tools, and there is also the necessity to develop problem solving skills and increase student’s awareness of strategies of programming design and implementation.  A key point was that programming is a creative exercise; it’s all about the solving of new problems.  A perpetual challenge is how to map (or translate) real world problems into code.

Karen showed us a slide that asked a single question: ‘where do students struggle and what do you think their problems are?’  During the resulting discussion, I made a note of the following points: as lecturers we can’t teach programming, we can only help students to learn it; students need to put ‘the hours in’ (since programming is like any skilled activity).  Also, the context for learning is important: we need to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Other key points were: the importance of expectations, inexperience and confidence; the importance of how to decompose problems, and asking students whether they are fundamentally interested in the subject.  An interesting question (to students) could be: ‘are you prepared to be confused?’ and asking students to reflect on their own experience with computing devices and their knowledge of hardware and software.

Some other interesting points related to the activity (or exercise) of ‘making a cup of tea’, to learn the idea of problem decomposition (this, incidentally, is an exercise that some of our Open University TU100 tutors use at a programming day school).  Other skills might include the ability to identify sequences, patterns and steps (along with understanding how to do, and translate into computer code basic arithmetic).  Finally, MOOCs (free on-line courses) were mentioned as possible way to allow students to acquire background knowledge.  One thought was that perhaps a MOOC might help students transition between A-level and degree level study.

Another question was introduced: why is teaching (or learning) programming so difficult?  Some tentative suggestions were that programming is a skill, and it is something that is learnt by doing, and also programming isn’t a prerequisite for computing modules.  There is also the challenge of dealing with the syntax (or structure) of programming languages, and that students might not have experience of important concepts, such as data typing.

We were taken through two other slides: thoughts about problems with students (a lack of analytical, reasoning and planning skills?), and thoughts about problems with lecturers (a disconnect in terms of communication and issues surrounding instructional materials, teaching methods and teaching strategies). These problems can have impacts.  These might be students becoming disillusioned and the waning of enthusiasm which could lead to a failure to attend practical classes.   But what could we (as lecturers or educators) do?  Some thoughts related to the importance of learning design, early identification when students get lost, the importance of fast feedback, and the encouragement of reflection.

All this led to a discussion that had the title: ‘what delivery techniques could we use to engage students and help them understand difficult concepts?’  The group came up with the following thoughts (amongst others):  Use of the institutional virtual learning environment and flipped classrooms (Wikipedia),  the use of small groups, facilitated debates, use of media stories, the creation of animation to demonstrate ideas, translation of algorithms into ‘physical theatre’ (pretending students are different values based on height), use of robots, the idea of ‘code as a performance’ (as something the lecturers, or students create front of others, potentially also demonstrating failure), application of peer assessment, use of in-class question and response systems, helping students to create their own resources, and inviting students to present different ideas to each other.

An important point was made: research (I’m not sure which research!) has shown that students have a hierarchy of pedagogical preferences when it comes to learning programming: students like programming lab sessions more than they like working on projects.  Lectures, it seems, isn’t viewed as an effective way to teach programming.  Thinking back to my own experience as an undergraduate (when I had to learn a programming language called Pascal), I can completely relate to this.

On the subject of peer assessment, we were introduced to a system called Peerwise (University of Auckland).   I hadn’t heard of this system before.  We were shown a brief introductory video about the system (Peerwise website).   I have heard of other peer assessment systems, such as WebPA which (I understand) used to be funded by JISC.  An idle thought is that it would be interesting to do a comprehensive review of these peer assessment systems (since I seem to think there are a few other systems out there).  

After lunch…

A provocative question was posed in the first session after lunch: should programming be taught in the first year of a degree?  An alternative perspective was that perhaps we ought to first teach other subjects, such as data structures and algorithms before moving onto programming.  This way, students get the opportunity to understand more about some of the fundamental concepts of software and computing.  My own view is one that connects back to earlier discussions, namely, that since programming is a fundamental skill, and it’s something that takes a long time to master, we need to give students the experience of what is meant by programming early on in the curriculum.

The next session was about sharing good practice in lecturers.  One of the biggest take away tips from the day was the idea of changing something every fourteen minutes: divide an hour lecture into different sections that are punctuated by videos, run discussion activities or question and answer sessions, get willing students to come to the front of the class, or change the entire tenor (or tone) of a lecture by telling a story or an anecdote, or take a bit of time to introduce other resources, such as MOOCs.   Another thought is to ask students to prepare something for a tutorial (but always remember that you’ve done this! On the subject of videos, we were offered an example: a clip entitled The Friendship Algorithm (YouTube) from the comedy series The Big Bang Theory.

The workshop ended with a chat about a range of different issues.  We chatted about the importance of reflection so we can understand more about our performance as lecturers, and also the importance of reflecting on what our students have learnt from our teaching practice.  Another topic was the importance of feedback, and how feedback is perceived by students. 

A final take away point was a reference to a paper by Chickering and Gamson entitled Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (Washington news centre, PDF).  Although there isn’t anything in this paper that struck me as substantially new (which was published around twenty five years ago), it does represent a neat set of principles that can be fairly easily remembered and internalised.  When I was looking through the paper, one thought was: ‘how might these principles be translated or adapted to the on-line distance education context?’ or ‘what attributes of a module design might adhere to these principles?’

Final thoughts

Not long after I joined this session, Karen said to me, ‘you’re not new to teaching, are you Chris?’ In some respects this question was a challenge.  It was also a challenge that immediately led to a reflection.  The answer was: ‘I’m not new to teaching, but I’m here to see if there is anything new I can learn’.  

I was there for two reasons.  The first reason is that one of my jobs is to help to induct new tutors to the university and to help to run associate lecturer development sessions, which means it would be useful to know how the HEA does things.  Secondly, as mentioned earlier, I have an interest in the teaching of introductory computing and programming.

The whole day turned out to be useful: Karen’s discussion about the professionalisation of higher education was interesting and informative, and the day turned out to be a useful opportunity to share teaching practice and to learn about new resources.  By the end of the day I ended up coming out of the session with more questions than I went in with.  This, of course, is a sign of a good day.

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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.


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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HEA Workshop: Teaching and learning programming for mobile and tablet devices

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 3 Mar 2014, 18:44

On 25 June 2013, I popped over to the London Metropolitan University to attend a HEA sponsored workshop that was all about how to best teach the programming of mobile devices.  My role there was to present something about an OU module that I help out on: TT284 Web Technologies, but I'll be saying a bit more about that in a little while.

Yanguo Jing, from London Met kicked off the day by talking about the twenty credit MSc module that he leads.  Yanguo said that his module is strongly connected with industry and various technology vendors and important themes are that of innovation and enterprise.  Importantly, students have an opportunity to carry out research themselves, create their own projects, develop their own apps and present their own findings.  One way that they do this is by making their own videos (which is also a great way to create evidence which can be contributed to assessments).

Yanguo also mentioned something called the Wow Agency. One of the important points of having a more direct connection with industry is that students get more immediate exposure to demands from industry.  This was thought provoking stuff.

Teach the future, not the past: Blackberry 10 development

Luca Sale and Simon Howard gave the first of two vendor presentations.  I'll put my hand up and say that I know next to nothing about developing applications for Blackberry devices.  In fact, I don't think I've ever used a Blackberry device other than to scroll through a message, when a friend briefly gave me their device to look at!

This presentation was all about developing for a new device, the Blackberry 10.  I have heard bits and pieces about this, but the new device has a totally new operating system called Z10.  Interestingly, it is based on an operating system called QNX (Wikipedia) (which I had vaguely heard of before).  Basically, it uses a microkernal architecture (which means it has a way to enforce stronger separation between the hardware and the main operating system that runs a device), it's pretty small, and is used in a range of different embedded systems.

Apparently, there are number of Software Development kits (SDKs) which means that it's possible to take an existing Android app and port it to the Blackberry (and have it deployed to users via the Blackberry equivalent of an app store).  The SDKs that were mentioned included Qt, HTML 5, Blackberry native, Adobe Air, and Java Android Runtime.

There was a quick live coding demo of how to create apps using the HTML 5 framework.  Other languages that might be used to craft code included Javascript (in conjunction with HTML 5), C++, and Java (as far as I understand).  At the end of the presentations, Nafeesa Dajda described the Blackberry Academic Programme (Blackberry).

Microsoft devices and services

Lee Stott continued the vendor specific part of the day by making a Microsoft themed presentation.  Microsoft, of course, has been investing significantly into the mobile devices space.  Not only do they have Windows phones, but they (of course) also have their Touch PCs.  So much so, that their new operating system (Windows 8) aims to create an experience specifically for tablet devices.

Lee talked about software eco systems and mentioned that services (as well as devices) are important too.   Services can also be thought of in terms of cloud services, and we were told that the cloud was becoming more and more important.  Since data is stored elsewhere, users have the potential to move between different devices and still have access to their documents and data, thus enhancing the user experience.  

One of the most interesting part of Lee's talk was where he spoke about the Microsoft Azure services.  I have to confess that it's been quite a while since I've been a Microsoft developer (in the intervening years I've done some PHP and coding using open-source frameworks), so it was useful to learn what the company has been up to and what services they are offering.

One of the challenges that I've always puzzled over is if you run your own tech company, how you might go about running and maintaining your own servers and databases.  System administration is a necessary, important and essential evil: getting to grips with real kit and devices is important, but is a detailed technical specialism in its own right.

If I've understood this correctly, Microsoft can host a virtual server which then can host your own database.  I'm also assuming that if you want, you can also write your own web services to do whatever magic stuff you need to do, which can then be consumed by users of mobile devices (or any other kind of client).  Customers of this service are then billed per minute of processor time.  I can see the benefits; server plant depreciates quickly and keeping them maintained is always going to cost money.  I find this approach to hosting and consuming data really interesting, especially since it offers an approach to devolve risk to a third party.  Of course, there are a number of competitors (Wikipedia) in the cloud services arena.  This whole area seems to be a new subject in its own right.

Just in case you're interested, here's a couple of links I've gathered up: the main Microsoft Faculty pages, the UK faculty connection blog, and a link to the Azure education blog.   Another link is DreamSpark which seems to be about giving students and institutions access to some of the latest tools and technologies.

TouchDevelop for Windows Mobile 8

The next talk was by David Renton, who is a lecturer in Computer Games Development.  David introduces a platform called TouchDevelop (Microsoft website) which used to be a Microsoft Research project. TouchDevelop is a programming language that has a graphical feel.  Programs that are created using it have an appearance of a textual language, but elements of code can be created using a series of menus (as far as I can understand).

The software that you can create using TouchDevelop can be run on different mobile devices.  In some respects, TouchDevelop occupies the same space as Scratch (MIT website).  David makes the point that it's difficult to create good games in Scratch.  I can (personally) neither confirm nor deny David's assertion, but my own view is that Scratch is a fun and useful environment which allows users to escape from the tyranny of syntax, whilst at the same gradually introducing users to different (and essential) programming constructs.

What was really interesting was that TouchDevelop contains cool stuff, such as a physics engine.  By providing such a facility, I can certainly see how and why such an environment could be particularly interesting and engaging.  Again, for those who are interested, David has a blog called Games4Learning.  A final interesting point is that TouchDevelop runs in a web browser, so will work on different platforms.

Shorter presentations: Lua and Corona, Digital Summer Camp

Ian Masters gave a short presentation entitled, 'teaching cross-platform mobile development using Lua and Corona'.  Corona (website) is a software development SDK and Lua (Wikipedia) is a programming language.  Like TouchDevelop, Ian demonstrated the use of an integral physics engine.  During the follow on discussion, there was quite a bit of talk about the Unity Engine (Wikipedia), which I've heard mentioned at a number of other HEA gaming and mobile events.

Martin Underwood talked about Digital Summer Camp which is an event where universities, colleges, industry vendors and other organisations have come together help to inspire young people who are interested in technology.  The Open University is also one of the 'digital skill leaders'.

iPhone game development at Robert Gordon University

Gordon Eccleston has been teaching the development of apps for quite some time.  He gave a short talk on what works and what hasn't worked.  Gordon introduced a new term: a flip classroom!  I hadn't heard this term before, but apparently this is where students do some preparatory work at home to prepare for tutorials (I think I've got that right!)

Gordon spoke about how things have changed.  These days students invariable have their own devices.  One difficulty is that vendors are always changing their devices, which means that lecturers face challenge in terms of an inability to control in their own environment.  This said Gordon does have access to some iPod Touch devices, allowing code created using the XCode platform (the environment used to create iOS applications) to real devices.

Gordon also mentioned that the school had access to the Unity3D engine.  This gave way to an interesting discussion about the difference between games programming versus games design courses.  I've also made a note that when it comes to submission of course work, submission to an apps store represents one judgement on quality.  When it comes to further assessment by the lecturer, one approach is to ask students to create a screen cast.  Assessment, I seem to recall, is a perpetual challenge (especially with the continual changes in technology), as is how to provide both teaching and resources through a web based environment.

Mobile apps development: enhancing student employability

Sally Smith and Scott McGowan, both from Edinburgh Napier University gave a short talk and presentation on the importance of employability skills.  Sally, who is the head of school, said that employers value relevant experience, want to see applicants who have a relevant degree, and have good soft skills. 

Faced with the necessity to demonstrate employability skills, it was argued that it would be useful if students could create something (say, an app, or some other related project) that can be both added to a CV and talked about in an interview.  Sally also talked about the importance of industrial experience and how her institution and school tackled this issue.

Teaching and assessment strategies in mobile development

David Glass teaches mobile development to second year undergraduates at the University of Ulster.  Students can create apps for the Android platform with Java using Eclipse.  Important parts of the module that I've noted down are subjects such as user interface design, data persistence and networking.  There is also a period of self-study where students are to gain an overview of mobile devices.

Challenges include teaching of programming and understanding what to assess and how.  The assessment approach that David mentions sounds really interesting.  Students are required to address legal, ethical and social issues.  They are then required to develop a basic app before moving on to creating something that is more advanced.  A basic app might be something such as a simple calculator or a measurement converter.  

Interestingly, a more advanced app might be something called a 'my run tracker' app.  David made the important point that the task of creating apps lends themselves to more open-ended assessment and group work.  Taking this approach has the potential to encourage creativity and help with motivation.

Design designers, don't program programmers

Lindsay Marshall, from the University of Newcastle, gave an impromptu talk that described his own ten credit postgraduate module and connected with many of the earlier debates.  At the end of his module, students are required to submit a portfolio.  Relating to the challenges of assessments, students were allowed to choose whatever platform they wanted, and choose whatever problem they wished to solve.  Students were encouraged to produce a design log and to present some kind of demonstration.  Moving forward this may take the form of a video presentation or recording.

Lindsay made the important point that it is also important to take the time to look at the code, as well as the final product.  Another component is the writing of a reflective essay, to describe what was learnt during the project.  Interestingly, there are no lab sessions.  Instead, Lindsay mentioned the importance of crit sessions, which is an important technique used in design.

What was really struck me from Lindsay's presentation was something that was also pretty obvious: that there are significant connections between the design disciplines and software development.  Both are fundamentally creative subjects, and both require people to understand the inherent nature and characteristics of problems.

Web technologies

And finally, it was my turn.  During my slot I spoke about a new Open University module called Web Technologies (TT284, Open University website), emphasising the point that there are so many important technologies that underpin the use of mobile technologies and devices. 

TT284 is interesting in a number of different ways.  Firstly, is uses a set of case studies of increasing size.  Students move from understanding how to create an app for a small club or society, through to understanding what might happen as a part of a software development company.  Students are then introduced to 'software in the large' (or sites that have incredibly high volumes), and what practical issues might need to be addressed.

When it comes to mobile technologies, drawing on a case study, students are asked to create an app for an Android device using MIT App Inventor (MIT website).  App Inventor is a graphical programming language, where code can be moved to real advices.  One of the challenges for any module that aims to either teach mobile technologies is the way that technology changes so quickly.  A really good aspect of this particular module is that it also addresses a good number of fundamental and really important standards and technologies.


I learnt quite a lot from the vendor presentations and it's always useful to hear about the industrial perspective, particularly in a field that is moving so phenomenally quickly.  Whilst it's great for academics to learn what industry is getting up to (and you might argue that this is a thoroughly essential part of the job description), the presence of vendors links to an implicit battle for the hearts and mind for developers.  Users choose devices and technology that allows them to do cool stuff.  Cool stuff is created by developers.  Developers, in many cases, come from universities.  Taking this even further, developers are employed by industries who ultimately want people to be skilled in using particular software infrastructures and ecologies. 

Things have changed since I first started to go to these mobile technology events.  There are now many more devices than there were before.  The devices themselves have changed - they have more memory and power, and on the horizon there is a new generation of faster mobile networks.  By the same token, there are, of course, new tools, development environments, frameworks and libraries.  Educators are faced with the challenge of what to teach.  Some educators choose particular platforms, whereas others leave this decision entirely up to students.

When it comes to pedagogy, project and group work appears to be fundamentally important, particularly when it comes to developing employability skills and creating artefacts that can be presented to potential employers.  Keeping things open (in terms of either platforms or the problems that can be solved by the application of mobile technology) can present some challenges when it comes to assessment.  There seems to be some consensus in terms of asking students to produce videos of their working apps might be a good approach.

Making a decision about what platform to use or to develop for isn't an easy one.  When I was a student I was once told by a faculty member that 'you really need to know how to use all types of technology'.  His point was that you will more readily be able to move between one platform and another.  In doing so, you'll gain a degree of flexibility that will allow you to appreciate how things might be done in different ways.  This is a perspective that has stuck with me and one that is important since the platform that you're using now will eventually become obsolete in a couple of years' time.

When it comes to mobile technology, everyone is trying to figure what things we should be teaching and what the best approaches for teaching might be.  When we're dealing with an industry that is moving as quick as it is, these kind of events can be useful in terms of making connections and putting a marker in the ground whilst saying, 'this is how we do things today'. 

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Teaching, Learning and Assessment of Databases

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 1 Feb 2015, 13:02

The 10th Teaching, Learning and Assessment of Databases (TLAD) workshop was held at the University of Hertfordshire on 9 July.  The University of Hertfordshire is one of those places that I have heard quite a lot about (from some friends and colleagues who have both visited and worked there), but until 9 July, I had never had the opportunity to visit. 

Although databases isn't my core subject it is one that I do have interest in, having been a software developer for quite a few years before joining the Open University.  Plus, the subject of databases (and their development) certainly crosses over with another big interest of mine, which is the psychology of computer programming.  Enough about me and my interests, and onto a summary of the event.

An effective higher education academy

Karen Fraser, who works in academic development within the HEA kicked off the day.  Karen once worked as a lecturer in computer science at the University of Ulster, before joining the HEA.  Karen talked about the objectives of the HEA and its current areas of focus.  These include the issue of employability amongst computing graduates and also supporting, promoting and developing teaching (and teacher) excellence. 

Other areas of interest include flexible learning, understanding mobility centred learning (a term that I had not come across before), and sustainable development in the sector.  Another area of focus includes supporting institutional strategy and change.

There were two other key parts to Karen's introduction: funding opportunities that the HEA can offer both individuals and academics, and mechanisms to accredit the teaching and skills of individuals.  In terms of funding, there are the teaching development grants, individual grants, departmental bids, collaborative bids and strategic development bits.  Anyone who is interested in finding out more should, of course, visit their website.

In terms of accrediting or recognising individuals the HEA runs what is called a fellowship scheme, where individuals can apply and submit evidence regarding their skills and practice.  I didn't know this (or, I had forgotten), but there is also something called a senior fellow scheme too.  Karen also mentioned the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme (NTFS) and the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF).

On the subject of teaching quality, Karen drew our attention to a report entitled Dimensions of Quality by Professor Graham Gibbs.  Apparently one of the main conclusions was that who performs the teaching was considered to be a more important measure of quality than the number of contact hours.

Towards the end of her talk, Karen briefly mentioned something called the HEA's 2016 strategic plan.  The key points I noted were the aims to provide effective support to teachers and those involved in teaching and learning, to increase capacity and reward excellence, and offer influence to national policy.

Analyzing the influence of SQL teaching and learning methods and approaches

The first paper presentation of the day was by Huda Al-Shuaily from Glasgow University.  Huda presented what was a small section of her doctoral research. Huda drew our attention to earlier research by Ogden who presented a three stage cognitive model of working with SQL.  These included query formulation, query translation and query writing.  Huda considered that an additional category named query comprehension was perhaps necessary.

For each of these stages, Huda considered different issues.  For successful query formulation an understandable context is necessary (or set of appropriate examples or situations that are used to teach the concepts of databases) to help learners.  For query translation, where students convert queries between English and SQL, the ambiguity of English can be a particular difficulty.  For query writing, knowing something about the strategies that novices may adopt may be useful too; it was recommended that teachers emphasise the 'what' and 'how'.  An important point was: it is perhaps a good idea to teach students to read SQL before teaching them to how to write SQL.

One of the most interesting parts of her presentation was when she began to talk about patterns and SQL.  I have used generic programming patterns and had heard that they have been applied to other related areas such as usability, but never before databases.  Huda mentioned something called a 'self-join' pattern, which is one of a number of patterns that could be taught to students.

The question and answer section immediately opened up a number of interesting debates.  Regarding the subject of patterns there was some debate was to whether we ought to be teaching students general problem solving approaches rather than higher level abstractions such as patterns.  Another debate related to the type of data that we have within our datasets that are used to teach the underlying concepts.  Should we use real data (or, at least, real data that has been manipulated to avoid disclosure of sensitive records), or artificial made up data?

Temporal support in relational databases

Bernadette Marie Byrne from the University of Hertfordshire spoke about temporal support in relational databases whilst at the same time giving us some useful background information and presenting a case study.  Temporal databases were described as databases that are capable of recording what data has changed and when.  Apparently, there were debates were occurring in the SQL standards bodies about extending SQL to cater for temporal data when the focus of discussions changed due to the arrival of XML.  Some database vendors such as Oracle, however, have implemented certain temporal extensions.

A case study that Bernadette describes centres on a motorcycle and cycle hire business.  It is necessary to record when items are hired (and when they are returned), as well as knowing when items are available for hire.  An added complication is that 'partial hires' can be performed: some bicycles can be hired for, say, two days, and then swapped for another to ensure that an original customer hire request is satisfied.

It was clear to me that such a scenario (which I understand was drawn from a real-life situation) was one that was pretty tough to implement and would clearly show the challenges of working with time-centric data.  Another interesting consideration that sprung to my mind is the question of 'where do we write the code?'  In some cases we should rely on the functions of the database to solve our problem, whereas on other occasions we might want to write more program logic to cater for all the different situations that we come across.  Knowing where (and how) to write code is, of course, a part of the artistry of computer programming.

Roadmap for modernising database curricula

Jagdev Bhogal and Kathleen Maitland from Birmingham City University gave a very thought provoking presentation about we need to do, or could do to enhance the current database curricula.  Kathleen argued that databases are ubiquitous. On one hand, you might be accessing a server hosted database through a call from a mobile app.  On the other hand, your mobile app may contain its own database or data store of some kind.

One of the perceived problems is that databases are taught in bite size chunks in isolation from other modules.  Kathleen also argued that ideally modules should be connected together in some way and emphasised the need for different members of faculty should talk to each other.  Getting staff to work together has the potential to help students being able to create a portfolio of work (perhaps even functioning applications) that can be demonstrated to employers.

Employability is, of course, very important and curriculum design should directly address employability skills.  One such skill is that the professional writing and communication.  One approach to develop professional skills is to teach using substantial case studies such as those relating to the retail, banking, and government sectors.  Using case studies opens up the possibility of making use of very large databases and understanding the contexts in which they are situated.

Some topics that may be included in modules can include data modelling, data acquisition, approaches for data storage (including different ways of using mass storage devices, as well as saving data to the cloud), data searching (of both structured and unstructured data), processing, performance and security (which can include addressing subjects such as authentication and defence through depth).

The final conclusions that I've noted are that employability skills are necessarily important and that it is also important to get employers involved.  It is also important to consider how to improve the student experience by creating realistic scenarios. It also helps students to create assessment portfolios which can be used to demonstrate technical skills and abilities.

Research-informed and enterprise-motivated: Data mining and warehousing for final year undergraduates

Jung Lu from Southampton Solent University gave a presentation that focused on the teaching of data mining.  Jung highlighted that students had to consider a number of advanced research topics include XQuery, Weka (data mining), databases in the cloud, Oracle Apex, distributing and replicating data, accessing and manipulating data programmatically, and PL/SQL (Wikipedia) (stored procedures).

I made a note of a key point that related to the importance of practice.  It is necessary to ensure that students have sufficient time and resources to engage with practice activities and tasks before moving onto formally assessed activities.  'Screen time', as I call it, can give students confidence as well as experience that can stand them in good stead when it comes to the work place.

Subjects such as data warehousing and OLAP (Wikipedia) were said to be taught using a case study and a guest lecture (the importance of case studies being an issue that is featured later on within the workshop). Towards the end of the presentation, professional certifications were also mentioned.  Finally, a connection to employability skills, particularly SFIA, Skills Foundation for the Internet Age, was mentioned.  This framework may be able to offer some guidance about which skills may be particularly relevant or useful.

The teaching of relational on-line analytical processing (ROLAP) in advanced database courses

Bernadette Marie Byrne and Iftikhar Ansari both from the University of Hertfordshire talked about how to teach ROLAP, which is a database extension that I had never heard of before.   They began by referring to a very large dataset which had just under a million rows.  Other important considerations included that of performance.

As well as ROLAP being a new term to me, I was also introduced to a second one, which was 'star schema design'.  I think my unfamiliarity with these terms more relates to my background of using small to medium sized databases, rather than large and extensive data sets. One point was very clear: having hands of practical experience was something that was considered to be both important and necessary for students.

Introducing NoSQL into the database curriculum

The first ever database systems I used were based around the XBase language; early PC based databases such as Dbase, Clipper and Foxpro (which was back in the very early nineties).  From there I was introduced to the rigours of SQL, which is one of those languages that I've used off and on throughout my programming career. 

Clare Stanier from the Staffordshire University introduced what was to me a set of new database developments and innovations that has passed me by, namely NoSQL (or, perhaps post-SQL) databases: systems that enable users to more readily store unstructured data, perhaps in the form of documents.  Clare reminded us that that in the early days of databases there were many different types. Over time the SQL-based relational model approach became dominant.  Clare argued that we're now living in a database environment which is increasingly diverse.

The relational approach requires us to clearly structure our data.  Whilst on this can allow us to carry our complex queries, it can be difficult to create databases which can readily accommodate changing types of data.  NoSQL databases ( permit weaker concurrency models and (I guess) you might also argue that some of them are more weakly typed.

Clare introduced us to a number of different databases.  Two notable ones include MongoDB which is apparently used to drive Craigslist, and CouchDB.  Apparently these two database projects have similar underlying objectives but there is a healthy rivalry between the two groups (which is no bad thing).

Another database (again, one that I had not heard of before) is Cassandra.  NoSQL databases have clearly made it into the mainstream.  Amazon have developed a database called SimpleDB, which can be used as a part of their cloud services.  Of course, cloud based databases have their own advantages and disadvantages, and developers always need to be mindful of these. Another aspect of NoSQL databases is that they have the potential to more readily (and perhaps easily) integrate with internet applications.  With some systems it might be easy to issue queries over REST (Wikipedia), for instance.

Clare made a very good point, which was that the TLAD community and lecturers who are involved in teaching databases and related subjects need to have a debate about what is taught in the database curriculum and the extent to which NoSQL databases need to feature. 

The distinctions between NoSQL and SQL databases remind me of a simplistic distinction between programming languages.  On one hand there are strictly typed languages, such as Java which require you to define everything.  On the other there are languages such as Perl which are weakly typed and allow developers to get into all kinds of muddles (whilst at the same time permitting certain categories of problems to be solved quickly and effectively, when such tools are placed in skilled hands).  There are, of course, other languages (and language mechanisms) in between.  I have little doubt that SQL and NoSQL databases may influence each other, but it remains a programmer and designers challenge to choose the most appropriate tool for the task in hand.

A ten-year review of workshops

David Nelson from University of Sunderland and Renuga Jayakumar from University of Wales Trinity Saint David presented an analysis of papers presented at TLAD over the last ten years.  David also attempted to present his view of what we might have to teach in the future (whilst also accepting that predicting the future is always a dangerous thing to try and do!)

Some of the broad themes that are covered in the workshop have included database design methods, e-learning tools, curriculum research, student diversity and assessment methods.  Some of the very early papers presented techniques for the automated assessment of database designs.  Over the years, technologies such as OpenMark (Open University) have matured.

Since the inception of TLAD, a range of new technologies have emerged and have been increasingly applied in different situations, such as XML.  With XML it is necessary to understand the fundamentals before fully appreciating its significance within the world of databases.  Papers regarding e-learning have included presentations about games, class participation, recording of lectures and how to best facilitate 'out of hours' learning.

Looking towards the future, we might see curriculum changes to take further account of transaction processing, system and data recovery, security, cloud computing and physical aspects of system design.  Mobility and non-relational databases as well as subjects such as data warehousing are considered to be significant subjects.

During the closing discussion, I also noted down the name of a resource that was new to me, namely, the Database Disciplinary Commons which is hosted by the University of Kent.


I think this is my second TLAD workshop, the previous one that I attended was held at the University of Greenwich.  I enjoyed my first one and I enjoyed this one too.  I remain of the opinion that databases is a tough subject to teach, but one that is fundamentally very important to computer science education.  Lecturers need to convey fundamental concepts which, to some, may be significantly difficult to grasp.  The challenge becomes even more acute when we move more advanced subjects where issues such as software and hardware architecture need to be considered.  Security, of course, is another topic that is very important and there is a necessary connection between databases and the teaching of programming.

One point that I remember from my own database education (much of it acquired 'on the job' whilst working in industry), was that it became apparent that there were so many different ways to solve a problem.  I remember being presented with different techniques and having to make a decision about how to apply them.  Should I create a database abstraction layer for my application or use stored procedures, for example.  In my programming career I've even seen the horror of SQL intertwined with HTML tags!  Thankfully, the prevalence of design patterns, particularly MVC have gone a long way to emphasise the importance of separating out different aspects of an application.

All these ruminations suggest an important subject, which is how to most effectively convey best practice to our students.  Understanding the most appropriate ways to design systems and databases comes after acquiring fundamental skills.  This again connects to the view that teaching databases is a tough thing to do.

For me, there were two highlights of this TLAD.  The first relates to being aware of more on-line resources relating to learning and teaching (and being introduced to new technical terms), and secondly, being introduced to the concept of NoSQL.  My next challenge is to try to find some time to explore these new software technologies.  I hope I will be able to find the time and opportunity to do this.

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Teaching and learning programming for mobile and tablet devices

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 3 Mar 2014, 18:45

I attended a HEA workshop about the teaching and learning of programming for mobile and tablet devices at London Metropolitan University on 15 June 2012.  This is a quick summary of my own take on what happened on the day, combined with a set of personal reflections, some of which I've added in the body of this summary.  I'm writing this with the hope that this summary might be useful for some of the attendees, and for others who were unable to attend.

In some ways, this was a second of a 'mini series' of two workshops about mobile technologies, the first being held in the University of Buckingham back in May 2012.  A quick write up of this earlier workshop, which has more of a focus on employability skills can be viewed by visiting an earlier blog post.

The day began with an introduction by Dominic Palmer-Brown who clearly emphasised the importance of mobile technologies.  Dominic commented that the subject is particularly important 'to ourselves and our students', going on to emphasise that skills working with and developing mobile technologies are in demand by industry.  A number of presentations appeared to confirm that this was the case, particularly the final presentation.

The potential of social media and mobile devices in informal, professional and work-based learning

Professor John Cook, from London Metropolitan University gave an opening keynote about how mobile devices could be used to help facilitate teaching and learning.  John introduced us to a number of different ideas and projects, enabling us to appreciate the variety of ways in which mobile devices may be used.  Mobile devices can be used to 'add information' to physical space, for instance, reminding me of research into wearable computing and the development of Google Goggles, for instance.

Connecting to the themes of location, history and learning, John introduces us to a project that enabled students, through the use of mobile devices, to learn more about the ruins of a Cistercian Abbey (Fountains Abbey, Wikipedia).  Mobile devices facilitate the delivery of different types of media which can be chosen depending upon the location of the user

Whilst technology on its own is always interesting, its use and application can be enhanced through the understanding and application of pedagogic theories.  John made reference to Vygotsky (Wikipedia), who coined the term Zone of Proximal Development (Wikipedia).  Other important points that I've noted is the role that peers play a very important role in learning, and John emphasised the importance of scaffolding of learning activities (the subject of pedagogy, particularly inquiry based learning was the focus of an earlier HEA event).  On a related note, I personally feel I have a fair way to go in terms of understanding how to make the best use of the technologies I have at my disposal.  The pedagogy of technology is something that I am sure that I'll continue to mention in these blogs.

John also introduced an abbreviation that I was not familiar with: BOYD, meaning, Bring Your Own Device.  Perhaps it has already got to a point where it may be surprising if a student doesn't bring some kind of mobile technology to their lectures. 

It was interesting to hear the view that social media used in the work place was considered to be an area that is under researched.  This thought reminded me of an earlier presentation by Vanessa Gough, from IBM at a previous HEA workshop about professional on-line identities where she showed how employees were making use of social media to share information with each other.  Perhaps it is an area that is under researched, but I do sense that social media within the work place is certainly being used and applied.

John also mentioned a new EU funded project called Learning Layers.  Like many EU projects, Learning Layers has a number of collaborators from different countries. Finally, some slides that connect to the ideas and the projects that John spoke of can be found on SlideShare.

Teaching Mobile App Development at Postgraduate level at London Metropolitan

Yanguo Jin gave the first 'main' presentation of the day where he shared with us some of the experience that had been gained at London Met over the past five or six years.  Yanguo made reference to an industry report which predicted that mobile internet will take over fixed internet by 2014.  It was also viewed that mobile technology skills, such as HTML 5, iOS and Android are considered to be increasingly important.

Knowing about a particular skill is one thing, being able to demonstrate mastery in something is a different (but related issue).  To address this challenge Yanguo holds the view that students should ideally create a portfolio of apps (perhaps in combination with other students) to demonstrate their skills and abilities to a prospective employer.

Teaching of mobile technologies at London Met is through an industry-oriented practical approach that emphasises depth (in terms of making use of a single platform) as opposed to breadth (covering a number of different platforms).  I think this is important, since whatever platforms developers end up using, they always have got to 'get into the detail' of the environments and tools that they have to use. 

Key subjects that are covered in the module includes the model-view controller (MVC) design pattern, the use of an integrated development environment (IDE), aspects of visual design, issues relating to power and memory management, web services, development methods and object-oriented programming.

One particular aspect of the teaching that was said to work well is the facilitation of peer-to-peer support (a point which connected to John's keynote).  Another great technique was to encourage students to teach each other through their own seminars, and allowing them to choose their own projects (thus helping to keep students motivated).

Approaches to teaching programming of mobile devices

Gordon Eccleston from Robert Gordon University shared with us some of his experienced he gained whilst teaching students to develop iPod and iPhone apps. Gordon began by asking an interesting question.  He said, 'is programming mobile devices different to other kinds of programming, such as programming using Java or .NET?'  His answer is 'not really'.  Like with other aspects of programming the only real way to learn is to get on and do it.  Gordon also made an argument that we might get to a point where we may not distinguish between different types of device, such as a phone, a tablet or a laptop - we may end up calling them all 'computers' (especially that some mobile phones are now as powerful, computationally speaking, as laptops).  At some point in time, mobility may be an attribute that we automatically assume.

Gordon echoed John's earlier comments about BOYD.  Whilst at the moment Gordon provides his students with a set of iPod Touch devices which they can use (separately from any other device that they may own), one important consideration when teaching mobility may be the availability of effective WiFi in the classroom.

Increasingly, students may wish to work from home or work part time (which connects to John's earlier keynote on the subject of mobile learning).  To facilitate different ways of learning, institutions can make use of technology to allow students to gain access to learning.  Material can, of course, be delivered through an institutional VLE.

Gordon concluded his presentation by speaking about interactive books, which I remember reading was going to be Steve Job's 'next big thing'.  Gordon mentioned a company named Giglets which produces interactive multimedia 'books' for either PCs or eBook readers.  There is also the increasing possibility (or, even, likelihood) that students in primary schools may begin to make use of tablet devices.  

This broader discussion about tablet devices in schools made me begin to wonder about the extent to which digital books and institutional services or systems (such as VLEs) can be connected together and how institutions can support the use of mobile technology through the use of organisational structures.  Whilst technology may sometimes help, organisational structures and support must always facilitate its use, but understanding how to best achieve this can be a whole different challenge.

Teaching Android Programming at Oxford Brookes

Ian Bayley and Faye Mitchell gave a joint presentation about their experience of teaching Android programming at Oxford Brookes.  I remember hearing that they clearly emphasise that mobility is a whole lot more than just the phone.  I completely agree.  One interesting observation is the programming is an activity that is continually difficult.  When it comes to learning how to program, high levels of motivation is really important.  An interesting point is that students who may be strong at mathematics can find programming difficult.  Whilst mathematical skills may be useful, 'algorithmic thinking' may be something that is quite different.

Students are introduced to programming through the use of other tools and languages, such as Alice (which has been mentioned at a number of other HEA events), and Processing (which is a Java-based language that can be used to create graphics and data visualisations, for example).

I also remember hearing about the creation of screencasts to allow students to get a more direct understanding of some of the applications that are used.  Towards the end of the presentation there was time to discuss assessments.  Students are given the opportunity to create their own app.  Examinations, it was argued, was considered to be an inappropriate way to assess knowledge and understanding.  This is especially pertinent given the practical nature of mobile programming.

Bedfordshire's Experiences teaching app development with Lua and Corona SDK

Ian Masters presentation was very different from the others.  Ian's talk was more of a demonstration of two different (and related) developments: a programming language called Lua (which I had never heard of), and a corresponding SDK called Corona (which I had also never heard of).  In combination with each other they can represent a 2D game development environment for different mobile devices.  Interestingly, Lua and Corona are multi-platform, which means that code is (of course) transferrable between different mobile operating systems and devices, making it a really attractive tool.

Ian began his presentation by defining a simple environment in which a game may be played.  This involved defining screen elements, such as a floor, and also blocks.  Another interesting aspect of the environment is that Corona also comes with its own physics engine.  Items that are defined on the screen can bounce on and fall off items that have been defined.  It looks to be really good fun!

Mobile Teaching Experience from University of Buckingham

Harin Sellahewa told us about a new module that is being taught at the University of Buckingham from September onwards.  The aims of the module is to introduce students to mobile application develop, to help them to create a realistic app and to enable students to understand the wider commercial opportunities and issues that surround mobile app development.

Some of the learning objectives include understanding the components of a smartphone (such as its various peripherals), to critically understand the difference between mobile devices and PCs and for students to be able to design, develop and test applications.  Interestingly, the module is using a Windows development platform.  One reason for this different focus is due to familiarity with the Xbox development environment that Buckingham already uses.  I look forward to hearing about how the first presentation went and what challenges were overcome.

Our experience of teaching mobile programming on different platforms at Staffordshire University

Catherine French and Dave Gillibrand presented some of their experiences of teaching mobile programming at Staffordshire University.  It was great to see that mobility has been a subject that has been taught at Staffordshire for quite some time, beginning with Java ME and Windows CE (PDAs) before moving onto Android and iOS.

One of the tasks (or assignments) that students are presented with is the challenge of creating a 2D game, which sounds like a tough challenge.  To address this issue, a very useful and helpful teaching paradigm has been adopted where students are given code examples where students are then encouraged to change the example.  This was considered to be particularly useful with some aspects of programming, such as multi-threading, which students can find difficult.

I hold the view that using examples is a really good idea; I very often used this strategy when I was working in industry.  Examples give students a combination of relatively immediate results (which can be rewarding) whilst also providing the materials that allow learners to gain an understanding of how things work, which may be only acquired over time.

An important point that was made is that a using a real mobile device is so much better than an emulator.  Whilst an emulator can simulate the operation of some mobile peripherals, such as the GPS sensor, for example, other aspects of a mobile device, such as the behaviour of the touch screen are best experienced (and tested) with a real device.

I was impressed by the breadth of subjects that students may be introduced to as a part of their studies.  These may include consuming public web services, development of an application using agile techniques which can include the use of test driven development (TDD) and using tools that are used in industry, such as Subversion.

A final point is that some students may begin a module with the view that developing apps may be something that could be easy.  Programming is something that certainly isn't easy.   I guess a personal reflection is that educators not only need to convey difficult technical concepts and expose problem solving challenges to students, educators also need to work to manage expectations.  Programming, irrespective of whatever form it takes, is a craft and it takes time to acquire craft knowledge (and experience).

From the desktop to devices: teaching interaction design

I have to confess that I was responsible for the penultimate presentation of the day.  Tempting though it is, I'm not going to write in the third person for this part of this blog.  Instead, I'll refer to myself as 'I' as opposed to 'Chris'.

My own presentation was slightly different than all the others since it wasn't about mobile technology or even about programming.  Instead it focused upon the process of designing interactive products and experiences (of which, programming will eventually play an important part).  My presentation was based on experience gained as an Open University associate lecturer over the past six or so years where I have tutored a module entitled Fundamentals of Interaction Design (which I'll call M364).

M364 is a great module.  It introduces students to key concepts such as usability goals, user experience goals and design principles.  It then helps students to appreciate the power of sketching.  Students are introduced to the concepts of evaluation where they are then encouraged to understand the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches.

During my presentation I described a scenario where a mobile device to guide a visitor around a historical location needed to be designed.  I quickly outlined different types of sketches.  The first was a storyboard, which enables designers to think about the broader context in which a product is used.  The second is a card-based prototype which allows designers to consider the sequence of interactions (and even simulate them).  The final sketch was a more detailed interface sketch which contained more detailed design about icons and how information is presented to a user.

The title of my brief presentation reflects the notion that the design process can be applied to many different kinds of platforms and devices.  Not only can the interaction design process be applied to mobile or desktop applications, but also to static devices, such as ticket machines, for example.

Why teaching mobile? An Industry's perspective

The final presentation of the day was by Abdul Hamid.  One of the striking aspects of Abdul's presentation was where he shared with us some graphs from an on-line job site (Indeed) which emphasised the demand for certain mobile skills.  Some older skills, it was argued, were waning in popularity whilst others (particular those that were mobile related) were becoming increasingly popular.


I felt that this was a very cohesive event, in the sense that there were a number of presentations that were entirely dedicated to sharing of not only teaching practice (and insights about what works and what doesn't), but there was a lot of commonality in terms of technologies and tools.  Although there were many high points of the day, the highlight for me was finding out about Lua and Corona.  I had never heard of these tools before, which reminded me of how difficult it is sometimes to keep up to date in a fast moving field, such as mobile technology and software development.

As mentioned earlier, technology is a part of a bigger picture.  John's presentation touched upon the importance of theory and history, particularly with regards to the domain of mobile learning.  Mobile has an important role to play within business, commerce and our wider social environment.  Other disciplines will undoubtedly play an increasing role when it to understanding the increasing role that mobile technology plays in our everyday lives.  Just to echo words from John's keynote, pedagogy, usability and content are all important areas.

At the end of the workshop there was a short opportunity to discuss how the participants could potentially work together, collaborate and continue to share practice.  There was also some debate about having a follow up meeting next year: a really positive outcome - congratulations to the organisers at London Met!

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Enhancing the employability of computing students through an on-line professional presence

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 1 Feb 2015, 13:03

A HEA workshop held on Friday 9 June at Birmingham City University set out to answer the following questions, 'how important is our on-line presence to prospective employers?' and, 'what can students do to increase their on-line visibility?'  Of course, there are many other related questions that connect to the broader subject of on-line identity, and a number of these were explored and debated during this workshop.

This blog post is a summary of the workshop.  It is, of course, a personal one, and there's a strong possibility that I might not have picked up on all the debates that occurred throughout the day.  If there are other themes and subjects that some of the delegates think I'm missed, then please do feel free to post comments below.

Pushing employability for computing graduates

Mark Ratcliffe from the HEA kicked off the day by talking about the employability challenges that computing graduates face, connecting with his experience as being head of subject at Aberystwyth  University and his work at eSkills.  An interesting point and observation was that demand for computing skills has increased over the last ten years but the number of computing graduates has been reducing.  There is also a gap between computer graduates and graduates from some other disciplines in terms of gaining full time employment six months after graduation.

Technical skills are fundamental and necessary skills, but so are interpersonal and business skills.  Placements were cited as an important way to enable students to develop and to gain first-hand experience.  Technical skills are important, and evidence of them can be gained through application forms and interviews, but also through approaches such as portfolios of evidence.   Evidence of our work and interests is increasingly available to be seen by others through on-line sources.

The second introductory presentation was by Mak Sharma, Head of School at Birmingham City University.  Mak spoke about some of the changes that were occurring to the institution, and also mentioned a number of familiar (and unfamiliar) technologies, all of which can play an important role in computing and technology education: Alice, Greenfoot, Scratch and Gadgeteer.  An interesting point was the connections between industry training providers and the university.  I sense that collaborations between the two sectors are going to become increasingly important.

ePortfolios in the big bad world

Andy Hollyhead, from Birmingham City Business School kicked off his presentation by sharing with a video entitled Stories of ePortfolio integration, produced by JISC and BCU (YouTube).  The video features a demonstration of an ePortfolio system called Mahara which has been linked to the university's Moodle virtual learning environment.

An ePortfolio is, in essence, a tool which can be used to store data, usually documents.  It is also a tool that can have different uses.  On one hand it can be used to help students to reflect on their own studies.  On the other it can be used to share information with a wider community of people, and this may potentially include potential employers.  An ePortfolio can also be used to demonstrate evidence of continuing professional development (CPD) within an organisation.

An important question is 'how long can I have access to my data for?'  This question is particularly relevant if a university implements an ePortfolio that can be used to create a professional presence and suggests that institutions need to consider policy as well as technical issues.  To circumvent this challenge, standards bodies have proposed standards to allow the sharing of ePorfolios between different systems.   Andy mentioned other systems such as VisualCV and PebblePad.  One of the greatest challenges is, of course, to understand the variety of different ways in which ePortfolio systems can be used.

Using code repositories in programming modules

Whilst ePortfolios can be used to share information and documents, John Moore from the University of West London spoke about the notion of source code repositories and considered how their use may enhance the employability profile of students.

Version control systems are an essential part of the software development process.  The facilitate collaboration and sharing.  They also enable developers to learn how software has changed over time. 

There are, of course, a wide range of different systems, such as CVS and Subversion (Wikipedia).  John focussed on GIT (Wikipedia), which is a distributed version control system that has been created for Linux kernel development.  John also shared with us a number of different public repositories that may be used, such as Bitbucket, Gitorious  and Github (none of which I had heard of before).

John said that 'logs define you as a programmer' (logs, of course, being commit or change logs, recordings of when a programmer has made an addition or change to a repository).  To boost a 'programmer profile', students are encouraged to participate in open source software development.  Not only may this present evidence of technical abilities and understanding, evidence of participation also represents evidence of team skills.

John's presentation gave way to a really interesting debate about how experience and understanding of version control systems represents an important employability skill.  I also remember hearing that students from different backgrounds (and perhaps different undergraduate degrees) have different levels of expertise.  What is without question is that industry makes extensive use of such tools, and it is the challenge of educators to encourage their use.

Student professional on-line branding

Thomas Lancaster from Birmingham City University introduced us to the notion of a 'personal brand', before describing what we might be able to do to create an on-line version.  One thing that students could do is create a LinkedIn profile.  Thomas then went onto mentioning tools such as Facebook and Twitter, which can yield potentially more immediate information about a potential candidate. Thomas argued that computing students should ideally have their own professional website which presents an identity whilst also practically demonstrating their technical skills to other employers.

Sharing information on-line is, of course, not without its risks, and everyone needs to be mindful of this.  One thought is that no-one can say who is going to be doing the next internet search against your name.  Since the web had now become the 'read-write' web, we now need to be careful about what we share, a balancing act between information availability and information privacy, a point that was returned to time and again throughout the day.

Building professional web presences

Building on some of the points that Thomas made, Shovan Sargunam gave us a practical demonstration of how to create an on-line professional presence, through the creating of a WordPress (Wikipedia) based website.  A couple of the steps included registering your own domain (if it's not too late), then choosing an internet provider, and then installing or configuring WordPress.

WordPress isn't the only way to go.  In some ways, it very much depends on the tools that you are familiar with.  Shovan also mentioned some other useful sites (in addition to LinkedIn) that enables users to create on-line profiles, such as About.Me and CreativePool.

Student's online profiles for employability and community

Information about ourselves that we share on-line can have a number of different uses.  One other use lies with the way in which information can be useful in the development of an on-line community.  Karen Kear and Frances Chetwynd from the Open University described a research project that is aiming to uncover more about how on-line profiles are used by students who make use of on-line discussion forums.  Research is carried out by through questionnaires and on-line synchronous focus groups.  There are, of course, a spectrum of different opinions (and practices).  Some students are happy to share information and photographs of themselves, whereas others have concerns about privacy.

Exploring the employer use of professional presences

Vanessa Gough, from IBM, presented a rather different perspective and one that was very welcome.  Vanessa is responsible for industrial trainees and she makes the point that given the number of applicants that are made to IBM, she (and perhaps some of her colleagues) just don't have the time to go rummaging around on the internet for information about candidates.  This said (and these are my own words here, rather than Vanessa's), it doesn't mean that this doesn't happen.

Vanessa described how new recruits can make use of social media to communicate with each other to become increasingly familiar with the organisation in which they work.  Twitter and Facebook can be used to share information about what it is to work and live in certain locations.

A really good point was the social media offers candidates a way to 'get to know' an organisation and begin to understand a bit about its culture.  Engaging with an organisation's social media streams and learning from them has the potential to enable candidates to stand out from the crowd.

How social media can enhance your employability

The final presentation of the day was by Vanessa Jackson, from Birmingham City University.  Her presentation had the interesting subtitle of, 'can you tweet your way into a job?' (which follows on nicely from the earlier presentation).  Vanessa introduced us to a site called SocialMediaTutorials.  This is a set of Open Educational Resources which are available through Creative commons.  One of the videos describes a case where a student was able to gain a work placement or internship by directly contacting people who worked within a local radio station.


One term that I had not heard of before, was DPQ, or drunken post quotient (as introduced by Andy Hollyhead).  The higher the metric, the more trouble we might (potentially) cause ourselves.  It was a concept that was immediately understandable, for a number of reasons that I'm not going to go into.

My own personal opinion is that having an on-line professional presence is a 'good thing', especially if we work within a technical discipline such as information technology or computing.  This said, there are certainly differences of opinion.  Some of us simply don't want to share aspects of ourselves on-line, and there are good reasons for this, which we should respect.

These thoughts made me consider on-line presence in terms of a number of different dimensions.  Firstly, there is the dimension of security and privacy, and the tension that exists between the two.  Then there is dimension of the personal and public (or personal and professional).  Coming back to ePortfolios, there's also the dimension of demonstration (of achieve) and reflection (to achieve).  Finally, there is the dimension of the audience - a difference between the general and specific.

Towards the end of the day there were a number of interesting debates.  Two questions that I've noted are, 'how might we embed the notion of professional presence into the computing (and wider) curriculum?' and 'what is the perception of others if one doesn't have an on-line professional presence?'

An interesting thought is that it's not always what you share on the internet that is a concern - the people who you know may potentially cause some difficulties.  The canonical example of this where a friend or colleague shares pictures of a 'night out' somewhere, the details of which should have remained personal.  A point here is that we all need to be vigilant.  Performing internet searches against our own names (or 'ego-googling') is no longer an activity that can be mildly interesting or titillating.  Instead it could now be a necessity to ensure that correct and appropriate information is available to be shared with others.

For me, one of the outcomes of the day is a reminder that different tools can be connected together.  For a while I used to be an avid Twitter user until I discovered that it was gradually taking over my life and felt that I had to 'reclaim back' some of my privacy.  I've now reassessed my own on-line professional presence, and what I want to do is use Twitter more as a feed for other social platforms, such as LinkedIn and Facebook.  So, in time, I hope to increase my on-line visibility - but I am also very aware that I'm unlikely to have a complete understanding of the implications of doing this.  I guess what I'm going to do is to always be careful about what I share and when.

The workshop slides are available (BCU website). Many thanks to Birmingham City University for organising an interesting and thought provoking event!

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Mobile Application Development: from curriculum design to graduate employability

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 20 May 2014, 09:55

I had never visited the University of Buckingham before.  It was on the morning of Tuesday 15 May 2012 that I found myself travelling to Milton Keynes railway station to meet with a pre-booked taxi that would whisk me into the unknowns of the Buckinghamshire countryside towards an event that was intended to share practice about the teaching of mobile technology.  Although I had never visited Buckingham, I have heard it being spoken of many times before; a radical institution which was founded at approximately the same time as another radical institution, the Open University. 

As well as sharing practice about the teaching of mobile application development another really important theme was the subject of employability and the open question of whether universities are 'teaching the right stuff' to enable graduates to immediately make a contribution in the workplace.

This blog post is a summary of a visit to a HEA event entitled 'Mobile Application Development: from curriculum design to graduate employability'.  If I've missed any key points, I encourage the fellow participants and delegates to add comments below.

Industry keynote

Lee Stott, an academic evangelist from Microsoft kicked off the day with a really interesting keynote.  Lee is from a part of Microsoft that works with university departments (Microsoft Faculty pages).

Lee emphasised the point that users expect connectivity.  I made a note of an interesting quote that went 'mobility plus cloud equals opportunity'.  It's easy to imagine (or even remember) situations where one gained access to information whilst travelling, solving problem, such as finding an address of a location or accessing some urgently needed information.

Lee also made the point that mobile devices are our predominant work tool (or tools).  A tool, of course, might be a phone or a laptop.  This is certainly true in my case; I often haul my laptop between the OU's headquarters in Milton Keynes and my home, sometimes using the dead time on a train to do some marking.  Another thought that comes to mind is whether mobility is causing work time to encroach on our personal time, but this is a whole other debate (and one that I hope to connect with by writing another blog post about a recent seminar).

The usefulness of an app depends on a combination on its functionality, the functionality of a device and the availability of a network.  To be useful, apps need to be useful but also graphically appealing.  Lee emphasised the importance of designers, not just software designers, but graphic designers.  This connects to an important point which is that creating good apps is an interdisciplinary activity - a combination of technology, business and art. Writing commercial apps isn't just about writing software that works - they need to be 'hardened'; tested thoroughly and be checked for vulnerabilities.

Microsoft, along with other mobile platform vendors (such as Google and Apple) have their own ecosystem of tools, technologies and platforms.  Microsoft is but one of many platforms that educators can choose from.

I have to confess (for my sins) that I used to be a software developer who mostly specialised in Microsoft technologies.  I used to use .NET, MS SQL and a bunch of other stuff.  It has been, however, a few years since I've done this.  Lee introduced new technologies that were entirely new to me, such as Microsoft Azure (wikipedia) and Microsoft XNA (wikipedia) for Xbox.  Lee also mentioned other software that was on the near horizon, such as Windows 8 (wikipedia) which can be used on 'slate' (or tablet) devices.

Lee also touched upon the important subject of recruitment.  Lee emphasised that it is important to encourage students to build apps and sell them through apps market places to create a portfolio which can be shown to potential employers.

The question and answer session was interesting.  There was some discussion about cross platform approaches to development and the fact that when you go cross platform, developers lose some functionality from the original host operating system of a mobile device (or phone).  The subject of native code versus multi-platform code was a debate that arose on a number of occasions throughout the day.  HTML 5 (wikipedia) was regularly mentioned, along with a platform such as PhoneGap (PhoneGap website).

Another tension that exists particularly when industry representatives and university representatives debate curriculum, is the difference between education and training.  Industry wants people who are fully trained (and ideally want universities to do this), but the real role of universities when it comes to technology (in my opinion) is to enable students to effectively know how best to learn and adapt to new tools and situations.  Lee made the point that the teaching of fundamentals is essential.  I agree.  Conveying principles through the use of vendor specific tools whilst presenting concepts in a general way to enable other technologies to be understood is a difficult thing to achieve.

Mobile application development: a journey thus far

Harin Sellakewa from the University of Buckingham gave a presentation that described how mobile technology came to be taught, in its current form, at Buckingham.  Harin described how some of the curriculum had changed and outlined the introduction of new modules.  The use of mobile technology had been explored by a number of various projects, including those that were funded by the EU.

Some of the key learning objectives of a module on mobile software was mentioned: how to design applications (or apps), understanding different components and learning about various guidelines and specifications.  All these learning objectives could then contribute to making an application that could be sold on the free market.

Harin also gave us a number of useful tips.  Any module must (of course) satisfactorily complement any existing modules, also aim to get people involved, speak to different vendors, start with student projects, attend training events that are run through industry and take the time to network.

A number of different topics were exposed through the question and answer session.  As well as a discussion about different technologies, an industry representative mentioned the importance of candidates having a portfolio of work to demonstrate to prospective employers.  One point that stuck in my mind was that an unfinished application has the potential to work against an applicant; showing something polished and complete is necessary.

Developing Apps in Schools

Aaron Peck teaches computing and ICT at the Royal Latin School, Buckingham, a school just around the corner from the university.  Aaron began by speaking about wider discussions about the GCSE computing curriculum, mentioning the OCR GCSE which was said to contain three key components: programming, a research project and an examination.

Aaron emphases fun and mentions the use of the MIT Scratch (Scratch website) environment.  He also went onto speak about mobile devices, a technology that the pupils are invariably likely to be familiar with.   Here lies an obvious collision of ideas: why not teach programming through the use of mobile devices?

Scratch has, of course, some distinct advantages - it is immediate and gets around the tyranny of fiddly syntax by providing students a graphical environment in which they can play.  Another programming environment that has a graphical world is the MIT App Inventor (App Inventor website) which allows users to create apps for Android phones.

Students are encouraged to create small projects, which may include a simple calculator, a recipe book or a hangman game.  The creation of apps has the potential to open up further discussion of wider issues, such as how such developments might be commercialised.  I remember an anecdote from Aaron, where he was asked by a student about how much an app programmer might earn; a testament to his ability to instil enthusiasm and engaging choices of technology.

There were some advantages to using App Inventor; it can be used on multiple development platforms, it is relatively simple to install and given that students may have used Scratch during earlier studies, making the graphical nature of the programming environment to be (potentially) more easily grasped by students.

Aaron isn't stopping at creating apps with App Inventor.  He mentioned his intention to try to work with Lego Mindstorms Robots through the Android SDK, where it might be possible to create a 'remote control' app using Bluetooth radio.  Aaron also mentioned that there was also opportunity to share the workings of HTML and Javascript with his students.  If my memory isn't playing tricks on me, I also seemed to recall that he mentioned that one of his students was inspired enough to use C++.

The question and answer session led us to subjects and technology such as Microsoft Kodu and Micrcosoft Gadgeteer.  Other important issues include addressing the gender imbalance, and how to motivate all student groups, including those who may not have a strong technical bias.

I really enjoyed this talk.  Two big parts of tech were familiar to me: Scratch (or as I know it, Sense), and App Inventor.  Both products are used as a part of different Open University computing modules, TU100 My Digital Life and TT284 Web Technologies.  It was an eye opener, for me, to see how these products could be used a way to inspire students at GCSE level. 

Mobile Assessment

The use of mobile technology to help teaching and learning seems to be a hot topic at the moment.  Joan Lu gave a presentation about the use of mobile technology for assessment and also mentions the use of student response systems making reference to an EU funded project entitled Do-IT.  Joan is from the XDIR research group at the University of Huddersfield which has carried out research  projects related to mobile technology.

Designing the mobile syllabus to enhance student employability

Yanguo Jing from London Metropolitan University gave a presentation about his first hand experiences of teaching about mobile technology to his postgraduate students.  It was a really interesting presentation that was packed with useful tips, not just about teaching but also about industrial engagement too.

Returning to the subject of multiple platforms and environments, Yanguo said that initially he tried to teach a little bit about all the major toolsets.  He came to the conclusion that this was less than ideal.  Although students might be given breadth, getting to the 'depth' is always a challenge.  It was decided, therefore, to focus on one particular platform and use the experience with the platform to make points that are important in other platforms too.  This is a very sensible practical decision; there is only so much detail that a lecturer can hold in his or her head at any one time.

Understanding mobile isn't just about understanding technology and the fundamentals of creating some executable code that runs on a device, it is also about understanding the surrounding business and economic area.  Connecting back to the ideal of creating marketable Apps that Harin touched upon in his earlier presentation, Yanguo said something about how he encourages his students to enter application competitions, or Appathons.  He also mentioned that students were also encouraged to attend an industry conference, DroidCon, to gain first hand experience about what is happening within industry.  It was interesting to hear that Yanguo is a part of an industry liaison group.  Not only does this facilitate a connection between academics and industry, it can also act as a connection between industry and students too.

Finally, it is also perhaps worth mentioning that Yanguo is helping to organise a related HEA event on mobile technology on 15 June 2012, entitled Workshop on Teaching and Learning Programming for Mobile and Tablet Devices.  It sounds like it's going to be a great event!

Programming with iOS

Gordon Eccleston from Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen shared some of his experiences of teaching using Apple's iOS.  This platform enabled students to learn something about HCI principles and also about object-oriented programming (through the use of Objective-C).

Gordon offered a key tip which echoed earlier discussions in the event.  He said, 'keep your modules as generic as possible'.  Inspiration and information that informed the creation of his module included looking at different text books and short courses that were designed for industry.  Studying the documentation provided by the vendor can be a very useful source of materials that can help to guide or inform the creation of aspects of a module.

Gordon spoke about lab based teaching (in a lab containing lots of Apple kit) and student course work.  Gordon then went onto present a brief overview of a number of different student projects.  The use of projects cannot be understated.  A good project connects the technology with broader issues of business and also helps to give the student some good materials that can be immediately demonstrated to a potential employer (I have this image of an interviewee handing their phone to an interviewer whilst saying, 'this is what I've done).  One project that stuck in my mind was an app that illustrated a fashion portfolio which demonstrates a connection between apps and marketing.

Gordon's session inspired a really interesting question and answer session.  One point was that PC (or Mac) based simulators are all very well, but it's also important (as well as rewarding) to allow students to run their software on actual devices (such as an iPod touch).  For one thing, it allows the developers to gain access to device only peripherals, such as accelerometers and other sensors that they wouldn't otherwise have access to.

Reflection of curriculum design and delivery in mobile computing

Khawar Hamed from the University of Staffordshire spoke about his experiences of curriculum design.  Khawar's presentation reminded me an app is at the top of a technology pyramid.  Along with the operating system of a device, apps are perhaps the most visible software artefact that users interact with.  Underneath the app and beyond the phone there is a sophisticated digital infrastructure that enables devices to work.  Some of the modules that Khawar mentioned allow students to begin to study these underlying technologies.  Another point is that mobility isn't just about technology, it's also about enabling organisations to achieve their objectives.

Khawar touched upon other issues such as the importance of getting the right name for a course or programme.  Since the names and phrases used to describe technology can change relatively quickly, perhaps the names of modules and programmes should be prepared change too?   An important point was to always seek industrial involvement wherever possible.  Connecting to this point, Khawar mentioned an organisation called The Wireless University Forum.

One really interesting debate that emerged from this presentation centred upon whether an institution should provide devices that students can transfer code to.  The answer was a resounding 'yes'.  Not everyone will have an Android phone, or an iPhone (or even a smartphone, although this is something that is changing).  Plus, providing a device delineates between what is a 'learning' device and what is a 'personal' device.

Mobile app development - creativity, skills and evidence

The final talk of the day was a second keynote.  Andrew Lapham, from Yell Labs gave an enthusiastic presentation about the work that his team carries out and what characteristics in potential employers he is looking for.  Key points include the ability to be creative and generate new and interesting ideas, strong communication skills (the ability to communicate those ideas and to persuade others of their merit), and an underlying enthusiasm for technology and what it might be able to achieve.

The notion of having a portfolio of evidence was also touched upon.  Whilst demonstration of apps or talking through a pet project is impressive, what is more impressive is having evidence that your own product or code has been marketed.  This might include having a blog about a product, and also gathering some evidence about how your customers view your product.


There was one thing that surprised me about this day which was an exceptionally strong focus on apps.  In retrospect, it shouldn't have been a surprise at all.  Apps are the way to consume software on mobile devices.

I certainly sense that teaching programming for mobile devices isn't easy.  Each platform comes attached to ecology of tools (and a whole set of accompanying vocabulary) and techniques.  Teaching everything just isn't an option, but teaching in depth is surely the right way to go.  Educators will therefore have to choose a platform and figure out how to connect a technology choice to wider principles to enable graduates to more readily get to grips with the new environments they will inevitably face.

One really interesting question is whether mobility and the technology that goes with it is changing software engineering?  It's not a question seems to have an easy answer, but perhaps user based apps require different design methods than the lower level software that support the networking infrastructure and perhaps those who have stronger connections with the industry would be able to comment.

A final reflection relates to the creation of a portfolio that can help during the recruitment process.  The importance of a personal portfolio was emphasised in a recent HEA event at the University of Greenwich about gaming and animation.  Employers like to see what applicants have done.    Furthermore, it offers opportunities to allow employers to find out about the difficulties that applicants face and how they were overcome.

When it comes to being an app developer, the message was clear: a portfolio of well-crafted working apps was clearly something that employers would like to see.

Congratulations to Buckingham for running a fun and thought provoking event!

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Inquiry, Independence and Information (Computing) Using IBL to Encourage Independent Learning in IT Students

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 1 Feb 2015, 13:04

This might sound like a confession, but when I was living the life of a computer scientist (and being a programmer in industry) the term 'pedagogy' remained puzzling for me for quite some time.  Of course, I understood the terms 'teaching' and had an interest in the cognitive psychology of learning, but it took me some time to see what became obvious: that pedagogy is all about choosing and making effective use of appropriate teaching techniques (given the tools at your disposal and those who you are teaching).  I then realised that in science, you might share results from experiments.  In education, on the other hand, you might share practice (or stories) from teaching experiences.

This HEA workshop, held at the Salford University Business School on 19 April 2012, was all about pedagogy and a particular pedagogic approach named, inquiry based learning (Wikipedia), a subject that has been explored within the Personal Inquiry (PI) project carried out within the Open University's Institute of Educational Technology.

This blog post represents my own take on the event and includes a number of highlights.  I began the day by knowing only a tiny amount about what inquiry based learning was, and ended the day knowing a lot more (whilst at the same time beginning to appreciate a lot more about the different contexts in which I might be able to use such an approach).


We (the workshop delegates) were immediately presented with a number of questions, which were:

  • What are the challenges of engaging independent learning?
  • How do we foster independent learning?
  • Information overload: what skills do students require to navigate the labyrinth of on-line information sources?

Assigned to small groups, we collectively came up with a set of answers.  The challenges were considered to be stimulating engagement, developing motivation and dealing with group dynamics.  Fostering independent learning is achieved by exposure to different examples, facilitating access to technology and encouraging reflection.  Finally, handling information overload is achieved be helping students to evaluate (the validity and usefulness of) source materials.

An interesting point that was raised was that students are increasingly equipped with their own technology, such as laptops and smart phones.  The challenge might no longer be the access to technology, but instead how to get the best out of what they have at their disposal.  This connects to the notion of pedagogy and also to the subject of classroom response systems, which has been discussed in earlier HEA STEM conferences and workshops.

The talk bit

Before we moved into the main section of the workshop, Jamie Wood from the University of Manchester gave a short presentation about what Inquiry Based Learning (IBL) is all about.  IBL is a pedagogic approach that emphasises and draws upon students' capacity to construct knowledge.  It is about investigating authentic open-ended questions (and knowledge construction) and helping to adopt practices of scholarship and research to actively explore and develop a knowledge base.  It also encourages peer-to-peer (student and staff) collaborations and creates opportunities to share results with others.  (Jamie references the work of Phillipa Levy, from the University of Sheffield as well as a HEA report entitled Developing undergraduate research and inquiry).

IBL isn't just about the gathering of facts.  It is also about developing and acquiring a philosophy of knowledge and helping learners to ask the fundamental question of 'what' and 'why'.  There are, of course, strong links to employability skills.  Whenever employees start in a new role or job, new territories and domains have to be negotiated and mastered.  IBL also emphasises collaboration and working with others.  Again, this links back to central ideas of scholarship and knowledge construction: discovering new knowledge is more often than not considered to be a 'team' sport.   IBL is also an approach that can help to develop confidence amongst learners and their problem solving abilities.

IBL was compared to another approach, which is known as Problem Based Learning (PBL).  PBL is considered to be more focussed, and had less of the open-ended character.  PBL could be considered as a subset of IBL, it was argued.

Setting context

In computing, what kind of inquiries might we be able to carry out with our students?  Maria Kutar, from the University of Salford Business School gave one example.  Maria's students are faced with the challenge of understanding the data protection act.  One approach is to read through a text book and perhaps have a group discussion about what is known about the legislation and how it might work.  Another approach is to attempt to explore how the legislation can be used to acquire real information.

Maria's students are encouraged to go out and be filmed on CCTV and then explore (or inquire) about how to view the data (or video) that has been captured (Information Commissioner's Office) .  Such an activity firmly 'situates' the legislation in the context of use, making it more tangible (and therefore understandable).  The activity is also about learning about how the legislation works in practice.  In doing so, students can understand more about what is and is not possible and gain a further understanding of the responsibilities of public authorities.

One might be tempted to argue that such an inquiry might place a burden on those who are asked for the CCTV footage, and this might be a fair point.  However, users of CCTV are compelled to adhere to the law.  Furthermore, the challenges of extracting information from an authority can lead to many interesting debates.

Our Inquiry

When we had been questioned, talked to and given some background information by way of Maria's example, it was our turn to participate in an inquiry (this bit was a total surprise to me!)  Our brief was to go out into the surrounding environment of Salford Quays and MediaCityUK (Wikipedia) and answer to the question, 'how do you find out things that you don't already know?'  (a meta-inquiry)  It didn't take long until the true significance of what was being asked of us began to sink in and I began to myself, 'so, does this mean we've got to go outside and ask people who we've never met this question (whilst wearing a badge)?'  I rapidly acquired feeling of dread, mixed with a touch of despair.

With three competitive teams set, the team that I belonged to rapidly devised a research strategy and swiftly dealt with the issue of socioeconomic and geographical sampling.  We then split into two sub-teams and rapidly began to explore the environs beyond the classroom, armed with a notepad, some charm, a mobile phone (with embedded camera) and a small block of post-it notes.

Our learning visit

We set off across Salford and headed towards the Imperial War Museum North, situated on the other side of the Manchester ship canal.  En route we gently asked our first set of subjects: a set of day trippers who were more than happy to help out.  We then went inside the museum and spoke to some of the people at the reception.  This led to a 'snowball effect'; one participant led to another.  Speaking with some of the newer volunteers led us to speak to some of the more experienced volunteers. 

We quickly realised that we were being exposed to some of the techniques the museum used to help its visitors to 'find things out'.  We discovered display exhibits with gas masks, spaces where films could be shown and found opportunities to share experiences and stories with those who volunteer for the museum.

During our inquiry journey, we made notes and took some photographs, documenting our journey and capturing evidence as we went about our exploration.  Our reflection on our data gathering techniques (and whether they worked) was an integral part of our inquiry too.

Our presentation

After returning from our expedition, each group was told to create something, a PowerPoint presentation or some other artefact to represent the discoveries that we had made.  Our group (along with the others) chose to create a 'post-it note' centric PowerPoint presentation, which summarised our key findings.

In our presentation we just didn't concentrate on presenting our findings on how people find things out (the internet is used a lot, and people ask other people), we also considered what we had learnt from the whole experience of 'going out there' and attempting to discover new things.  We discovered that our inquiry was immersive, sensory, simulating and provoking.  By its nature it was non-linear; we used opportunity to uncover new ideas and followed new directions.   Our inquiry took place over a number of different episodes, where the episodes took upon their own character and had their own themes.

We discovered that an inquiry could be social, but also make use of artefacts.  We had been shown physical objects during our visit to the museum and had heard some interesting stories.  On the subject of stories, people who visited the museum (those conducting an inquiry) might be able to help those who worked at the museum new things.

In some respects there was a blurring of distinction between those who set then inquiry (those who were the teachers), and those who returned with results (the students).  All should be considered to be co-investigators and those who set the inquiry should be prepared to be surprised by the new knowledge that is found and the variety of the findings that are uncovered. 

Our presentation ended with a quote from one of our team members (but it can also be attributed to Confucious) which seemed to echo what we took to be an important essence of inquiry based learning: 'Tell me something, I shall forget.  Show me something, I shall remember.  Involve me, I will understand'.


Attendance at the workshop made me ask the question, 'is there a set of inquiry-based learning exercises that will work well within IT, computing or computer science?'

I sense that it really comes into play when we are exploring the intersection between people, technology and society (which is an important aspect of Maria's earlier example).  Perhaps IBL might be used to explore the attitudes that people have towards technology and its impact on the lives of the users.  The environment that we may wish to study may be wider than just the immediate vicinity or campus.

There is also a link between IBL and the pedagogic philosophy of constructivism.  Constructivism, as I understand it, is all about creating an environment (this might be physical or virtual) to enable learners to discover facts for themselves (as opposed to them just being passed on).  Through IBL, the facts that are discovered (and then debated afterwards) are 'owned' by those who discovered them.

IBL, however, is a tool and it should be situated alongside other types of pedagogic activity.  The choice of whether to use IBL in a particular learning programme (or learning design) may be dictated by a combination of the needs of a particular subject area or discipline, human and financial resources (which might also include access to a physical environment), as well as pedagogic expertise within a particular institution or community.   I sense that a change to any of these dimensions may necessitate a change to an overall design (including a change of focus in a particular subject area).

Before this event I hadn't given much thought to Inquiry-based learning, even though I have been aware of the term for a number of years.  My own teaching practice is mostly centred upon a small number of face to face sessions and how best to offer support and guidance to students at a distance.

For me, this workshop has achieved two things.  Firstly, it has increased my awareness of what IBL is (although I've still got some figuring out to do about how to best use it in my own subject), and secondly, it pushed me a little bit outside of my comfort zone.  That, I believe, was entirely the point.


Our inquiry team comprised of Mik, Henry and Phillip, all from the University of Salford.

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HEA STEM Conference, Imperial College, London

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 1 Feb 2015, 13:05

If someone had told me that last week I would be hearing anecdotes about the Russian space programme, learning about muscle wastage in zero gravity and discovering that there is a type of rocket engine that is powered by a combination of rubber and hydrogen peroxide, I would not have believed them!

This blog post is all about a recent visit to the HEA STEM conference, held between the 12-13 April at Imperial College London.  STEM is an abbreviation for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  This aims to be a reflective post, to complement a live blog (HEA website) and corresponding twitter feed that was written throughout the two days of the conference.

STEM is a concept that embraces a significant number of disciplines, ranging from psychology through to the physical sciences and engineering.  I should add that I only attended the computing discipline strand (although all delegates were encouraged to be multi-disciplinary and attend others).  What follows is a summary of some of the highlights followed by an attempt (in my own relatively clumsily worded way) to present some personal reflections on what happened during the conference.


The conference was opened by Janet De Wilde head of STEM at the HEA.  This was followed by an address by Professor Craig Mahoney (Chief Executive of the HEA).  Craig emphasised the necessity of a skilled workforce and mentioned a recent enquiry in the House of Lords which aims to explore why so many STEM graduates don't end up working in STEM jobs, but industry claims that there is a skills shortage.  Craig's overriding message for the conference was to look forward, be positive and to be creative.

The final introductory address was by Professor Steve Swithenby from the Open University. Steve emphasised the importance of working between and with different disciplines and asked the question of how we might sustain both discipline based and interdisciplinary research?  The answer: talking to people.  This was expressed as an implicit (but important) theme to the conference.

First day computing presentations: morning

There were two parallel computing streams.  To get the best out of the conference I chose what to go to using a heuristic based on interest and familiarity (specifically choosing subjects that I didn't know too much about).  In the morning of the first day I opted to attend the 'innovative practice in teaching and assessment' strand.

The first presentation was by Mark Kerrigan from the University of Greenwich.  Mark's presentation was all about the use of digital tools (such as Skype, blogging tools and so on) and how they might potentially be used through different phases of a programme of study.  Mark's introduced the Google motion chart, a tool that I had never heard of before.  Other resources that were mentioned included the JISC Escape project and Mapmyprogramme.

The second presentation, 'Enhancing small group teaching and learning using online student response systems' was by Harin Sellahawa, who introduced us to the EduMecca EU project.  There are those student response systems that use dedicated hardware and those that use the hardware belonging to students (i.e. their own smartphones); the EduMecca SRS, as far as I understand, makes use of the student's own smartphone.  Some of the challenges of using WiFi enabled smartphones being that some students might not have them, not all classrooms might have WiFi signals (although I'm sure this is changing), and even if they do, there might be reliability issues.  The pedagogic issues are just as important as the technical ones; whilst SRS systems may permit anonymous voting (permitting the quieter learners to more readily participate), the use of smartphones in class has the potential to be disruptive.

Virtual worlds were all the rage a couple of years ago, mainly due to the emergence of SecondLife which enabled users to create their own worlds and environments.  Educators were quick to consider whether such a tool would be useful for teaching and learning, and it was good to see that Colin Allison gave a short talk to bring us up to date on the developments within this area.  Colin's talk covered a couple of key points. 

The first main point is that it seems that open source virtual worlds, particularly OpenSimulator (or OpenSim) appear to be maturing.  One particularly interesting fact was that there appears to be protocol and scripting language compatibility between OpenSim and SecondLife.  One of the biggest risks of using SecondLife for education is that there is the possibility that LindenLabs could change 'the rules of the world' at any time.  Another argument is that you potentially expose students to a myriad of crazy and inappropriate distractions that can be easily discovered in SecondLife.

The other main point was the potential uses of a virtual world.  Colin gave a number of examples.  These included algorithm animation, the creation of learning resources in virtual spaces (such as a 'WiFi island', to convey principles underpinning this particular technology), as well as non-STEM subjects, such as a virtual reconstruction of St Andrews Cathedral.  More information can be found through the St Andrews OpenVirtualWorlds blog.

The morning session concluded with a brief poster session, where each presenter had to give a two minute impromptu presentation about why their own poster was worth a visit.

First keynote: Project bloodhound, Wing Commander Andy Green OBE

I always sense that giving a keynote speech at a conference is a pretty tough task.  A speaker should ideally present a subject that can connect with many of the debates that may occur throughout a conference, pose some challenging questions, and ultimately leave the audience inspired and energised.

Andy Green's fundamental question was, 'is it possible to build a car that runs at 1,000 miles an hour?'   His answer was, in essence, 'there are a bunch of people who are trying to do just this, and I'm going to be the driver'.

This is all very well and good, but how does this connect to STEM?  Andy offers a multitude of answers: designing a car requires engineering (obviously), copious amounts of computing power, a good amount of satellite imagery and a generous application of many of the STEM subjects (such as physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and so on).  Much of the connections can be seen through the Project Bloodhound SSC website (SSC being an abbreviation for Super Sonic Car).

Andy asked the audience, 'to make this car work, what problems do we have to solve?'  There was no shortage of answers.  The main one was 'keeping the car on the ground'.  Others were 'how to store the fuel, how to deal with heat, how to stop it, how to build the wheels...'  Many of the problems gave way to a brief presentation of some of the hard technical issues that have to be dealt with.  Computational fluid dynamics was mentioned, along with rocket science and how tough manufacturing challenges were being addressed.

Another question is: 'why do it?'  One answer is that the existing record is currently under threat by other teams.  Another connection question might be, 'why build a car that goes 1K mph when there are other bigger humanitarian problems to be solved?'  This is a fair question, but solving any technological problem requires a degree of design and innovation.  I personally feel that it is not (always) useful to make a judgement about what is a 'good' or a 'bad' problem to solve.  The innovation that occurs in a 'bad' problem might find its way to helping to find a solution for a 'good' problem.

Bloodhound SSC is described as an education project as well as a land speed record attempt.  It achieves this by providing many aspects of the design available for everyone to see.  Another dimension of the project is that on the day of the record attempt, telemetry data will also be provided for followers to see.  Computing is a subject that features from the initial design and operation of the car through to sharing of information about the project and the data that the project generates.

I have to admit that the talk was pretty inspiring.  Am I now more interested in subjects such as materials engineering and the chemistry of rocket propulsion?  I'll be lying if I said that I didn't (I admit to being somewhat more interested than I was before Andy's talk).  The biggest impact of the keynote, for me, wasn't so much the detail about the car, but the idea about the educational aims of the project.  This got me thinking.  I asked myself, 'what kind of project could I be involved with that might inspire people to take up (my special bit) of STEM?'  With this in my mind, I guess the keynote worked a treat.

First day computing presentations: afternoon

During the afternoon I split my time between two sessions, beginning with 'enhancing the employability of computing students' and then moving onto 'innovative practice in teaching and assessment'.

The first afternoon presentation, entitled 'understanding difficulties with generic conceptions of employablity' was presented by Martyn Clark.  The key point that I took away from this presentation was a very important one.  Simply put, different organisations have different cultures; one student may more readily fit into the culture of one organisation rather than another.  This raises the problem of how do we try to prepare students for the world of work when there is extensive variability?

The second presentation in the theme of employability was entitled, 'the inspiring teacher in computing' by Alistair Irons, University of Sunderland.  Alistair's presentation connected strongly with the keynote.  This reminded me of a sub-discipline of computing which can be broadly entitled 'computer science education'.

Being inspiring is, of course, important when it comes to student retention.  If one is not inspiring, learners may lose a lot of their motivation.  Alistair challenged us to consider what 'is not' inspiring.  The bullet point list of items make for an interest read: PowerPoints, lectures that are filled with loads of facts (which may make them tough to understand), lecturers being unprepared, lecturers who talk in monotone, lectures that are boring, lecturers who give the impression that they don't want to be there, and teachers who talk down to the students.

All these points are pretty negative, so how about considering the other perspective of what makes an inspiring lecturer?  Again, I can summarise by presented a bulleted list.  Key points are: lecturers who appear to be comfortable and are enthusiastic, who know their stuff and are willing to help, are friendly and approachable, make good use of humour and make good use of stories.  There was the comment that all these points could be compressed or summarised into three key points.  These are: personality and authenticity, experience, and finally, approaches and methods used.  To me, one point stands out, and that is authenticity and its sister attribute, humility.

A change of session led me to join Thomas Lancaster's presentation about contract cheating.  Contract cheating is where you pay someone else to write your assignment for you, passing it off as your own work.  One advantage of using this approach is that because the work is original (even though it isn't yours), it will not be detected by the usual plagiarism detection systems such as TurnitIn.  Thomas presented an interesting and slightly alarming summary of his (and his colleague's) analysis of sites that offered 'essay writing services'.  It struck me that the university sector has now entered an arms race; universities need to apply ever more sophisticated technology to detect cheating that may be facilitated through new ways of using technology.

At the end of Thomas's presentation a question was asked about whether software might be able to detect a 'step change' in the grammatical and linguistic style of submissions from students.  There are a couple of challenges of such an approach.  Firstly, to do this accurately you need a fairly big sample of texts.  Secondly, the writing style of students is likely to change and develop as they gain more experience.  I feel this will remain a challenge for computational linguists for some time to come.

Karl Stringer presented, 'A googlemaps feedback system implemented with Blackboard'.  Karl described a system where exercises (for a module entitled 'using the web') are mapped onto locations on a Google map, adopting a simple metaphor of a walking trail.  One of the really good points of this approach (ignoring the Blackboard dimension of the implementation) is that it makes use of software that is free to use, and helps students to understand what the current generation of web-based tools are capable of.  It was also thought provoking in the sense that it takes advantage of how we can remember maps through our spatial and visual memory.

The final presentation of the computing strand was by Peter Thomas from the Open University.  Pete described a tool that enables diagrams to be automatically assessed.  This means that a student may draw a diagram using a tool which is hosted within the Open University's implementation of Moodle, and the resulting diagram will then be assessed against a set of pre-defined answer.  Pete commented that the system he presented could cater for many different types of formal diagrams (which could include entity relationship diagrams and spray diagrams) and the marking accuracy was as good as human markers.  He also challenged us to send him diagrams which we thought the system might not be able to handle.

Second keynote: The next small step, Kevin Wong

We were asked to consider the story of Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who led an expedition which circumnavigated the globe.  Magellan began with five ships and 237 men.  Magellan didn't make it back, but eighteen men did.  In the expedition all but one ships were lost, and 80% of the crew, facts which were surprising and shocking.  This emphasised the point that exploration is difficult.  It is difficult for a whole host of different reasons.

Kevin Wong is an astrophysicist and medic who worked for NASA.  Kevin's talk focused upon the challenge of a manned space flight to Mars.  After telling us about Magellan, Kevin then went onto present a concise and compelling history of space flight, firmly situating its history in the context of the cold war.  Whilst talking about the Apollo programme, we were reminded about Kennedy's defining speech at Rice University, 1962.

Kevin presented a number of questions which he tried to answer.  The main ones that I remember are: why go to Mars?  And, what are the main problems that we have to solve?  Other than being a project that is likely to inspire and facilitate the development of new technologies there is the fundamental question of life itself.  If there is no evidence of life, of any kind, on Mars, then this makes our humble planet all the more special.

Moving onto the problems, different mission options were described to us and one of the best options is likely to take two and a half years, with some considerable time to be spent on the surface of Mars.  Spaceflight exerts a huge physiological and psychological toll.   Without gravity, muscle and bone wastage is extraordinary, not to mention the increased risk of cancer due to exposure to radiation.  Astronauts will be confined in small uncomfortable environments for considerable lengths of time without the creature comforts and the luxurious opportunity for social interaction that we have on earth.  Human exploration of space, it is emphasised, is difficult (which, of course, is an understatement).

Kevin's talk concluded with the sharing of an image of a craft that could solve the challenges that weightlessness causes: a structure the size of the London Eye that rotates around 4 times a minute, which is enough to create artificial gravity through centrifugal force.  It could be built with materials that get stronger when they are subjected to stretching forces (if my memory serves me well!)  At the end of the second keynote Kevin was asked the ultimate question, 'if asked, would you go to Mars?', to which he responded, 'I would go to the moon... but Mars is something totally different'.

Second day computing presentations: first session

For the first part of the second day, I attended a workshop entitled, 'embedding employability attributes into the 1st year curriculum' by Paula Bernaschina and Serengul Smith, both from the University of Middlesex.  We were introduced to the CBI employability skills, something that I had never heard of before.  These skills were not specific to any specific discipline or subject.  Key skills related to: self-management, team working, problem solving, application of IT, communication and literacy, application of numeracy, and business and consumer awareness.  We were given the challenge of how to create activities that address each of these points.  More information about these skills can be obtained by viewing a report that can be downloaded from the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) website. Towards the end of the workshop, a question was asked as to whether there were any other employability guidelines that module designers might potentially use.  A personal view is that any skill that is developed within a module (or series of modules) always needs to be contextualised to ensure that its purpose and use is clear and its industrial relevance explained.

Second day computing presentations: second session

The final discipline specific session of the day comprised of a series of four presentations.  The first was by Jose-Luis Fernandez-Vindel and Tina Wilson (from UNED, in Spain, and the Open University respectively).  Jose spoke about the challenges of translating Open Educational Resources (OERs), which is akin to the problem of software localisation (Wikipedia), and connected the problem to the domain of learning (or instructional) design, mentioning a design tool called Compendium LD (Open University website).

The second presentation was by two Open University colleagues, Frances Chetwynd and Chris Dobbyn.  Frances and Chris have been involved with the production of a new first level introduction to computing module, entitled TU100 My Digital Life.  Their presentation, entitled 'consistency v autonomy: effective feedback to a very large cohort' aimed to share practice and experience in relation to developing and enhancing feedback that is given to students.  Since TU100 is a first level module, the issue of skills development is considered to be very important (to aid progression to later levels). 

One of the challenges of teaching some aspects of software design and computer programming is making use of compelling examples that are rich enough to get students to think.  Nicola Whitehead from Swansea Metropolitan University shares the perspective that when it comes to teaching how to create a use case (or a set of use cases), the canonical example of a student information system doesn't really offer too much in the way of inspiration.  Nicola introduces the card game Fluxx (Wikipedia) to her students and challenges them to use it to extract some use cases.  Fluxx is cited to have the advantage that it is unfamiliar enough to facilitate debate, and complex enough to create some sufficiently challenging use cases. 

The final presentation was by Paul Neve from Kingston University.  Paul made a compelling argument that skill development in computer programming is discontinuous, i.e. it happens in 'light bulb' moment jumps, where insight and understanding is suddenly gained after periods of gaining experience and considering different approaches (or 'banging ones head against a brick wall').  Building on teaching experience gained at Kingston, Paul described a web-based system where the student is taken through a series of challenging activities and assignments.  Paul was keen to emphasise the importance of a lecture as an event that 'frames' the problem or describes the tools that are used to deliver programming activities.

Panel discussion

Much of the time left for the panel discussion was given over to the audience to raise points make contributions.  Before this occurred, representatives of 'lunchtime meeting groups' were asked to feedback on key issues that they felt relate to STEM.  I've noted down a number of key themes.  These were technology and its use and how this relates to pedagogy and the sharing of practice.  Other themes were the importance of the student experience and how to facilitate interdisciplinary research and projects.  There were was also comments about wider involvement and engagement, with reference to policy makers and industry.

One comment from the audience jumped out at me, and this related to not only to the theme of student experience but also the theme of pedagogy.  This was that we should feel free to draw upon the experience of education at other levels.  It struck me that interdisciplinary isn't a single dimension of 'subject'.  The other dimension is that of the 'level' of study.  The point being that we should learn the lessons that have already learnt by others to ensure that we can uncover and develop the best opportunities for teaching and learning.


This is the first big HEA conference that I have attended.  This is also my first STEM event, where experts in different disciplines come together, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect.  The computing strand contained some really good stuff, especially the session on what makes an inspiring (computing) teacher; this was certainly very thought provoking.

Two general points come to mind.  The first is that I did feel that there could have been more formal opportunities to meet colleagues from other disciplines.  The second was that there might have been more of an opportunity to share 'war stories', about challenging (or innovative) teaching practices, to learn what went well and what didn't.

I do feel that there is something positive about the notion of STEM.  The shared principle (to me) seems to be the use of knowledge and skills to solve problems and to do interesting things that may benefit industry and wider society.  The challenge (again, this is my own view) is trying to focus attention when members of different disciplines might be looking in slightly different directions (in terms of their own subjects).  This is certainly something that was reflected in the panel session with the comment, 'there needs to be opportunities to find the spaces to have conversations'.  From conversations might become focus and further opportunities to develop further ideas and learn from the experiences of our peers.

All in all, a fun event.  A good venue and cracking keynotes, all coming together to create a thought provoking couple of days.

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Creating a positive and workable future for UK games and animation courses: industry and education perspectives

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 2 Nov 2014, 07:55

I recently attended a workshop about the subject of games, animation, education and industrial relevance at the University of Greenwich on 2 April 2012.  I have to confess that games and animation isn't my core subject (since I feel that I lie on the more 'computer science' end of an art and design subject continuum), but I do confess to having more of a passing interest in both games and animation.

The main aim of the workshop was about sharing.  Sharing information about what is needed by industry, sharing information about what is taught within academia (and how it is taught), and the sharing of different views and perspectives.

The day comprised of an introductory session, three keynote speeches and a long discussion session. The first keynote presented a perspective from the games industry, the second presented an educational perspective, and the third an animation perspective.  The main points that I managed to gain from the day are summarised below.  Of course, these notes represent my own take on the day; other delegates might have come away with different impressions.


The day was introduced by Nigel Newbutt from the University of Greenwich.  Nigel contextualised the day by describing some of the challenges that are faced by higher education institutions.  One perspective is that in the world of higher fees students will become increasingly vociferous and may increasingly choose programmes of study will lead to financial and career security.  Considering the industrial perspective is therefore an imperative; industry demands graduates that are employable.  By the same token, academies need to build reputations to ensure that demand for their modules is sustainable.

One of the notes that I've made during the introductory talk is whether there is a gap between academic and vocational education, i.e. learning the principles behind ideas versus learning the stuff that employers in industry needs.  This links to a perpetual (and necessary) tension, the tension between education and training.  This, to me, was a theme that appeared time and time again, often in slightly different guises.

First keynote: future industry directions

Martin Darby gave the first keynote.  Martin works in a start-up called Remode which he co-founded.  One of the things that struck me about Martin's presentation is that he touched upon the history of gaming, commenting on how the industry had changed.  The principle of a games development cycle connected to the development of new generations of console is being challenged.  Mobile and web-based gaming is a space that is of increasing significance (and one which Remode is working in).

I was introduced to the notion of the AAA game, a term that I had not heard of before.  This is a game development which is so substantial that its production has parallels with that of film industry; these are the games which have huge budgets and require teams of developers and artists.

Returning to the theme of the workshop, what do employers within the game industry need?  Martin briefly mentioned a challenging article that was entitled 'Money wasted on uni games courses scandalous'.  Clearly, this is an opinion piece (and the comments posted against the article are interesting), but what are Martin's views?

Gaming is a subject that is intrinsically multi-disciplinary.  There is the need to consider the aesthetics and artistry of a game (art is important), it is necessary to consider the market (business is important), have technical skills (computer science is important), and it is necessary to have the skills to communicate to different groups of people whilst at the same time holding onto the bigger picture.

When it comes to demonstrating competency in these different areas the best thing that someone seeking a foothold in the industry could do is to create a finished project that could be shown to a potential employer.  Finishing something is considered to be very important; this suggests close attention to detail and an ability to grapple not only with technology but also broad concepts.  A demo game that is buggy or doesn't do what it supposed to do, it is argued, makes a terrible impression.

Picking up on the technical skills, Martin said that low level computing skills, such as assembly language, are no longer required.  The reason for this is that much of the low level stuff has been abstracted to other software tools.  Skills such as object-oriented programming and maths are considered to be transferrable to different toolsets.

During Martin's talk (and during the question and answer session), there was some talk about gaming engines, such as  Unity, Unreal and Turbulenz; developments that I had not heard of before.  Relating to the subject of gaming engines, Martin quoted a distinction that had been posed between the 'Masterwork age of games' vs 'founder work of games' (unfortunately I don't have the name of who suggested this distinction).  The argument is that the age of substantial game innovation (the founderwork) is over (ignoring, of course, the different ways in which games are consumed).  Instead, we're in a period where we are gradually improving what we have (mastering our tools and what we produce).

At the end of Martin's talk, there was a chance to share views, opinions and experience.  The issue of the multi-disciplinary nature of gaming was emphasised and one of the challenges may be to get different faculties to work with each other.  Perhaps there needs to be a balance of modules to enable developers (irrespective of whether they choose to specialise) to gain the big picture.  Students, it was argued, should be encouraged to attend conferences and festivals to do just this.

Second keynote: Future of higher education 2012

The second keynote of the day was by Professor Ian McNay from the University of Greenwich.   Ian raised a number of issues that were pertinent to the wider sector.  He began by presenting a model of teaching and learning, mentioned the pressures that institutions face in response to increases in fees and the issues of diversity.  During the question and answer session, one question jumped out at me as being very important, particularly regarding the issue of connections between industry and academia.  This was, 'should academics consider or be able to take a sabbatical within industry?'  (with a view to informing teaching practice).  The answer was a very clear 'yes, they should, and this would be very useful too'.

Third keynote: An insider's view (industry to education)

For the third keynote, Fraser Maclean shared with us his personal experiences of working as an animator, whilst at the same time connecting his talk firmly to the domains of computing, art and education.  For a mere computer scientist, his presentation was very illuminating and thought provoking.

Fraser began by emphasising the importance of drawing, sharing with us some astonishingly beautiful sketches that I understand to be from his own portfolio.  He spoke about the perceptions that some have about sketches and this made me realise that my control of a pencil or paintbrush is one skill in which I am somewhat deficient.  I've noted the words, 'I still maintain that drawing is the most important tool in design'.  This strongly linked with earlier discussions about the need to connect the technical disciplines of computing with the discipline of art and design.

Fraser spoke clearly about the commercial perspective, mentioning the notion of a production pipeline where hundreds of different people (and software tool users) may be working on a single production.  Another point that I noted were the words, 'there is only one type of animation, commercial animation'.  All animation costs money; business is just as important as art and computing.

Echoing the importance of attending conferences and festivals as a way to acquire industrial awareness, Fraser mentioned the importance of being aware of and potentially visiting organisations that are important within the animation industry.

Another couple of points from Fraser's speech included his description of how the industry had changed over the years, and how it had resisted change.  A really interesting comment was how animation specialisation might have also changed.  Previously artists might be required to draw one character (or a set of characters).  Due to the application of computer modelling, animation was described in terms of 'puppet manipulation', where the puppet exists within the memory of a computer.  Some animators may be skilled at certain types of movements (or sequences of movements) as opposed to others.

To me, the understanding of multiple disciplines was also an important theme, as was the different ways to link industry with education.  This led us towards discussions about a programme called Dare to be Digital that operated in conjunction with the University of Abertay, Dundee.  I have also noted a reference to something called Skillset Accreditation.

All in all, a very interesting talk.  Given my involvement in an Interaction Design module with the Open University, one point that Fraser made about storyboarding jumped out at me.  This was when he emphasised that animation or film storyboards only need to convey the essence (and not the detail) of a scene, that it's okay for sketches to be sketchy.  The importance of sketching as a mechanism of communication (as well as animation) was a topic that occupied my thoughts for some time after the day had ended.


Fraser's talk led directly onto an open discussion session between all the delegates where industrial and teaching experiences were shared.  Given the number of delegates at the event this 'free form' discussion worked particularly well, but does pose unique challenges when attempting to compose a concise summary (in fact, parts of the discussion section might have leeched into my earlier summary of Fraser's talk).  Instead I'm going to mention some of the points that jumped out at me, necessarily omitting others.

The first point that I would like to share is a link to the Livingstone-Hope skills review of video Games and visual effects (the video that is featured on this page is worth a watch).  A notable comment on the video was that a perfect graduate would be one who was skilled at maths, physics and art. 

One of the continuing tensions (and one that I've mentioned earlier) is the distinction between education and training.  Industry always wants graduates who are able to be immediately productive with particular tools and technologies, whereas educators may perceive their role to be more about helping learners to acquire conceptual frameworks and vocabularies that help them to learn domain specific products.  

Each discipline has its set of tools.  Digital or computer forensics makes extensive use of tools such as EnCase.  When it comes to gaming, there are numerous game engines.  For animation there are (from what little I know) modelling software tools such as Maya.   Effective on-the-job (or employer led) learning depends on knowing some 'stuff' to enable an employee to quickly grasp procedures and functions which can lead to effective practice and performance.

A part of 'education', particularly with regards to gaming, might relate to understanding the broader social context, i.e. what is gaming for and what is its history, a point raised by Fraser Maclean.  Another perspective is the importance of emphasising the connections between disciplines, particularly the commercial dimension.  Whilst a business might be prepared to train a user to use a particular games toolset (or become familiar with a production pipeline), it may be expected that graduates should be familiar with the broader environment in which an industry operates.  This links back to an earlier point of the importance of external events, whether they are conferences, festivals, exhibitions or visits to known employers (should they have the time and the inclination).


One of the reasons why I enjoyed this workshop was that subjects discussed were slightly outside of my own area.  This said, animation and gaming has always been persistent interest; I have to confess that I've been an intermittent consumer of computer games ever since I was around ten and I remember being increasingly interested in the computer graphics of computer animation after completing the final year of my computer science degree; I remember attending a screening of Toy Story (persuading myself that it was due to professional interest, obviously ignoring the fact that I enjoy animation!)

This event had a different structure to other HEA workshops I've attended.  It had a good mix of thought provoking formal presentations and discussion time.  This workshop has emphasised to me the strong link between computing, technology and the creative industries.

I've been to quite a few HEA events at Greenwich but this was the first event that dealt with explicitly gaming and animation.  As I embarked on my short journey home I caught a brief glimpse of the finishing touches being made to the rebuilt Cutty Sark.  This made me wonder how animation and computer technology might be used to share stories about this historic and fascinating part of London.

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Embedding Self and Peer Assessment and Feedback in Practice - A Principles-Based and Technology-Enabled Approach

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The first HEA discipline workshop of the year, entitled Embedding Self and Peer Assessment and Feedback in Practice (HEA events page) was held at the University of Ulster on 9 March 2012.  This blog post represents my own reflections of the event.  I do hope they are useful to either the delegates who were there, or anyone else who accidentally stumbles across these notes.


Denise McAlister, Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Ulster introduced the day by emphasising the importance of feedback and how it plays a central role in teaching and learning.  The student experience, it was argued, is significant affected by the provision and quality of feedback.  Denise raised a number of challenges: how pedagogic design can offer opportunities for feedback.  The opportunities have to be balanced with the potential risk of over-assessment.  She also raised concerns about group assessment, particularly when it comes to transparency.  It is therefore a necessity, of course, to provide robust processes to ensure that students are treated fairly and equally irrespective of the assessment method (or methods) that an institution may adopt.


The first main presentation of the day was by Alan Masson, Head of Technology Facilitated Learning at the University of Ulster.  Alan's presentation was entitled 'Ulster Principles of Assessment and Feedback in learning, background and their use in promoting learning technologies'.  Alan made the point that assessment and feedback is a key part of the student experience; it is an issue that affects student retention and achievement, module and course evaluation and the wider public perceptions of an institution.  Alan mentioned something called the REAP principles (REAP website, PDF). 

Alan went onto summarise a set of seven principles that Ulster use.  These were (in essence): clarify good performance, encourage time and effort, deliver high quality feedback, provide opportunities to act on feedback, positive encouragement, develop self-assessment and reflection, and encourage interaction and dialog.  More information about these principles can be seen by visiting the University of Ulster Assessment and Feedback website.  During his presentation, Alan also directed us to something called the SCONUL Seven Pillars of Information Literacy, which was something I had not heard of before.

The second presentation of the day was by Rebecca Strachan, Northumbria University.  Rebecca's presentation was entitled 'Peer Assessment for Formative Feedback - it's Good for You'.  Rebecca introduced us to something called the Learning Pyramid, from the National Training Laboratories, which emphasises the notion that highest levels of retention (or perhaps understanding?) may arise when one student is asked to teach something to someone else.  We were also directed to the Ripples model of learning (Phil Race's website) which presents 'seven factors underpinning successful learning'.

Rebecca presented a number of challenges regarding the subject of formative peer assessment.  It is necessary to provide a motivation for the students, define the rules of engagement, and implement a system where by the tutor or instructor could offer (or provide) a moderation process.  Finally, it was considered that the process of providing feedback is as useful as the feedback itself.

Two presentations about WebPA followed.  WebPA is a web-based peer assessment tool that was developed at Loughborough University and was funded by JISC, building on earlier work.  Keith Pond presented an outline of the WebPA system through his presentation 'WebPA - Multi-disciplinary peer-mark moderation of group work'.  This was complemented by presentation about teaching practice by Neil Gordon, entitled 'Experiences and practice of using WebPA to support self and peer-assessment in teaching'. 

What I liked about Keith's presentation was the summary of the history of the project and particularly the emphasis on feedforward comments (i.e. comments to help future performance, as opposed to reflections based on existing work that has been completed).   What I liked about Neil's presentation was that he emphasised the importance of group work for software projects, speaking to an important industrial perspective that can be easily lost.    More information about WebPA can, of course, be found by visiting the WebPA project website which is hosted at Loughborough.

The final subject specific presentation of the day was by Luke Chen who compared student perceptions of self and peer assessment by using two case studies: a masters module (advanced web technologies) and a undergraduate module (advanced interactive programming).  One approach used Blackboard whilst the other used a paper based system.

Student voices

A couple of weeks ago I attended an inclusive learning conference at the Open University.  One themes that struck me from the conference was the importance of the student voice and the role that it can have in helping to inform educational practice.  It was great to see that student voices (or student views) were also brought to the fore at this workshop.

Following on from Luke's earlier presentation, Steven McComb, a postgraduate student, gave his reflections on peer assessment.  This was followed by a presentation by Tanya Fisher, a final year interactive multimedia design student, who also volunteered useful reflections.  It was great to hear such positive assessments of the assessment process.


After lunch, we had the opportunity to participate in a curriculum design activity that was based on the JISC funded Viewpoints project (University of Ulster).  We were asked to tools from the Viewpoints project to consider: standards, best practices, assessment and feedback principles, implementation ideas and the role of technologies.

The tools we were given comprised of a large laminated sheet which represented an empty module, and cards that we could stick to various parts of the module.  I interpreted the tool to enable curriculum designers to consider different alternatives or to help to facilitate communication between different designers.

Although we didn't get much time to play with the tools, the use of cards which encapsulate aspects of curriculum design as a way to facilitate design of modules is one that is compelling. 

HEA presentation

The closing presentation of the day was by Mark Ratcliffe, Discipline Lead for Computing at the Higher Education Academy.  Mark spoke briefly about the various workshops that were scheduled throughout the year and also told us about the different funding opportunities that were open to individuals as well as institutions.  Opportunities range from small grants to enable delegates to travel to workshops through to large multi-institution collaborative projects.  More information can, of course, be found by having a dig around in the HEA website, or by contacting the HEA directly.


Feedback is a really important subject.  My own personal view is that it is something that takes a lot of skill and experience to do really well.  One thing that we can every easily overlook is the feelings that our students experience as they receive their assignments or exam results.  We need to be mindful of presenting encouragement to ensure that learners are in the right frame of mind to accept any future altering feedback that we may take time to compose and present.  Peer assessment is one way to enable learners to develop critical thinking skills whilst at the same time enabling students to engage with the concepts and theories that may be the subject of an assessment.

Pedagogy, however, remains very important.  Peer assessment, in my opinion, is likely to be an especially powerful tool if it is used in subjects where having the skills to constructively criticise is especially valued.  During the workshop, the use of group work within software teams was something that was mentioned.  Peer assessment is, of course, an invaluable tool in creative subjects, such as design.

All in all, a useful and successful workshop.  Thanks Ulster!

Before I go, I have to confess that this was my first trip to Belfast and I really enjoyed it.  One of my regrets is not having taken the opportunity to take more to explore the city and the surrounding area a bit more.  Heading home to London I made a personal 'note to self' that I am most definitely going to return and do exactly that.

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Computer Forensics Workshop

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This is a short blog to summarise my visit to the 7th Annual Teaching Computer Forensics Workshop that I attended on 10 November.  The event was held at the University of Sunderland, a university that I have never visited before.  In fact, my first real visit to the Tyne and Wear area was only earlier this year, and was also one that was very brief, so I was travelling in unfamiliar territory. 

If someone were to tell me that I would be taking two trips to 'the north' this year, I wouldn't have believed them.  During this most recent trip not only was I able to learn more about the domain of computer forensics, but I was also able to experience my first journey on the Tyne and Wear metro: this was a fun experience for someone based in London who is overly familiar with the rigours of the tube. 


All delegates were welcomed to the forensics workshop by David Blackwell, Assistant Dean for student experience.  David's welcome gave way to an introduction by Alistair Irons who outlined the objectives for the day.  Alistair played the key role of chair and master of ceremonies throughout the whole of the workshop. 

Rather than to summarise everything in sequence, what I'm going to do in this blog is to connect the different talks by themes (and hope it makes sense!)  I call for the organisers' forgiveness in taking this liberty.  This said, I'm going to break this plan the moment I've introduced it by starting with the first presentation, which was all about geo-positional forensics.

Geo-positional forensics

The first presentation of the day was by Harjinder Lallie from the University of Warwick.  Harjinder introduced geo-positional forensics, the subject of a book that Harjinder has been invited to edit.  The subject is an interesting one.  Given the title, I originally imagined smart phones which contained GPS devices which were used to collect data, but like so many things, there is so much more lurking under the surface.

Geo-location data can be extracted from satellite navigation systems, for instance.  Location information might also be obtained from mobile telephone networks by identifying which base stations a mobile phone used to connect to a network.  Another route to location might be to make use of techniques to identify the location of devices that are physically connected to the internet, such as routers.  The more you begin to think about this subject, the more you begin to uncover.  There are, of course, important legal issues that relate to the gathering of location evidence (legal issues being one of the themes that are exposed later on during the day).

If you're interested, or would like to find out more about Harjinder's book, there is a web page which you might find of interest.

Teaching forensics

The second presentation of the day, and the first of a bunch of presentations that relate to the teaching of computing forensics, was by Michelle Govan, Glasgow Caledonian University.  Michelle's presentation had the title 'Developing active learning in digital forensics'.  I liked Michelle's presentation since it referenced both a learning strategy and a method that is important to digital forensics at the same time: the making of notes.  Notes, it is argued, can be used as a reflective tool that can help to facilitate learning and improve comprehension and understanding.  When it comes to digital forensics, notes are an essential tool to help record how, for example, how evidence was secured (the use of contemporaneous notes, as it is known, features quite extensively within the Open University M889 module).  Michelle also referenced something called Pendley's lego exercise which I had never heard of before.  This led to a discussion about the extent to which notes, within a real forensic environment, are used.

Another interesting aspect of Michelle's presentation was that she covered a significant number of different pedagogic approaches in what was a very short time: experiential, reflective, inquiry based, problem based, critical exploration, constructivist, action, and so on...  I also was introduced to a new term: 'nintendo forensics'.  Whilst the forensic analysis of gaming consoles is likely to be a subject in its own right, the term refers to tools where buttons are pressed and results are gained with relative ease.

Xiaohua Feng, from Bedfordshire University gave a talk entitled 'Incident response teaching strategy'.  She presented what is known as the DRRP security model.  DRRP is an abbreviation for Detect, Respond, Report and Prevent.  Frameworks and models have, of course, the ability to represent the essence of useful ideas which might be able to either affect practice or develop further understandings.  We were also introduced to something called the BERR 2008 report.  Aspects of Xiaohua's presentation reminded me of some of the themes from a postgraduate information security management module, M886, which covers an international standard that offers structured guidance about how to protect information systems.  Security and forensics, I sense, are very easily spoken in the same breath.

Craig Thurlby and Caroline Langensiepen from Nottingham Trent University presented a very compelling way to teach one of the most fundamental aspects of computing forensics, which is, how to effectively seize digital evidence.  The essence of their presentation lies in its title: 'use of a crime scene house to enhance learning'.  Nottingham Trent University own a former student house which has been kitted out with a set of hidden video cameras.  These cameras record how students gather evidence from a 'crime scene'.  We were treated to a small number of clips where students were shown to be rummaging through arm chairs (on multiple occasions) looking for mobile devices and puzzling over whether a couple of laptops were turned on.  I can clearly see how the use of video material can be used to facilitate reflection and learning: one's own mistakes can be laid bare for all to see!

The discussions that followed were really interesting.  I never knew, for example, that some universities have their own mock law courts (but on further reflection, perhaps I ought to be surprised if they didn't!)  This exposed some of the difficulties that many subjects face, namely, the issue of interdisciplinary and how to get different people from different subjects working together, such as Computing and Law, for instance, to share resources.

Forensics projects

What makes a computer forensics project?  This was the question that Diane Gan and David Chadwick from the University of Greenwich asked.  Diana and David described a number of postgrad projects.  These included a flash memory tool to extract data from volatile memory (a utility that was written in Perl), a prototype for investigating GPS devices (which nicely links back to Harjinder 's earlier presentation on geo-positional forensics), a system that helps students to understand the ACPO guidelines (Wikipedia), and an analysis of attacks on a honeypot.  Regarding the honeypot project, my understanding is that honeypots are computers that can be used to uncover the ways in which hackers may attack systems.  Forensic methods are necessary to determine what has been done to them and potentially uncover how attacks may have been perpetrated.

It was interesting to see that some of these project required students to write software as opposed to just performing an analysis of digital media, such as hard disk drives.  This connected to the broader debate of whether or not forensic analysts need to be able to write software, and the extent to which the understanding of software development might help investigators in their roles.

After Diana and David's presentation, a discussion emerged that centred on the question of 'what makes a good project?' and whether different institutions might be able to share project ideas.  This reminded me of a debate in an earlier HEA workshop where participants were discussing the possibility of sharing forensic images (which can be quite time consuming to create).

Keeping on the theme of projects, Maurice Calvert from Leeds Metropolitan University gave a presentation entitled 'Final year projects for computer forensics students'.  Maurice outlined four different types of products: the forensic analysis of storage media, examination of media to determine what artefacts different types of software leave behind (which is an important skill to understand how things work), investigate security issues and considering incident response plans, and finally, design some kind of system that is relevant to computer forensics (which might mean implementing a system of some kind).

Maurice highlighted a number of different issues that (broadly) relate to the teaching of digital forensics.  These were (according to my notes): is the traditional computing project suitable (for forensics students), and to what extent might we need different project guidelines?  Also, should digital forensics be separate from computing (or computer science)?  The issue of employability was also raised (but more of this later).

Legal Issues

The law is one of those subjects that is fundamentally important to digital forensics.  It is so important that some of the necessary nitty gritty technical issues are almost secondary.  There are two points that were clearly underlined from this workshop.  Firstly, if you don't capture evidence in a way that is appropriate and in line with good practice, your evidence may be inadmissible in court.  Secondly, digital investigators need to be aware of legal issues since the actions that they take during an investigation may potentially open themselves up to prosecution.

Rita Esen, from the University of Northumbria, gave a very clear presentation about the importance of different types of legislation.  Rita outlined the different laws that that digital investigators need to be aware of, such as the fraud act, data protection act, computer misuse act, sexual offenses act, police and justice act, human rights act and the regulation of investigatory powers act (I'm sure there were others too!)  Rita also told us about a very new development, which was the UK government's ratification of the cybercrime convention (wikipedia).

Other perspectives

Richard Overill, from King's College London introduced us to a term known as the CSI effect (wikipedia), which is about how high profile TV shows influence broader public perception of forensic science.  In his presentation, which is entitled, 'the inverse CSI effect in digital forensics' Richard considers whether 'the effect' might change the behaviour of cyber criminals.  Richard's talk reminds me of the term 'anti-forensics' that I discovered whilst studying M889.

One of the last presentations of the day was by Ali Al-Sherbaz from Northampton University.    Ali directed us to an interesting web page which is entitled, The Evolution of Privacy on Facebook which has a really nice graphic.  (Digital privacy is one of those issues that is addressed on an Open University module called TU100, My Digital Life). Ali also introduced us to a pedagogic tool called Dale's cone of experience.

Forensics and Employability

Alistair Irons gave the final presentation of the day on the topic of forensics and employability.  Employability was one of those workshop themes that featured almost continuously throughout the day; it is something that is certainly on everyone's minds.  One thing was clearly apparent: digital forensics is a very popular subject amongst students, but there are not enough vacancies in the industry for the number of graduates that the university sector is providing.

There was, therefore, a really important question that was asked, which was: do digital (or computer) forensics students end up in a position where they can do other jobs?  There seems to be a consensus that this certainly seems to be the case.

I remember having a chat with a psychology lecturer a number of years ago.  He was ruminating on a very similar question, i.e. how many of his students ended up being employed as professional psychologists.  There is a difference between doing something as a career, and choosing a subject which gives you general skills that can be used in other areas.  Psychology, it was argued is a fabulous subject since it enables students to gain a firm understanding of scientific method, learn how to think critically about evidence, gain skills dealing with statistics and enables students to hone their writing skills.

Similar things can be said about digital forensics: it enables students to gain a detailed technical understanding of computing devices, allows students to begin to grapple (and understand) the intricacies of legal frameworks,  appreciate how to solve problems and assess (digital) evidence, and learn how to communicate their findings in a clear and effective way.

All these important benefits of a forensics education relate to a very important issue: the difference between education and training, and the extent to which a university level education should equip students with the precise needs of industry.  This issue is particularly important since the needs of the digital forensics industry are continually evolving due to the relentless march of technology.  Industry requires well trained people who can do particular jobs, whereas universities provide fundamentals that enable learners to become quickly and effectively trained in particular roles.  Education can facilitate training, but there is, of course, frequent cross over between one and the other, and debates about what universities should be doing and what industry expects will run and run.

Connections with other workshops

Throughout the day I could see clear connections to a number of other HEA workshops.  One of the most obvious one was with the recent BotShop that was held in Derby.  There was a connection in the sense that some robotic systems are embedded systems.  Devices such as smart phones and Satellite Navigation Systems are embedded devices.  You need similar skills and tools to both extract data from (and to debug) embedded systems.

Another connection that I could make (apart from the recent distance education workshop that was held within the OU), was to the e-learning workshop that was held in the University of Greenwich.  During the Greenwich workshop, there was also a reference to the use of peer assessment .  Technology can has the potential to enable learners to comment (and learn from) the work of others. 


One of the most interesting comment from the day was along the lines of, 'seeing that video of the crime scene house has got me thinking about what I might be able to do it my own class... obviously I don't have a house, but perhaps I might be able to do something similar in the rooms that I could use'.  This comment clearly shows the benefits of getting people together to share ideas and practice experience.

Rita's presentation, to me, emphasised the fact that digital forensics is very much an interdisciplinary subject.  Not only is law is fundamentally important, but so are domains such as software development and embedded systems.   When it comes to social networking systems, social science disciplines have the potential to play a role too.

One of the biggest themes of the day was, of course, employability.  Although I am very much an outsider to the world of digital forensics (although I do remain a curious computer scientist), I certainly have the sense that it's a subject that equips students with a broad range of skills.  Debates about the extent to which software development should feature are likely to continue, along with the extent to which university level modules should explicitly support the needs of industry (particularly when it comes to commercial tools such as EnCase, FTK and mobile phone tools).

All in all, an expertly organised, fun and interesting event that had a real buzz about it. It was great to recognise a number of familiar faces and also to bump into my former Open University forensics tutor.  My interest in digital forensics remains as strong as ever.

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Higher Education Academy BotShop Workshop

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 3 Mar 2014, 18:46

I think I must have been about 10 years of age when I first heard about the magical device that was the Logo turtle (and the mysterious notion of turtle geometry).  Fast forward two decades and about ten years ago I managed to find a copy of Papert's book Mindstorms in a second hand bookshop in Brighton (a part of me things that it must have been owned by someone who studied cognitive science at the nearby University of Sussex).  I had these two thoughts in mind whilst I was travelling to the University of Derby on the 28 November to attend the HEA BotShop.

This is a quick summary of my own views of the day along with my own take on some of the different themes that emerged.  In fact, there was quite a bit of commonality between this event and the HEA Open University event that was held a week earlier, but more of that later.  In case you're interested, Derby produced a press release for this event which highlights some of the areas of interest, which include neural networks, embedded systems and artificial intelligence.  We were told that this was pounced upon by the local press, proof that mention of robots has a constant and wide appeal.

First Sessions

The day was introduced by Clive Rosen and Richard Hill, subject head for Computing and Mathematics at the University of Derby, jointly welcomed everyone to the workshop.  The first presentation of the day was by Scott Turner from the University of Northampton who gave a presentation entitled Neurones and Robots.  Scott uses the Lego Mindstorms hardware to introduce some of the fundamental concepts of neural networks, such as how learning takes place by the changing of some of the numerical values that are used within a network.  Some of the applications of these robots include following lines, getting robots to follow each other and getting robots to avoid obstacles; seemingly simple actions which enable underlying principles to be both studied and demonstrated.

One of the questions to Scott was, 'what does using a robot add?'  The answer was simple: it can add enjoyment and engagement.  Although similar principles could be studied through the application of other tools, such as Excel spreadsheets, simple robots add a degree of immediacy and physicality that other approaches cannot.  These discussions made me consider whether there is a pedagogic dimension (in terms of educational tools) that has emulation on one end and physical devices on the other, and the extent to which we may wish to consider a balance between the two.

Scott's presentation was followed by Martin Colley from the University of Essex whose presentation was entitled Embedded Systems Teaching.  Having been a postgraduate student at Essex I found Martin's presentation especially interesting.  Although I didn't have direct exposure to the robotics labs during my time at Essex I remember that some of my peers made good use of the research and teaching facilities that the University provided.

Martin gave a quick history of robotics and embedded systems at Essex where he talked about the design and evolution of different devices which culminated in the development of a kit.  The design of the kits had changed along with the development of processors.  Early kits (and robots) made use of the Motorola 68k processor (famed for its use in the original Apple Mac) whereas the current generation of kits made use or ARM processors which are, of course, commonplace with mobile phones and other embedded devices.

One aspect of Martin's kits that I really liked was the range of different input and output devices.  You could write code to drive a 160x128 colour display, you could hook up a board that had light and ultrasound sensors, or you could even connect a memory card reader and a digital to analogue converter to enable students to write their own MP3 player.  Martin also touched upon how the hardware might be used to explore some of the challenges of programming, which includes the use of C and C++, how to work with a real-time clock, the use of interrupts and direct memory access buffers.   Debugging was also touched upon, which, in my opinion is a really important topic when 'students get down to the muddy later between the hardware and software'.  Plus, all these interesting peripherals are so much fun than simply having an embedded system to turn an LED on or off.

All in all, a really interesting presentation which gave way to a discussion about the broader challenge of teaching programming.  One comment that it isn't programming per se that is the main problem.  Instead, it is development the skills of algorithmic thinking, or knowing how to solve problems that represents the biggest challenge.

Using bots to teach programming

The third presentation of the day was by Mark Anderson and Collette Gavan from Edge Hill University who described how the broad idea of robotics has been used to teach fundamentals of programming and how some students have learnt to build their own devices.  Mark and Collette had a surprise in store.  Rather than having to do most of the talking themselves they brought along a number of students who shared with us their own experiences.  This was a great approach; personal accounts of experience and challenges are always useful to hear.

Mark and Collette's slot covered a broad range of technology in what was a short period of time.  They began with describing how they made use of Lego Mindstorms kits (using the NXT brick) with Java, used in the first year of study.  During the second year students move onto Arduino kits, where student negotiate the terms of their own projects.  I seem to remember hearing that students are at liberty to create their own input controllers, which might be used in collaboration with an embedded arcade game, for instance.  There was reference to a device called the Gameduino which allows the Arduino controller to be connected up to a video display.  Not only can I see this as being fun, I can also see this as being pretty challenging too!

Towards the end of the session there was a question and answer and answer session where another introductory to programming tool called Alice was mentioned.  There were two overriding themes that came from this session.  The first was that learning to program (whether it is an embedded device or a computer) isn't easy.   The second is that it's possible to make that learning fun whilst developing essential non-technical skills such as team working.


One of the really interesting things about robotics is that a broad array of disciplines can come into play.  One of the most important of these is engineering, particularly electronic and mechanical engineering.  I guess there's a 'hard side' and a 'soft side' to robotics.  By 'hard side' I mean using the concept of robots to teach about the processes inherent in their design, construction and operation.  The 'soft side', on the other hand, is where robots can be used to teach problem solving skills and introduce the fundamentals of what is meant by programming.  Tony Wilcox from Birmingham City University, who is certainly on the 'hard side' of this continuum, gave a fabulous presentation which certainly gave us software engineers (and I'm talking about myself here!) a lot to think about.

A micromouse is a small buggy (or autonomous robot) that can explore a controlled maze (in terms of its dimensions) and figure out how to get to its centre.  It was interesting to hear that there is such a thing as a micromouse competition (I had heard of robot football, but not mice competitions before!)  Different teams produce different mice, which then compete in a maze finding challenge.  Tony uses his 'mice' to expose a number of different subjects to students.

Thinking about the problem for a moment we begin to see a number of different problems that we need to address, such as, how do we control the wheels and detect how far the mouse has travelled?  What sensors might be used to allow the mouse to discover the junctions in a maze?  What approaches might we used to physically design elements of the mouse?  How might we devise a maze solving algorithm?  Tony mentioned a number of subject areas that can help to solve these problems: closed loop process control (for the control of the wheels) and mechanical engineering, 3D computer aided design, power electronics, and PIC programming (which is done using C).  I'm sure there are others!

It was interesting to hear Tony say something about programming libraries.  Students are introduced to libraries in the in the second year of his teaching.  Whilst libraries can help you to do cool stuff, you need to properly understand the fundamentals (such as bit shuffling and manipulation) to use them properly.  To best teach the fundamentals, you ideally need to do cool stuff!

One thing that I took away with me was that robot control and maze solving software can exist within 32K.  I was reminded that even though there is a lot of commonality between programming on embedded devices and programming applications for a PC they can be almost different disciplines.


The micromouse robots operate within a controlled physical environment.  Another way to make a controlled environment is to make one using software.  The advantages of using software is that you can control everything.  You can, of course, define your own laws of physics and control time in any ways that you want.  In a way, this makes things both easier and difficult for us software engineers: we've got the flexibility, but we've got to figure out the boundaries of the environment in which we work all the time.

Dave Voorhis from the University of Derby talked about his work on 'emergent critters'.  By critters, Dave means simple 'virtual animals' which hunt around in an environment for food, bumping into others, whilst trying to get to an exit.  There are some parallels with the earlier talks on robotics, since each critter has its own set of inputs and outputs.  Students can write their own critters which can interact with others.  There is parallel to core wars, a historic idea where programmers write programs which fight against each other.

Dave said that some students have written critters which 'hack' the environment, causing the critter world to exhibit unusual behaviour.  Just as with the real world, working against some of the existing laws (and I'm talking those that are socially constructed rather than the other immutable variety) runs the risk of causing unintended consequences!

Final presentations

There were two presentations in the final session of the day.  The first was by Steve Joiner from Coventry University about how robotics can be used to help teach mathematics to key stage 3 and 4.   Steve is a maths graduate and is a part of the Centre of Excellence in Mathematics and Statistics Support (SIGMA), in collaboration with Loughborough University.  Steve showed us a number of videos where students had built robots out of the Lego Mindstorms NXT kit.  Projects included navigation through sensors, launching projectiles (albeit small ones!) and predicting their behaviour, and applications of graph theory.  Steve also demonstrated a self-balancing Lego robot (basically, a bit like a mini-segway) that made use of ultrasonic sensors.  Steve made the good point that through the use and application of kits and projects, students can begin to see the reason behind why particular subjects within mathematics are useful.

The final presentation was an impromptu one by Jon Rosewell, from the C&S department at the Open University.  Jon has been heavily involved with a short module called T184 Robotics and the meaning of life which has just come to the end of its life.  Like so many of the earlier presentations, this module makes use of Lego Mindstorms to introduce the concept of programming to students.  Instead of using the native Lego software, the Open University developed its own programming environment (for the earlier Lego Mindstorms blocks) which is arguably easier to work with.  Students are not given their own robotics kit, but may use their own if they have one available.  If they don't have access to a kit, students can make use of a robotics simulator, which is a part of the same software package.

Towards the end of the day there was some talk about a new Open University undergraduate module called TU100 My Digital Life.  This module makes use of a 'home experiment kit' which contains an Arduino processor, which was mentioned by Mark Anderson earlier in the day.  Whilst the TU100 senseboard, as it is called, cannot directly become a robot, it does contains some of the necessary features that enable students to understand some of the important ideas underpinning robotics, such as different types of input sensors, and output peripherals such as motors.


At the end of the day there was sufficient time to have an open discussion about some of the themes that had emerged.  Clive Rosen kicked off the discussions by saying that robots can help teaching become engaging.  I completely agree!  One of the difficulties of teaching subjects such as mathematics and computing is that it can often take a lot of work to get satisfying and tangible results.  Using robots, in their various forms, allow learners to more readily become engaged with the subject that they are exploring.  In my own eyes there are two key things that need to be addressed in parallel: what subjects the application of robots can help to explore, and secondly, how to best make use of them to deliver the most effective pedagogic experience.

These ruminations connect to a plenary discussion which related to the teaching of computing and ICT at school.  There was a consensus that computing and ICT education needs to go so much further than simply teaching how students to make use of Microsoft Office, for instance.   We were all directed to a project called Computing at School and a relatively new education (and hardware) project called RaspberryPi was mentioned.  I'm personally looking forwards to how this project develops (and hopefully being able to mess around with one of these devices!)

There was some debate about individual institutions 'doing their own thing', in terms of building their own teaching hardware, raising the question of whether it might be possible to collaborate further (and the extent to which the higher education hardware might potentially be useful in the school environment).  It was concluded that it isn't just a matter of technology it may be more of a matter of education policy.

In the same vein, it was hypothesised that perhaps the embedded processors within students' mobile telephones might (potentially) be used to explore robotics, perhaps by plugging in a phone to 'extension kit'.  Another point was that little was discussed about fixed or industrial robots, which is almost a discipline in its own right, having its own tools, languages and technologies.  This is a further example of how robotics can connect to other subjects such as manufacturing.

Thinking back to the event, there are a number of other themes that come to mind.  Some of these include the role of simulation (and how this relates to physical hardware), the extent to which we either buy or build our hardware (which might depend on our pedagogic objectives), and the types of projects that we choose.

Through the use of robots students may more directly appreciate how software can change the world.  Robotics is a subject that is thoroughly interdisciplinary.  I've heard artificial intelligence (AI) described as applied philosophy.  Not only can robotics be used to help to study AI, it also has the potential to expose learners to a range of different disciplines, such as mathematics, electronics, physics, engineering and the fundamentals of computing.

Learning how to program a robot is not just about programming.  Instead, it is more about developing general problem solving skills, developing creativity and becoming more aware at how to conduct effective research.

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Distance Learning for Computing and ICT Workshop

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 3 Mar 2014, 18:47

A Higher Education Academy sponsored distance learning workshop for computing and ICT was held at the Open University on Thursday 20 October 2011.  The workshop addressed a number of different themes.  These included internationalisation and the delivery of modules to different countries, professionalization and industry, models of distance learning, the use of technology and its accessibility.

The day was divided up into a number of different sessions, and I'll do my best to summarise them.  I feel that blogging this event is going to be a little bit different from the previous times I have blogged HEA workshops since this time I was less of an observer and more of a participant.  This said, I'll do my best!

Introduction and keynote

The event was introduced by Professor Hugh Robinson, head of the department of Computing at the Open University.  Hugh briefly spoke about the history of the university and mentioned that Open means that students who enrol to courses do not necessarily have to have any qualifications.  This connected to one of the university's themes: to be open in terms of people, places and ideas.  Distance education enables education to be open in all these respects but it is apparent that due to the changes in the higher education sector, all institutions are to face challenges in the future.

Hugh's opening presentation gave way to Mike Richards keynote presentation about a new computing module entitled TU100, My Digital Life.  Mike described some of the main topic areas of this new module which will for a common entry point to a number of degrees.  This module addresses themes that are rather different to those that used to be on the computing curriculum, mostly due to the changes in technology and what is meant by a 'computer'.

Mike mentioned important subjects such as privacy and security, the notion of ubiquitous computing and what is meant by 'free', connecting to subject of open source software systems.  Mike went on to say that the TU100 module contains some hardware that might once have been known as a 'home experiment kit'.

In the case of TU100 this is in the form of a programmable microcontroller board which can be configured in a way to work with different types of measurements and share the results with other people over the internet.  Furthermore, the microcontroller (and connected software) can be developed using a visual programming language called Sense, which is a version of Scratch, a popular introductory programming environment developed by MIT.

Mike's presentation emphasised that distance education need not only begin and end with a virtual learning environment.  A distance education module can contain a rich set of resources such as video materials and physical equipment that can be used to facilitate both understanding and debate.  Mike emphasised the point that many issues that connect to the increasingly broad discipline of computing (broad because of its impact on so many other areas of human activity) is that some debates do not have right or wrong answers.

One thing is certain: technology has changed so many different aspects of our lives and will continue to do so in ways that we may not be able to expect.  It's my understanding that one of the aims of TU100 is to highlight and uncover different debates and help students to navigate them.  What was very clear is that computing education is so much more than just technology and getting it to do cool stuff.  It's essential to understand and to consider how technology affects so many different aspects of our lives.

Morning session

The first presentation in the morning session was by Quan Dang from London Metropolitan University.  Quan's presentation was entitled, 'blending virtual support into traditional module delivery to enhance student learning'.  Quan emphasised how synchronous tools, such as on-line text chat could be used to create virtual 'drop in' sessions outside of core teaching hours to enable students to gain regarding subjects such as computer programming.  Quan's presentation was very though provoking since it made me ask myself the question, 'what different tools and practices might we potentially adopt (at a distance) to help student get to grips with difficult issues such as debugging'.  Debugging is something (in my humble opinion) that you can best learn by seeing how different people consume elements of the programming tools that are available through development environments.  Getting a feeling of the different strategies that can be applied is something that can only be gained through experience, and technology certainly has the potential to facilitate this.

The following presentation, by Amanda Banks from the University of Manchester, was entitled 'advanced professional education in computer science'.  Amanda spoke at some length about how a tool such as MediaWiki could be used to enable students to create useful materials that could be used with others.  This presentation was also thought provoking: Wiki's can certainly be used within on-line modules to enable to student to generate materials for their own study, but Amanda's presentation made me consider the possibility that wiki-hosted material can be used between different module presentations as a way to facilitate debates about different ideas.

The final presentation was by Philip Scown, from Manchester Metropolitan University Business School.  Philip's thought provoking presentation was entitled, 'the unseen university: full-flexible degrees enabled by technology'. Philip argued that technology can potentially allow different models of studying and learning, such as modules which don't have start dates, for instance.  I can't do justice to Philip's talk within this space, so I do encourage you to have a look on the HEA website where I understand that his presentation slides are hosted.

First afternoon session

The afternoon session was started by Mark Ratcliffe, discipline lead for computing at the Higher Education Academy.  Mark outlined the role of the HEA and then went on to describe funding opportunities and the role of a HEA academic associates.  Mark then directed us to the HEA website for more information.

Distance education is one of those terms that can mean different things to different people, and this difference was, in part, highlighted by Mariana Lilley's first presentation of the afternoon that had the title, 'online, tutored e-learning and blended: three modalities for the delivery of distance learning programmes in computer science'.  Mariana's presentation also represented a form of case study of a programme that is presented internationally by the University of Hertfordshire.  It was interesting to hear about the application of different tools, such as Elluminate (now Blackboard Collaborate), QuestionMark Perception and VitalSource Bookshelf.  This suggested to me the point that distance learning is now facilitated by a mix of different tools and made me question whether we have (collectively) identified best (or most effective) mix.  Institutions have to necessarily explore technology in combination with pedagogic practice, and sharing case studies is certainly one way to understand something about what is successful.

Mariana's presentation was nicely complemented by Paul Sant's (in collaboration with his colleague Malcolm Sant) who was from the University of Bedfordshire.  Paul's presentation was entitled, 'distance learning in higher education - an international case study'.  Paul identified a number of challenges which included, 'how can we ensure that distance students remain engaged? How can we offer support in a way that meets their schedule and requirements?', and 'How can we ensure that the work performed by students meets their potential?'  Paul mentioned tools such as the Blackboard VLE and synchronous tools by Horizon Wimba.  Paul's presentation also helped to expose the subject of partnerships with international institutions.

Second afternoon session

The final session of the day was broadly intended to focus upon the needs of the student from two different perspectives.  Steve Green from the Accessibility Research Centre, Teeside University kicked off this session by describing 'studying accessibility and adaptive technologies using blended learning and widgets'.  Accessibility is an important subject since it enables students to make use of learning resources irrespective of how or where they may be studying (both in terms of their physical and technical environment), but also widens the way in which resources may be consumed, taking into account learners with additional requirements.  Steve described how students create accessible widgets and their evaluation.

Steve's talk reminded me of a question that I was asked not so long ago, which is, given that distance legislation is now an international endeavour and the development of accessibility is supported by equality legislation, where do the boundaries lie in terms of offering support to students?  The answer may depend on the issue of how partnerships are developed and function.

The final presentation of the day, entitled 'finding a foundation for flexibility: learner centred design' was by Andrew Pyper from the University of Hertfordshire.  The underlying theme is that institutions need to understand the needs of their learners to best support them.  Tools such as learner centred design, which is known to the interaction design and human-computer interaction communities, have the potential to create rich pictures which then potential guide the development of both learning experiences and technology alike.


Towards the end of the day there was a bit of time to hold an open discussion about some of the different themes that the presentations had exposed.  Many thanks to Amanda, Philip and Andrew for taking part.  Some of the themes that came to my mind were the issues of  tools and technology, internationalisation, industry and employability, and student skills.  Points included that we need to be careful about our assumptions of the technology that students might have.  Another important point is that one way to differentiate between different institutions might be in terms of the technologies that they use (and also how they use it).

We were also reminded about something called the Stanford Machine Learning course, which provoked some debate about 'free' (which relates back to Mike Richard's earlier TU100 presentation), and we were all directed towards the QAA Distance Learning precepts (many thanks to Richard Howley for bringing this to our attention).


All in all, it was a fun day!  There were loads of questions asked following each of the sessions and much opportunity for talk and debate in between.  I have to confess I was very relieved when the tea, coffees and sandwiches arrived on time, so thanks are extended to the Open University catering group.

It's tough, for me, to say what the highlight of the day was due to the number of very interesting thought provoking presentations.  I certainly feel that there is always an opportunity to learn lessons from each other; it is clearly apparent that there are many different ways to approach distance education.  Whilst there are many differences between institutions, similar issues are often grappled with, such as how to best make use of technology and ensure that students are offered the best possible level of support.

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TLAD (Teaching, Learning and Assessment of Databases)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 15 Nov 2011, 11:36


I always enjoy visiting Manchester.  Having spent many years there (both as an undergraduate and a postgraduate) visiting Manchester almost feels as if I'm coming home.  Plus, travelling directly to the computer science building (as a computer scientist) feels as if I'm returning to a 'spiritual home'!

The reason for my most recent visit was to attend the 9th TLAD workshop, which was all about the teaching, learning and assessment of databases.  Below is a summary of the event.  I hope it is useful for someone.

Paper Session 1 - Data Mining

The first paper that was presented during the day was entitled 'Teaching Oracle Data Miner using Virtual Machines', by Qicheng Yu and Preeti Patel, both from London Metropolitan University, and expertly presented by Preeti.

Preeti made the point that employers are demanding up to date practical and technical skills.  The issue of employability was, of course, an issue that was discussed within an earlier HEA event entitled Enhancing the Employability of Computing Students.  To address the important issue of technical skills, educators are necessarily faced with the challenge of how to enable learners to make use of industrial tools and products.  One of the solutions (in the area of database and data mining education) was to make use of virtual machine technology, such as the Microsoft Virtual PC, Oracle Virtualbox and a product called VMWare Player. 

Some of the challenges that have to be addressed are technical i.e. how to share drives through a host computer, and financial or legal challenges, such as how to make sure that any solutions are correctly licenced.  Preeti pointed us to a product known as WEKA, which I had never heard of, but it seemed that many of the audience had!

The second paper of the morning was by Hongbo Du from the University of Buckingham.  His paper entitled, 'Data mining project: a critical element in teaching learning and assessment of a data mining module' won the 'best paper' prize of the workshop.  Hongbo mentioned what seemed to be an important paper in the area, namely, something called the CRISP-DM standard (wikipedia), which enable students to gain an understanding of the data mining process.  Hongbo also presented a general framework for assessment (within his paper) which drew upon this methodology before presenting three different case studies.

The key points that I took away from his presentation was: group work is important (but very often students don't want to do this since they might want to own their own scores completely), and that the domain of application is very important too, and represents a substantial area of complexity that students need to necessarily grapple with.

The final presentation of the first session, entitled, 'Making data warehousing accessible' was by Tony Valsamidis from the University of Greenwich.  Tony began by presenting some of the problems, such as the availability of large data sets (an issue that I shall return to later), unwieldy query languages and unfamiliar domain and data models. 

Tony spoke of a number of different technologies and techniques, some I had used in anger (such as Visual Basic for Applications), others I had heard of but had forgotten the meaning of (such as OLAP).  An important issue that was raised was that of data sanitization: when you move data between different systems, things might not be directly compatible, so database practitioners might have to design some magic data transformations.

Paper Session 2 - Database and the Cloud

The fourth presentation was rather different.  Mark Dorling from Langley Grammar School described his teaching practice and association with a project called Digital School House

Mark trained as a primary school teacher but he is now working within the secondary sector.  He described how he helps students to understand the key concepts of data, information and logical operators, sometimes applying kinaesthetic learning techniques (i.e. movement).  Mark also described the use of something called independent learning videos (allowing students to remember how to use elements of applications).  This reminded me of the industrial term of 'on-demand e-learning', where learners can call up screen casts or bite sized presentations about how to carry out or complete different tasks.

Mark also showed how secondary school pupils could make use of cloud application, such as Google Spreadsheet, to enable an entire class to enter data (and for the data to magically appear on an interactive whiteboard).  Mark's presentation (and paper) got me thinking about how I might potentially adopt some of the pedagogic techniques that he described into my own teaching practices.

Mark's description of how he makes use of Google Spreadsheet lead us directly to Clare Stanier's presentation which was entitled, 'Teaching Database for the Cloud'.  One of the things that I really liked about Clare's presentation was that she addressed a question I was already mulling over, namely, 'how is it possible to define cloud databases?'  She gave an answer that related to some NIST definitions (pdf). 

A cloud database can be considered in terms of Infrastructure as a Service, Platform as a Service and Software as a Service (such as Google Spreadsheet).  Depending on their task, developers will interface with different products (and different levels of abstraction).  Clare pointed us to interesting sounding products such as Microsoft Azure and Oracle on Demand, neither of which I had ever heard of before. 

This is obviously a rapidly changing field!  If you require any further references to either cloud related papers (or products), Clare might be able to share a useful URL.

Paper Session 3 - Embedding Technology

Jackie Campbellfrom the University of Leeds began the final session by presenting a paper entitled, 'Inquiry based learning database oriented applications for computing and computing forensic students'.  Two activities or tools were described.  The first was an SQL Quiz application, where students were challenged to compose correct SQL statements.  The second was more of a software maintenance task, where students were asked to investigate and carry out a number of fixes to an existing application developed using something called Oracle Apex.

I personally consider maintenance activities to be really valuable for a number of reasons.  Firstly, maintenance is a substantial on-going challenge.  Database designs are likely to be particularly affected if software applications or businesses merge.  Businesses, of course, continually change and evolve (as must the software systems that they support).  Understanding how (and where) to change or correct database queries may require students to navigate their way through unfamiliar systems.  This, in itself, is likely to be an intellectually challenging task.

The presentation by Craig McCreath (and supported by his supervisor Petra Leimich) reminded me of an earlier presentation about the JISC WILD project that was held at the HEA mobile event a number of weeks ago.  The underlying ideas were very similar: using mobile devices to elicit responses from students to (attempt) to assess their understanding of materials.  Craig did a fabulous job at presenting, and I had a sense that the application he had developed for his final year project was easy to use.

The final presentation was, 'Using Video to Provide Richer Feedback to Database Assessment' by Howard Gould, Leeds Metropolitan University. Howard addresses the important questions of: 'what kind of feedback would most effectively benefit our students?, how do we make the best use of our time to provide this feedback?, and, how might we practically provide video feedback?'

Howard's paper was, in essence, a practice paper; I think this type of paper can be really valuable.  One of the challenges that lecturers face is to offer effective and useful feedback on entity relationship diagrams, showing students alternative database designs.  I sense that providing feedback on any kind of non-written notation is something that is intrinsically very difficult (and can include notational systems such as mathematics and music).  Howard solves the problem by recording screen captures after having spent some time initially looking at a student submission.  Practical challenges include file sizes (the videos themselves can be very big), and on-screen flicker (since an inexpensive digital camera is used as opposed to an expensive licence for Camtasia).


After all the paper sessions a discussion was initiated by Alistair Monger (Southampton Solent), David Nelson (University of Sunderland) and Charles Boisuert (Sheffield Hallam).

Alistair pointed us towards a number of useful assessment resources, beginning by mentioning that the QAA code of practice requires formative assessment.  He also mentioned REAP, an abbreviation for Reenginerring Assessment Practices in Higher Education, followed by TESTA, Transforming the Experience of Students through Assessment (JISC).  Alistair mentioned the importance of having an audit trail of feedback, and mentioned a system called GradeMark.

David raised the perennial issue of collusion and plagiarism and made the point that assessment should always be at such a level that it is difficult for students to quickly 'find answers'.  One solution might be to have time constrained assessments, perhaps in a computer lab (something that I remember from my days as a computing undergraduate), and the production of a portfolio which shows evidence of understanding.

Charles pointed us towards the idea of Nifty assessments.  Charles mentioned the point that markers mark in different ways and that there will be variability.  Another point was how to help those students who always seem to struggle with the subject.

The ensuing discussion took us into issues such as the importance of good feedback (and explaining the importance of why certain subjects are assessed), differences between both individual students and cohorts, and a reference to something called the Database Commons Initiative.


Although I'm not directly involved with the teaching of databases and database technologies I found this to be a very interesting event for a number of different reasons.  The first is the difference in the variety of database related topics that are now taught; things are rather different from my undergraduate days when database education began (and ended) with SQL syntax and learning about different types of joins.  The domain is now a lot richer than it ever was. 

There are now different levels of 'cloud' databases, small embedded databases, huge data warehouses, object-oriented databases and XML databases.  Other themes that might have been perhaps discussed are the connections between database teaching and software design, alerting students to issues such as making database abstraction layers and stored procedures (but perhaps these issues have been explored in earlier workshops).

The second reason also relates to this issue of richness.  Software engineers and system designers are now faced with a myriad of different choices in terms of architectures (how to set up large systems) as well as products, both commercial and open source.  Understanding what different products do and how they might support business objectives are issues that software professionals always need to bear in mind.  These 'industrially connected' points relate to the issue of certification.  The teaching and learning of databases is, perhaps, now an endeavour that is shared between academia and industry.  Perhaps the role of higher education teaching and learning in this area is to provide a useful context to help students to get to grips the more practical dimension of professional certifications.

Another thought that came to mind was I felt that there was a degree of useful cross over between other HEA events, particularly the joint employability and computing forensics event that I attended.  During the forensics part of this day I remember a fair amount of discussion about the sharing of 'data sets' which could be used to enable students to hone their computing forensic skills.  It struck me that database technology educators are faced with a similar challenge.

A final comment is I personally consider that the subject of databases is a pretty fundamental area of computing education.  I have to mention, of course, the Open University's own database course, M359 Relational databases: theory and practice.

Database education is an area is necessarily rich: students will be exposed to different languages, problem domains and wider system architectures and designs as soon as they set to work on 'real world' applications.  Databases represent a domain of software technology that ultimately helps 'to get jobs done'.  Where would we be without them?

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eTeaching and Learning workshop

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 1 Feb 2015, 13:37

I attended a HEA eTeaching and Learning workshop at the University of Greenwich on 1st June 2011.  It is always a pleasure visiting the Greenwich University campus; it is probably (in my humble opinion) the most dramatic of all university campuses in London - certainly the only one that is situated within a World Heritage site.

My challenge was to find the King William building (if I remember correctly), which turned out to be a Wren designed neo-classical building that sat adjacent to one of the main roads.  Looking towards the river, all visitors were treated to a spectacular view of the Canary Wharf district.  Visitors were also treated to notes emanating from a nearby music school. 

I first went to the eTeaching and Learning workshop back in 2008 where I presented some preliminary work about an accessibility project I was working on.  This time I was attending as an interested observer.  It was a packed day, comprising of two keynotes and eight presentations.

Opening Keynote

The opening keynote was given by Deryn Graham (University of Greenwich).  Deryn's main focus was the evaluation of e-delivery (e-delivery was a term that I had not heard of before, so I listened very intently).  The context for her presentation was a postgraduate course on academic practice (which reminded me of a two year Open University course sounds to have a similar objective).  Some of the students took the course through a blended learning approach, whereas others studied entirely from a distance. 

The most significant question that sprung to my mind was: how should one conduct such an evaluation?  What should we measure, and what may constitute success (or difference).  Deryn mentioned a number of useful points, such as Salmond's e-moderating model (and the difficulty that the first stages may present to learners), and also considered wider economic and political factors.  Deryn presented her own framework which could be used to consider the effectiveness of e-delivery (or e-learning).

This first presentation inspired a range of different questions from the participants and made me wonder how Laurillard's conversational framework (see earlier blog post) might be applied to the same challenge of evaluation.  By way of a keynote, Deryn's presentation certainly hit the spot.

General Issues

The first main presentation was by Simon Walker, from the University of Greenwich.  The title of his paper was, 'impact of metacognitive awareness on learning in technology enhanced learning environments'.

I really liked the idea of metacognition (wikipedia) and I can directly relate it back to some computer programming research I used to stidy.  I can remember myself asking different questions whilst writing computer software, from 'I need to find information about these particular aspects...' through to, 'hmm... this isn't working at all, I need to do something totally different for a while'.  The research within cognitive is pretty rich, and it was great to hear that Simon was aware of the work by Flavell, who defines metacognition as, simply, 'knowledge and cognition about cognitive phenomena'.

Andrew spoke about some research that himself and his colleagues carried out using LAMS (learning activity management system), which is a well known learning design tool and accompanying runtime environment.  An exploratory experiment was described: one group were given 'computer selected' tools to use (though LAMS), whereas the other group were permitted a free choice.  Following the presentation of the experiment, the notion of learning styles (and whether or not they exist, and how they might relate to tool choice - such as blogs, wikis or forums) was discussed in some detail.

Andrew Pyper from the University of Hertfordshire gave a rather different presentation.  Andrew teaches human-computer interaction, and briefly showed us a software tool that could be used to support the activity of computer interface evaluation though the application of heuristic evaluations. 

The bit of Andrew's talk that jumped out at me was the idea that instruction of one cohort might help to create materials that are used by another.  I seemed to have made a note that student-generated learning materials might be understood in terms of the teaching intent (or the subject), the context (or situation) in which the materials are generated, their completeness (which might relate to how useful the materials are), and their durability (whether or not they age over time).

The final talk of the general section returned to the issue of evaluation (and connects to other issues of design and delivery).  Peiyuan Pan, from the London Metropolitan University, draws extensively on the work of others, notably Kolb, Bloom, and Fry (who wrote a book entitled 'a handbook for teaching and learning in higher education - one that I am certainly going to look up).  I remember a quote (or a note) that is (roughly) along the lines of, '[the] environment determines what activities and interactions take place', which seems to also have echoes with the conversational framework that I mentioned earlier.

Peiyuan describes a systematic process to course and module planning.  His presentation is available on line and can be found by visiting his presentation website.  There was certainly lots of food for thought here.  Papers that consider either theory or process always have a potential to impact practice.

Technical Issues

The second main section comprised of three papers.  The first was by Mike Brayshaw and Neil Gordon from the University of Hull, who were presenting a paper entitled, 'in place of virtual strife - issues in teaching using collaborative technologies'.  We all know that on-line forums are spaces where confusion can reign and emotions can heighten.  There are also perpetual challenges, such as none participation within on-line activities.  To counter confusion it is necessary to have audit trails and supporting evidence.

During this presentation a couple of different technologies were mentioned (and demoed).   It was really interesting to an the application of Microsoft Sharepoint.  I had heard that it can be used in an educational context, but this was the first ever time I had witnessed a demonstration of a system that could permit groups of users to access different shared areas.  It was also interesting to hear that a system called WebPA was being used in Hull.  WebPA is a peer assessment system which originates from the University of Loughborough.

I had first heard about WebPA at an ALT conference a couple of years ago.  I consider peer assessment as a particularly useful approach since not only might it help to facilitate metacognition (linking back to the earlier presentation), but it may also help to develop professional practice.  Peer assessment is something that happens regularly (and rigorously) within software engineering communities.

The second paper entitled 'Increased question sharing between e-Learning systems' was presented by Bernadette-Marie Byrne on behalf of her student Ralph Attard.  I really liked this presentation since it took me back to my days as a software developer where I was first exposed to the world of IMS e-learning specifications.

Many VLE systems have tools that enable them to deliver multiple choice questions to students (and there are even projects that try to accept free text).  If institutions have a VLE that doesn't offer this functionality there are a number of commercial organisations that are more than willing to offer tools that will plug this gap.  One of the most successful organisations in this field is QuestionMark.

The problem is simple: one set of multiple choice questions cannot easily be transferred to another.  The solution is rather more difficult: each system defines a question (and question type) and correct answer (or answers) in a slightly different ways.  Developers for one tool may use horizontal sliders to choose numbers (whereas others might not support this type of question).  Other tools might enable question designers to code extensive feedback for use in formative tests (I'm going beyond what was covered in the presentation, but you get my point!)

Ralph's project was to take QuestionMark questions (in their own flavour of XML) at one end and output IMS QTI at the other.  The demo looked great, but due to the nature of the problem, not all question types could be converted. Bernadette pointed us to another project that predates Ralph's work, namely the JISC MCQFM (multiple-choice questions, five methods) project, which uses a somewhat different technical approach to solve a similar problem.  Whereas MCQFM is a web-service that uses the nightmare of XSLT (wikipedia) transforms, I believe that Ralph's software parses whole documents into an intermediate structure from where new XML structures can be created.

As a developer (some years ago now), one of the issues that I came up against was that different organisations used different IMS specifications in different ways.  I'm sure things have improved a lot now, but whilst standardisation has likely to have facilitated the development of new products, real interoperability was always a problem (in the world of computerised multiple-choice questions).

The final 'technical' presentation was by John Hamer, from the University of Glasgow.  John returns to the notion of peer assessment by presenting a system called Aropa and discussing 'educational philosophy and case studies' (more information about this tool can be found by visiting the project page).  Aropa is designed to support peer view in large classes.  Two case studies were briefly described: one about professional skills, and the other about web development.

One thing is certain: writing a review (or conducting an assessment of student work) is  most certainly a cognitively demanding task.  It both necessitates and encourages a deep level of reflection.  I noted down a number of concerns about peer assessment that were mentioned: fairness, consistency, competence (of assessors), bias, imbalance and practical concerns such as time.  A further challenge in the future might be to characterise which learning designs (or activities) might make best use of peer assessment.

Pedagogical Issues

The subjects of collusion and plagiarism are familiar tropes to most higher education lecturers.  A paper by Ken Fisher and Dafna Hardbattle (both from London Metropolitan University) asks the question of whether students might benefit it they work through a learning object which explains to learners what is and what is not collusion.  The presentation began with a description of a questionnaire study that attempts to uncover what academics understand collusion to be.

Ken's presentation inspired a lot of debate.  One of the challenges that we must face is the difference between assessment and learning.  Learning can occur through collaboration with others.  In some cases it should be encouraged, whereas in other situations it should not be condoned.  Students and lecturers alike have a tricky path to negotiate.

Some technical bits and pieces.  The learning object was created using a tool called Glomaker (generative learning object maker), which I had never heard of before.  This tool reminds me of another tool, such as Xerte, which hails from the University of Nottingham.  On the subject of code plagiarism, there is also a very interesting project called JPlag (demo report, found on HEA plagiarism pages).  The JPLAG on-line service now supports more languages than it's original Java.

The final paper presentation of the day was by Ed de Quincy and Avril Hocking, both from the University of Greenwich.  Their paper explored how students might make use of the social bookmarking tool, Delicious.  Here's a really short summary of Delicious: it allow you to record your web favourites to the web using a set of keywords that you choose, enabling you to easily find them again if you use different computers (it also allows you to share stuff with users of similar interest).  

One way it can be used in higher education is to use it in conjunction with course codes (which are often unique, or can be, if a code is combined with another tag). After introducing the tool to users, the researchers were interested in finding out about common patterns of use, which tags were used, and whether learners found it a useful tool.

I have to say that I found this presentation especially interesting since I've used Delicious when tutoring on a course entitled accessible online learning: supporting disabled students which has a course code of H810, which has been used as a Delicious tag.  Clicking on the previous link brings up some resources that relate to some of the subjects that feature within the course.

I agree with Ed's point that a crowdsourced set of links comprises of a really good learning resource.  His research indicates that 70% of students viewed resources tagged by other students.  More statistics are contained within his paper.

My own confession is that I am an infrequent user of Delicious, mainly due to being forced down one browser route as opposed to another at various times, but when I have use it, I've found browser plug-ins to be really useful.  My only concern about using Delicious tags is that the validity of links can age very quickly, and it's up to a student to determine the quality of the resource that is linked to (but metrics saying, 'n people have also tagged this page' is likely to be a useful indicator).

Closing Keynote

Malcolm Ryan from the University of Greenwich School of Education presented the final keynote entitled, 'Listening and responding to learners' experiences of technology enhanced learning'.  Malcolm asked a number of searching questions, including, 'do you believe that technology enhances or transforms practice?' and 'do you know what their experience is?'  Malcolm went on to mention something called the SEEL Project (student experience of e-learning laboratory) that was funded by the HEA.

The mention of this project (which I had not heard of before) reminded me of something called the LEX report (which Malcolm later went on to mention).  LEX is an abbreviation of: learner experience of e-learning.  Two other research projects were mentioned.  One was the JISC great expectations report, another was a HEFCE funded Student Perspectives on Technology report.  I have made a note of the finding that perhaps students may not want everything to be electronic (and there may be split views about mobile).  A final project that was mentioned was the SLIDA project which describes how UK FE and HE institutions are supporting effective learners in a digital age.

Towards the end of Malcolm's presentation I remember a number of key terms, and how these relate to individual project.  Firstly, there is hearing, which relates to how technology should be used (the LEX report).  Listening relates to SEEL.  Responding connects to the great expectations report, and finally engaging, which relates to a QAA report entitled 'Rethinking the values of higher education - students as change agents?' (pdf). 

Malcolm's presentation has directly pointed me towards a number of reports that perhaps I need to spend a bit of time studying whilst at the same time emphasising just how much research has already been done by different institutions.

Workshop Themes

At the end of these event blogs I always try to write something about what I think the different themes are (of course, my themes are likely to be different to those of other delegates!)

The first one that jumped out at me was the theme of theory and models, namely different approaches and ways to understand the e-learning landscape.

The second one was the familiar area of user generated content.  This theme featured within this workshop through creation of bookmarks and course materials.

Peer assessment was also an important theme (perhaps one of increasing importance?)  There is, however, a strong tension between peer assessment and plagiarism, but particularly the notion of collusion (and how to avoid it).

Keeping (loosely) with the subject of assessment, the final theme has to be evaluation, i.e. how can we best determine whether what we have designed (or the service that we are providing) are useful for our learners.


As mentioned earlier, this is the second e-learning workshop I have been to.  I enjoyed it!  It was great to hear so many presentations.  In my own eyes, e-learning is now firmly established.  I've heard it say that the pedagogy has still got to catch up with the technology (how to do the best with all of the things that are possible).

Meetings such as these enable practitioners to more directly understand the challenges that different people and institutions face.  Many thanks to Deryn Graham from the University of Greenwich and Karen Frazer from HEA.

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Using and teaching mobile technologies for ICT and computer science

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 3 Mar 2014, 18:48

 I recently attended an event entitled Mobile Technologies - The Challenge of Learner Devices Delivering Computer Science held at Birmingham City University last week, organised by the Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) Higher Education Academy (HEA) subject centre.

This blog post aims to present a summary of proceedings as well as my own reflections on the day. If any of the delegates or presenters read this (and have any comments), then please feel free to post a reply to add to or correct anything that I've written. I hope these notes might be useful to someone.


The day was kicked off by John Traxler from the University of Wolverhampton. Just as any good keynote should, John asked a number of searching questions. The ones that jumped out at me were whether information technology (or computers) had accelerated the industrialisation of education, and whether mobile technologies may contribute to this.

John wondered about the changing nature of technology ownership. On one hand universities maintain rooms filled with computers that students can use, but on the other hand students increasingly have their own devices, such as laptops or mobile phones. 

John also pointed us towards an article in the Guardian, published in July 2010 about teenagers and technology which has a rather challenging subtitle. Mobility and connectedness, it is argued, has now become a part of our identity.

One thing John said jumped out at me: 'requiring students to use a VLE is like asking them to wear a school uniform'. This analogy points towards a lot of issues that can be unpacked. Certainly, a VLE has the potential to present institutional branding, and a uniform suggests that things might done in a particular way. But a VLE also has the potential be be an invaluable source of information to ensure that we know what we need to know to navigate around an institution.

For those of us who had to wear school uniforms, very many of us customised them as much as we possibly could without getting told off for breaking the rules. Within their constraints, it would be possible to express individuality whilst conforming (to get an education). The notion of customisation and services also has a connection with the idea of a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) (wikipedia), which, in reality, might exist somewhere in between the world of the mobile, a personal laptop and the services that an institution provides.

Session I

The first session was opened by Kathy Maitland from Birmingham City University. Kathy talked about how she used cloud computing to enable students using different hardware to access different different software services. She spoke about the challenge of using different hardware (and operating system) platforms to access services and the technical challenges of ensuring correct configuration.

John Busch from Queen's university, Belfast made a presentation about how to record lectures using a mobile phone. It was great to see a (relatively) low tech approach being used to make educational materials available for students. All John needed to share his lectures with a wider audience was a mid range mobile phone, a tiny tripod, a desk to perch the mobile phone on, and (presumably) a lot of hard won experience.

John gave the audience a lot of tips about how to make the best use of technology, along with a result from a survey where he asked students how they made use of the recordings he made of his computer gaming lectures. 

A part of his talk was necessarily technical, where he spoke about different data encoding standards and which standard was supported by which mobile (or desktop) platform. One of the members of the audience pointed us to, a website that enables transcoding of digital media. The presentation gave way to interesting discussions about privacy. One of the things that I really liked about John's presentation was that is addressed 'mobile' from different perspectives at the same time: using mobile technology to produce content that may, in turn, be consumed by other mobile devices.

Laura Crane, from Lancaster University then gave an interesting presentation about using location, context and preference in VLE information delivery. Laura's main research question appeared to be, 'which is (potentially) more useful - it is information that is presented at a particular location, or information that is presented in a particular time?'

This reminded me of some research that I had heard of a couple of years ago called context modelling. Laura mentioned a subject or area that was new to me, namely, Situation Theory.  Laura's talk was very well received and it inspired a lot of debate. Topics discussed include the nature of mobility research, the importance of personal or learner attributes on learning (such as learning styles). Discussions edged towards the very active area of recommender research (recommender system, Wikipedia), and out to wider questions of combining location, recommender and affective interfaces (interfaces or systems that could give recommendations or make suggestions depending on emotion). A great talk!

Darren Mundy and Keith Dykes gave a presentation about the WILD Project funded by JISC. WILD is an abbreviation for Wireless Interactive Lecture Demonstrator. The idea behind the project is one that is simple and compelling: how to make use of personal technology to enable students to make a contribution to lectures. By contribution, I mean allowing students to add comments and text to a shared PowerPoint presentation.

A lecturer prepares a PowerPoint presentation and providing there is appropriate internet connectivity, there is a link to a WILD webpage, which the students can send messages to. This might be used to facilitate debate about a particular subject, but also enable those learners who are less reluctant to contribute to 'speak up' by 'texting out'. We were also directed towards the project source code.

During the talk, I was introduced to a word that I had never heard of before: prosumerism (but apparently Wikipedia had!). At the end of the talk, during the Q&A session, one delegate pointed us towards the SAP Twitter PowerPoint plug in, which might be able to achieve similar things.

This last presentation of the morning really got me thinking about my own educational practice, and perhaps this is one of the really powerful aspects of using and working learning technology: it can have the potential to encourage reflection about what is and what is not possible, both inside and outside the classroom. I tutor on an undergraduate interaction design course with the Open University, where I facilitate a number of face to face sessions.

Due to various reasons my tutorials are not well as attended as they could be. Students may have difficulty travelling to a tutorial session, they may have family responsibilities, or even have jobs at the weekend. This is a shame, since I sense that some students would really benefit from these face to face sessions. The WILD presentation make me wonder whether those students who attend a face to face tutorial might be able to collectively author a summary PowerPoint that could then be shared with the group of students who were unable to attend. Interactivity, of course, has the potential to foster inclusivity and ownership. Simply put, the more a student does within a lecture (or puts into it) the more they may get out of it.

Session II

After lunch, the second session proved to be slightly more technical. The first half was merely a warm up!

The second session kicked off with demonstration by Doug Belshaw. Doug works for JISCInfoNet. This part of JISC aims to provide information and products known as InfoKits which can be used by senior management to understand and appreciate a range of different education and technology issues. We were directed towards examples, such as effective practice in a digital age, and effective assessment in a digital age. A new kit, entitled JISC mobile and wireless technologies review is currently under presentation.

Doug asked the audience to share information about any case studies. A number of projects were mentioned, along with a set of links. During the discussion part of the demo we were directed towards , and this makes me wonder whether the 'm.' is a convention that I'm not aware of (and perhaps ought to be!) Something called iWebKit was also mentioned. Other projects included, in collaboration with Bristol University and Bristol City Council. For more information visit the site.

There was also a mention of a service provided by Oxford University, (the project also has an accompanying press release) This service appears to have been developed in association with something called the Molly Project, which seems to be a mobile application development framework. There was a lot to take in!

Gordon Eccleston from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen gave a fabulous presentation about his work teaching programming the iPhone. Having remained steadfastly in the desktop world, and admitting to being a laggard on the mobile technology front, Gordon answered many questions that I have always had about how one might potentially begin to write an iPhone application. Gordon introduce us to the iPhone software development kit, which I understand was free to universities. The software used to create Apps is called Xcode.  Having predominantly worked within a PC software development environment for too many years than I would care to admit, a quick poke around the Apple Tools website looked rather exciting; a whole new world of languages, terms and technologies.

Gordon had a number of views about the future of App development. He thought that XHTML 5, CSS 3 and accompanying technologies would have an increasingly important role to play. On a related note, the cross mobile platform PhoneGap was mentioned during the following presentation which makes use of some of these same technologies. (Digging further into the web, there's a Wikipedia page called Multiple phone web based application framework, which might prove to be interesting.  There was also some debate about which platform mobile might dominate (and whether mobile dominance may depend on whether how many Apple stores there may be within a particular city or country!)

Gordon also briefly talked about some of the student project he has been involved with. A notable example was an iPhone app for medical students to learn ophthalmology terms and concepts. There were some really good ideas here; how to create applications that have direct benefit to learners by the application of mobile technology through learning how they can be developed.

Karsten Lundqvist from the University of Reading offered technology balance to the day by presenting his work teaching the development of Android applications. Karsten began his presentation by considering the different platforms: iPhone, RIM, and Android, but the choice of platform was ultimately decided by the availability of existing hardware, namely, PC's running Windows or Linux. In place of using Xcode, Java with Eclipse was used. I seem to remember that students may have had some experience using C/C++ before attending the classes, but I can't quite remember.

The question and answer session was really interesting. One delegate asked Karsten whether he had heard of something called the Google Android App Inventor, another mobile software development platform. It was also interesting to hear about the different demo apps. Karsten showed us a picture of a phone in a mini-segway cradle, demonstrating the concept of real-time control, there was also a reference to an app that may help people with language difficulties, and Karsten pointed us to his own website where he has been developing a game template by means of a blog tutorial.

Towards the end of Karsten's session, I recall an echo from the earlier HEA employability event which explored computing forensics. One of the ideas coming from this event was that perhaps it might be a good idea for institutions to share forensic data sets. An idea posed within this event was that perhaps institutions might be able to share application ideas or templates, perhaps for different platforms. Some ideas might include fitness utilities, 'finding your way around' apps (very useful: I still remember my days being a confused fresher during my undergrad days!), simple game templates, and flash card apps to help students to learn a number of different concepts.


The plenary discussion was quite wide ranging, and is quite difficult to down to a couple of paragraphs. My own attempt at making sense of the day was to understand the key topics in terms of 'paired terms', which might be either subject dimensions or tensions (depending on how you look at it).

VLEs and apps: different software with different purposes, which connect to the idea of information and content. Information might be where to go to find a lecture theatre, or the location of a bank, and content is a representation of the course materials itself.

Ownership and provision: invariably students will have their own technology, but to what extent should an organisation provide technology to facilitate learning? Provision has been historically thought of in terms of rooms filled with computers, and necessarily conservative institutional IT provision (to make sure that everything keeps working). Entwined with these issues is the notion of legacy information and the need for institutions (and learners) to keep up with technology.

Development and usage: where does the information or content come from? To what extent might consumers of mobile information potentially participate in the development of their own content? Might this also create potential dangers for institutions and individuals. This is related to another tension of control, namely, institutional versus individual control, of either information, content or technology.

Guidance and figuring things out: when it comes to learning, there is always a balance to be reached between providing just enough guidance that enables learners to gain enough information so that they find the information that they need. On one hand, there may be certain apps that facilitate learning in their own right, apps that provide information, and apps that may present content held within a VLE. One idea might be that we may need a taxonomy of uses for both an institution and an individual.

Industry and academia: a two way relationship. We must provide education (about mobile) that industry needs, and also make use of innovations coming from industry, but also we have a role to innovate ourselves and potentially feedback into industry. (I seem to recall quite a few delegates mentioning something called mCampus, but I haven't been able to uncover any information about it!)

Other discussion points that were raised included the observation that location-based information provision is new, and the need to interact with people is one of the things that is driving the development of technology. A broader question, posed by John Traxler was, 'does mobile have the potential to transform teaching and learning?' Learners, of course, differ very widely in terms of their experience and attitude to interactive products.

Points such as accessibility, whether it being availability of technology or ability to perceive information through assistive technologies are also substantial issues. The wider organisational and political environment is also a significant factor when it comes to the development of mobile applications, and their subsequent consumption.


All in all, a very enjoyable day! As I travelled into Birmingham from London on the train on the morning of the event my eye caught what used to be the site of an old industrial centre. I had no idea what it used to be. I could see the foundations of what might have been a big factory or a depot. I was quite surprised to discover that Millenium Point building also overlooked the same area.

Walking to the train station for my return journey to London, I thought, 'wouldn't it be great if there was an app that could use your location to get articles and pictures about what used to be here before; perhaps there could be a timeline control which users could change to go back in time to see what was there perhaps twenty, thirty or even one hundred years before'. I imagined a personal time machine in the palm of your hand. I then recalled a mash-up between Google Maps and Wikipedia, and had soon uncovered something called Wikimapia.

Like so many of these passing ideas, there's no such thing as an original thought. What really matters is how such technology thoughts are realised, and the ultimate benefit they may have to the different sets of end user.

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Enhancing Employability of Computing Students

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 3 Mar 2014, 18:49

I was recently able to attend what was the first Higher Education Academy (HEA) event that explicitly aimed to discuss how universities might enhance the employability of computing courses.  The intention of this blog is to present a brief summary of the event (HEA website)  and to highlight some of the themes (and issues) that I took away from it.

The day was held at the University of Derby enterprise centre and was organised on behalf of the HEA Information and Computer Sciences subject group.  I had only ever been to one HEA event before, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect.  This said, the title of the workshop (or mini-conference) really interested me, especially after having returned to the higher education sector from industry.

The day was divided into two sets of paper presentations punctuated by two keynote speeches.  The afternoon paper sessions was separated into two streams: a placements workshop and a computing forensics stream.  Feeling that the placements workshop wasn't really appropriate, I decided to sit in on the computing and forensics stream.

Opening Keynote

The opening address was given by Debbie Law, an account management director at Hewlett Packard.  As well as outlining the HP recruitment process (which sounds pretty tough!) Debbie mentioned that through various acquisions, there was a gradual movement beyond technology (such as PCs and servers) through to the application of services.  Business, it was argued, don't particularly care for IT, but they do care for what IT gives them.

So, what makes an employable graduate?  They should be able to do a lot!  They should be able to learn and to apply knowledge (completing a degree should go some way to demonstrating this).  Candidates should demonstrate their willingness to consider (and understand) customer requirements.  They should also demonstrate problem solving and analytical skills and be able to show a good awareness of the organisations in which they work.  They should be performance driven, show good attention to detail (a necessity if you have ever written a computer program!), be able to lead a team and be committed to continuous improvement and developing personal effectiveness. Phew!

I learnt something during this session (something that perhaps I should have already known about).  I was introduced to something called ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) (wikipedia).  ITIL was later spoken about in the same sentences as PRINCE (something I had heard about after taking M865, the Open University Project Management course).

First paper session

There were a few changes to the published programme.  The first paper was by McCrae and McKinnon : Preparing students for employment through embedding work-related learning.  It was at this point that the notion of employability was defined as: A set of attributes, skills and knowledge that all labour market participants should possess to ensure they have the capability of being effective in the workplace - to the benefit of themselves, their employer and the wider economy.  A useful reference is the Confederation of British Industry's Fit for the Future: preparing graduates for the world of work report (CBI, 2009).

The presentation went on to explore how employability skills (such as team working, business skills and communication skills) may be embedded within the curriculum using an approach called Work Related Learning (WRL).  The underpinning ideas relate to linking theory and practice, using relevant learning outcomes, widening horizons, carrying out active learning and taking account of cultural diversity.  A mixed methodology was used to determine the effectiveness of embedding WRL within a course.

The second paper was by Jing and Chalk and was entitled: An initiative for developing student employability through student enterprise workshops.   The paper outlined one approach to bridge the gap between university education and industry through a series of seminars over a twelve week period given by people who currently work within industry.  A problem was described where there were lower employment rates amongst computing graduates (despite alleged skills shortages), low enrolment to work placement years (sandwich years), lack of employability awareness (which also includes job application and interview skills).

The third presentation was by our very own Kevin Streater and Simon Rae from the Open University Business School.  Their paper was entitled 'Developing professionalism in New IT Graduates? Who Needs It?'  Their paper addressed the notion of what it may mean to be an IT professional, encouraging us to look at the British Computer Society Chartered IT Professional status (CITP) (in addition to the ITIL and Prince), and something called the Professional Maturity Model (which I had never heard of before).

Something else that I had never heard of before is the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA).  By using this framework it was possible to uncover whether new subjects or modules may contribute to enhancing the degrees of undergraduates who may be studying to work within a particular profession.  Two Open University courses were mentioned: T122 Career Development and Employability, and T227 Change, Strategy and Projects at Work.

This final presentation of the morning was interesting since it asked us to question the notion of professionalism, and presented the viewpoint that the IT profession has a long way to go before it could be considered akin to some of the other more established professions (such as law, engineering and accountancy).

During the morning presentations I also remember a reference to E-Skills, which is the Sector Skills Council for Business and Information Technology, a government organisation that aims to help to ensure that the UK has the IT skills it needs.

Computing and Forensics Stream

This stream especially piqued my interest since I had once studied a postgraduate computing forensics course, M886, through the Open University a couple of years ago.

The first paper was entitled Teaching Legal and Courtroom Issues in Digital Forensics by Anderson, Esen and Conniss.  Like so many different subject, both academic and professional skills need to be applied and considered.  Academic education considers the communication of theories and dissemination of knowledge, and learning how to think about problems in a critical way by analysing and evaluating different types and sources of information.

The second paper was about Syllabus Development with an emphasis on practical aspects of digital investigation, by Sukhvinder Hara, who drew upon her extensive experience as working as a forensic investigator.

The third paper was about how a virtualised forensics lab might be established through the application of cloud computing.  I found this presentation interesting for two reasons.  The first was due to the interesting application of virtualisation, and secondly due to a resonance with how parts of the T216 Cisco networking course is taught, where students are able to gain access to physical hardware located within a laboratory just by 'logging on' to their personal computer or laptop.

The final paper of the day was an enthusiastic presentation by David Chadwick who shared with us his approach of using problem-based learning and how it could be applied to computing forensics.

This final session of the day brought two questions to my mind.  The first related to the relationship between teaching the principles of computing forensics and the challenge of providing graduates who know the tools that are used within industry.  The second related to the general question of, 'so, how many computing forensics jobs are there?'

It stuck me that a number of the forensics courses around the UK demonstrate the use of similar technologies.  I've heard two products mentioned on a number of occasions: EnCase (Wikipedia) and FTK (Wikipedia), both of which are featured within the Open University M889 course.  If industry requires trained users of these tools, is it the remit of universities to offer explicit 'training' in commercial products such as EnCase .  Interestingly, the University of Greenwich, like the Open University (in T216 course), enables students to study for industrial certification whilst at the same time acquiring credit points that can count towards a degree.

So, are there enough forensics jobs for forensics graduates?  You might ask a very similar question which also begs an answer: are there enough psychology jobs for the number of psychology graduates?  I've heard it say that studying psychology introduces students to the notion of evidence, different research methodologies and research designs.  It is a demanding subject that requires you to write in a very clear way.  Studying psychology teaches and develops advanced numeracy and literacy as much as it introduces scientific method and the often confusing and complex nature of academic debate. 

Returning to computing forensics, I sensed that there might not be as many jobs in the field as there are graduates, but it very much depends what kind of job you might be thinking of.  Those graduates who took digital forensics courses might find themselves working as IT managers, network infrastructure designers or software developers as opposed to purely within law enforcement.  Knowing the notion of digital evidence and how to capture it is an incredibly important skill irrespective of whether or not a student becomes a fully fledged digital investigator.

Concluding Discussions

One of the best parts of the day was the discussion section.  A number of tensions became apparent.  One of the tensions relates to what a university should be and the role it should play within wider society.  Another tension is the differences that exist between the notions of training and education (and the role that universities play to support these two different aims).

Each organisation and area of industry will have a unique set of training and educational requirements.  There are, of course, more organisations than there are universities.  A particular industry may have a very specific training problem that necessitates the development of educational materials that is particular to its own context.  Universities, it can be argued, can only go so far in meeting very particular needs.

A related question, is of course, the difference between training and education.  When I worked in industry there were some problems that could be only solved by gaining task specific skills.  Within the field of software development this may be learning how to use a certain compiler or software tool set.  Learning a very particular skill (whilst building upon existing knowledge) can be viewed as training.  An engineer can either sit with a user manual and a set of notes and figure things out over a period of a month or two, or alternatively go on an accelerated training course and learn about what to do in a matter of days.

Education, of course, goes much deeper.  Education is about not just knowing have to use a particular set of tools but its about knowing how to think about your tools (and their limits) and understanding how they may fit within the 'big scheme of things'.  Education is also about learning a vocabulary that enables you to begin to understand how to communicate with others who work within your discipline (so you can talk about your tools).

Within the ICT sector the pace of change continues to astonish me.  There was a time when universities in conjunction with research organisations led the development of computing and computer science.  Meanwhile, industry has voraciously adopted ICT in such a way that it pretty much pervades all our lives.

So, where does this leave degree level education when 'general' industry may be asking for effective IT professionals?  It would be naive to believe that the university sector can fully satisfy the needs of industry since the nature of industry is so diverse.  Instead, we may need to consider how to offer education and learning (which the university sector is good at) which leads towards the efficient consumption of training (which satisfies the need of industry).   This argument implies that the university sector is for the 'common good' as opposed to being a mechanism that allows individuals to gain specialist topic specific knowledge that can immediately lead to a lucrative career.  Becoming an ICT professional requires an ability to continually learn due to perpetual innovation.  A university level education can provide a fabulous basis to gain an introduction into this rapidly challenging world.

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