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Psychology of Programming Interest Group 2012 workshop: London Metropolitan University

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 14 Oct 2020, 11:41

The 24th Psychology of Programming Interest Group workshop was held at London Metropolitan University between 21st and 23rd November 2012.  I wasn't able to attend the first day of the workshop due to another commitment, but was able to attend the second and third days (this is a shame since I've heard from the other delegates that the first day was pretty good and yielded a number of very thought provoking presentations and discussions).  This blog post is a summary of the days I managed to attend.  I'm sharing this post with the hope that this summary might be useful to someone.

Day 2: Expertise, learning to program, tools and doctorial consortium

Expertise

The first presentation of the day was entitled, 'Thrashing, tolerating and compromising in software development' by Tamara Lopez from the Open University.  I understand thrashing to be the application of problem solving strategies in an ineffective and unsystematic way, and tolerating to be working with temporary solutions with the intention of moving a solution along to another state, and compromising: solving a problem but not being entirely happy with its solution.  An interesting note that I've made during Tamara's presentation relates to the use of feelings.  I have also experienced 'thrashing' in the moments before I recover sufficient metacognitive awareness to understand that a cup of tea and a walk is necessary to regain perspective.

The second presentation of the day was by Rebecca Yates, from LERO based at the University of Limerick.  Rebecca's talk was entitled, 'conducting field studies in software engineering: an experience report' and her focus was all about program comprehension, i.e. what happens when programmers start a new job and start to learn an unfamiliar code base.  I made a special note of her points about the importance of going out into industry and the importance of addressing ethical issues. 

One of the 'take away' points that I got from Rebecca's talk was that getting access to people in industry can be pretty tough - the practical issues of carrying out programming research, such as time, restrictions about access to intellectual property and the importance of persuasion (or making the aim of research clear to those who are going to play a part in it) can all be particularly challenging.

Learning to program

Louis Major, from the University of Keele, started the second session with a paper entitled, 'teaching novices programming using a robot simulator: case study protocol'.  Louis told us about his systematic literature review before introducing us to his robot simulator which could be used to create programs to do simple tasks such as line following and line counting.  Louis also spoke about his research method, a case study approach which applied multiple methods such as tests and interviews.

Louis also spoke about the value of robots, that they were considered to be appealing, enjoyable, exciting and robotics (as a whole subject) had a strong connection with STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).  The advantage of using simulations is that there are fewer limitations in terms of space, cost and technical barriers.

A couple of months after the workshop I was reminded about the relevance of Louis's research after having been tangentially involved in an introductory Open University module, TM129 Technologies in Practice, which also makes use of a robot simulator.  Students are also given the challenge of solving simple problems, including the challenge of creating line following robots. 

The second talk in this part of the workshop was by PPIG regular, Richard Bornat.  Richard's talk, entitled 'observing mental models in novice programmers' built on earlier work that was presented at PPIG where Richard and his colleague Saeed had designed a test that was claimed could (potentially) predict whether students were able to grasp some of the principles of programming. 

An interesting observation was that when it comes to computer programming the results sometimes have a bi-modal distribution.  What this means that if student pass, they are likely to pass very well.  On the other hand, there is also a peak in numbers when it comes to students who struggle.  During (and after) his talk, he presented that some students found some of the concepts that were connected to programming (such as the assignment operator) fundamentally difficult.

Paul Orlov, who joined us all the way from St. Petersburg, spoke about 'investigating the role of programmers peripheral vision: a gaze-contingent tool and experimental proposal'.  Paul's talk connected with earlier research where experimental tools, such as a 'restricted focus viewers', were used in conjunction with program comprehension experiments. Paul's talk inspired a lot of debate and questions.  I remember one discussion which was about the distinction between attention and seeing (and that we can easily learn not to attend to information should we choose not to).

Ben Du Boulay, formerly from the University of Sussex, was our discussant.  Ben mentioned that when it came to interdisciplinary research conducting systematic literature reviews can be particularly difficult due to the number of different publication databases that researcher have to consider.  Connecting with Richard's paper, Ben asked the question about what might be the fundamental misunderstandings that could emerge when it comes to computer programming.  Regarding Paul's paper which connects to the theme of perception and attention, Ben made the point that we can learn how to ignore things and that attention can be focussed depending on the task that we have to complete.  Ben also commented on earlier discussions, such as the drive to change the current computing curriculum in schools.

One thing that learning programming can do for us is help to teach us problem solving skills.  There is a school of thought that learning programming can be viewed as how Latin was once viewed; that learning to program is inherently good for you. Related points include the importance of task and the relationship to motivation.

Tools

Fraser McKay from the University of Kent presented, 'evaluation of subject-specific heuristics for initial learning environments: a pilot study'.  In human-computer interaction (or interaction design), heuristics are a set of rules of thumb that help you to think about the usability of a system.  General heuristics, such as those by Nielsen are very popular (as well as being powerful), but there is the argument that they may not be best suited to uncovering problems in all situations. 

Fraser focused on two environments that were considered helpful in the teaching of programming: Scratch (MIT) and Greenfoot.  Although this was very much a 'work in progress' paper, it is interesting to learn about the extent to which different sets of heuristics might be used together, and the way in which a new set of heuristics might be evaluated.

Mark Vinkovitis presented the work of his co-authors, Christian Prause and Jan Nonnen, which was entitled, 'a field experiment on gamification of code quality in Agile development'.  Initially I found the term 'gamification' quite puzzling, but I quickly understood it in terms of, 'how to make software development into a game, where the output can be appreciated and recognised by others'.

The idea was to connect code development with the use of quality metrics to obtain a score to indicate how well developers are doing.  This final presentation gave way to a lot of debate about whether developers might be inclined to develop software code in such a way to create high rankings.  (There is also the question of whether different domains of application will yield different quality scores).  I really like the concept.  Gamification exposes of different dimensions of software development which has the potential to be connected to motivation.  It strikes me that the challenge lies with understanding how one might affect the other whilst at the same time facilitating effective software development practice.

Doctorial consortium presentations

Before the start of the workshop on Wednesday, a doctorial consortium session was held where students could share ideas with each other and discuss their work with more experienced (or seasoned) researchers.  This session was all about allowing students to share their key research questions with a wider audience.

Presentation slots were taken by Louis Major, Frazer McKay, Michael Berry, Alistair Stead, Cosmas Fonche and Rebecca Yates (my apologies if I've missed anyone!)  Other research students who were a part of the doctorial consortium included Teresa Busjahn, Melanie Coles, Gail Ollis, Mark Vinkovits, Kshitij Sharma, Tamara Lopez, Khurram Majeed and Edgar Cambranes.

Day 3: Tools and their evaluation and keynotes

Tools and their evaluation

The first presentation of the final day was by Thibault Raffaillac who presented his research, 'exploring the design of compiler feedback'.  I enjoyed this presentation since the feedback that software tools offer developers is fundamental to enabling them to do the job that they need to do.  A couple of questions that I've noted from Thibault's presentation included the question of 'who is the user?' (of the feedback), and what is their expertise.  Another note is that compilers (and other languages) always tend to give negative points and information.  It strikes me that languages offer an opportunity for programmers to interrogate a code-base.  Much food for thought!

Luis Marques Afonso gave the next talk, entitled 'evaluation application programming interfaces as communication artefacts'.  Understanding API usability has a relatively long history within the PPIG community.  The interesting aspect of Luis's work is that three different evaluation techniques were proposed:  semiotic inspection method (which I had never heard of before), cognitive dimensions of notations (Wikipedia) and discourse analysis (Wikipedia).  It was interesting to hear of these different methods - the advantage of using multiple approaches is that each method can expose different issues.

The final paper presentation, entitled 'sketching by programming in the choreographic language agent' was given by Luke Church, University of Cambridge.  Luke described working amongst a group of choreographers.  It was interesting to hear that the tool (or language) that had been created wasn't all about representing choreography, but instead potentially enabling choreographers to become inspired by the representations that were generated by the tool.  Luke's presentation created a lot of interest and debate.   

Keynote: extreme notation design

A computer programming language is a form of notation.  A notation is a system that can be used to represent ideas or actions and can be understood by people (such as music) or machines (as in computer programming), or both.  Thomas Green proposed a set of 'dimensions' or characteristics of notation systems which relate to how people can work with them.  These dimensions can be traded-off against each other depending upon the nature of the particular problem that is to be solved.

One challenge is: how can we understand the characteristic of trade-offs?  Alan Blackwell gave a keynote talk about a programming language that was controversially described as being a hybrid of Photoshop and Excel.

Palimpsest used the idea of different layers which could then contain different elements which could interact with each other (if I understand things correctly).  Methodologically speaking, the idea of creating a tool or a language that aims to explore the extremes of language design is an interesting and potentially very powerful one.  My understanding is that it allows the language designer to gain a wealth of experience, but also provides researchers with an example.  Perhaps there is an opportunity for someone to write a paper that compares and collates the different 'extremities' of language design.

Panel: coding and music

The final session of the workshop was all about programming, music and performance.  We were introduced to a phenomena called 'live coding', which is where programmers 'perform' music by writing software in front of a live audience. The three presentations which were contained within this final part of the day were all slightly different but all very connected.

Alex Mclean

Alex Mclean from the University of Leeds presented two demonstrations and talked about the challenges of live coding.  These included that manipulating and working with music through code is an indirect manipulation.  Syntactic glitches can interrupt the flow of performance and there is the possibility that being wrapped up within the code has the potential to detract from the music.

Live coders can also improvise with musicians who play 'non-programming language' (or 'real') instruments.  Since the notion of 'live' can have different meaning (and can depend on the abstractions that are contained within a language), challenges include the negotiation of time and harmony.  Delays can exist between the having a musical idea and realising it.

Alex mentioned Scheme Bricks, which has been inspired by Scratch (and Sense) which allows you to drag and drop portions of code together.  This also made me realise that if there are two live coders performing at the same time they might use entirely different 'instruments' (or notation systems) to each other. 

Thor Magnusson

Thor Magnusson from the University of Brighton introduced us to a language called ixi that has been derived from SuperCollider (Wikipedia).  Thor set out to make a language that could be understood by an audience.  To demonstrate this, Thor quickly coded a changing of drum and sound loops using a text editor using a notation that has come clear and direct connections to music notation.  Thor spoke of polyrhythms and code to change amplitude, to create harmonics and sound that is musically interesting. 

What I really liked was the metaphor of creating agents which 'play' fragments of code (or music).  Distortions can be applied to patterns and patterns can be nested within other patterns.  Thor also presented some compelling description of the situations in which the language is used; 'programming in a nightclub, late at night, maybe you've had a few beers; you're performing - you've got to make sure the comma is in the right place'.  For those who are interested, you can also see a video recording of Thor giving a live coding performance (YouTube).  In my notebook I have written something that Thor must have said: 'I see code as performance; live coding is a link between performance and improvisation'.

Sam Aaron

When Sam began his short talk, I couldn't believe my eyes - he was using a text editor called Emacs! (Wikipedia).  The last time I used Emacs was when I was a postgraduate student where it persistently confused me.  Emacs, however, uses a language called Lisp which is particularly useful for live coding, since it is a declarative language. 

During his talk Sam gives a brief introduction to Overtone.  You can see a video of a similar introduction to overtone through Vimeo.  One thing that did strike me was way in which aspects of music theory could be elegantly represented within code.

Discussion

This final part of the workshop gave way to quite a lot of energetic debate.  There appeared to be a difference between those who were thinking, 'why on earth would you want to do this stuff?' and, 'I think this stuff is really cool!'  When it comes to live coding there is the question of who is the user of the language - is it the performer, or is it the listener, or viewer (especially if a live coding notation is intended to be understandable by a non-musician-coder)?

But what of the motivations of the people who do all this cool stuff?  When it comes to performance there is the attraction of 'being in the moment', of using technology in an interesting and exciting way to creating something transitory that listeners might like to dance to.  It certainly strikes me that to do it well requires skill, time, persistence and musicality; all the qualities that 'traditional' musicians need.  Live coders can also face the fundamental challenge of keeping things going when things begin to sound a bit odd, to create new and creative code structure on-the fly, and an ability to move from one semi-improvised (by means of programming and musical abstraction) to another.

Other than the performance dimension, there is the intellectual attraction of changing and challenging people's perceptions of how software and programming languages are thought of.   Another dimension is the way that technology can give rise to a community of people who enjoy using different tools to create different styles of music.  All of the tools that were mentioned within the final part of the day are free and open source.  Free code, it can be said, can lead to free musical expression.

Reflections

Like other PPIG workshops this workshop had a great mix of formal presentations, more informal doctorial sessions mixed with many opportunities for discussion.  I think this was the first time that the workshop was held at London Metropolitan University.  Yanguo Jing, our local conference chair, did a fabulous job at ensuring that everything ran as smoothly as possible.  Yanguo also did a great job at editing the proceedings.  All in all, a very successful event and one that was expertly and skilfully organised.

There are two 'take home' points that have stuck in my mind.  The first is that programming languages need not only about programming machines; through their structures code can also be used as a way to gain inspiration for other endeavours, particularly artistic ones.  

The second point is that programming can be a performance, and one that can be fun too.  The music session with certainly stick in my mind for quite some time to come.  Programming performances are not just about music - they can be about education and creation; code can be used to present and share stories. 

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Open University Disability Conference 2012

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 19 Nov 2012, 18:27

On 14 November 2012 I attended the Open University Disability Conference held at a conference centre close to the university.  The last time I attended this event was back in 2010.   I wrote a summary of the 2010 conference which might be useful to some (I should add that I've had to mess around a bit to get a link to this earlier summary and there is a possibility that this link might go to different posts since I can't quite figure out how to get a permalink, but that's a side issue...)

The conference was a two day event but due to other things I had to be getting on with I could only attend one of the days.  From my experience of the first conference, the second day tends to be quite dramatic (and this year proved to be no exception).

The legacy of the Paralympics

Julie Young from Disabled Student Services kicked off the day by introducing Tony O'Shea-Poon, head of equality and diversity.  Tony gave a presentation entitled 'A lot can change in 64 years' which described the history of the Paralympic games whilst at the same time putting the games into the context of disability equality.

During the Paralympics I remember a television drama that presented the origins of the games.  Tony reminded us that it began in 1948 at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital.  The first ever Paralympic games (with the 'para' meaning 'alongside') taking place in Rome in 1960.

One of the striking aspects of Tony's presentation is that it was presented in terms of 'forces'; forces which have increased the awareness of issues that impact upon the lives of people with disabilities.  Relating back to the origins of the games, one force is the allies of people with disabilities.  There is also the role that role models can play, particularly in popular media.

Two other forces include disabled peoples involvement and the disability rights movement.  Tony spoke about something that I had not known of before.  During the late 1980s I remember a number of public 'telethon' events - extended TV shows that aimed to raise money for charitable causes.  In 1992 there was a campaign to 'block telethon'.  This is a message that people with disabilities should have rights, not charity.  This connects with a movement away from a more historic medical and charity model of disability to a social model where people with disabilities should have an equal rights and opportunities within society. Tony also mentioned the importance of legislation, particularly the disability rights commission, explicitly mentioning role of Sir Bert Massie.

Tony brought us to the present day, emphasising not only recent successes (such as the Paralympic games), but also current challenges; Tony drew our attention to protests in August of this year by disabled people against government cuts.   Legitimate protest is considered to be another force that can facilitate change.

Deb Criddle: Paralympian

Jane Swindells from the university disability advisory service introduced Deb Criddle (Wikipedia), paralympian gold and silver medallist.  Deb gained one gold medal and two silver medals in London 2012, as well as gaining gold medals in Athens.

This part of the day took the form of a question and answer session, with Jane asking the first questions.  Deb reflected on the recent Paralympic games and described her personal experiences.  One of the key points that Deb made was that it was great that the games focussed people's attention on abilities and not disabilities.  It also had the effect of the making disability more normalised.

One thing that I remember from living in London at the time of the Olympics and Paralympics is that people were more open to talking to each other.  Deb gave us an anecdote that the games created opportunities for conversations (about and with people with disabilities) which wouldn't have otherwise happened.  

Deb said that she 'wasn't expecting the support we had'.  On the subject of support she also made an important point that the facilities and support services that are available within the UK are very different to the facilities that are available in other countries.  At the time of the Paralympics I remember reading stories in the London Metro (the free newspaper that is available ever week day morning) about campaigners who were trying to obtain equipment and resources for some of the competitors.

Deb also shared with us aspects of her personal story.  She said that through accident and circumstance led to opportunities, journeys, growth and amazing experiences.  What was once a passing interest (in equestrianism) became a central interest.  Deb also spoke about the challenge of confronting a disability.  One of Deb's phrases strongly resonated with me (as someone who has an unseen disability), which was, 'I hadn't learnt to laugh at myself'.

Deb is also an OU student.  She studied at the same time as training.  Deb said, 'study gives you something else to focus on... trying too hard prevents you to achieving what you need to [achieve], it is a distraction in a sense'.  She also emphasised the point that study is can often be hard work.

I've made a note of a final phrase of Deb's (which probably isn't word for word) which is certainly worth repeating; its message is very clear: 'please don't be overwhelmed by people with disability; people coming together [in partnership] can achieve', and also, 'take time to engage with people, you can learn from their stories, everyone is different'.

Workshops

Throughout the conference there were a couple of workshops, a number of which were happening in parallel.  I was only able to attend one of them.  The one I chose was entitled 'Asperger's syndrome: supporting students through timely interventions', facilitated by Martina Carroll.  The emphasis on this workshop was about providing information to delegates and I've done my best to summarise the key points that I picked up.

The first point was that people who may have been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome can be very different; you can't (and shouldn't) generalise about the abilities of someone who may have a diagnosis.   

The workshop touched upon the history of the syndrome.  Martina mentioned Leo Kanner (Wikipedia) who translated some work by Hans Asperger.  Asperger's is understood as a developmental disorder that has a genetic basis (i.e. highly heritable). Martina mentioned a triad of impairments: communication difficulties (both expressive and receptive), potential difficulties with social interaction, and restricted and repetitive behaviours.  A diagnosis will be considered to have two out of the three potential impairments.

Martina also touched upon that some people can have exceptional skills, such as skills in memory and mathematics, but again, it is important to remember that everyone is different.  Due to the nature of the triad of impairments, co-existing conditions need to be considered, such as such as stress, anxiety and depression.

A final question is what accommodations can be made for people who have autism? TEACCH (Wikipedia) was mentioned, which is an educational model for schools which has the potential to offer some useful guidance.  One key point is that providing learning materials that have a clearly defined structure (such as the module calendar) can certainly help everyone.

Towards the end of the session, there was some time for group discussions.  The group that I was (randomly) assigned to discussed the challenges of group work, how important it was to try to facilitate constant communication between different people (which include mentors and advocates) and challenges surrounding examinations and assessment. 

There are a number of resources that were mentioned that may be useful.  I didn't know this, but the Open University runs a module entitled Understanding the autism spectrum (OU website). The module is centred around a book by Ilona Roth called Autism in the 21st Century (publishers website).  Another resource is Francesca Happe's Lecture at the Royal Society, entitled When will we understand Autistic Spectrum Disorders? (Royal Society website) I really recommend this lecture - it is very easy to follow and connects very strongly with the themes of the workshop.  There is also the National Autistic Society website, which might also be useful.

Performance

The final part of the day was very different.  We were introduced to three stand-up comics.  These comics were not disabled comics, they were comics who just happened to incidentally have a disability.  Comedy has the ability to challenge; it allows others to see and understand instances of people's lives in a warm and undeniably human way.  The 'something' that we all have in common with each other is an ability to laugh.  When you laugh at a situation that is tough and challenging and begin to appreciate the absurdity and richness of life. Tough situations don't seem as difficult anymore; laughter gives you a power to rise above a situation.  In a way, the conference reflects this since it was all about sharing experience with a view to empowering and helping people.

The comics were Steve Day, Liam O'Caroll and Lawrence Clark.  All were fabulous, but I especially enjoyed Lawrence's set which I understand was a show that he took to the Edinburgh Festival.  His set had a theme based on the word 'inspiring'; he successfully sent himself up, along with others who may be inclined to use that word.

Reflections

Julie Young closed the conference by emphasising some of the themes that were explored through the conference.   Julie emphasised the importance of working together to deliver a service for our students and how this is connected with equality and rights.  A key point is that the abilities our students are what really matters.  Julie went on to emphasise the continued need to listen attentively to those who we serve.

With conferences that have multiple parallel sessions you can sometimes feel that you're missing out on something, which is always a shame.  During the lunch break, I heard how other delegates had appreciated hearing from students talking about their experiences of studying at the Open University.  Personal stories allow people to directly connect with the challenges and difficulties that people face, and whilst on one hand there may be successes, there are other situations in which we don't do the best that we can or support for people doesn't arrive on time.  Conferences such as these emphasise the importance of keeping our attention on students with disability whilst at the same time emphasising that different departments of the university need to talk to each other to ensure that we can offer the best possible support.  Talking also permits us to learn more about what we can do to change things, so meetings such as these are invaluable.

I also have a recollection from the previous conference I attended.  I remember talking to someone (I'm not sure who this was) who seemed to express surprise that I was from a 'faculty' (i.e. an academic) as opposed to a part of the university that was directly involved in support of students (I tend to conflate the two roles together).  I was surprised that my presence caused surprise.  Although this year I felt that there were more faculty representatives coming along than perhaps there were before, I do (personally) feel that there should be a broader spectrum of delegates attending.

All in all, I felt that I benefitted from the day.  I met people who I had never met before and the objectives of facilitating communication, sharing practice and re-energising delegates had clearly been met. 

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First Open University Sense Programming Workshop

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 8 Oct 2013, 12:23

The first Open University Sense Workshop was held at the London School of Economics on Saturday 11 November 2012.

Sense is a computer programming language that has been derived from Scratch, a language that was developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology.   The aim of the Sense workshop was to allow TU100 My Digital Life students to become more familiar with the Sense environment helping them to learn some of the fundamental principles of computer programming.

This blog post is intended as a summary of the first ever Sense workshop.  It has been written for both students and tutors. If you feel that anyone might find this summary useful, please don't hesitate to distribute widely.

Introductions

The phase 'computer programming' is one that can easily elicit an anxious response.  Programming is sometimes seen as something that is done through a set of mysterious tools.  The good news is that once you have gained some understanding of the fundamental principles of programming (and how to tackle problems and debug programs), the skills that you learn in one language can be transferred between other languages.

Sense is a programming language that uses the same fundamental concepts of languages that are used in industry (such as C++ and Java) but Sense makes the process of writing computer programs (or code) easier by allowing programs to be created from sets of visual building blocks. In some ways, Sense is a visual programming language that is completely analogous to many other languages.  The fundamental difference between Sense and other languages is that it helps students to focus on the fundamental bits of programming by shielding new programmers from the difficulty of writing program instructions in a language that can be quite cryptic and difficult to understand.

The overarching intention of the Sense workshop day (that is described here) was to demystify Sense and encourage everyone to have fun.  The Sense environment allows programming instructions to be manipulated as a series of lego-like blocks.  These snap together to form 'clumps' of instructions which can be attached to either a background (or stage, where things can more about on), or sprites (which are, in essence, graphical objects).  Through Sense it is (relatively) straightforward to create sets of instructions to build simple animations and games.

The workshop is divided up into three different sections.  The first is a broad overview of some of the ideas about programming, followed by a demonstration about how to use the Sense environment.  The second section was a presentation which contained some useful guidance about how to complete an assignment.  The third section was more open... but more of this later.

The lecture bit - stepping towards programming...

The workshop kicked off by a talk by one of our Open University tutors, Tammy.  Tammy made a really good point that 'we can't teach you programming'.  The implication is that only a student can learn how to do it.  The best way to learn how to do it is, of course, to find the time to play with a programming environment and to tackle, head on, the challenge of grappling with a problem.

Tammy asked a couple of people to come up and draw some shapes on the whiteboard.  Different participants drew very different shapes despite being given exactly the same instructions.  The point of the exercise was clear: that it is absolutely essential to provide sets of instructions that are both completely clear and unambiguous (as otherwise you may well be surprised with the results that you come back with).

Tammy talked about the different categories of program instruction, which were: sequence instructions, selection instructions and iteration instructions.  Pretty much all programs are composed of these three different types of operations.  Put simply, a sequence of instructions is where you do one thing after another.  A selection operation is where you make a choice to do something depending upon the status of a condition (for example, if you are cold, you might turn the heating on).  An iteration operation is where you do something either a number of times.

These sets of operations can be used to describe every day actions, such as making a cup of coffee, for instance.  This simple activity can be split into a sequence of steps, which can include iterations where we check to see if the kettle is boiling.  (We might also do some parallel processing, such as making some toast whilst the kettle is boiling, but multi-threading is a whole other issue!)

The main points were (1) programming cannot be taught, it can only be learnt by those who do it, (2) there are some fundamental building blocks that can be combined together and nested within each other; you can have a sequence of steps within an iteration, for instance, and (3) programming requires things to be defined and described unambiguously.

The demonstration bit - creating an animation...

The second part of the morning was hosted by Leslie.  Building on Tammy's summary of programming Leslie showed us what it meant to actually 'write' a program using the Sense environment.

In some respects, you can create anything within the Sense environment.  It provides a set of tools and it is up to you to come up with an idea and figure out how to combine the pieces together to do what you want to do.  In some respects (and getting slightly philosophical for a moment), you can define a whole universe or a world in software.  You can, in effect, define your own laws of physics.  I can't remember who said it, but I have always remembered the phase, 'the universe is mathematical'.  Given that computers only understand numbers, the Sense environment allows you to create and represent your own universe (and interact with it in some way).

Leslie's universe was a fishtank.  She began by drawing the tank, including water weeds.  She then went onto draw a set of different fish characters.  Script was then added to move the fish around the screen (in the tank), first in one direction (from left to right), and then in both directions (from side to side).  Leslie then added more characters and defined interactions between them using something called the 'broadcast' feature to alert some of the virtual fish that a bigger and more dangerous fish had arrived in the tank.

What was really great was how she demonstrated how to connect different instructions together (to create sequences), to have sequences of instructions operate when certain conditions are met (which represent selections), and introduce repeat loops (which represent iterations; carrying out the same instructions over and over again).

The bit about the assignment...

The final 'lecture' part of the day was by Open University tutor Dave, who took everyone through the structure of the forthcoming assignment (without giving any of the answers).  Dave talked about the use of the on-line discussion forums and this gave way to an interesting discussion about the importance of referencing.  Other points that were mentioned included the importance of things such as including word counts (on the TMA), and the learning objectives that are used by the module.

The programming bit...

During the afternoon, we all split into two different groups and got together into small groups of between two and four people.  The intention of the second part of the day was to try to create a small Sense project by huddling around a single laptop on which the Sense environment had been installed. We would then work on something for an hour, and then we would present what we had done to the other groups, describing some of the problems and challenges that we had encountered along the way.

Not having had much experience at using Sense, I was very happy to play an active role within one of the groups.  One of my main intentions at coming along for the day was to learn more about how to use the language and discover more about what it was capable of.  Our group came up with two different ideas: a representation of a car race track and some kind of athletic game or animation.  We settled on the athletic theme and decided we would try to animate a man running around a very simple athletics track.  (Our track became a square as opposed to an oval shape since we decided that re-discovering the mathematics of the circle was probably going to be quite tricky to master in about an hour!)

Within an hour we had drawn some stick figures, got our character doing a really simple 'run' animation and had our figure run around a really simple athletics track.  From memory, one of the challenges was figuring out how to represent program state and have it shared between different scripts that were running within the same sprite (apologies for immediately going into Sense-speak!)  Another challenge was to figure out how to represent state with Boolean variables and have those embedded within a continuous loop (but given enough time, I'm sure that we would have cracked it!)  A final challenge (and surprise) was to understand that the Sense environment automatically 'remembered' how much a character had been rotated between the different times that we 'ran' our scripts.  (We had instances where our running character ran off the side of the screen, much to our surprise!)

After our time was up, we were all asked to demonstrate and talk through our various projects.  I can remember a simple etch-a-sketch game, a demonstration of some bouncing balls (which bounced at different speeds), a space invader game (where the invader was a cat), a Tom and Jerry animation where Tom chased Jerry across a screen, and an animation that involved a balloon and a plane.   It was great to see very different projects since when we were coding our own, we can easily get into the mindset of just solving our own problem; seeing the work of others is something that is very refreshing.  It was inspiring to see what could be created after an hours of programming.

Reflections

The whole day reminded me of the time when I first tried to learn computer programming and I still remember that it was a pretty difficult challenge (in my day!)  I always wanted to rush ahead and solve the bigger more exciting problems but I was often tripped up because I needed to understand the operation of the fundamental instructions and operators (and the way a language worked).  In my own experience the only way to really understand how things work is to find the time to play, to explore the various operators and instructions, but finding both the time and the confidence to do this is perhaps a challenge itself.

All in all, the first Sense Workshop was a fun day.  I certainly got a lot out of it and I hope that everyone did too.  I certainly hope this is going to become a bi-annual event for all our TU100 students.  From my 'I've never really used Sense before to do anything other than to run a demo program' perspective, I certainly came out learning a lot more than I did when I started.  Large parts of Sense was demystified, and I certainly had a lot fun attending.

Additional resources

After sharing a link to this post my colleague Arosha (who also came along to the Sense workshop) has written a short blog post.  Arosha is loads more skilled when it comes to Sense programming and has re-created one of the projects that were demonstrated on the day.  Thanks Arosha!

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Mathematics, Breaking Tunny and the First Computers

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 15 May 2017, 12:11

Pciture of the Colossus computer

One of my interests is the history of computing. This blog post aims to summarise a seminar that as given by Malcolm MacCallum, University of London, held at the Open University on 30 October 2012.  Malcolm used to be the director of the Heilbronn Institute for Mathematical Research, Bristol.  Malcolm began by saying something about the institute, its history and its research.

This blog complements an earlier blog that I wrote to summarise a lecture that was given at City University.  This earlier lecture was entitled Breaking Enigma and the legacy of Alan Turing in Code Breaking and took place back in April 2012, and was one of a series of events to celebrate the centenary of Alan Turing's birth.  Malcolm's talk was similar in some respects but had different focus: there was more of an emphasis on the story that led to the development of what could be arguably one of the world's first computers.

I'm not going to say much about the historical background that is obviously connected with this post, since a lot of this can be uncovered by visiting the various links that I've given (if you're interested).  Instead, I'm going to rush ahead and introduce a swathe of names, terms and concepts all of which connect with the aim of Malcolm's seminar.

Codes, Cyphers and People

In some respects the story of the Enigma code, which took place at the Government Code and Cypher School, Bletchley Park, is one that gains a lot of the historical limelight.  It is easy to conflate the breaking of the Enigma code (Wikipedia), the Tunny code (Wikipedia) and the work of Alan Turing (Wikipedia).  When it comes to the creating of 'the first computer' (quotes intentional), the story of the breaking of the Tunny code is arguably more important. 

The Tunny code is a code generated by a device called the Lorenz cypher machine.  The machine combined transmission, encryption and decryption.  The Enigma code was very different.  Messages encrypted using Enigma were transmitted by hand in morse code.

I'm not going to describe much of the machines since I've never seen a real one, and cryptography isn't my specialism.  Malcolm informed us that each machine had 12 wheels (or rotors).  Each wheel had a set of cams that were set to either 1 or 0.  These wheel settings were changed every week or month (just to make things difficult).  As each character is transmitted, the wheels rotate (as far as I know) and an electrical circuit is created through each rotor to create an encrypted character.  The opposite happens when you decrypt: you put in an encrypted character one side and a plain text (decrypted) character magically comes out the other side.

For everything to work, the rotors for both the encrypting and decrypting machines have to have the same starting point (as otherwise everything will be gibberish).  These starting points were transmitted in unencrypted plain text at the start of a transmission

Through wireless intercept stations it was possible to capture the signals that the Lorenz cypher machines were transmitting.  The codebreakers at Bletchley Park were then faced with the challenge of figuring out the structure and design of a machine that they had never seen.  It sounds like an impossible challenge to figure out how many rotors and wheels it used, how many states the rotors had, and what these states were.

I'll be the first to admit that the fine detail of how this was done pretty much escapes me (and, besides, I understand that some of the activities performed at Bletchley Park remains classified).  What I'm really interested in is the people who played an important role in designing the physical hardware that helped with the decryption of the Tunny codes.

Depths and machines

Malcolm hinted at how the codebreakers managed to begin to gain an insight into how the Lorenz machine (and code) worked.  He mentioned (and I noted) the use of depths (Wikipedia), which is where two or more messages were sent using the same key (or machine setting).  Another note that I made was something called a Saltman break, which is mentioned in a book I'll reference below (which is one of those books which is certainly on my 'to read' list).

Malcolm mentioned two different sections of Bletchley Park: the Testery (named after Ralph Tester), and the Newmanry (named after Max Newman).  Another character that was mentioned was Bill Tutte who applied statistical methods (again, the detail of which is totally beyond me and this presentation) to the problem of wheel setting discovery.

It was realised that key aspects of code breaking could be mechanised.  Whilst Turing helped to devise the Bombe (Wikipedia) equipment that was used with the decryption of the Enigma code, another machine called the Heath Robinson (Wikipedia) was built.

One of the difficulties with the Heath Robinson was its speed. It made use of electromechanical relays which were slow, restricting the code breaking effort. A new approach was considered: the creation of a calculating machine that made use of thermionic valves (a precursor to the transistor).  Valves were perceived to be unreliable but it was realised that if they were continually powered up they were not stressed.

Colossus

Tommy Flowers (Wikipedia) engineered and designed a computer called Colossus (Wikipedia), drawing experience gained working at the Dollis Hill Post Office research station in North London.  

Although Colossus has elements of a modern computer it could be perhaps best described as a 'special purpose cryptographic device'.  It was not programmable in the same way that a modern computer has become (this is a development that comes later), but its programs could be altered; perhaps by changing its circuitry (I don't yet know how this would work).  It did, however, made use of familiar concepts such as interrupts, it synchronised its operation by a clock-pulse, stored data in memory, used shift registers and did some parallel processing.  Flowers also apparently introduced the term 'arithmetic and logic unit'.

Colossus was first used to break a message on 5 February 1944.  A rather different valve based calculator, the ENIAC (Wikipedia), built by the Moore School of Electrical Engineering, University of Pennsylvania, was used two years later.

Final points

Malcolm told us that ten Collosi were built (I might have spelt that wrong, but what I do know is that Collosus-es certainly isn't the right spelling!), with the last one being dismantled in 1960.  A total of twenty seven thousand messages were collected, of which thirteen thousand messages were decrypted.  Malcolm also said that Flowers was 'grossly under rewarded' for his imaginative and innovative work on Colossus.  I totally agree.

Research into the Colossus was carried out by Brian Randell from the Univerisity of Newcastle in the 1970s.  A general report on the Tunny code was only recently released in 2000.  Other sources of information that Malcolm mentioned was a book about the Colossus by Jack Copeland (Wikipedia)  (which is certainly on my 'to read' list), and a biography of Alan Turing by Andew Hodges (Wikipedia).

Malcom's talk reminded me of how much computing history is, quite literally, on our doorstep.  I regularly pass Bletchley on the way to the Open University campus at Milton Keynes.  There are, of course, so many other places that are close by that have played an important role in the history of computing.  Although I've already been twice to Bletchley Park, I'm definitely going to go again and take a longer look at the various exhibits.

(Picture: Wikipedia)

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Accessibility workshop: modules and module team representatives

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 2 May 2021, 12:46

For reasons that currently escape me, I seem to have found myself on three different module teams where I have some responsibility for accessibility.  The first two are design modules (design and innovation qualification) that are currently being developed by the university.  The third is M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design, a module that I have tutored since its launch in 2006. 

I've been asked to write what is called an accessibility guide for the design modules.  For M364, I was asked to attend an accessibility workshop that was held on 17 October 2012 at the university in Milton Keynes.  This blog post is a rough set of notes that relate to this event (which was intended to inform and help those who are charged with writing an accessibility guide).  As well as being an aide memoir for on-going work, I hope that it might be useful for my H810 Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students groups who may be confronted with similar challenges.  Furthermore, I hope that the summary may be of use to come of my colleagues.

Setting the scene

The workshop began with a bit of scene setting.  Accessibility and support for students with disabilities is provided by a number of different parts of the university.  These include Disabled Student Services, the Institute of Educational Technology (IET) who offer internal consultancy and advice, and the Library.  Responsibility also lies with faculties, such as the Faculty of Mathematics Computing and Technology in which I am primarily based.  Accessibility, it is said, is closely connected with one of the key objectives of the university: to be open to people.

We were all reminded for the fundamental need to anticipate the needs of students during the module production process.  This is especially important at the moment since there are a significant number of modules that are currently in production.  We were also reminded that a tension between content and accessibility can sometimes arise.  Academics may wish to present materials and suggest activities that may be difficult for some learners to engage with, for example.  There is the need to consider the implications of module design choices.

The types of anticipatory adjustments that could be made include figure descriptions, transcripts for videos, subtitling, alternative learning activities and the provision of alternative formats.  It should always be remembered that alternative formats, such as documents supplied in Word, PDFs and ePub formats have the potential to help all students.  Alternative formats (as well as standard provision of materials, such as those offered through the university virtual learning environment) can be consumed and manipulated by assistive technologies, such as screen readers, screen magnifiers, for example.  Other relevant assistive technologies that can be applied include voice recognition software and mobile devices.

Further scene setting consisted of painting a rough picture of the different types of disabilities that are declared by students.  I was interested to learn that only a relatively small number of broad categories make up the majority of declarations.  Although putting people in boxes or categories can be useful in terms of understanding the bigger picture, it's always important to remember that the challenges and conditions that people face can be very varied.  By way of additional information (and guidelines) I also remember a reference to a document by the Quality assurance agency (QAA) entitled code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education, Section 3: Disabled students (QAA website).  This might be worth a look if you are especially interested in these kinds of policy documents and guidance that relate to higher education.

It was also stated that it is important to consider accessibility as early as possible in the module design process.  The reason for this should be obvious: it is far easier to include accessibility during the early stages of the design of a new module than to it is to retrofit accessibility into an existing structure.  This takes us onto one of the aims of the workshop; to explore the role of a dedicated accessibility co-ordinator who sits on a module team.  One of the responsibilities of a co-ordinator is to write an accessibility guide for a module.

Responsibilities of a module team accessibility co-ordinator

Our first main activity of the day was to consider and discuss the different responsibilities of an accessibility co-ordinator.  Working in a small group, we quickly got stuck in.  We soon discovered that we had pretty different roles and responsibilities within the university.

The responsibilities that we considered were important were the necessity supporting module authors and liaise with colleagues, keeping track of what learning materials are being produced within a module and actively obtain support and guidance from different departments where necessary.  A fundamental responsibility was, of course, to produce an accessibility guide (which is now an important part of the module production process).

A co-ordinator must have an understanding of different sources of information, know how modules are produced, know something about the module material and have some facilitating and project management skills.  An ability to write clearly and succinctly is also important too!

Looking and some guides

After a period of discussion about the role of the co-ordinator, we then went onto have a look at a set of different accessibility guides with a view to trying to summarise what works well and what could be done better. 

Accessibility guides for individual modules are now being written for every new module.  The first module that had an accessibility guide was U116 Environment: journeys through a changing world. This was followed by TU100 My digital life.  A very detailed accessibility guide is also available for H810.

A fundamental question is: what is the purpose of the guide and who is it aimed for?  My understanding is that it can be used by a number of different people, ranging from learning support advisors who help students to choose modules, through to tutors and students.  It is a document for different audiences.

One thing that struck me that we don't yet have the perfect document, structure or system to provide all the information that everyone needs.  This very much reflects my own understanding that accessibility isn't producing a document or a standard or set of instructions.  Instead, it is more of a process where the artefacts can mediate and reflect interaction between people who work together to provide effective support.

One of the key difficulties that we uncovered was that there is an obvious tension between generic and specific advice.  There is a clear risk of offering too much information which has the potential to overwhelm the reader, but in some instances potential students may have very specific questions about the accessibility of certain aspects of a module.

I've made a note of some of the shared conclusions and assumptions about the purpose of a module accessibility guide.  Firstly, the guide is there to highlight accessibility challenges.  It should also say something about what alternative resources are available and also offer information and guidance about how to support students.

One really important question that was asked was: at what point in the module production should we create this?  The answer is writing the guide should happen during the module production process.  This allows the co-ordinator to be involved with the module development and allow potential accessibility problems to be addressed early.  

Moving forwards

I found the workshop useful.  One of the main conclusions was that there needed to be more clarity about the role of an accessibility co-ordinator.  I understand that the results from the discussions have been noted and there may well be follow up meetings.

Accessibility (as well as support for individual students) is something that needs to be owned by individuals.  Reflecting my understanding that it is a process, the guide is needed to be something that needs to be refreshed as a module team gains more experience over the years in which a module is delivered.

One thing is very clear for me.  Given my role as co-ordinator on a couple of modules, I clearly need to get more of an appreciation as to what is going on so I can then consider the kinds of potential challenges that students may face. 

A key challenge is to understand the (sometimes implicit) assumptions that module teams make about the extent of adjustments that can be made and present them in a way that can be understood to different audiences.  This strikes me as a pretty tough challenge, but one that is very important.

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Xerte Project AGM

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 18 Feb 2013, 19:13

Xerte is an open source tool that can be used to create e-learning content that can be delivered through virtual learning environments such as Moodle.  This blog post is a summary of a meeting entitled Xerte Project AGM that was held at the East Midlands Conference Centre at the University of Nottingham on 10 October 2012.  The purpose of the day was to share information about the current release about the Xerte tool, to offer an opportunity to different users to talk to each other and also to allow delegates to gain some understanding about where the development of the tool is heading.

One of my main motivations for posting a summary of the event is to share some information about the project with my H810 Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students tutor group.  Xerte is a tool that is considered to create accessible learning material - this means that the materials that are presented through (or using) Xerte may be able to be consumed by people who have different impairments. One of the activities that H810 students have to do is to create digital educational materials with a view to understanding what accessibility means and what challenges students may face when the begin to interact with digital materials.  Xerte can be one tool that could be used to create digital materials for some audiences.

This blog will contain some further description of accessibility (what it is and what it isn't); a subject that was mentioned during the day.  I'll also say something about other approaches that can be used to create digital materials.  Xerte isn't the beginning and end of accessibility - no single tool can solve the challenge of creating educational materials that are functionally and practically accessible to learners.  Xerte is one of many tools that can be used to contribute towards the creation of accessible resources, which is something different and separate to accessible pedagogy.

Introductions

The day was introduced by Wyn Morgan, director of teaching and learning at Nottingham.  Wyn immediately touched upon some of the objectives of the tool and the project - to allow the simple creation of attractive e-learning materials.

Wyn's introduction was followed by a brief presentation by Amber Thomas, who I understand is the manager for the JISC Rapid Innovation programme.  Amber mentioned the importance of a connected project called Xenith, but more of this later.

Project Overview

Julian Tenney presented an overview of the Xerte project and also described its history.  As a computer scientist, Julian's unexpected but very relevant introduction resonated strongly with me.  He mentioned two important and interesting books: Hackers, by Steven Levy, and The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric S Raymond.  Julian introduced us to the importance of open source software and described the benefit and strength of having a community of interested developers who work together to create something (in this case, a software tool) for the common good.

I made a note of a number of interesting quotes that can be connected to both books.  These are: 'always yield to the hands on' (which means, just get on and build stuff), 'hackers should be judged by their hacking', 'the world is full of interesting problems to be solved', and 'boredom and drudgery are evil'.  When it comes to the challenge of creating digital educational resources that can be delivered on-line, developers can be quickly faced with similar challenges time and time again.  The interesting and difficult problems lie with how best to overcome the drudgery of familiar problems.

I learnt that the first version of Xerte was released in 2006.  Julian mentioned other tools that can be used to create materials and touched upon the issue of both their cost and their complexity.  Continued development moved from a desktop based application to a set of on-line tools that can be hosted on an institutional web server (as far as I understand things).

An important point from Julian's introductory presentation that I paraphrase is that one of the constants of working with technology is continual change.  During the time between the launch of the original version of Xerte and the date of this blog post, we have seen the emergence of tablet based devices and the increased use of mobile devices, such as smartphones.  The standalone version of Xerte currently delivers content using a technology called Flash (wikipedia), which is a product by Adobe.  According to the Wikipedia article that was just referenced, Adobe has no intention to support Flash for mobile devices.  Instead, Adobe has announced that they wish to develop products for more open standards such as HTML 5. 

This brief excursion into the domain of software technology deftly took us onto the point of the day where the delegates were encouraged to celebrate the release of the new versions of the Xerte software and toolkits.

New Features and Page Types

Ron Mitchell introduced a number of new features and touched upon some topics that were addressed later during the day.  Topics that were mentioned included internationalisation, accessibility and the subject of Flash support.  Other subjects that were less familiar to me included how to support authentication through LDAP (lightweight directory access protocol) when using the Xerte Online Toolkit (as opposed to the standalone version), some hints about how to integrate some aspects of the Xerte software with the Moodle VLE, and how a tool such as Jmol (a Java viewer for molecular structures) could be added to content that is authored through Xerte.

One of the challenges with authoring tools is how to embed either non-standard material or materials that were derived from third party sources.  I seem to remember being told about something called an Embed code which (as far as I understand things) enables HTML code to be embedded directly within content authored through Xerte.  The advantage of this is that you can potentially make use of rich third party websites to create interactive activities.

Internationalisation

I understand the internationalisation as one of those words that is very similar to the term software localisation; it's all about making sure that your software system can be used by people in other countries.  One of the challenges with any software localisation initiative is to create (or harness) a mechanism to replace hardcoded phrases and terms with labels, and have them dynamically changed depending on the locale in which a system is deployed.  Luckily, this is exactly the kind of thing that the developers have been working on: a part of the project called XerteTrans.

Connector Templates

When I found myself working in industry I created a number of e-learning objects that were simply 'page turners'.  What I mean is that you had a learning object that had a pretty boring (but simple) structure - a learning object that was just one page after another.  At the time there wasn't any (easy) way to create a network of pages to take a user through a series of different paths.  It turns out that the new connector templates (which contains something called a connector page), allows you to do just this. 

The way that things work is through a page ID.  Pages can have IDs if you want to add links between them. Apparently there are a couple of different types of connector pages: linear, non-linear and some others (I can't quite make out my handwriting at this point!) The principle of a connector template may well be something that is very useful.  It is a concept that seems significantly easier to understand than other e-learning standards and tools that have tried to offer similar functionality.

A final reflection on this subject is that it is possible to connect sets of pages (or slides) together using PowerPoint, a very different tool that has been designed for a very different audience and purpose.

Xenith and HTML 5

Returning to earlier subjects, Julian Tenney and Fay Cross described a JISC funded project called Xenith. The aim of Xenith is to create a system to allow content that has been authored using Xerte to be presented using HTML 5 (Wikipedia).  The motivation behind this work is to ensure that e-learning materials can be delivered on a wide variety of platforms.  When HTML 5 is used with toolkits such as jQuery, there is less of an argument for making use of Adobe Flash.  There are two problems with continuing to use Flash.  The first is that due to a historic fall out between Apple and Adobe, Flash cannot be used on iOS (iPhone, iPad and iPod) devices.  Secondly, Flash has not been considered to be a technology that has been historically very accessible.

Apparently, a Flash interface will remain in the client version of Xerte for the foreseeable future, but to help uncover accessibility challenges the Xenith developers have been working with JISC TechDis.  It was during this final part of the presentation that the NVDA screen reader was mentioned (which is freely available for download).

Accessibility

Alistair McNaught from TechDis gave a very interesting presentation about some of the general principles of technical and pedagogic accessibility.  Alistair emphasised the point that accessibility isn't just about whether or not something is generally accessible; the term 'accessibility' can be viewed as a label.  I also remember the point that the application of different types of accessibility standards and guidelines don't necessarily guarantee a good or accessible learning experience.

I made a note of the following words.  Accessibility is about: forethought, respect, pragmatism, testing and communication.  Forethought relates to the simple fact that people can become disabled.  There is also the point that higher educational institutions should be anticipatory.  Respect is about admitting that something may be accessible for some people but not for others.  A description of a diagram prepared for a learner who has a visual impairment may not be appropriate if it contains an inordinate amount of description, some of which may be superfluous to an underlying learning objective or pedagogic aim.  Pragmatism relates to making decisions that work for the individual and for the institution.  Testing of both content and services is necessary to understand the challenges that learners face.  Even though educational content may be accessible in a legislative sense, learners may face their own practical challenges.  My understanding is that all these points can be addressed through communication and negotiation.

It was mentioned that Xerte is accessible, but there are some important caveats.  Firstly, it makes use of Flash, secondly the templates offer some restrictions and that access depends on differences between screen readers and browsers.  It is the issue of the browser that reminds us that technical accessibility is a complex issue.  It is also dependent upon the design of the learning materials that we create.

To conclude, Alistair mentioned a couple of links that may be useful.  The first is the TechDis Xerte page.  The second is the Voices page, which relates to a funded project to create an 'English' synthetic voice that can be used with screen reading software.

For those students who are studying H810, I especially recommend Alistair's presentation which can be viewed on-line by visiting the AGM website.  Alistair's presentation starts at about the 88 minute mark.

Closing Discussions and Comments

The final part of the day gave way to discussions, facilitated by Inge Donkervoort, about how to develop the Xerte community site. Delegates were then asked whether they would like an opportunity to attend a similar event next year.

Reflections

One of the things I helped to develop when I worked in industry was a standards compliant (I use this term with a degree of hand waving) 'mini-VLE'.  It didn't take off for a whole host of reasons, but I thought it was pretty cool!  It had a simple navigation facility and users could create a repository of learning objects.  During my time on the project (which predated the release of Xerte), I kept a relatively close eye on which tools I could use to author learning materials.  Two tools that I used was a Microsoft Word based add in (originally called CourseGenie) which allowed authors to create series of separate pages which were then all packaged together to create a single zip file, and an old tool called Reload.  I also had a look at some commercial tools too.

One of the challenges that I came across was that, in some cases, it wasn't easy to determine what content should be created and managed by the VLE and what content was created and managed by an authoring tool.  An administrator of a VLE can define titles and make available on-line communication tools such as forums and wikis and then choose to provide learners with sets of pages (which may or may not be interactive) that have been created using tools like Xerte.  Relating back to accessibility, even though content may be notionally accessible it is also important to consider the route in which end users gain access to content.  Accessible content is pointless if the environment which is used to deliver the content is either inaccessible or is too difficult to navigate.

Reflecting on this issue, there is a 'line' that exists between the internal world of the VLE and the external world of a tool that generates material that can be delivered through (or by) a VLE.  In some respect, I feel that this notional line is never going to be pinned down due to differences between the ways in which systems operate and the environments in which they are used.  Standards can play an important role in trying to defining such issues and helping to make things to work together, but different standards will undoubtedly place the line at different points.

During my time as a developer I also thought the obvious question of, 'why don't we make available other digital resources, such as documents and PowerPoint files to learners?'  Or, to take the opposite view of this question, 'why should I have to use authoring tools at all?'  I have no (personal) objections about using authoring tools to create digital materials.  The benefit of tools such as Xerte is that the output can be simple, directly and clear to understand.  The choice of the mechanisms used to create materials for delivery to students should be dictated primarily by the pedagogic objectives of a module or course of study.

And finally...

One thought did plague me towards the end of the day, and it was this: the emphasis on the day was primarily about technology; there was very little (if at all) about learning and pedagogy.  This can be viewed from two sides - understanding more about the situations in which a particular tool (in combination with other tools) can best be used, and secondly how users (educators or learning technologists) can best begin to learn about the tool and how it can be applied.  Some e-learning tools work well in some situations than others.  Also, educators need to know how to help learners work with the tools (and the results that they generate).

All in all, I had an enjoyable day.  I even recognised a fellow Open University tutor!  It was a good opportunity to chat about the challenges of using and working with technology and to become informed about what interesting developments were on the horizon and how the Xerte tool was being used.  It was also great to learn that a community of users was being established. 

Finally, it was great how the developers were directly tacking the challenge of constant changes in technology, such as the emergence of tablet computers and new HTML standards.  Tackling such an issue head on whilst at the same time trying to establish a community of active open source developers can certainly help to establish a sustainable long-term project.

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Journey: Introduction

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 28 Oct 2013, 13:41

It was a glorious September day; a day that echoed many of the best summer days that made the London Olympics so special for Londoners.  It was a day that I knew was going to change my life in a small but significant way - it was the day that I finally got around to changing my old fashioned (or 'classic') mobile telephone into one of those new fangled Smartphones.

'Why did it take you so long?  You work in technology?!', I could hear some of my friends and colleagues exclaiming. 'I was expecting you to be one of those who would jump at a chance to play with new stuff...'  The most obvious reason I can give as to why it took me so long is one that is immediately the most cynical: I've been around long enough to appreciate that early stuff doesn't always work as intended.   I decided to 'hang back' to see how the technology environment changes.  Plus, I was perfectly happy to muddle through with my simple yet elegant mobile phone which efficiently supported its primary purpose, which was to make and receive telephone calls.

I jumped on a red London bus and checked my text messages on my classic phone for the last time (there were none), and settled down to enjoy the ride of around four stops to Lewisham town centre, a bustling part of South East London.  I knew exactly where I was going -  to a shop entitled 'The Carphone Warehouse' (which sounds a bit anomalous, since it was neither a warehouse and I don't know anyone who has a dedicated car phone any more).

Stepping off the bus, I immediately found myself amidst a busy crowd.  One of the things that I love about Lewisham is its fabulous market.  I made my way past the fishmongers and hardware stall, and then past the numerous fruit and veg stalls, all of which seemed to be doing a roaring trade.  I then stepped into an air conditioned shopping centre and into the side entrance of the phone shop.  It was like I had entered another world.

After looking at a couple of 'device exhibits', I decided I needed to chat to someone.  It suddenly struck me how busy the shop was.  I joined an orderly queue had formed in front of the cash desk.  I could see that employees were deep in conversation with customers who had expressions that conveyed concentration.  In the background I could hear a woman speaking in what I understood to be a Nigerian accent expressing unhappiness.  'You can ring the shop...', said the shop assistant.  'But I don't have a phone!' came the flabbergasted reply. 'I want to speak to your manager!'

After about ten or fifteen minutes, it was my turn.  I explained to the harassed shop assistant what model of phone I wanted (I had done a bit of research) told her something about my current contract and mobile telecoms provider, and had a couple of questions.  These were about the costs, whether I could keep my telephone number and how long it would take to move from my old phone to the new phone.  I was told that my phone could have a choice of colours, that the sky is (approximately) the limit in terms of how much I wanted to spend on the contract, and that they can't help me today because the 'genius bar' guy who migrates telephone numbers from one phone system to another had fainted and had to go home.

It was at that point that I decided to leave the shop and theoretically return another day when the 'genius man' was around.  When I was about to go, I was given a really useful nugget of information, which was, 'just go around the corner to that other shop - they can change contracts for you, you don't even have to call up, which you would have to do if you came into the shop later'.

The second telephone shop I went into was a lot quieter and less frantic.  I asked my same questions about model, price and time and was given impeccably clear answers.  Everything was straight forward (if not slightly more expensive).  The helpful assistant cancelled my existing phone by pressing a few buttons, seemed unperturbed that my contract address was about two years out of date, and gave me a new contract to sign.  Plus, there were no (visibly) angry customers.

Within twenty minutes, I was in possession of one of the most powerful computing devices I have ever possessed.  I was sent on my merry way whilst carrying my new mobile friend in a branded bag.  It was as if I had just bought a very expensive shirt from an upmarket fashion boutique - this was a world away from the time when I bought my first ever mobile phone in the mid 1990s.

Heading home, I passed three different mobile telephone shops.  Each shop represented a different mobile phone provider.  I always knew that competition between mobile providers was fierce, but the act of walking past so many very similar shops (which can be found pretty much in every big high street) emphasised the vibrancy and visibility of the mobile telecommunications industry.

As I caught the bus back home, I started to think about the device I had just bought.  The short journey to and from Lewisham made me consider the different forces that all contributed towards making a tiny computing device through which you can almost live your entire life.  Through your phone, you can discover your current location and learn about your onward journey, search for businesses that are close by and explore the depths of human knowledge whilst you stand in the street.  You can even hold up your smartphone and the sights that you see annotated with information.  Your smartphone can become (or, so I've heard!) an extension of yourself; like an additional limb or a sense.  The smartphone is, fundamentally, a technological miracle.  These devices make the internet pervasive and information phenomenally accessible.

Whilst considering magic that has emerged from decades of development and continual technological creativity, I asked myself a fundamental question.  This was, 'where has all this come from?'  We can consider a smartphone to be an emergent application of physics, chemistry, electronics, industrial design, engineering and computing and a whole host of other disciplines and subjects too!  My question, however, was a bit more specific.  Since a smartphone is ultimately a very portable and powerful computer. My question is, 'where does the computer come from?'

Such a question doesn't have an easy answer.  In fact, there are many stories which are closely intertwined and interconnected.  The story of the networking is intrinsically connected with the history of computing and computer science.  Just as today's modern smartphones will be carrying out many different tasks (or threads of operation) running at the same time, there are many different threads of innovation that have happened at different times and at different places throughout the world. 

The development of a technology and its application is situated.  By this, I mean, physically situated within a particular place, but also within a particular societal context or environment.  Devices and technologies don't just magically spring into existence.  There is always a rich and complex back story, and this is often one that is fascinating.

Like so many Londoners, I consider myself to be an immigrant to the city.  Whilst wandering its streets I can easily become aware of a richness and a depth of history that can be connected to the simplest and smallest of streets and intersections.  Just scratching the surface of a geographical location can reveal a rich tapestry of stories and characters.  Some of those stories can be connected to the seemingly simple question of, 'where does the computer come from?'

If I consider my new fangled smartphone, I can immediately ask myself a number of corollary questions.  These are: where do the chips that power it come from?  Where are they designed?  Where do they get manufactured?  Where does the software come from?   But before we begin to answer these questions there is a higher level, almost philosophical question which needs to be answered.  This is: 'where does the idea for the modern computer come from?'

This blog post is hopefully one of many which hope to unpick this precise question.  I hope to (gradually) take a series of journeys in space and time, asking seemingly obvious questions which may not have obvious answers.  This may well take me to different parts of the United Kingdom, but there is also an adventurous part of me that wishes to make a number of journeys to different parts of the world.

But before I even consider travelling anywhere outside of London, there are places in London that are really important in the history of the development of the computer, and a good number of them are only a few miles from my house.  Although the next journey will only be a short distance geographically, we will also go back in time to the nineteenth century.  This is a time when computers were people and machines were powered by steam.

My first journey (whilst carrying my smartphone) will be to an ancient part of London called Elephant and Castle.  It's a part of London that is not known for its glamour and culture of innovation and seems a long way from the conception of a modern computer.  Instead, it is a part of the city that is known for its large concrete tower blocks that were considered to be a symbol for modern urban decay.  In fact, the only times I've spent there was riding through the district on my motorbike on the way to somewhere else.

'What has this area got to do with the development of the computer?', I hear you ask.  I'm going to explain all in my next blog post.  And when I've been to Elephant and Castle, we're going to begin to travel further afield.

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Raspberry Pi : suited and booted

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 5 Jun 2018, 09:34

I received delivery of my Raspberry Pi computer from RS components about two and a half months ago.  It's taken a bit of time to finally 'get it together' to create a setup that enables me to learn more about what it can do and what I could potentially use it for.  This blog is all about the steps that I took to arrive at a working setup.

When I made my original order I decided on the lazy option - I chose to buy a number of key components at the same time.  Along with my Raspberry Pi board I bought a power supply (which connects to the micro USB port of the device), a HDMI cable and a memory card which contains an operating system.  When you're starting with something new, there's something to be said for going with a standard distribution or setup.  There's the fundamental question of 'will it do stuff when I turn the power on?'  Going with a default or standard setup is a way to get going quickly.

There were, of course, three other things I needed: a mouse, a keyboard and a screen.  For the screen I figured out that I might be able to test my Pi out using my TV (since it had a HDMI port). For a keyboard and mouse, I visited a popular on-line hardware retailer and bought a cheap mouse and a keyboard.  (To get an idea of how cheap they were, both items together cheaper than the price of a single pint of beer; it's astonishing how the price of hardware continues to drop).

I wanted something else, though.  A quick search on eBay using the term 'Raspberry Pi' revealed a number of small companies that had started to make cases for the Pi.  After about ten minutes of searching I found a company called ModMyPi.  Although I didn't strictly need a case, I thought it would be a sensible thing to do.  I could easily imagine myself putting my Pi on the floor and haplessly treading on it whilst carrying a hot cup of tea. 

After ten minutes of agonising decision making I had finally decided that my Pi needed a red case.  Why red?  Well, for two reasons: firstly, to signify that this little box is important (i.e. the red box is where number crunching takes place), and secondly, to make it pretty visible when it's sitting on my beige carpet (so I don't tread on it).

The trouble with buying something new is that things don't always arrive on time, and this was the situation with my tiny Pi case.   Although I soon had my keyboard and mouse, the case took quite a few weeks to arrive due (apparently because I didn't read the small print which said that I was making a pre-order - note to self: read the small print!)

Boot day 1 : Trouble

I had everything: my newly suited (or encased) Raspberry Pi, a power supply, a USB keyboard, a USB  mouse, a HDMI cable and an operating system (a version of Linux) on a memory card.  I attached the USB devices, connected the Pi to my temporary display (my living room telly) and powered everything up.  Through the case I could see that a LED came on and my TV changed display mode - things were happening!  The screen started to fill with boot messages and then suddenly... everything stopped.  I squinted, looked at the screen and I could see that there had been something called a Kernal Panic.

When faced with weird technical stuff going wrong what I tend to do is check all the connections and try again.  Exactly the same thing happened, so I powered down, and scratched my head.  Then, I unplugged the USB device and the USB keyboard and powered up; this time I got a lot further.  I was eventually presented with a Linux login prompt but did not have any way of entering a user id.  This told me that (perhaps) there might have been something wrong with either the mouse of the keyboard.  I plugged both devices, one at a time, into my Windows laptop to see if they were recognised.  The mouse was recognised straight away but Windows had to search for an eternity to find a device driver before the device was recognised, suggesting that there was something special about its design.

Every techie knows that Google is their friend, especially when it comes to weird error messages. I searched for the terms, 'raspberry pi', 'panic' (or dump) and 'keyboard' and quickly found a site called elinux.org that contained a Wiki page which listed keyboards that were known to cause mischief.  I soon figured out that I had ordered the Xenta HK-6106 which was known to cause a kernel panic on a Debian distribution (I obviously had either the same one or a distribution very similar to it).  Mystery solved!

Ordering more stuff

I ordered a new keyboard.  This time I bought one (which cost the price of a half  pint of beer) that was on the 'working peripherals' list.

One of my biggest worries (if you could call it that) is that the screens that I use for my desktop PC are both pretty old (I have a dual screen setup).  One of them only has a VGA input, which is useless for the Pi.  The other screen has a DVI input.  A quick search revealed that it was possible to get HDMI to DVI cables.  I didn't know you could do this, and I have to confess that I don't know much about DVI other than my main PC has got one of these as a video output (in addition to a VGA port).  Still, I decided to buy a cable from eBay and hope for the best.

Boot day 2 : Success

After rummaging in a box that contained an indeterminate number of cables (hasn't every geek got one of these boxes?), I found a network cable.  I took every bit of my Pi setup upstairs to my study area and connected everything together; keyboard, mouse, power supply, screen and network cable (which I physically connected to the back of my router, after dragging it half way across the room since my network cable wasn't quite long enough, and still isn't quite long enough).

I powered up.  A kernel panic didn't occur.  I was presented with a login prompt.   I typed the user id: pi, followed by the password: raspberry.  I then entered 'startx' at the shell prompt.  The screen changed and I was presented with a gui.  My aged screen was working!  I soon discovered an internet browser (accessed through the menu located at the bottom left of the screen).  Within a minute or so I was able to navigate to my favourite news site and open Wikipedia.  Success!

Now that I've got everything working, I asked the question, 'what can I do with it?'  I guess this question has two key answers: you can use it to learn about computing, or you could use it to do stuff.  If I find the time I hope to do both!

Learning with the Pi

Considering the learning aspect, it's obvious that there are loads of things going on from the moment that you turn on the Pi.  There are a couple of pages of screens of mysterious messages which currently don't make much sense to me (it's been a while since I've had a Linux distribution on one of my computers).  When you login to the Pi environment there are loads of menu items, applications and tools that I've never heard of before.  There's also a version of a windowing system that I've never heard of before.  There's also a weird sounding browser which seems to render things pretty well, judging from a brief ten minute play. 

There are also a set of programming tools and utilities.  The learning can go from the low levels of computing (from the level of the operating system) through to higher level applications (that can help to teach fundamentals of programming).  Being a bit of a geek, the most interesting question for me is 'what exactly does the Pi Linux distribution contain?'  This, I think, is going to be my first learning task.

Another geeky question is: how do you build software for the Pi?  My main computers are Intel based desktops or laptops.  The Pi is based around an ARM processor.  How do I take existing Open Source software and compile them up so they work on that ARM chip?  Going down a level even further, how do you get USB peripherals to work with the Pi?  Do I have to write a device driver?  Is the world of ARM device drivers different to Intel device drivers?  I have so many questions!

One thing that I have heard of (in passing, through a quick Google search) is that you can use what is known as a cross compiler.  This means that you can compile software using one processor architecture for another.   Of course, this is getting impossibly deeply technical for a first blog about the Pi so I'm going to stop asking myself difficult questions and wondering (for now) what is and what is not possible!

On another note there are a couple of Open University modules that are tangentially connected to (or might be useful with regards to) the Pi.  The Pi Linux distribution contains an environment called Scratch.  This is a graphical programming language developed by MIT that introduces the fundamentals of computer programming.  The Open University makes use of a derivative of Scratch called Sense, which is used with the TU100 My Digital Life module.  The other module that could be useful is T155 Linux: an introduction.   

Doing stuff with the Pi

So, it boots up.  That's pretty cool.  But what might I practically be able to do with it?  I've heard one of my colleagues talking about potentially using a Pi to create a digital video recorder, which sounds like a fun project.  You can also use it as an embedded system to control other hardware. In fact, looking at the Raspberry Pi blog presents a veritable array of different projects and ideas.

About six or so years ago, perhaps even longer, when I worked in industry, in a company that made educational products that could be used to help teach engineering subjects, I suggested creating a device that could (potentially) be used to help teach the fundamentals of computer networking.  The idea was to make use of an inexpensive embedded microcontroller to create something called a 'computer cube'.  Each cube would have simple input and output (perhaps a couple of switches and a LCD display), as well as a network connection (either a standard network connection, or a proprietary interface that can be easily accessed through software).   The idea was that you could connect a set of computer cubes them together on a desk; you could create your own mini internet and also have the ability to look at the signals transmitted between devices and begin to understand the principles of protocols.

Of course, such an idea was hopelessly ambitious, plus there were increasing numbers of network simulators that did a pretty good job of helping learners to explore the principles of networking.  Fundamentally, at the time, it was a bad idea.

But then the Pi arrived.  The Pi is cheap, small, has its own peripherals and is open.  You can run whatever software you want on it.  A Pi is a web client, but there is no reason why it can't also become a web server.  A Pi could also (potentially) become everything in between too.  You could connect them together using relatively cheap switches and hubs, and explore (in a practical sense) computer networking and the software that supports networking works.  You could set one to transmit data, and perhaps use the general purpose IO ports to indicate output of some kind.

Would it be possible to have a network of Pi devices on a desk?  Possibly.  What software would be useful to learn more about the fundamentals of networking?  I'm not sure.  Could we create some useful curriculum or pedagogic materials to go with this?  I've no idea.  All this sounds like a project that is a bit too big for just one person.  If you accidentally discover this blog post and you think this may be a useful idea (or hold the view that it remains a bad idea), then please do get in touch!

Final notes

There is one clear certainty in computing.  It isn't Moore's Law.  It's that there is always an opportunity to learn new stuff.  As well as looking at the Pi operating system and learning about what the various bits are, I've also heard it mentioned that the language of the Pi is Python (Wikipedia).  This isn't a language that I've used before.  It's certainly about time that I knew something about it!

If you scratch the surface of anything technical you find a set of subjects and technologies that are both interesting and challenging.  Not only is the Raspberry Pi device interesting and challenging in its own right, but I'm sure that the situations in which it can be used and applied will be interesting and challenging too.

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e-Learning Community: Portfolios and Corpora

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The Open University has something called an e-learning community.  This is a loose group of people who share a common interest in e-learning and the application of information technology for teaching and learning.  Since I was visiting the head office at Milton Keynes for a meeting, I thought I would drop into a seminar that took place on 11 July 2012.

This meeting of the e-learning community comprised of two different talks, both very different from each other.  The first presentation, by Thomas Strasser, was about e-portfolio systems and how they can be used with teacher training.  In some ways, this first talk connected to an earlier HEA event at Birmingham City University which focused on helping people to create an on-line professional presence.  The second talk, by Alannah Fitzgerald, was about how corpora can be used to help with language learning.  I hope that that through these notes I've done justice to both presentations.

The role of self-organised learning using Mahara

The full title of Thomas Strasser's presentation is, Mighty Mahara: the role of self-organised learning within the context of Mahara ePortfolio at Vienna University of Teacher Education.   Mahara (Mahara website) is an open source ePortfolio system which appears to be increasingly used in combination with the Moodle virtual learning environment.  One of the reasons for this is likely to be that both systems make use of the same underlying software, PHP. 

An ePortfolio system can be described as an on-line tool that can be used as a repository to store documents of work performed and reflections to gain further understandings of a particular subject or topic.  I understood that ePortfolios can have different faces: on one hand they can be private (to facilitate personal reflection), or they can be public (to enable the sharing of documents and ideas between different groups).  The public dimension can also allow the user to share information about competencies with other people, and this may include potential employers.

During Thomas's presentation, I was introduced to a slightly different (and more nuanced) view of ePortfolios.  Apparently three authors called Baumgartner, Himpsl and Zauchner proposed three different types: systems that can be used to facilitate reflection (thoughts on work that has been done), development (thoughts about future directions and plans), and presentation (information about what the user or student can do, or has achieved).

One of the most important points that I've noted is that Thomas argued that teachers need to be digitally literate and be able to appreciate the different situations in which digital media might be used. 

One term that was new to me was 'self-organised learning'.  Whilst I had not heard of this term before, its intention feels immediately comprehensible.  Thomas mentioned that it is connected to recent debates surrounding life-long learning.  Four components of self-organised learning were mentioned, a focus on individual strengths and weaknesses, self-reflection (I'm assuming this means on work that has been performed and problems carried out), differentiated systematic reflection (I'm not sure what this means), and documentation (which I understand relates to the creation of documentation, to create evidence).

Why use an ePortfolio?  I understand that teacher training is a field where it is necessary to collect a significant amount of documentation and evidence.  The one thing that an ePortfolio can do is to replace paper based reports and portfolios, thus helping to unburden the lecturer.  The lecturer, however, is not the focus.  Instead, the student or learner should be at the centre.

For any on-line tool to be successful its users need to either see or discover its worth. One way to achieve this is to have a lecturer being a 'role model', i.e. using the same tools as the student.  An important point was that the popularity of a tool can depend on the enthusiasm of the tutors that are using it; acceptance is something that can take time and institutions may have a role to play in terms of making certain tools obligatory.

Through their ePortfolio system, Thomas's students are encouraged to share a lot of their work and activities with others.  The system can store contact information, students can communicate with each other through a reflective blog and can provide peer feedback through task-based reflection. (It was at this point that I thought of the Open University tool, Open Design Studio that is used as a part of the U101 Design Thinking module). 

The question and answer session at the end of Thomas's talk raised a number of familiar questions.  These include what may happen to an ePortfolio when a student leaves their institution, the extent of difference between an ePortfolio and a website, and the issues of privacy and security.

A copy of Thomas's presentation can be found by visiting the presentation section of his Learning Reloaded website.  Further information and research can be found on Thomas's home page.

Addressing academic literacies: corpus-based open educational resources

Alannah Fitzgerald's presentation had a strong connection with the subject of computational linguistics, a subject which I took as a master's module.  I understand a corpus to be a set of texts that can be used by researchers to gain an understanding about how language is used.  I first learnt of the term when I heard of something called the British National Corpus, or BNC, which is a set of carefully sampled texts which can be used by linguists.

One of the themes of Alannah's presentation was teaching of academic English, particularly to people who know English as their second language.  I had never heard of this before, but apparently there is something called an 'academic word list'.  This word list has been published by academic publishers with the intention of helping language learners.  The word list has apparently been produced by the analysis of a corpus of academic articles.

One of the challenges of creating a corpus is to ensure that it is representative.  This means that samples of language use are chosen from different disciplines.  Just as in the social sciences, research that presents conclusions from poorly sampled data can be subjected to challenge.  Such challenges, of course, can lead to new experiments (or new corpora), which may lead to different results.

Another theme of Alannah's talk was open educational resources (Wikipedia), or OER.  OERs are educational resources that anyone can use, free of charge.  Over recent years a number of on-line corpora and linguistic tools have become available.  Such tools can be used by teachers and student alike, potentially to either augment the use of textbooks, or even to gain different or alternative perspectives.

We were introduced to FLAX, or Flexible Language Acquisition Project, Wordandphrase and Lextutor.  Wordandphrase draws upon a corpus called COCA, an abbreviation for Corpus of Contemporary American English.  Apparently, one of its really interesting features is that whilst the BNC is a snapshot of language at a particular period of time, COCA is continually being added to, so it represents 'current' language usage. Another interesting corpus is BAWE, an abbreviation for British Academic Written English.

The main point of Alannah's talk was that teachers of English need not be constrained only by the resources that publishers provide.  Challenges lie in understanding how the different tools work and how they can fit in and be used within classes (a thought which has been drawn from Thomas's earlier comment that the tutor needs to show how tools could and should be used).

Other resources include BALEAP, which is an organisation dedicated to the professional development of those involved in learning, teaching, scholarship and research in English for Academic Purposes (EAP).  Another site that was mentioned being Teacher Training Videos.

Reflections

I enjoyed both presentations.  Regarding the presentation about ePortfolios I do sense that their success in an institution or a course of study will heavily depend on how the advantages of such tools are conveyed to students.  People only use tools if they are perceived to yield some kind of benefit or have a clear purpose (or if you have to use them to gain scores that contribute towards an assessment).  One issue that remains is the unknown consequences of sharing or whether what we write will be 'googleable' and come back to haunt us.

I particularly enjoyed Alannah's talk since the subjects that she spoke about were very different to my current research interest (which is becoming to be more about the history of computing).  What was great (for me) was that it brought back memories of old studies and reminders of tools I had looked at many years ago (such as WordNet).

Alannah's talk also made me wonder about whether it might be possible, or in fact, useful to create to create a corpus of computer programs, which may have the potential to help us to learn more about the ways that software developers perceive and understand different types of software.  Much food for thought.

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Teaching, Learning and Assessment of Databases

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 30 Jan 2019, 12:30

The 10th Teaching, Learning and Assessment of Databases (TLAD) workshop was held at the University of Hertfordshire on 9 July 2012. 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 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 (NoSQL.org) 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.

Reflections

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.

Addendum

A few years after publishing this post, I was contacted by a reader, who mentioned that they had a website about the teaching of PL/SQL that contained a number of useful tutorials. If anyone is interested, here's a link to Ben Brumm's PL/SQL tutorials (Databasestar webite).

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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.

Reflections

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 online professional presence

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 13 Jul 2020, 12:17

A HEA workshop held on Friday 9 June at Birmingham City University set out to answer the following questions, 'how important is our online presence to prospective employers?' and, 'what can students do to increase their online visibility?'  Of course, there are many other related questions that connect to the broader subject of online 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 online 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 started his presentation (Prezi) 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 online 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 online 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 online 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 online 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 online profiles, such as About.Me and CreativePool.

Student's online profiles for employability and community

Information about ourselves that we share online 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 online community. Karen Kear and Frances Chetwynd from the Open University described a research project that is aiming to uncover more about how online profiles are used by students who make use of online discussion forums.  Research is carried out by through questionnaires and online 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.

Reflections

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 online 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 online, and there are good reasons for this, which we should respect.

These thoughts made me consider online 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 online 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 online 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 online 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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Life in the fast lane? Towards a sociology of technology and time

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On a recent trip to Milton Keynes on 29 May 2012 I had the opportunity to attend a Society and Information Research Group (SIRG) seminar by Judy Wacjman (LSE).  Judy is a Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.   Judy's presentation, very broadly speaking, was about technology and time and whether one affects the other.  Her seminar was related to research that may feed into a book that she is currently working on.  This post is a personal reflection of some of the themes that struck me as being significant and important in my own work.  Others who attended the seminar are very likely to have picked up on other issues (and I encourage them to add comments below).

Timing

For me, the timing of her seminar couldn't have been better.  My last blog was about an event that shared practice about how lecturers and institutions could most effectively help students to develop software for mobile devices.  During this event mobility was portrayed as an opportunity, but there is also was an implicit assertion that mobile technology will change how we work.  In doing so, mobile technology can affect how we spend our time.

Productive work may not cease the moment that we now leave the office, but instead can now continue for the duration of our commute home.  Work may invade on our personal time too, since we can easily take our devices away on holiday with us.  Important messages that are concluded with a succinct, 'sent from my iPhone', clearly suggests that we are working whilst we are on the move.

Judy mentioned that perhaps some of these concerns mainly relate to 'management or professional types', and this might be the case.  But one way to really understand the issue (of time, and how it is affected by technology) is to carry out studies, particularly ethnographic studies to conduct observations about how people really use technology.

Research methods

Such methods are briefly discussed within a module, such as M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design, which is concerned with how to make devices and systems that are usable to people.  Two approaches used for the evaluation of the success of products includes ethnographic studies (observing users), and asking them to complete diary studies.  Judy's presentation emphasised the point that interdisciplinary research is a necessity if we are to understand the way in which technology impacts our lives.

Judy managed to connect my immediate concerns about mobile technology and its impact on our time with earlier debates.  Introductions of devices, such as washing machines and other labour saving devices were touted to 'save time'.  This raised the questions of 'what happens when we get that time back?  How might we spend it?'  Unpicking these questions leads us into further interesting debates, which relate to the different ways in which men and women use the time that they have available, and towards the broader concerns of capitalism.

One point that Judy mentioned in passing (which I've remembered reading or hearing before) is that perhaps we have been 'cheated by capitalism'.  Perhaps the extra time we have gained hasn't been spent on leisure, but instead has been spent on doing even more work, which allows us to buy more stuff (since, perhaps, everyone else is doing the same).  A personal reflection is that mobile devices also act as devices of consumption.  Not only do they facilitate the extension of work into our 'dead time', but also permit us to browse eBay and on-line stores whilst travelling on a train, for instance.

Technology and speed

Returning to the main debate, does technology cause us to work 'faster' or more?  Is the pace of our lives accelerating because we can access so much more information than ever before? Judy urges caution and asks us to consider causality.  On one hand there is technological determinism (wikipedia), but on the other there is social determinism (wikipedia).  Mobility can facilitate new ways of interacting with people, which may then, in turn, give rise to new technologies.  It could be argued that one helps to shape the other mutually.

Judy cautions against having the individual as the focus of our attention.  People live and work with each other.  Perhaps the household should be the focus of our attention when it comes to understanding the influence of technology on our lives.

What was clear from Judy's seminar was that there were many different areas of literature that could be brought to bear on understanding technology, time and how we spend it.  During her talk I made a note of a number of references that might be interesting to some.  The first was an edited book entitled High-speed society: social acceleration, power, and modernity, edited by Hartmut Rosa and William E Scheuerman.  The second was entitled, Shock of the old: technology and global history since 1900, by David Edgerton.  The final book that I have extracted from my notes is that of, Alone together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other, by Sherry Turkle (MIT, homepage).

Reflections

An enjoyable and thought provoking seminar which highlighted an important point that when you begin to scratch the surface of a question you then open up a broader set of connected and related issues.  Important subjects include the importance of the wider context in which technology is used and what tools and approaches we might use to understand our environment.  I was reminded of the obvious truth that, given technology firmly exists within the human context, learning from disciplines such as history and sociology is as important as drawing upon lessons from science and engineering.

 

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Mobile Application Development: from curriculum design to graduate employability

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 19 Oct 2021, 11:26

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.

Reflections

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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Visit to University of Abertay, Dundee

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 24 Feb 2017, 18:05

During a motorcycle touring holiday at the beginning of May, I found a bit of time to pop into the University of Abertay, Dundee, for a couple of hours.  This was the first time I had ever been to Dundee.  One of the reasons for the to visit was to find out more about the university's Dare to Be Digital video game competition which has been running since 2000 (becoming an international event in 2005).

Dare, as it is known, is a tough event to enter; students and teams have to competitively apply.  When students have been accepted, they work together within interdisciplinary teams to create a whole computer game for the duration of the event.  I sense that Dare is unusual and powerful vehicle since representatives from industry play an important role.  Industrial contributors are said to be involved for a number of reasons: to offer support and guidance to student teams, to gain new ideas and inspiration and also to be introduced to participants who may be looking for a foothold within the industry.

In an earlier HEA gaming and animation event I attended I heard it said that the best way to demonstrate one's own technical abilities is to provide a demonstration of a completed game.  I've always felt that a CV and interview is a thoroughly inadequate selection approach, especially for software roles which are, in my opinion, intrinsically creative.  I've always wanted to show an employer what I've coded but have, on occasions, been scuppered by convention and copyright.  In a way, creating something to add to a 'digital portfolio' takes a leaf straight out of the creative arts book.  Showing a development (which is what the Dare participants produce) allows not only a demonstration of technical skill, but also facilitates opportunities for further discussion about some of the challenges that had to be overcome during the production of a game.

I was interested to learn that Dundee has what is known as a Games Festival (BBC News), an event that I hadn't heard of before.  There are film festivals, music festivals and book festivals and games connects with all these different types of media.  I would even go as far as writing that there are some games which strike me as works of art, combining breath taking animation, complex characterisation, awesome sound all of which have the potential to create strong emotional responses.  The thought of a games festival reminds me of a suggestion in the earlier HEA event that students should try to make the time to visit such events.

During my visit to Abertay I remember having a chat about the challenges of working within the games industry.  I remember once hearing that commercial software developers have what is becoming known as a half-life.  This means that after a number of years being really technical and cutting code, the challenge of learning 'yet another tool' and juggle code in the developers short term memory becomes activities that become tiring rather than exciting.  It is felt some roles within the games industry, perhaps the more technically focussed ones, can also have a career or role half-life.

This said, being involved in the games industry isn't just about cutting code (games engines can be utilised and harnessed), there's also roles which relate to the production of a game or product.  Understanding the bigger picture and being able to work with other disciplines (such as graphical design, music and business) are skills that are arguably more important than pure technical talent.

One comment that I remember from the visit was that some students choose to study games because they enjoy playing them.  It strikes me that there is a huge chasm between the attractiveness of the end product and the intense and detailed development activities that must take place to create a game.  It is akin to the difference between watching a film and thoroughly understanding the technical and artistic dimensions of film production.  I came away having confirmed my sense that working in the industry is hard work, and it was encouraging that the staff I met were able to convey first-hand industrial experience to their students.

I'll close this blog with three different thoughts: an observation, a personal reflection and some thoughts about research.  The observation is of a mural that could be seen in the building I visited.  The mural depicted a graphical history of three different things (I hope I'm remembering this correctly!)  The first is a timeline of gaming hardware, the second (I think) is a timeline of important games, and the third seemed to be a timeline of important companies or publishers.  Such a mural offered a visible reminder of the context in which students were working and that we are a part of an emerging history which continually changes as technology changes.

The second thought, the one that is personal, is closely connected to the mural.   Those of us who have grown up with technology have our own unique relationship with games.  In some ways the industry may play a formative role in the way that we interact with technology.  My own history with gaming began with home computers of the 1980s particularly the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (which was apparently built in the now closed Timex factory in Dundee; a fact that had passed me by!)  I remember buying cassette games from specialist computer shops and, later, budget games at my local newsagent (a reflection on how the marketing of games operated at the time).

More powerful technology led to better (and more exciting) games, particularly Elite (Wikipedia), which was played (during my school lunch hours) on a BBC Model B equipped with an exotic piece of technology known as a disk drive.  Elite was astonishing.  It made use of three dimensional wire frame graphics - a player could explore an entire galaxy and cause no end of trouble by shooting at space stations. 

My games history also includes ownership of two different generations of Sony Playstation but concludes with some meddling with on-line worlds and games hosted on mobile devices.  This movement to different platforms and then onto the internet reflects how gaming (and the games industry) has changed with developments in technology.

Finally, onto the subject of research.  I have thoughts that reflect two rather different questions.  The first relates to understanding the career stability and demands placed on those who work within high technology industries, and the ways in which career trajectories can change and develop.  Understanding the quality and diversity of careers within an industry has the potential to offer useful and practical guidance to programmes of study that aim to equip students for work within an industry.  I don't know if the games industry has been subject to any form of systematic study, but perhaps this is an interesting question to ask.

The second question relates to an increasingly strong research interest, namely the effect of geography and which other influences may affect the development of a particular technology or industry.  Perhaps there is something special about Dundee that has affected how the city has emerged as centre for games education.

A few final words: many thanks to those at the University who were able to spare some of their valuable time to talk to me; I felt very welcome.  I was minded of the fact that scratching the surface of gaming revealed a complex creative industry and one that relies on the creativity and talent of people from many disciplines. My visit reminded me of the exciting (and challenging) nature of digital media and emphasised that continual change and evolution in both the industry and technology is a constant.

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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).

Opening

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'.

Reflections

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.

Acknowledgements

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

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Breaking Enigma and the legacy of Alan Turing in Code Breaking, City University, London

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 18 May 2018, 09:08

City University logo

As soon as I received an email advertising a public lecture at City University by Processor David Stupples on 17 April about the life and legacy of Alan Turing, a couple of weeks after finishing reading Alan Hodge's biography, I knew I had to make the time to come along.  This blog is a summary of some aspects of the event, accompanied by a set of thoughts that the lecture inspired.  I should add that I'm neither a mathematician and nor a cryptographer, but the story of code breaking and the history of Bletchley Park (and how it came to be) is one that has and continues to fascinate me.

David Stupples is professor of systems and cryptography at City University.  His lecture is one of a series of lectures that are given at City, but this one coincides with the centenary of Alan's birth.  The lecture also celebrates the creation of the City University Centre for Cybersecurity Sciences (City University website).

David's lecture began at the end, beginning briefly with Alan Turing's death in 1954, before moving onto a number of subjects which relate to cryptography, the breaking of the enigma code, stories about daring plots to capture code books and then concluding by speaking briefly about Alan Turing's legacy.

Before I attempt to summarise (to the best of my abilities) some of the points that David spoke about during his lecture, he also mentioned an interesting connection between City University and the centre of wartime code breaking at Bletchley Park (website).  David mentioned a former faculty member, Arnold Lynch.  Apparently Arnold worked with electrical engineer Tommy Flowers (Wikipedia), helping to design a fast input device to the Colossus machines that were designed with help from the post office research station (Wikipedia) at Dollis Hill, London.  The work centred on the reading of paper tape loops using light as opposed to mechanics.  Colossus, Bletchley Park and Turing are intrinsically linked, but as far as I understand they are different stories.  They are linked through cryptography, which is a subject that David introduces.

Cryptography

What is cryptography?  In essence, it is study that is concerned with the hiding and writing of secret messages.  David began by introducing us all to the Caesar cipher (Wikipedia), a simple 'monoalphabetic substitution cipher'.  Simply put, you take one letter and replace it with another.  Such ciphers are easy to crack because you can eventually figure out which letter is which by looking at the structure of messages and also the frequency of individual letters.

A more sophisticated approach is to encode groups of letters (bigrams or trigrams) as a single code.  This method, we were told, dates back to Napoleonic times.  We were then introduced to the beginnings of the theory of Enigma codes through the Vigenère cipher (Wikipedia), which I had never heard of before.

David added an interesting aside, saying that this cipher was attacked by Lord Byron's daughter, Ada, Countess of Lovelace.  Ada is also known for her work with the Victorian computing pioneer, Charles Babbage, who proposed, designed and partially built different computing engines: the analytical engine and the difference engine.

Returning to the subject in hand, one approach to encrypt a message is to use a book of codes.  A character (or group of characters) are matched with an entry in a code book, which then have a precise meaning.  Using the technical phrases: there is ciphertext (the message that you can't read), and then the plaintext (the message that you can).

One of the biggest challenges is getting these code books to the people who need to read the messages, and this is one of the biggest challenges that need to be overcome.  David hinted at the mysterious but practical notion of asymmetric keys  (Wikipedia), mentioning their application of number theory.

The Enigma and Codebreaking

One of the most interesting parts of David's talk was his description of the different types of Enigma machine that were deployed; different parts of the German military used different variants.  An Enigma machine comprises of plug boards (which I understand to be a character substitution mechanism) along with a number of rotors, and a reflector which passes a signal back through each of the rotors.  These elements, in combination with each other, create cryptographic combinations in numbers that are quite literally astronomical and unimaginable.  Different machines would have slightly different configurations and different numbers of rotors.  The greater the numbers of rotors, the more 'secure' the code.

Another added complexity was that Enigma operators can also use code books.  Code books in combination with plug boards in combination with rotors which have all been used to encrypt messages in another language presents a problem that feel as if it should be impossible to solve.

So, how was it possible to break the Enigma, to recover plain text from cipher text? I have to confess when it came to following some of the detail, I became a little lost.  Understanding codes and ciphers, how they work and their weaknesses requires the application of an energetic amount of mental gymnastics.  Knowing the background and context behind the discoveries is a useful prerequisite to understanding the detail.

The first aspect lies with some work carried out by Polish cryptographers, whose work was invaluable (Bletchley Park has a permanent exhibit which acknowledges their essential contribution).  There was also, apparently, a spy involved, who managed to gather some essential intelligence (which was another part of the story I had not heard of).

The second aspect, the Polish cryptographers also worked on devices that helped to apply brute force to the decrypting of messages.  They created something called a Bombe (Wikipedia).  Their work inspired a new generation of devices (a reconstruction of which can be seen at Bletchley Park).

The third aspect (and there probably are more than just three aspects, of course) is the occurrence of human error.  Enigma operators would make mistakes (as would operators of TUNNY, too), which would convey clues as to how the machines operated and were configured.

Context

Towards the end of the talk, David connected work that was carried out in the second world war to the time of the cold war.  This was the first time I had heard anyone speak about this subject and the connections.  The audience were shown photographs of KL47 and KL7 devices (Wikipedia) that could be considered to be the successors of Enigma.  We were then treated to some spy stories, which reminded us all that keeping (and uncovering) secrets is as much a human challenge as it is a technical one.

Cryptography isn't a subject that is only applicable to the military (although I clearly sense that the military and military intelligence has been the main driver).  It isn't only about keeping secrets safe from spies.  Whenever you buy something over the internet, when the padlock symbol lights up on your internet browser, you make use of asymmetric keys.  (Incidentally, this mechanism was independently discovered by two different groups, but this is totally different story).  

Also, whenever you make a call on a digital mobile phone, encryption comes into play.  David mentioned the situation where cryptography is used from the point when you request money from a cash machine, and the resulting information about transaction is transmitted onwards to other banking machinery.

A really interesting point that I took a note of is that there is a constant battle between cryptographers (those wishing to keep secrets) and cryptanalysts (those who are wishing to break into codes and extract secrets).  This is a battle that is going to run and run, with both mathematics and computing being central tools for both sides.

Reflections

The biographies and Turing, the history of Bletchley Park, and the development of some of the most fundamental ideas within computer science are all intrinsically connected.  With any lecture on the subject, there is a difficult decision to make about what to focus on, what to touch upon and what to leave out.  It was great to hear of references to Turing's theory of computability and his connection with the ACE computer at the National Physical Laboratory, as well as his link to the development of the world's first stored-program computer at the University of Manchester.

The history of the code breaking and learning about the social, political and technological environment in which it took place is fascinating.  One thought that I did have was that perhaps Turing, as a man, might have featured more.  But, as mentioned, it's tough to separate out the different elements of a broader complex story.  Code breaking, Turing and computing are all connected.

All in all, a lively and informative talk that presented, for me, a new angle on some very interesting aspects of the code breaking story.  

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HEA STEM Conference, Imperial College, London

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 2 May 2021, 12:47

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.

Introductions

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.

Reflections

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, Thursday, 14 May 2020, 18:34

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.

Introduction

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.

Discussion

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).

Reflections

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).

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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HEA workshop announcement: User experience and usability for devices and the web

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 13 Feb 2017, 12:40

A HEA sponsored workshop that is to focus on the teaching of interaction design, usability and user experience is to take place at the Open University in Milton Keynes on 27 June 2012.

The workshop aimed to bring together academics and teachers with the view to sharing experience and best practice.  More information is available from the HEA website but the key themes and principles behind the workshop is described below.

Interaction design, usability and user experience

Human-computer interaction (or interaction design, as it is now known) is a subject that touches upon so many different areas of computing; it impacts on areas such as web design, the design of mobile applications, the creation of video games, educational technology and so many others. There are also very obvious connections to industry and commerce, not to mention engineering, where system designers need to create usable interactive systems and interfaces for a range of different users.

Two of the key terms which are often spoken about when discussing interaction design are that of usability and user experience. Usability refers to the attributes or features of a product that enables the users to achieve an intended outcome. User experience, on the other hand, relates to the feelings or sense of accomplishment that might accompany an interaction with a device.

This interdisciplinary workshop aims to bring together technologists and educators from institutions throughout the UK who teach interaction design and related subject areas. Its overall intention is to share experiences and expose challenges, such as how to address complex issues such as the design of products for diverse users.

Topics can include, but are not limited to:

  • Approaches and techniques used to teach interaction design
  • Approaches and techniques used to teach the development of web technologies and any other interactive systems
  • Development of mobile applications and tools
  • Understanding usability and user experience
  • Teaching of accessibility and interaction design
  • New and novel pedagogic approaches for the teaching of usability and user experience
  • Practitioner reports (education and industry)

Format

Those who are interested in sharing something about their teaching practice or their research are invited to submit short abstracts.  The abstracts will then be reviewed and those that are successful will be invited to submit papers that are 4-5 pages long which are to be connected to a presentation of 20 minutes.  It is envisaged that there will be a panel session at the end of the day to allow common themes to be identified and to expose some of the challenges that educators face regarding the teaching of interaction design and related subject.

If you are interested in attending, please submit a 300-500 word abstract to c.douce (at) open.ac.uk, using the subject heading 'HEA workshop'.

Key dates

Below is the list of the key dates to bear in mind:

13 May 2012 - Deadline for the submission of abstracts

18 May 2012 - Notification of acceptance

17 June 2012 - Deadline for final papers

Registration information for the event will be made available at least two weeks before the date of the workshop.

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

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 18 May 2018, 09:06

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.

Introduction

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.

Presentations

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.

Activities

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.

Reflections

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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Exploring Sense

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 24 Mar 2014, 14:13

Last weekend I attended an event known as a Sense development session, hosted at the Open University in the South East offices in East Grinstead.  Sense is, of course, the graphical programming language that is used to teach the fundamentals of programming in a new module entitled TU100 My Digital Life

Whilst TU100 discusses a whole range of issues (such as privacy, mobility and ubiquity) and allows different skills to be developed, programming remains an important subject and one that some students find difficult. 

The main objective of the event was to enable associate lecturers to get together to share their experiences about using of the Sense software.  Before the main Sense session, another tool was demonstrated and discussed: Jing.

Jing

The Open University provides and supports a number of different digital tools, such as its Moodle based virtual learning environment, synchronous discussion tools  and image sharing software (such as the kind of software used on TU100, as well as other modules such as U101 Design Thinking and T189 Digital Photography).  Sometimes, however, it is possible to make use of freely available tools that are just 'out there' (on the cloud) to facilitate teaching and learning.

Jing is one of those tools.  At the start of the session, Graham Eaton demonstrated how Jing (Techsmith website) can be used to create simple and effective demonstrations to show students how to make use of different applications.  One of the really nice features of an application such as Jing is that it also allows you to make voice recordings: you can talk through how you use something.  When you are done, you can also share your digital recording to others by uploading the results to a shared website.

Graham went further than just saying that 'Jing is a tool that allows you to quickly make screen casts'.  Using MS Paint, a graphics tablet and Jing, Graham demonstrated that it is possible to create customised 'chalk board' animations which can be used to explain simple mathematical principles.

There are, of course, some drawbacks: cost.  The demo version (which is free to use) doesn't permit editing and has a limit of five minutes.  These five minutes, however, may make the difference between understanding a principle and not understanding a principle. 

An important (implicit) point was that we have different tools at our disposal, and it's up to us to find a blend of the different tools that we may feel comfortable using.   Educational practice sessions such as these may inspire us to consider investigating and deciding upon our own blend of tools (and allow us to think differently about new possibilities).

Introducing Sense

The Sense part of the day was facilitated by Diane Brewster and Michelle Dewey.  Diane kicked off the first activity to try and answer the question, 'what were the problems of teaching programming to novices?'  From three groups we arrived at a number of answer, which I'll do my best to summarise.

Firstly there were the broad skills, such as thinking algorithmically and being able to 'abstract' the essence of a problem so it can be translated into code.  This was connected to the challenge of looking (and understanding) the logic of problems.  The issue of syntax was also mentioned, along with the acquiring the knowledge (and understanding) of different programming structures and how they might be used. 

Knowing how (and where) to look things up was considered to be an important skill, as was techniques (and strategies) for testing and debugging.  A final general point that was discussed was that some students who had learnt how to program using one programming paradigm (Wikipedia) might find it difficult to learn a programming language that uses a different paradigm.

Diane took us through a presentation that aimed to answer the question 'why has Sense been developed and what is its pedigree?'  We were told about the Scratch language (MIT), a programming language called Alice (Alice website), and a microcontroller called the Arduino (Wikipedia).  Sense is, of course, a version of Scratch that the Open University has modified.  The differences being is that it has a small number of different programming constructs, and can also be interfaced with some Arduino based physical hardware.

Towards the end of this first session, we were then assigned into mixed groups and asked to consider how to write a small program using different coloured post-it notes.  (Some of us were programmers, others were not!)

Playing with Sense

Before we were allowed into a lab filled with computers, we were introduced to a number of other Sense concepts, such as the notion of 'broadcast', or sending messages from one component of a Sense program to another.  There was some discussion about the stage metaphor, and a presentation of a simple maze game.  In keeping with this metaphor, something new for me was the idea that a sprite (a graphical object on the screen) can have different costumes.

The final part of the day was dedicated to about an hour of 'tinkering'.  It is felt that Sense is one of those things that you can only get to grips with properly if you spend a bit of time 'messing around' with.  By messing around, this might mean creating new programs, or changing existing programs.

Not having had much time to tinker before (and being a former software developer), some of the constructs (and graphical palettes that held these constructs) soon became familiar to me.  What was apparent was that I had to do quite a bit of looking and searching, but by the end of the hour, I roughly knew where I needed to look (and what colour of programming construct to look for) to do the things that I wanted to do.

Final points

I took away a number of things points this session.  The first was a reminder about how the teaching and learning of programming is not just about programming itself.  It is all very well knowing about different programming constructs and understanding what they do but it is a whole other challenge to know how to decompose a problem into discrete steps that a computer can execute. 

Researchers who have studied the psychology of programming have explored the notion of a programmer's cognitive strategy.  As well as a programming strategy there is also the conception of a programmer's tactic, which can be considered in terms of something that a programmer might do to help them understand or get to grips with a problem, or understand what a computer is doing when faced with a buggy program.

Teaching programming isn't only about teaching the constructs, but also about exposing and sharing (or even 'bootstrapping', to take a computing analogy) these tactics.  I clearly remember a discussion about using something called the Plan Do Check Act, or PDCA cycle (Wikipedia) to help users of Sense understand what needs to be done.

Another important point (and one that I've mentioned before) is the need for both students and tutors alike to find the time to 'tinker', to explore what is possible within a programming language or environment.  Tinkering facilitates the development of strategies and tactics.

My own view is that programming isn't something that is just about making sets of instructions to get a machine to do stuff; it is also about facing up to the sometimes difficult challenge of problem solving.  Programming is an intrinsically creative activity, and this is something that is easily forgotten.  To be creative, we need to find the time to play and tinker.  This is something that is easily forgotten too.

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Inclusive Learning in Further and Higher Education

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 22 Feb 2012, 22:38

Photograph of the Open University

I recently attended the 2012 Inclusive Learning in Further and Higher Education conference (NIACE website), held at the Open University on 16 February 2012.  The conference had the subtitle, 'innovations in research, practice and learner engagement'.  I had a number of reasons to attend.  The first (and perhaps the most pertinent) is that I tutor on an Open University module, H810 accessible online learning (Open University website), which is all about creating on-line learning experiences that are as accessible as possible.

The second reason is that a conference such as this one would provide both interesting and useful food for thought for my main role as a Lecturer/Staff Tutor.  Events such as these create a space and an opportunity to explicitly consider equality, inclusion and surrounding issues.  The final reason relates to personal interest, having worked on an EU funded e-inclusion project called EU4All a couple of years ago (there is an animation which illustrates some of the broad principles behind EU4ALL; the different shapes represent different materials which are chosen to meet the needs of individual learners).

The aim of this blog post is to present a broad summary of the event and to present a personal reflection of the key messages and points that I took away from it.  I begin with a summary of what I took from the keynote speeches, followed by a description of the two workshops that I attended, concluding with a set of reflections.  I do hope that this might be useful to both some of my fellow delegates and for others who may discover it.

Introductions

The conference was sponsored by three organisations, LSIS, the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, The Open University and NIACE, The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.  The conference was kicked off by an address by Will Swann, director of Students at the Open University, before leading onto two keynote presentations.  Will spoke about the principles of the Open University, the changes within the higher education sector and emphasised the point that university support for students with disabilities is not going to change.  He then made reference to a recent government green paper, entitled Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability (pdf), before summarising the themes of the day, namely, learner voices, curriculum teaching and authority and policy.

Provision for Disabled Learners in an Age of Uncertainty

Peter Lavender, NIACE Senior Research Fellow, began by stating that the provision for learners with disabilities is an area that is neither generously research nor funded, and stated that he was more concerned about provision that is made in further education than that of higher.  Peter immediately referenced the 1996 Tomlinson report entitled, 'Inclusive Learning, report of the FEFC learning difficulties and disabilities committee'.  The abstract of this report states that the report 'is the result of a three‐year enquiry into the educational needs of and provision for adults with disabilities and/or learning difficulties in England'.

Peter emphasised two points, namely that the quality of learning opportunities is poorer for learners with disabilities, and the rate of participation is lower.   It was then later said that the impact of lower participation can lead to societal effects.

During Peter's talk, I also made a note of the phrase that parents, carers and learners were often unaware of the opportunities that were open to them.   Peter also made a reference to some research by the Learning and Skills Council entitled Valuing People (NIACE website).  We were also directed to further work, entitled Through Inclusion to Excellence (PDF, LSC website), where the findings from this report, the development of a national strategy (p. 1 of document), was emphasised.

Finally, a well known book, The Spirit Level, by Wilkinson and Pickett (Wikipedia) was mentioned, along with the comment that economic and social equality has the potential to benefit all.

Inclusive Learning in FE and HE: Real Progress or Impossible Dream?

The second keynote was by Lesley Dee, formerly Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.  A number of points from Lesley's presentation jumped out at me.  Firstly, there was explicit reference to the social model of disability.  Secondly, there was a reference to the importance of the learner voice, the role of self-advocacy and the point that disability is a part of the identity of a learner.  Lesley also spoke about the concept of inclusive pedagogy, and the question of what is 'special' about special education, and the fact that different types of teaching actions can be placed on a continuum.  (I understood this metaphor in terms of teachers making decisions based on personalised teaching and learning for the individual, and shared teaching and learning for everyone).

Another point that Lesley made (that jumped out at me) was that good teaching for a student with disabilities means good teaching for all learners.  This led to me thinking of a connection with the use of digital learning materials and an important point mentioned in H810 accessible online learning; the application of both participative and universal design methods. 

Workshop: What is reasonable adjustment?

The first workshop I attended, facilitated by Julie Young from the Open University, explored the concept of reasonable adjustment.  Julie shared with us a way that this term could be unpacked and applied.  Universities have a legal obligation to ensure that learners can participate in higher education by making adjustments to how teaching is performed or learning materials are delivered.  The fundamental challenge lies with the ambiguity of language, i.e. what is meant by 'reasonable?'

To understand what is reasonable, one should consider whether a student is likely to be at a substantial disadvantage, whether it is fundamentally possible to provide an adjustment, whether an adjustment can be provided through something called the disabled students allowance, and finally, are there sufficient finances available to make an adjustment?

Julie helped us to explore the notion through a series of case studies or scenarios.  It immediately became apparent that the provision of an adjustment can be facilitated through a series of negotiations; information about both the learner and the learning objectives (or the module) were necessary to make effective and appropriate decisions.  It was also apparent that different people within the organisation are in a position to do different things: those writing module materials have different responsibilities than people who may deliver the materials to a student (an associate lecturer, for example).  It struck me that negotiation is necessary between different parts of an organisation to ensure that the needs of learners are met effectively.

A related issue that Julie exposed is the subject of organisational responsibility.  The bigger the institution is, the more difficult it is to determine who might be ultimately responsible for adjustments.  The principle that was uncovered is a simple one: if someone is in a position to make a decision (with regards to the provision of alternative resources, for example), then that someone is responsible.

All in all, a very thought provoking workshop.

Securing Greater Accessibility (SeGA)

Although individuals play an essential role when it comes to facilitating and providing inclusive education, individuals, of course work within the context of organisations.  The second workshop, entitled Securing Greater Accessibility (SeGA), facilitated by Martyn Cooper and Anne Jelfs described an Open University project that is intended to further embed accessibility within the fabric of its organisation and to widen the awareness of the need to always consider the diversity of students.

SeGA was acknowledged as being ambitious.  Its aims are to ensure pedagogic quality and meeting the needs of students, increasing student satisfaction, enhancing organisational knowledge, managing costs and identifying where responsibility should sit within the institution.

Accessibility, it was argued, exists at different levels.  It needs to be considered with respects to pedagogy (teaching and learning) as well as at a technical or media level.  Technical might mean the application of tools such as a virtual learning environment.  When we consider media, we need to consider the different modalities (i.e. visual and auditory) to ensure that learners can gain access to any teaching points that are made.  A key point that was emphasised was that the university has a responsibility to be anticipatory; a point that was also addressed in the earlier workshop.

The SeGA presentation drew our attention to a number of standards and guidelines which has the potential to be useful to the university.  From a technical perspective, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) (W3C website) was considered to be very significant.  We were also directed to a British Standard BS8878:2010 (BSI), and section 3 of the QAA code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education: disabled students (QAA website)  (QAA is the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education).

During the presentation, questions were invited from the participants.  Two key challenges became apparent.  The first was how to best address the issue of teaching mathematics with people who have visual impairments.  It quickly became apparent that there are several ways to address the difficult issue of mathematical notation.  This discussion reminded me of a presentation by Alistair Edwards at the 2011 Psychology of Programming Interest Group workshop (PPIG website). During this earlier event, Alistair shared with the audience some of the research that he has carried out into this area. 

The second challenge that was exposed was with a subject such as chemistry, which also has its own notation system.  One comment was that there is a long history of producing physical models of chemical structures, but when one starts to move towards the discipline of biology, the practicality of adopting such an approach rapidly diminishes due to the immediate complexity of the structures that learners have to contend with.

The SeGA workshop was all about embedding accessibility within an institution and establishing a programme of work to enhance and further understand inclusion.  Whilst SeGA is simply a project, it is envisaged that it is a project that both informs, embeds practice and facilitates continued implementation.

Panel discussion

Any summary of a panel discussion is fraught with difficulty; one cannot easily (or practically) describe fluid discussion whilst at the same time giving equal treatment of all the issues that were raised.  What I will try to do is make a quick note of the points that jumped out to me whilst I was listening.  Other listeners would, of course, have their own perspectives.

Lesley Dee emphasised the importance of sharing information (expertise and practice) between different sectors.  Peter Lavender echoed some of the points that he made during his earlier keynote.  These included the need for a public strategy, the need to drive up participation, the necessity to increase quality, the importance of working together, and addressing (or blending) of issues from both the further and higher education sectors. 

Liz Marr mentioned the importance of universal design (Wikipedia) and the OECD publication, The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice (OECD website).   Deborah Cooper asked up to reflect on the importance of a learner voice, particularly in relation to self-advocacy (Wikipedia) and the importance of placing the learner at centre of planning and curriculum decisions.  (These comments reminded me of the concept of 'user centred design' in human computer interaction, which is a parallel with user centred pedagogy and the question of how to best personalise learning experiences, technologically driven or otherwise, for the benefit of all learners).

John Stewart offered some very complementary comments who said that if the learner experience is poor, it affects both health and confidence.  John also emphasised that it was important to ensure that any support services that are offered are adequate, appropriate and of sufficient quality.

Reflections and summary

After the panel session had finished, I made the following note in my notebook.  'Inclusion is as much about making space (where learning can take place) as it is about developing and providing opportunity (to access institutions and to gain support)'.  Squinting through my poor handwriting, I also see the words, 'it is about creating a facilitative culture within a classroom that can be transferred outside'; this echoes Peter's point that inclusion isn't just an issue that is about individuals, it is also a matter of importance to society as a whole.

All the presentations that were presented during this conference had a firm campaigning voice and it was one that was good to hear.  I was reminded me of the two presentations that I attended as a part of Disability History Month (blog post) back in December 2011.  Whilst the campaigning voice was certainly one that was stronger, I did feel that it might have potentially been slightly stronger: voices of those who are involved with the provision of inclusive education need to be heard alongside the voices of the learner..

A number of years ago I attended a conference called Education for All conference (blog post).  The conference keynote was one of the presentations that stuck in my mind.  It was primarily about practice, about how inclusive education can work not only for the teacher, but has the potential to benefit every student in a class, irrespective of additional requirements.  I remember this example where the students were helping each other to interact within the classroom.  By doing so, it not only helped students to develop an increased awareness of the subject matter (by applying the technique of 'teach this to other students'), but also had a role in developing the communication skills and confidence of all those concerned.

During the conference I also thought of the possibilities that technology could provide learners, and the way in which peers could (potentially) generate their own materials for each other, based on the original materials that are presented within a module.  Creating and sharing different types of materials (whether it be audio or video), has the potential to benefit all.  Through the application of technology, some students who may not be able to attend class all of the time (for whatever reason), may be able to make effective participative contributions.  The challenge, as was mentioned by one of the keynote, lies with both developing and sharing effective pedagogic practice.

Whilst I did feel that there was more scope to explore and discuss what inclusive learning might mean 'in practice', there were other very pertinent issues that were exposed.  One of them that stuck in my mind was the tensions between policy, qualifications, measurement and practice.  There is the risk that rules and regulations can potentially restrict, whereas they should ideally guide and facilitate.

Another reflection relates to the necessity to understand the institutional perspective and acknowledge the role that organisational structures (and the individuals who play key roles within them) can play a role in supporting learners.  This theme of the conference (which connected strongly to the topics of policy and legislation) reminded me of the later sections of the Open University H810 module, which emphasises the point that responses to accessibility exist at different levels: individual, community and institutional.

My final reflection is a personal one.   I have to confess that my 'home discipline' is that of computer science.  Whilst I remain (primarily) a computer scientist and I also retain a strong interest in how to create technology that is accessible to all.   It's really interesting to attend events such as this one since they sometimes extend the boundaries of the subjects of which I am familiar.  I'll take away a slightly deeper understanding of the broader issues that surround inclusion and accessibility, and I leave with a feeling that it is an imperative to continue to campaign for increased levels of inclusion and participation in education.

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Disability history month

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 9 Dec 2011, 10:40

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The second UK disability history month has run (or is currently running, at the time of writing) between 22 November and 22 December.  During this month I managed to attend two events.  I'm going to summarise both of them within this short post with the hope that it could be of interest to someone.

There are a number of reasons why I wanted to play a small part within the week.  The first is that over the last couple of years I've been involved with a research project that has been exploring how technology might be able to be used to make a difference to the lives of people with disability.  Secondly, I tutor on an Open University module that explores some of the strategies and approaches about how to best use technology and to make some aspects of learning and teaching as inclusive as possible.  The third perspective is one that is personal, since I am afflicted by a condition that can be considered as a disability under current legislation.

The first event I attended was held at the TUC headquarters in London.  This event was subtitled 'why we are failing disabled people' and addressed the subject of disability hate crime.  The second event was sponsored by the UCU, the University and College Union that represents the interests of lecturers and teachers within further and higher education.  I couldn't 'attend' this second event in person due to work commitments, but the event was recorded by the Open University.  (You might be able to access this presentation, but I'm unsure whether you can do this from beyond the boundaries of the university systems).  This second event was more about contexualising disability history and celebrating their civil rights achievements.

SCAPEGOAT, TUC headquarters, London

The main speaker for this event was Katharine Quarmby, a journalist who has done extensive research into disability hate crime, publishing a recent book on the subject entitled 'Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people'.  Katherine gave a powerful and shocking account of incidents of disability hate crime, a small number of which I remembered from media coverage.

During her research, she reported she studied over 100 cases.  Some of the crimes were perpetrated by people who were considered to be friends with a victim, so called 'mate crime'.  Katherine connected her presentation to both contemporary and historical issues.  The historical issue being the way that disability has been perceived, the contemporary relating to the perception towards enabling benefits, such as the disabled living allowance.

One point stood out for me, and this was that the reporting of this type of hate crime is on the increase, but another view is that perhaps those incidents that have been recorded may well be the tip of an iceberg.

The other main speaker of the day was Stephen Brookes, who is co-ordinator of the National disability hate crime network.  Stephen began with a definition which is 'disability hate crime is any criminal office which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a persons disability or perceived disability'. 

One slide that Stephen used, entitled 'we are not...' stood out for me.  It contained the words, 'more vulnerable than everyone else, so don't label us', 'the problem', 'in the way. It's not our fault for being there!'.  Stephen went on to present a couple of specific cases, and then emphasised the point that tackling the issue is the responsibility of everyone and many different authorities and organisations.

Stephen also mentioned a report that he has been involved with, which is entitled Inquiry into disability related harassment, which can be found on the Equality and Human Rights Commission website.

Towards the end of the day there was an hour long plenary session where members of the audience could address each other and the panel.  One of the points that I clearly remember is a delegate who introduced the term, 'disability hate incident' (I think I have remembered this correctly).  These are incidents of subtle discrimination through maliciousness, ignorance or carelessness.  It was argued that the incidence of these events are significantly higher than that of crimes, which are, of course, considered to be under reported.

This point really got me thinking about my own experiences, how it relates to the social model of disability (wikipedia) and how to facilitate change either within an institution or wider society.  Other issues that were raised were equally important, such as the issue of employment and the role that prejudice may play.

I won't say this event was one that was enjoyable, since that wouldn't be an appropriate word for it.  I would say that it was challenging, and from this perspective, it was entirely successful.

Celebrate Disability History Month

The second event that I attended was recorded.  As mentioned earlier, I was able to access a recording of a presentation by Richard Reiser, co-ordinator of the Disability History Month, made at the Open University on Monday 28 November 2011.

Richard gave a very clear presentation about how disability has been perceived throughout different periods of history.  Richard spoke about the time of ancient Greece and Rome, moving onto medieval period, towards the Elizabethan period, through the Enlightenment to the present day, whilst speaking about the Nazism and the role of asylums and associated legislation.

Richard then moved to present a powerful exposition of the disability rights movement.  Richard also made explicit reference to the notion of language, with a view to how the choice of language relates to perceptions throughout society.

Exploring and choosing appropriate language is related to education, and suggested that more needs to be done, especially if eight out of ten children who are disabled report bullying.  Richard concluded by saying that we need disability history month to provide a focal point to help us to understand common ground and to facilitate the change the perceptions.

Reflections

There was a lot packed into these two presentations, and credit must go to the organisers.  The first thing that struck me was the extent of union involvement, and the number of union activists that participated.  The materials that were distributed at the first event, were impressive, i.e. a booklet about the use of language, a booklet entitled 'a trade union guide to the law and good practice', and another booklet entitled, 'representing and supporting members with mental health problems at work'.

A number of different themes (over these two presentations) jump out at me.  The first is the notion of 'struggle'.  I remember a number of different metaphors being used to describe both the experiences and situation, such as 'the tip of the iceberg', and that people are involved in a 'flight' for equality.  Such words, I believe, are very apt, and reflect a relationship between disablism and other civil rights movements.

On the subject of metaphor and words, an important theme is, of course, is language and its use, purely because of the implicit meanings that innocuous words and phrases may convey.  The third and final issue relates to that of responsibility, responsibility in the terms of being able to challenge inappropriate views and behaviour of others.

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Computer Forensics Workshop

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 21 Jan 2019, 10:56

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. 

Introduction

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. 

Summary

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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