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Computing Education Practice Conference

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 27 Feb 2017, 10:44

On 11 January 2017 I had the opportunity to attend a one day computer science education conference that was held at the University of Durham. It had been a long time since I had been to Durham. The last time had been in the late 1990s when I attended a workshop on program comprehension; other than the cathedral, I wondered whether I recognised any of the streets or landmarks. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to explore; it was a packed day.

What follows is a personal ‘take’ on the conference. It is, by its nature, selective; the conference attracted loads of submissions and had a number of parallel sessions. By the end of the day I was pretty tired and overwhelmed, but also inspired too.

Keynote: Sally Fincher

Sally Fincher’s keynote had the title ‘how can we talk about practice?’ Sally, who is a professor at the University of Kent, made the point that academics attribute value to abstract knowledge. She gave us an example of a chemistry paper, which communicated lots of detail in a very prescriptive and defined way. Teaching practice, Sally argued, is not like abstract knowledge; you cannot easily replicate it (and you’re not rewarded if you share it). She made the point that a paper is a terrible way to document teaching.

An accompanying question is: what would a good representation of practice look like? The challenge is that teaching is knowledge that is situated and embodied. There have been some attempts to describe or formalise learning designs but they don’t have an ‘experiential section’ and they rarely systematically described practice. 

Another question is: what does it mean to describe practice? It can include the rich description of detail, or the provision of narrative. Sally referenced the work of Elizabeth Shove, a sociologist who wrote a book entitled ‘every day practices’. A description might include the integration of different elements: meanings, skills and materials. Put another way, this could also be: stories, skills and stuff. 

An issue is that most of our documents about teaching and learning relate to skills, which can be embodied into learning objectives. An important element of practice, the stories and ‘stuff’ is very easily over looked. A thought that came to my mind as Sally was talking was: perhaps the stories are case studies? 

I made the note of the following phrase: abstractions detached from practice doesn’t help. An accompany thought is and the detail of stories represent the largest challenge; meanings of stories are implicit in the context in which they occur.

Are there any solutions to challenge of sharing our teaching expertise? Sally offers her own take on this through a textbook called Computer Science Project Work (Springer). The book presents a structure that contains a number of important sections, such as a section that can be called ‘what we did’; the structure aims to present something more than the stuff and skills. (I hope I’ve got this right!) Practice, I noted, is also about know how.

Towards the end of her keynote, I picked up on a number of themes that were especially relevant during the day: employability, engagement, curriculum design, and the importance and relevance of industrial placements.

What model versus how model: an effective way to teach computing and engineering programs

The first session I attended was by Muhammad Zeeshan Shakir from the University of the West of Scotland. The ‘how’ of teaching can be achieved by using show and tell activities. These can also be used to show students the benefit of what they’re learning. I’ve made a note of the phrases: workshops, the use of a research inspired seminar, practical implementation tasks and visits to industry. Flipped classrooms, it was argued, can be used to explain the ‘what’.

During this session I noted down a reference to something called Heterogeneous Ability-Centered Team Building (IEEE Xplore), or H-ACT-B. A key issue when it comes to groups is how to assess individual and team performance. As this was mentioned, I started to reminisce about my own undergraduate experiences of group work, where we had the challenge of working on a software maintenance project. It was an experience that still lives with me to this day.

Enhancing student engagement

This next presentation, by Ashil Ali and Raj Ramachandran spoke about the issue of student (dis)engagement, especially during long lectures. A point was made that students are wedded to their devices. A suggestion was to try to get students to engage through the devices that they are wedded to. A key phrase I noted was: ‘hijack the students’ distractions’.

A framework for CS educational research practice

Sue White, from the University of Southampton, mentioned an event that I had never heard of before, but should have done: the ACM International Computing Education Research (ICER) conference (ACM website). She also mentioned an academic that I had been told about whilst studying for my PGCE: Biggs. I noted questions about who the student is, a question about what the teacher does, and what the student does. This is, of course, linked to the important subject of the student voice (and that we need to listen to it, whilst at the same time balancing the need to support and further the discipline).

Some interesting pedagogical and computing terms that were mentioned, which included Ben-Ari and social constructivism (ACM digital library), Kolb’s learning cycle, and Laurillard’s conversational framework. I was also reminded of the ACM special interest group on Computer Science Education (ACM)

A bad analogy is like a pigeonhole

Stephen Doswell from Durham asked an interesting question: how can we assess the effectiveness of our [teaching] analogies? I noted down the phrase: analogies are only effective when properly used and the source domain is familiar to a learner. I remember that Stephen talked about a popular computer security text book and considered the way that analogies had aged (and the way that some older analogies might now be difficult to understand).

This presentation reminded me of a talk that I did over ten years ago at the Psychology of Programming Interest Groups called Metaphors we program by (PPIG). I remember it being a fun talk to do, and the accompanying paper was also pretty fun to write (although its analysis wasn’t very systematic!) I think the underlying point is the importance of considering where the learner is at, and how we can best try to convey difficult concepts.

Developing responsive personalised learning

The final session of the morning was by Samina Kawal from Oxford Brookes University. The focus of the presentation was an ebusiness module that used an approach called ‘integrative assessment’. I noted down that an idea was that coursework was used across different modules. Interestingly, there were programme level learning outcomes (whereas I am more familiar with understanding learning outcomes that are at the level of the module).

Afternoon keynote: understanding the TEF

The afternoon keynote had a really pragmatic feel to it. We were asked the question: ‘how can the HEA support the quest for teaching excellent?’ The teaching excellence is, ultimately, about making higher education into more of a market place, where students are consumers. Underpinning all this is the philosophy that education has economic benefit for the individual as opposed to being a public good that can help society as a whole. The TEF will lead to ‘badges’ that allow students to very simplistically compare one institution with another. An important point is that all institutions are different because of the environments in which they inhabit. From memory, I didn't come away from this session much the wiser.

Professional ethics in education: the need for radical change

Denise Oram, from Glyndwr University was a member of the ACM Committee of Professional Ethics. Her point was simple yet very compelling: professional attitudes and ethics is very important within computing and IT since the technologies that we create and implement have impact on people. Some interesting subjects include the internet of things, intelligent machines and eHealth. Students might, of course, ask: why do I need to know about this stuff? One approach to answer this question is to make use of debates to expose issues.

During this session I made a note of the BCS Computing at School website, a reference to something called models of ethical compliance and the way that the study of ethics (with respect to computing) connects to a wide range of subject, including: law, environment, philosophy, sociology and psychology.

Sketching design using the five design sheets methodology

Design, of course, is another subjects that is connected to and associated with computing and IT. Jonathan Roberts from Bangor university presents a design method that uses five different sheets of paper which encourages users to ‘think, design, build and evaluate’. There were references to related approaches and topics, such as the idea of using ‘6 thinking hats’, the importance of sketching and the distinction between convergent vs divergent thinking. A point was made that perhaps design should feature in the CS curriculum.

During this session, I thought of a number of OU modules that I know about and have looked at, such as U101 Design Thinking, T217 Design Essentials (its predecessor module taught about different design thinking approaches), and a higher level module T317 Innovation designing for change. I also thought about TM356 Interaction design and the user experience which touches upon design thinking. More information about TM356 can be found by looking at a series of accompanying blog posts (OU blog).

Embedding cybersecurity in the computer science curriculum

Alastair Irons from Northumbria university began by offering a bit of context: that cybersecurity it important, that it is a subject that is garnering a lot of attention, and there is the view that there is a significant skills gap; I made a note that two million posts are to be filled by 2020.

To solve this challenge, government and industry are looking to schools, colleges and universities for cybersecurity talent. I made a note of a statistic: 62% of employers couldn’t fill cybersecurity jobs.

An interesting reference is a document entitled: cybersecurity principles and learning outcomes for computer science and IT related degrees (PDF) Some accompanying questions were: (1) how will or could cybersecurity be embedded in your curriculum? (2) what support is needed or would be helpful? and (3) how might practioners engage in a community of practice (CoP)? I noted that this session led to some interesting debates: should cybersecurity be an undergraduate or a postgraduate subject? Also, to what extent are institutions developing degree apprenticeship qualifications?

Success in CS education: the challenge of keeping students

Neil Gordon, from the University of Hull, emphasised a number of important challenges. Computing and IT is a popular subject but some students are performing poorly. Neil referenced something called the Shadbolt review of computer sciences degree accreditation and graduate employability (PDF). I haven’t had time to read the report (since it is very long), but the executive summary points to higher than expected unemployment of new graduates, a point which ‘is at odds with significant demand from employers and the needs of the burgeoning digital economy’ (p.3). 

Neil touched on a number of different subjects and areas, including the known gender imbalance, the Computing at School Curriculum, streaming students by programming skills, the importance of attainment and retention, using innovative pedagogies (such as gamification) and improving community engagement.

Design and implementation of a web broadcasting learning platform

The final presentation that I attended was by John Busch. It took me a few minutes to understand what John’s presentation was all about, but as soon as I grasped it, I was very interested. In essence, John’s talk was about how to use and apply technology to help with the running of very large programming laboratories.

One of the most powerful approaches to learn programming has been to watch someone else at work, and to also copy what they’re doing, so you get ‘a feel’ for the instructions, commands and constructs that can be used. You shouldn’t just watch or listen: you need to ‘do’ and build.

If you’re delivering a session in a huge laboratory with one hundred and fifty students there are two fundamental problems (1) students can’t see what you’re doing if you’re projecting code on a big whiteboard at the front of the class, and (2) everyone learns at different speeds: some students might be lost, whereas others might be bored. One solution could be to run programming webcasts that each student in the lab can see how code is made, and also provide some functionality where a student can seek help at different times.

We were told about a number of different technologies, such as open cast, Fuze, Saba, Adobe Connect and something called Screenleap. I made note of other stuff, such as Open Broadcaster Software. Other bits of tech were mentioned, such as Nginx with RTMP (Wikipedia) A system called iLecture was created that allowed students to raise ‘support tickets’ to allow a student to ask a lecturer to look at the code that was being created.

I found all this fascinating; a home grown solution made up of bits of Open Source software that allowed lecturers to enable students and lecturers to share screens, to enable students to study the nuts and bolts of programming. It made me return to thoughts about ‘programming as performance’ and the need to find some kind of theoretical foundation.

Reflections

My own talk was about something called the Open University group tuition policy. Not only does this have the potential to allow students to access a wider range of learning events (if implemented well), it also gives associate lecturers the opportunity to work more closely together through creating something like a ‘community of practice’. In some ways, the conference was about creating that same community, but for a wider group of computer science educators. 

I only went to relatively small number of presentations, since there were three parallel sessions throughout the day. I was struck by the diversity of the presentations, and was given a welcome reminder about how exciting Computing and IT is as a subject. This excitement comes from the fact that it now touches so many other subjects and disciplines.

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