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Computing education practice conference: Durham, January 2019

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 24 Jan 2019, 10:29

I first visited the Computing education practice (CEP) conference, held at the University of Durham, back in 2017 (OU blog). I felt that it was a really nice event, with a broad range of subjects and a particular focus on opportunities of chatting to computer science educators from a number of other universities. 

What follows is a quick blog summary of the second CEP conference that I attended on 8 January 2019 along with a set of accompanying thoughts, reflections and useful weblinks. I’ve written all this so I can remember what happened, and also on the off chance that anyone else doing research in computer science education might find this of interest. 

Welcome and keynote

The opening keynote was by Andrew McGettrick, emeritus professor from the University of Strathclyde. Andrew told us all about various reports; he mentioned the Committee on European Computing Education Map of Informatics in European Schools and the US Computer Science for All initiative (ACM). There is also something called the Informatics for All Strategy from ACM Europe which presents recommendations for teacher training. Returning to the UK, the Joint Mathematical Council of the UK has published Digital Technologies and Mathematics Education (2011, PDF)

I noted down a couple of themes that Andrew highlighted, namely, the changing face of computing and the increased perceived importance of subjects such as machine learning. An importance question that was asked was: how do you help (or pressure) countries to focus on the development of computer science education?

I don’t know whether I missed it in Andrew’s talk, but I did feel that there was an opportunity to talk about the more recent work of the Royal Society about Computing Education in Schools (Royal Society website) and the Shadbolt Review of Computer Sciences Degree Accreditation and Graduate Employability (PDF)

Session 1: Projects

The first presentation, Supervisor Recommendation Tool for Computer Science Projects was by Kasim Terzic, University of St Andrews. In essence, Kasim’s talk was about a computer science project that was used to manage the allocation of computer science projects. It worked by getting different bits of information from different sources: staff advertise dissertation topics and provide information about their research interests by submitting papers to the institutional research repository. The inputs to the system were keywords and project proposals and the outputs were supervisor recommendations. Whilst Kasim was speaking, I thought of the OU project module, TM470.

Next up was Laura Heels and Marie Devlin from Newcastle University who spoke about: Investigating the Role Choice of Female Students in a Software Engineering Team Project. This presentation began by emphasising that there is a big gender disparity in STEM and computing subjects. Their research asked a simple question: what roles do students take when doing some important computing group work? In their findings, for one year more females chose programming roles, but by and large the trend is (if I’ve noted this down properly) that the males tend to choose the programming role.

I especially enjoyed this second presentation since it made me reflect on my own experience of group work as an undergraduate. I remember being thrown together in a group, and having to choose our own roles and responsibilities. I remember some of the conflicts, and the need to make pragmatic decisions for the good of the project. I also remember how the team supported me when I came to give a group presentation. I certainly felt that role identity and choice was an interesting topic to be studying.

Session 2: Pedagogy

Stewart Powell from Swansea University talked about: Teaching Computing via a School Placement. The motivation for his talk and the work that accompanied it was compelling, and directly linked back to some of the themes introduced by the keynote, namely: CS grads might not see teaching as a career path; they may lack confidence and competence. Here there is a link to the importance of soft skills, and a further implicit link to the Shadbolt report. Stewart introduced the module: it took place during one semester in year 3, and allowed students to gain an understanding of what it means to be a teacher.

The next presentation in this session, by Tristan Henderson, University of St Andrews was all about Teaching Data Ethics, a new postgraduate module. Tristan described the motivation for the module: that there are always lots of controversies; every day there is something happening. A phrase I noted down was: ‘I’ve moved away from thinking that technology is a solution for everything’. A further point that ethics can be a topic that can be difficult to teach. Subjects in the module included: privacy, aspects of law, machine learning, ethics in practice and ethics in research. We were also told about the Royal Statistical Society Data Ethics Special Interest Group.

As Tristan was talking, I thought of a related OU postgraduate module called M811 Information Security (Open University), which touches upon some of the topics that Tristan highlighted, but with a more direct focus on security. All in all, a very engaging and thought provoking presentation. I really liked the focus on the fact that Data Ethics (and Information Security) are such important contemporary issues.

Alcwyn Parker from Falmouth University returned to the theme of group work with the presentation: Nurturing Collaboration in an Undergraduate Computing Course with Robot-themed Team Training and Team Building. I noted down that ‘group work is [an] integral part of the student’s education’. I also noted down the terms: communities of practice, and cognitive apprenticeship, where students are encouraged to observe, practice and reflect. One of the things that I liked about this presentation was a very explicit link between education theory and practice.

The final presentation had the title: Papertian Mathetics with Concept Map Stories and was given by  Amanda Banks Gatenby from the Manchester Institute of Education. I’m familiar with Papert through his book Mindstorms (Wikipedia). I was interested to hear that the word Mathetics was defined as the ‘art of learning’ (which is distinct from pedagogy, which is about the art of teaching). The presentation described how concept maps are created and described by students.

Session 3: Data and data security

One of the challenges of teaching computing is that sometimes solutions to problems can be easily found through internet searches.  Rosanne English from the University of Strathclyde gave a number of suggestions about how to solve this challenge through her presentation: Designing Computer Security Assessments to Reduce Plagiarism. Two key points were: (1) create your own assessment resources (if you use photographs as data, take them yourself, since they won’t already exist on the internet), and (2) focus less on marking the code, and more on marking student reflections.

Charles Boisvert from Sheffield Hallam University gave us a ‘lack-of-progress report’ regarding the challenges of Teaching relational database fundamentals. I noted down the idea of Nifty Assignments (Stanford University) and SQLLite, which is a SQL engine that can be used within a web browser which is used within Charles’s TestSQL website.

Data Protection and Privacy Regulations as an Inter-Active-Constructive Practice was presented by Joseph Maguire from University of Glasgow. Joseph talked about active learning, the flipped classroom and ‘jigsaw learning design’. 

Session 4: Engagement

James Davenport from the University of Bath kicked off the first afternoon session. James introduced The Institute of Coding: Addressing the UK Digital Skills Crisis (Institute of Coding website). I noted down five themes, which are led by different partners and universities: (1) university learners, (2) the digital workforce, (3) digitising professions, (4) widening participation, and (5) underpinning digital skills. James’s presentation followed by a talk by an OU colleague called Patricia Charlton, who spoke about the OU’s involvement in the Institute of Coding (OU website).

James gave two presentation in this session. His second was entitled: Teaching of Computing to Mathematics Students. In some ways, this talk reminded me of my own experiences studying discrete maths as an undergraduate (which was something that I found pretty difficult). James made an interesting point, which was: ‘the debate isn’t whether the maths department should teach programming, but how it should be taught’. This phrase made me remember a blog I wrote, Teaching programming across STEM, about the different ways that programming is taught in different parts of the OU.

The final talk in this session, Improving professionalism in first year computer science students, related to a paper by Shelagh Keogh, Jill Bradnum and Emma Anderson from Northumbria University. Some key points I noted down were: professionalism is socially constructed, that it’s something that you can’t teach – instead, it’s something that students much adopt. We were told about a skills audit, students were given one to one sessions, and they were asked to rate themselves across professional competencies so students can consider (and be responsible for) their own professional development. 

Session 5: Programming

The first presentation in the final session was by Paul Piwek from the The Open University who spoke about Learning to program: from problems to code. Paul is a module chair for the module TM112 Introduction to Computing and Information Technology 2 (Open University website), and his paper (and accompanying presentation) was co-authored by Michel Wermelinger, Robin Laney and Richard Walker.

TM112 introduces students to text based programming using Python. He presented the rationale behind the module design, explaining that were was emphasis on abstraction, worked examples and patterns. Also, students were asked to use English to perform problem decomposition. Further information about the approach that is adopted has been shared through the Computing at School community site.

Neil Gordon from the University of Hull presented: A Flexible Approach to Introductory Programming. Some of the challenges that colleagues can face include the wide variety of background of students, the gender disparity in the subject, and attainment and progression. Neil directed us to Woodfield report, and I note that there is a HEA document, entitled Issues in retention and attainment in Computer Science (PDF).

The final presentation was by David Croft who spoke about Computing with Codio at Coventry University. Codio is a cloud based tool that can be used to help with the teaching of programming.

Final thoughts

As I mentioned in the introduction, this was the second CEP conference that I’ve been to. This one was slightly different than the first; rather than having a set of parallel sessions, all the presentations took place in a single lecture theatre. I also felt the event had a slightly more formal tone, since all papers presented during the conference were also published through the ACM digital library

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to formality. The tie up with the ACM provides a formal and official record of the conference, but the large lecture room takes away some of the intimacy and potential for informal debate and discussion that can be so useful for both presenters and delegates at these kind of debates.

When it comes to sharing of education practice, and talking about the challenges that teachers face when working with groups of students, I personally prefer the informal over the formal. This said, I fully appreciate the pressure that institutions and individuals face regarding publishing (which is something that I’ve alluded to in a previous blog).

These points made, I still think this is really nice conference, and even though the organisers have made a step towards formalising both the conference and the community, there is still space and opportunities to share and make connections with fellow practitioners. I also thought that the titles of the themes were well chosen.

A question I asked myself at the end of the conference was: what are the main themes or topics that are important at the moment. One thought is that there are certain areas of focus that are current and important. These include the subject of: cybersecurity (in all its various forms), data science and machine learning. Another important theme may lie in the subject of professionalisation and continuing professional development. There is an implicit links to the themes that are mentioned in the various pieces of research that were highlighted by our keynote: the significance of gender, the teaching in schools, and the development of soft skills. From a day conference, I can see that there is a lot that is going on, but I also see that there is a lot that needs to be done too.

Acknowledgements

Attendance at this event was made possible thanks to the OU Technology and Education Research Group (TERG blog). Many thanks to the group convener, Karen Kear.

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