Vol. 7 - issue 1 - July 2015

Published: September 2015

Editorial: Communicating computer science – lessons from recent history

In any form of communication, four things are key: message content, mode of delivery, timing and intended impact. Over the last two decades our educational system has made some serious errors in all four when it comes to communicating computer science to the younger generation. In 1988 the newly formed National Curriculum gave priority and focus to the subject described as ‘Information and Communications Technology’ (ICT). ICT was designated as a ‘foundation subject’ in primary education for both Key Stage 1 (year groups 1-2, pupils aged 5-7) and Key Stage 2 (year groups 3-6, pupils aged 7-11). Secondary education also included ICT as compulsory. It took over two decades for the UK government to realise the error of its ways. In his speech at the BETT Show in 2012, Michael Gove acknowledged that the ICT curriculum was off-putting, demotivating and dull. This is the result of serious errors in message content, mode of delivery, timing and intended impact. Inspiring, motivating and exciting teaching pays close attention to all four of these elements, selecting content that is relevant to the learner, and delivering it in a manner that is engaging, pitched at the right level (this involves good timing), and which has the desired impact.

The problem with ICT in the National Curriculum, however, goes much deeper than that and had a serious negative impact on how Computer Science was perceived by two generations of young people. The ICT curriculum, which contained some elements of computing, somehow became synonymous with Computer Science as a whole (due to a lack of clarity in message content). Consequently, these children were put off Computer Science by association, believing it to be boring and unrewarding. The impact of this included a significant drop in applications to Computer Science degree courses between 2000 and 2012, and a yawning gap in the skills set that is much needed by UK industry. Michael Gove acknowledged that “the UK has been let down by an ICT curriculum that neglects the rigorous computer science and programming skills which high-tech industries need”.  [1]

Thankfully, a small group of teachers who realised that this was happening back in 2008 formed a group called Computing at School (CAS) which has led to the reintroduction of Computer Science into all key stages of the national curriculum. Staff in the department of Computing and Communication Technologies (CCT) at Oxford Brookes University have been working with CAS to run continuing professional development courses for school teachers in the Oxfordshire region. Oxford Brookes University is also in the CAS Network of Excellence.

In addition to this work, the CCT department has also introduced a new module for our undergraduate students entitled “Communicating and Teaching Computer Science”.  The primary purpose of this module is to:

  • Enable students to take part in the Undergraduate Ambassador Scheme 
  • Provide undergraduates with an opportunity to gain marketable and transferable key skills including the communication of their knowledge of the subject in a challenging educational environment
  • Give undergraduates a better appreciation of the level of their own expertise in their subject, and to build upon this through the process of explaining the subject’s core ideas and concepts to others.
  • Help undergraduates learn to address the needs of individuals and to think about methods of presentation which are appropriate to the groups they are working with

The students on this module are linked to schools and engage in the following activities:

  • Classroom observation and assistance: Initial contact with the teacher and pupils will be as a classroom assistant, watching how the teacher handles the class, observing the level of computing taught and the structure of the lesson, and offering practical support to the teacher.
  • Teaching assistance: The teacher will assign the student with actual teaching tasks, which will vary according to specific needs and the student’s own ability as it develops over the term. This could include offering problem-solving coaching to a smaller group of higher ability pupils, or taking the last ten minutes of the lesson for the whole class. The student will have to demonstrate an understanding of how the level of the computing knowledge of the pupils they are teaching fits in to their overall learning context in other subjects.
  • Special projects: The student will devise a special project on the basis of discussion with the teacher and their own assessment of what will interest the particular pupils they are working with. The student will have to show that they can analyse a specific teaching problem and devise and prepare appropriately targeted teaching materials, practical demonstrations and basic ‘tests’.
  • Extra-curricula projects: The student may be supervised by the teacher in helping to run an out-of-timetable activity, such as a lunchtime club or special coaching periods for higher ability pupils. The student will have to demonstrate an ability to think laterally in order to formulate interesting ways to illustrate more difficult concepts from computer science.
  • Written reports: The student will keep a journal of their own progress in working in the classroom environment, and they will be asked to prepare a written report on the special project.

Although so far we have only had a small number of students taking this module, the positive impact that it has had on them is remarkable both in terms of their personal development as computing professionals and in their careers aspirations.

The issue of how we communicate Computer Science at all levels in our education system is now recognised to be of great significance. In this special issue, we present work that is focussed on understanding how to communicate this subject well, how to get the message right.

Michael Heron and Pauline Belford explore issues in teaching computer ethics in an undergraduate computing course. In teaching this topic they use a blend of social psychology to illustrate the importance of the topic and a range of case studies to link discussion to actual real-world incidents. The authors suggest that their experiences argue persuasively for more widespread adoption of the model.

Arantza Aldea, et al., reflect on the evolution of approaches to teaching programming to undergraduates at Oxford Brookes University and discuss a recently-introduced apprenticeship model. They present preliminary evaluation data that points to improved student engagement, improved attendance and increased confidence in programming tasks. The paper also includes guidelines to using the approach which have been distilled from experience gained so far.

Stanislao Lauria describes how school children are encouraged to find the fun and excitement in STEM subjects and computer science in particular through hands-on events in which children learn to program robots. The paper describes the event format and the success achieved to date, then concludes with a discussion of how a more thorough evaluation of the approach might be carried out in the future.

Carey Freeman and Peter Plassmann, discuss how technology, including radio frequency identification (RFID) swipe cards and computer login data, has been used to monitor the attendance of first year students at practical sessions, with the aim of using derived information to improve course structure and tutor support. A future aim is to look at whether attendance data can be used to influence whether students persevere with a course or withdraw.

The issue concludes with a short paper by Andy Austen and Clare Martin, which discusses ways in which the Raspberry Pi computer has been used in extra-curricula activities in secondary schools. Students are introduced to the elements of programming in the Python language through writing programs to control a variety of simple sound and lighting systems. Undergraduates undertaking a school placement module have built on the pilot work to develop more fun programming projects.

 

 

[1] An extract for Michael Gove’s speech at the BETT Show 2012 on ICT in the National Curriculum

From this issue:

A practitioner reflection on teaching computer ethics with case studies and psychology

Three issues complicate teaching computer ethics in an undergraduate course. The first relates to the often technically intensive knowledge required to fully understand the complexity of real world examples. The second relates to the pedagogic expectations of students who see ethical and professional issues as of little importance to their eventual degrees. The third revolves around the fact that the official accreditation that is required of many professions is not mandatory for computing professionals, and so professional codes of conduct are optional. In this reflective discussion, we discuss these issues and the approach we have taken to resolve them. Our philosophy for teaching computer ethics revolves around the use of social psychology to illuminate the importance of the topic, and case-studies to simultaneously lower the burden of technical expertise while also incorporating hooks for the discussion of real world incidents. We discuss several psychological studies which inform our discussions, and the way in which they are delivered to overcome initial student objections to the material. We then discuss both the Case of the Killer Robot and the Scandal in Academia as case studies appropriate for inclusion in most undergraduate and postgraduate courses on ethics and professional issues.

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Posted in Research Paper

Reflections on the evolution of the teaching of programming to undergraduates at Oxford Brookes University

Undergraduate computing courses inevitably include a high degree of regeneration in order to keep abreast of this rapidly changing field. Introductory programming modules in particular need to adapt to changing trends and languages. Until recently, the focus of debate within the Oxford Brookes University curriculum has therefore been on the course content, but since 2012 there has been a major change in the method of delivery through the introduction of a new apprenticeship model. This paper seeks to reflect on this, and other recent changes which have led to improved student engagement and results. The data is limited however, and so the results presented here are not conclusive.

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Posted in Research Paper

Ready, steady, program! How children can learn coding (and teach numeracy to a robot) during STEM school visit events

STEM topics are often perceived by secondary school students as boring, difficult and uninteresting. Therefore, the authors designed an event to challenge these perceptions. The opportunity was given during STEM School visits to Brunel University where the authors use a 55 minute event to attempt to convince pupils that STEM and in particular computing is fun. During an interactive sessions where students were encouraged to play with robots, they were gently introduced to the art of coding. The results were an increased confidence in their programming abilities and a better perception of STEM. This paper discusses this event in more detail.

Posted in Research Paper

Using technology to monitor first year student attendance in their academic studies

This project monitored first year student attendance in practical computing sessions across several courses at the School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences, University of South Wales (USW). Research has shown the correlation between attendance and success. We frequently observe a vicious cycle of poor attendance that leads to poor engagement and consequently poor results, the combination often self-perpetuating.

In order to break this cycle the project had three key objectives. The first was to establish an automated attendance monitoring system based on radio-frequency identification (RFID) and computer login data. The second was to identify how attendance data could be turned into information to improve the structure around year tutor support and course leadership. The final objective was to ensure that students could not only view their own individual data ‘picture’ but also interact and engage with the system.

Results are outlined for the first two objectives, showing that for the data to be of use, the teaching staff require accurate registers and a comparison for student attendance in other modules, to gain a full picture of the students’ attendance. Also year tutors / course leaders need to view the aggregated data for all students across all modules with drill-down functionality.

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Posted in Research Paper

Reflections on using the Raspberry Pi in schools to make learning programming fun

Introduction Primary and secondary schools across the UK are currently faced with the exciting, yet daunting prospect of inspiring a new generation of programmers, following the introduction of the national curriculum for computing in September 2014. The Raspberry Pi is

Posted in Short Article

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