O'Really?

July 17, 2019

Educating Computer Scientists: What should we discuss at #SIGCSE journal club?

fightclub

The first rule of journal club is, you do not talk about journal club. The second rule of journal club is, YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT JOURNAL CLUB.* Discussions will go on as long as they have to. If this is your first time at journal club, you have to debate. Dress code: silly frocks and ridiculous hats are optional. Picture of my colleagues in the School of Computer Science ready for a graduation ceremony 2013, by Toby Howard.

So we’re starting a new Journal Club and Special Interest Group (SIG) for lecturers, teachers and course leaders in Manchester to discuss Computer Science Education (CSE). We’ll pick interesting papers, read them and then meet regularly to discuss them. It’s a bit like Fight Club but instead of beating each other up, we’ll “beat up” (review & critique) papers. Hopefully we’ll all learn something along the way. The first question to answer is, which papers should we discuss?

Computer Science (CS) is a young and professionally immature subject, it has only been taught at undergraduate level since 1965 in the UK. Across the pond in America, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (sigcse.org) only started as recently as 1968, making it a very spritely fifty years young. On educational timescales, computer science is a whipper snapper! Fifty years is peanuts when you compare it to the millennia that mathematics has been taught for. In ancient Greece the earliest lessons were mathematics hence μάθημα (mathematics) means the lesson and derivatives like μαθαίνω (matheno) mean to learn or to know. While the greeks built some impressive analogue computers, digital computers and computer science as we now know it, did not exist in Ancient Greece. 🇬🇷 

What this means is that there is plenty of evidence about what works (and what doesn’t) when teaching mathematics. In contrast, how to teach Computer Science, what should be taught and why, to whom and when are all open questions

So, to get the ball rolling here are nine papers that tackle some of these open questions in Computer Science Education. We’ll vote on the three most interesting papers and read them before meeting to review them. Many of these papers are likely to be of interest to “educators” in its broadest sense. That means anyone teaching coding, computer science, tinkering, hacking and software/hardware engineering at any level. Which includes primary schools, code clubs, bootcamps, CoderDojos, hackathons, secondary schools, CPD programmes, K-12 education, lifelong learning, staff training courses, onboarding, induction, adult education programmes, return to work schemes and so on. If you’d like to join us we’ll be meeting in the Kilburn building, Manchester, M13 9PL (mosty likely first week of September, date and time tbc, drop me a line). Otherwise enjoy reading the insights below (DOI’s link to originals which may be behind a paywall, freely accessible versions are provided where available). Some papers are quite short, and have been selected for the topic they discuss rather than the quality of the content.

Twenty dirty tricks to train software engineers by Ray Dawson

A classic paper from Ray Dawson in the department of Computer Science at Loughborough University describing dirty tricks they use to introducing the frustrating realities of a software engineering development to students.

“Many employers find that graduates and sandwich students come to them poorly prepared for the every day problems encountered at the workplace. Although many university students undertake team projects at their institutions, an education environment has limitations that prevent the participants experiencing the full range of problems encountered in the real world. To overcome this, action was taken on courses at the Plessey Telecommunications company and Loughborough University to disrupt the students’ software development progress. These actions appear mean and vindictive, and are labeled ‘dirty tricks’ in this paper, but their value has been appreciated by both the students and their employers. The experiences and learning provided by twenty ‘dirty tricks’ are described and their contribution towards teaching essential workplace skills is identified. The feedback from both students and employers has been mostly informal but the universally favourable comments received give strong indications that the courses achieved their aim of preparing the students for the workplace. The paper identifies some limitations on the number and types of ‘dirty tricks’ that can be employed at a university and concludes that companies would benefit if such dirty tricks were employed in company graduate induction programmes as well as in university courses.”

Identifying student misconceptions of programming by Lisa Kaczmarczyk et al

This paper by Lisa Kaczmarczyk et al (formerly University of California, San Diego) recently came top of the ACM SIGCSE Top Ten Symposium Papers of All Time. In Lisa’s own words from the reinventing nerds podcast “The paper is sharing the results of a research study about misconceptions that novice computer science students have. Computer science is also a very abstract topic and the mistakes that students make are often baffling. The paper reports on the misconceptions that students have and why they have them. It’s important because this paper was the first to apply rigorous research methods to investigating misconceptions.” From the abstract:

“Computing educators are often baffled by the misconceptions that their CS1 students hold. We need to understand these misconceptions more clearly in order to help students form correct conceptions. This paper describes one stage in the development of a concept inventory for Computing Fundamentals: investigation of student misconceptions in a series of core CS1 topics previously identified as both important and difficult. Formal interviews with students revealed four distinct themes, each containing many interesting misconceptions. Three of those misconceptions are detailed in this paper: two misconceptions about memory models, and data assignment when primitives are declared. Individual misconceptions are related, but vary widely, thus providing excellent material to use in the development of the CI. In addition, CS1 instructors are provided immediate usable material for helping their students understand some difficult introductory concepts.”

Stride in BlueJ – Computing for All in an Educational IDE by Michael Kölling et al

This paper by Michael Kölling et al describes an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) that combines the best features of visual programming languages (blockly, scratch etc) with text-based programming (such as Python, Java, C etc) for use in BlueJ.org.

“In introductory programming teaching, block-based editors have become very popular because they offer a number of strong advantages for beginning programmers: They avoid many syntax errors, can display all available instructions for visual selection and encourage experimentation with little requirement for recall. Among proficient programmers, however, text-based systems are strongly
preferred due to several usability and productivity advantages for expert users. In this paper, we provide a comprehensive introduction to a novel editing paradigm, frame-based editing – including design, implementation, experimentation and analysis. We describe how the design of this paradigm combines many advantages of block-based and text-based systems, then we present and discuss an implementation of such a system for a new Java-like language called Stride, including the results of several evaluation studies. The resulting editing system has clear advantages for both novices and expert programmers: It improves program representation and error avoidance for beginners and can speed up program manipulation for experts. Stride can also serve as an ideal stepping stone from
block-based to text-based languages in an educational context.”

  • Kölling, Michael; Brown, Neil C. C.; Hamza, Hamza; McCall, Davin (2019). “Stride in BlueJ — Computing for All in an Educational IDE”: Proceeding SIGCSE ’19 Proceedings of the 50th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education 63–69. DOI:10.1145/3287324.3287462

Ten quick tips for teaching programming by Neil Brown and Greg Wilson

This short paper from Neil Brown at King’s College London and Greg Wilson of software carpentry fame, is part of the popular Public Library of Science (PLOS) Ten Simple Rules series. The tips capture some ongoing research in listicle format.

“Research from educational psychology suggests that teaching and learning are subject-specific activities: learning programming has a different set of challenges and techniques than learning physics or learning to read and write. Computing is a younger discipline than mathematics, physics, or biology, and while there have been correspondingly fewer studies of how best to teach it, there is a growing body of evidence about what works and what doesn’t. This paper presents 10 quick tips that should be the foundation of any teaching of programming, whether formal or informal.

These tips will be useful to anyone teaching programming at any level and to any audience.”

How to Involve Students in FOSS Projects by Heidi Ellis et al

Initiatives like Google Summer of Code (GSoC) and Git going in FOSS aim to get students involved in Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) projects, through paid work and online tutorials. Some courses use FOSS projects to teach software engineering, though these are fairly unusual. How can we get more students (and teachers) involved in FOSS projects? This paper by Heidi J. C. Ellis provides some guidance

“Software projects are frequently used to provide software engineering students with an understanding of the complexities of real-world software development. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) projects provide a unique opportunity for student learning as projects are open and accessible and students are able to interact with an established professional community. However, many faculty members have little or no experience participating in an open source software project. In addition, faculty members may be reluctant to approach student learning within such a project due to concerns over time requirements, learning curve, the unpredictability of working with a “live” community, and more. This paper provides guidance to instructors desiring to involve students in open source projects.”

  • Ellis, Heidi J. C.; Hislop, Gregory W.; Chua, Mel; Dziallas, Sebastian (2011). “How to involve students in FOSS projects” Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE) DOI:10.1109/FIE.2011.6142994 (ironically, if there is an open access version of this paper, I can’t find it! Another nominee for the Open Access Irony Awards)

A methodology for using GitLab for software engineering learning analytics by Julio César Cortés Ríos et al

This paper by Julio César Cortés Ríos at the University of Manchester describes using GitLab to analyse and improve courses.

“To bridge the digital skills gap, we need to train more people in Software Engineering techniques. This paper reports on a project exploring the way students solve tasks using collaborative development platforms and version control systems, such as GitLab, to find patterns and evaluation metrics that can be used to improve the course content and reflect on the most common issues the students are facing. In this paper, we explore Learning Analytics approaches that can be used with GitLab and similar tools, and discuss the challenges raised when applying those approaches in Software Engineering Education, with the objective of building a pipeline that supports the full Learning Analytics cycle, from data extraction to data analysis. We focus in particular on the data anonymisation step of the proposed pipeline to explore the available alternatives to satisfy the data protection requirements when handling personal information in academic environments for research purposes.”

Scaling Introductory Courses Using Undergraduate Teaching Assistants

Teaching computer science to large classes requires typically requires armies of teaching assistants, demonstrators. Your TA’s need to know their stuff and should be able to deal with students in a fair and consistent way. This paper is a medley of opinions from Jeffrey Forbes at Duke University, David Malan from Harvard University, Heather Pon-Barry from Mt. Holyoke College, Stuart Reges from the University of Washington and Mehran Sahami from Stanford University.

“Undergraduates are widely used in support of Computer Science (CS) departments’ teaching missions as teaching assistants, peer mentors, section leaders, course assistants, and tutors. Those undergraduates engaged in teaching have the opportunity to deeply engage with CS concepts and develop key communication and social competencies. As enrollments surge, undergraduate teaching assistants (UTAs) play a larger role in student experience and outcomes. While faculty and graduate student instructional support does not necessarily increase with the number of students in our courses, the number of qualified undergraduate teaching assistants for introductory CS courses should scale with the number of students in our courses. With large courses, the significance of the UTAs’ role in students’ learning likely also increases. Students have relatively little interaction with the instructor, and faculty may have more challenges monitoring and supporting individual UTAs. UTAs have a major role in affecting climate in computer science courses. The climate in large courses has substantial implications for students from groups traditionally underrepresented in computing. This panel will discuss how undergraduate teaching assistants can serve as a scalable effective teaching resource that benefits both the students in the course and the UTAs themselves.”

What Are We Doing When We Teach Computing & Programming by Sally Fincher

Two related papers by Sally Fincher at the University of Kent, the first published in 1999…

“The academic discipline of computer science uniquely prepares students for future study by teaching the fundamental construct of its practice-programming- before anything else. The disciplinary argument seems to run that if a student is not versed in the practicalities, then they cannot appreciate the underlying concepts of the discipline. This may be true. However an analogous simulation would be if it were thought necessary for architecture students to be taught bricklaying before they could appreciate the fundamentals of building design. This argument is clearly flawed when compared to endeavours such as the study of English Literature, which makes no claim to teach the practice of producing work before the study of the products of others work. It is possible that this is an argument of disciplinary maturity-that all disciplines have passed through a similar phase. This paper examines the emergent approaches being defined, all of which address the central concern of the teaching of programming and its relationship to the learning of computer science. It examines: the “syntax-free” approach of Richard Bornat and Russel Shackelford, the “problem-solving” approach of David Barnes (et al.), the “literacy” approach of Peter Juliff and Owen Astrachan and the “computation-as-interaction” approach of Lynn Andrea Stein. These approaches are discussed both in their own terms, and also placed in a preliminary taxonomic framework for the teaching of programming.”

….and the second published in 2015 (see comments on Mark Guzdial’s summary):

“Research on the cognitive, educational, and policy dimensions of teaching computing is critical to achieving “computer literacy.”

Making CS Learning Visible: Case Studies on How Visibility of Student Work Supports a Community of Learners in CS Classrooms by Amber Solomon et al

This is a paper by Amber Solomon et al from the Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education (ITiCSE) conference is about reducing defensive and competitive (macho?) cultures in Computer Science  (via Mark Guzdials blog).

Modern learning theories emphasize the critical social aspect of learning. Computer science (CS) classrooms often have “defensive climates” that inhibit social learning and prevent the development of a community of learners. We believe that we can improve the social context of computer science learning by expanding CS learning beyond the single student in front of a display screen. Our theory is that the single student and single display inhibits collaboration and collaborative awareness of student work. In this paper, we present two case studies where we explored ways to make student work visible to peers. The first case study involved using a studio model for learning enabled by projection-based Augmented Reality (AR), and the second case study involves using a maker-oriented curriculum to make student work visible. Findings suggest the visibility of student work in CS classrooms helped support a community of learners: students collaborated, used each other as sources of inspiration, and felt more comfortable asking for help.

References and notes

*”You do not talk about Journal Club” is an adapted quote from the 1999 film Fight Club, see below. I’m only joking, you are of course welcome to talk to anyone who will listen about Journal Club.

Talking of David Malan, you can see his talk on making CS50 scale when he visited Manchester in 2017

July 5, 2019

Are Liverpool and Manchester still in Lancashire?

Red_Rose_Badge_of_Lancaster.svg

The Red Rose of Lancaster is the county flower of Lancashire. 🌹Image by Sodacan, created with Inkscape. [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons.

Once upon a time, there were two football teams, a Northern one (Liverpool F.C.) and a one, (Tottenham Hotspur F.C.). They were due to meet each other in a historic and lucrative match: the 2019 UEFA Champions League Final in Madrid. The biggest prize in European club football would be awarded to whichever team triumphed on the 1st June 2019. As with all zero-sum games, only one team could be crowned champions of Europe.

This particular match posed a cruel dilemma for football supporters across the North of England. Which team to support? The local Northern team or the Southern London one, on the other side of the North-South divide?

Scousers or Cockneys?

For football supporters in Manchester, this dilemma had an added dimension. Both of the Mancunian teams: United and City had been knocked out shortly beforehand. A woeful United were humiliated by superior spaniards from FC Barcelona (4-0) while City lost to Spurs during a dramatic game. The video assistant referee (VAR) judged that Raheem Sterling hadn’t scored the winning goal in the dying minutes of the game because he was offside. Ouch. With both Mancunian teams out of the running, the Champions League final was simply a question of which team you hated less, the scousers from Liverpool or the cockneys from London? A difficult choice, especially for Mancunians.

Mancs and Scousers: Sibling rivalry

Now Manchester and Liverpool have a long rivalry, not just in sport, arts and science but in commerce too. For example, when Mancunian traders got fed up with paying the duties charged by Liverpool for using their docks to export goods, they decided to bypass them by building the Manchester Ship Canal. This transformed Manchester into a port – even though it is more than 30 miles from the sea. The new ship canal gave the Port of Liverpool the finger: sibling rivalry on an industrial scale. You want to rip us off? We’ll just route around you bro!

Liverpool, Lancashire: Manchester, Mancashire

Like many siblings, the twin cities of Manchester and Liverpool have much in common. They are both joined by the River Mersey and share a common commercial and cultural rival: the megacity of London. As well as being on the same river, both Manchester and Liverpool are in the same county too; Lancashire. Symbolised since the Wars of the Roses by the Red Rose of Lancaster.🌹 Historically, there’s a strong argument for Mancunian supporters to back Liverpool over London. We are brothers in arms, sisters in arms, siblings from the House of Lancaster, two red roses from the very same rootstock.🌹

Lancashire_1610_Speed_Hondius_-_Restoration

John Speed’s map of the County Palatine of Lancaster (Lancashire) in 1610. The River Mersey joins Manchester to Liverpool along the bottom of the map and separates Lancashire in the North from Cheshire in the South. The Pennines separate Lancashire in the West from Yorkshire in the East. Picture by Jodocus Hondius, engraved by John Speed, and restored by Adam Cuerden. This is a retouched picture, digitally altered from its original version. Public domain picture from Wikimedia Commons.

An organisation called the Friends of Real Lancashire (FORL) @FORLancashire puts it another way on their website forl.co.uk (emphasis mine):

“Friends of Real Lancashire are concerned to promote the true identity of our county which has been extremely confused in the minds of some people, especially those working in the broadcasting and newspaper industries, since the local government reorganisation of 1974.

The Government at that time stated that the “new counties” were administrative areas only, and that the boundaries of traditional counties such as Lancashire had not been changed. Unfortunately, the media refer to these administrative areas all too frequently and ignore the fact that places such as Barrow-in-Furness, Liverpool, Manchester, Warrington, etc. are still in Lancashire.

If administrative areas had not been called counties much of this confusion would have been avoided. The Royal Mail has at last dropped the use of administrative county names in postal addresses, and names such as Cumbria and Merseyside do not appear in the current Royal Mail Postal Address Book.”

Lucifer over Lancashire

As a follower of Manchester United, I backed our Lancastrian siblings from Liverpool. As someone with Lancashire roots, it is red roses all the way, any day and I was happy when Liverpool got the victory they deserved. Like Andy Burnham, we’re not anti-London, just pro-North. Come on Lancashire, ‘AVE IT!

My fellow United supporters didn’t see it that way. They looked at me like I was the devil incarnate, or Lucifer over Lancashire, as Mark E. Smith used to sing. How could I support Liverpool, a scouse football team? They called me a traitor, a scally and lots of other names that can’t be repeated here. Such is the sibling rivalry between LFC and MUFC. When Alex Ferguson arrived as a new manager of United in 1986 he said:

 “My greatest challenge is not what’s happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their f****ng perch. And you can print that.

Which sums it up. Forget Lancashire, forget The North, forget George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse. United and City fans should support Spurs, the Southern Powerhouse team, because they’re not Liverpool. Support anyone you like, absolutely anyone, apart from Liverpool. Or so they told me…

Conclusion

So are Manchester and Liverpool still in Lancashire? It depends who you ask:

  • If you consult a map, the answer you’ll get will depend on who made the map and when it was made.
  • If you type a Mancunian or Scouse postcode into the Royal Mail postcode & address finder it won’t mention Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside or even Cheshire so you’ll be none the wiser.
  • If you ask a football fan, they will probably be too blinded by bitter sporting rivalry to give you a sensible answer.
  • If you ask the government, they are preoccupied at the moment, and have more important international borders to think about.
  • If you ask the Friends of Real Lancashire they’ll tell you absolutely YES without question, Manchester and Liverpool are still in Lancashire, because they never left. Our county is called LANCASHIRE, not “Cumbria”, “Greater Manchester”, “Merseyside” or “part of Cheshire”. I’m inclined to agree with them. 🌹

 References

NOTE: Here’s a good related pub quiz question which will sort the wheat from the chaff: Which football team plays closest the River Mersey? (Google it.)

June 29, 2019

The Small Scale Experimental Beer Machine aka “Manchester Beerby”

beerby

The Small Scale Experimental Beer Machine (aka Manchester Beerby) has its name in neon lights and was switched on on the 21st June 2019.

A new pub has opened opposite where I work. Set up by some enterprising scotsmen from Aberdeenshire (🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 och aye laddie!), it has its very own microbrewery. They have called the microbrewery the The Small Scale Experimental Beer Machine (SSEBM).

As I work in a Computer Science department, this pleased me no end, because it is an appropriate nod to the Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) aka the Manchester Baby: the world’s first computer with random access memory (RAM).

Both of these machines were switched on on the 21st June (memory day), one in 1948 the other 71 years later in 2019. Unlike the Manchester Baby, you will actually be able to drink the output of the “Manchester Beerby” 🍺 and it is going to be a lot more quaffable than anything you might find in a cathode ray tube. [1]

The pub is in the heart of a new Bruntwood development called University Green, a pleasant leafy space with retail and restaurants centred around the Alliance Manchester Business School (AMBS). Like most things in the green, its a bit pricey but the beer is good, the food is tasty and the staff are friendly. Brewdog Outpost Manchester is a relaxing place to hang out.

I wonder what the engineers of the Manchester Baby, Tom Kilburn and Freddie Williams, would make of the Manchester Beerby? 🍻

References

  1. Williams, Frederic Kilburn, Tom (1948). Electronic Digital Computers. Nature162(4117): 487. DOI:10.1038/162487a0

 

December 20, 2018

Dry January: Can you switch off all your social media for a month? #DigitalDetox

socialmedia

Dry January: can you abstain from toxins like alcohol and social media for a month?

Here in the UK, there is an annual tradition known as Dry January. It’s pretty simple, in the wake of all the festive indulgence (🍻), around 4 million people voluntarily abstain from alcohol for the month of January. Why? Because they can save money, sleep better, lose weight [1] and even raise money for charity in the process. If you haven’t tried it yet, Dry January is an enlightening (and enlivening) challenge.

But dry January needn’t just stop at alcohol. Other toxic social lubricants are also available. Have you ever wondered what life would be like without the distraction of social media? Ever tried going without? Go dry by switching off all your social media for a month – just to see what happens. Is social media as toxic as alcohol? Could going cold turkey (🦃) for a month be beneficial to your health and those around you? Switch it all off, meaning:

  • No LinkedIn
  • No Facebook
  • No WhatsApp
  • No Instagram
  • No Twitter
  • No Blogging
  • No “voluntary panopticon
  • No [insert your favourite social media here]. How far you take it will depend on how you choose to define social media…

Abstention requires a bit of planning and preparation, but if you tell your friends now, you could experiment with switching off all your social media for the month of January. Will you be able to handle the Fear of Missing Out (FoMO) [2]? Will your quality of life improve?

The idea of digital detox has been around a while and there are several ways of doing it. You can either go the whole hog like Jaron Lanier and just delete everything [3]. If that’s too drastic for you, try using blockers or timers set to zero minutes. Since the most toxic forms of social media are typically found on smartphones, there’s a few options for detoxing:

Abstaining from alcohol can be beneficial for your physical and mental health. [2] Abstaining from social media could probably help too. Why not give it a whirl and see for yourself?

As this is last (and first!) post here for 2018, have yourselves a happy winterval and a healthy new year in 2019.

References

    1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fear_of_missing_out
    2. De Visser, R.O., Robinson, E. & Bond, R., (2016) Voluntary temporary abstinence from alcohol during “Dry January” and subsequent alcohol use. Health Psychology, 35(3), pp.281–289. DOI:10.1037/hea0000297
    3. Lanier, Jaron (2018) Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Bodley Head, ISBN: 978-1847925398 jaronlanier.com/tenarguments.html

 

October 27, 2017

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most viewed of them all?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Duncan Hull @ 6:42 am

Wikipedia is mirror that reflects the world around it. Sometimes the reflections are accurate, other times they get distorted. [1] Either way, we can look at the data in Wikipedia to see which reflections are being looked at the most using powerful analytics tools that are part of the platform.

Two weeks ago, as part of Physiology Friday, I gave a talk examining how biographies of scientists are viewed in Wikipedia, using the crude measure of PageViews.

Melissa Highton from the University of Edinburgh also gave a talk about the Edinburgh Seven, changing the way stories are told and their Wikipedian in Residence scheme.

Our convenor, Andy Mabbett (normally found on a Brompton) gave a talk introducing Wikimedia since our reason for being there was to recruit and train new editors of Wikipedia.

Thanks to the Physiological Society for having us and Anisha Tailor for putting the program together.

References

  1. Samoilenko, Anna; Yasseri, Taha (2014). “The distorted mirror of Wikipedia: a quantitative analysis of Wikipedia coverage of academics”. EPJ Data Science. Springer Publishing. 3 (1). arXiv:1310.8508 doi:10.1140/epjds20

 

June 23, 2017

Nine ideas for teaching Computing at School from the 2017 CAS conference

CAS

Delegates at the Computing at School conference 2017 #CASConf17 answering diagnostic questions, picture by Miles Berry.

The Computing At School (CAS) conference is an annual event for educators, mostly primary and secondary school teachers from the public and private sector in the UK. Now in its ninth year, it attracts over 300 delegates from across the UK and beyond to the University of Birmingham, see the brochure for details. One of the purposes of the conference is to give teachers new ideas to use in their classrooms to teach Computer Science and Computational Thinking. I went along for my first time (*blushes*) seeking ideas to use in an after school Code Club (ages 7-10) I’ve been running for a few years and also for approaches that undergraduate students in Computer Science (age 20+) at the University of Manchester could use in their final year Computer Science Education projects. So here are nine ideas (in random brain dump order) I’ll be putting to immediate use in clubs, classrooms, labs and lecture theatres:

  1. Linda Liukas demonstrated some intriguing ideas from her children’s books and HelloRuby.com that are based on Montessori education. I shall be trying some of these out (particularly the storytelling stuff) at code club to keep girls involved
  2. Sue Sentance and Neil Brown from King’s College London gave an overview of some current research in pedagogy.  They discussed research questions that can be tackled in the classroom like (for example) do learners make more progress using visual programming languages (like Scratch and Blockly) or traditional text-based languages (like Python and Java etc)? Many of these research questions would make good projects for undergraduate students to investigate in secondary schools, see research on frame based editors, for example.
  3. Michel Wermelinger from the Open University demonstrated using iPython notebooks for teaching data literacy at the Urban Data School. Although I’m familiar with iPython, it had never occurred to me to actually use iPython in school for teaching. It is a no-brainer, when you think about it, even for primary, because you have your code, inputs and outputs all in one window, and can step through code execution instead of (or as well as) using more conventional tools like Trinket, Thonny or IDLE. Data literacy is fun to teach.
  4. Miles Berry from the University of Roehampton demonstrated Diagnostic Questions in Project Quantum. These are a collection of high quality quizzes to use interactively for example as hinge questions, where teaching is adapted depending on answers given, like this multiple choice question:
    Consider the following Python code:
    
    a = 20
    b = 10
    a = b
    
    What are the values of a and b?
    
    A: a = 10, b = 10
    B: a = 20, b = 20
    C: a = 30, b = 10
    D: a = 10, b = 20
    

    You’ll have to try these five questions to check your answer. The useful thing here is that DiagnosticQuestions.com (the platform on which this is built) allows you to see lots of responses, for example each answer (A, B, C or D) above was selected by 25% of participants. You can also view explanations which illuminate common misconceptions (e.g. the classic mistake of confusing assignment with equality) as well as providing a bank of free questions for use in the classroom.

  5. Mark Guzdial from GeorgiaTech discussed using learning sciences to improve computing teaching. He demonstrated predictive questions (e.g. ask students What do you think will happen when we run this code? before actually executing it) alongside what he called subgoal labelling. These are simple ideas (with proven benefits) that can be put to use immediately. I’ll also be trying the Live Coding (with Sonic Pi) and Media Computation he demonstrated asap.
  6. Laurence Rogers demonstrated Insight: Mr. Bit  this looks like a good app for using BBC microbits in the classroom, connected to a range of sensors, provided you’ve got access to iPads.
  7. A copy of Hello World magazine was in the conference bag. The summer 2017 issue has an unusual article from Ian Benson from Kingston University and Jenny Cane describing their use of the Haskell programming language to teach 5-7 year olds to reason symbolically and learn algebra before arithmetic with help from Cuisenaire rods. The Scratch Maths project at University College London are doing similar things, building mathematical knowledge using Scratch, rather than Haskell. These are experimental ideas you could try out on unsuspecting (junior) family members.
  8. Lee Goss from Barefoot Computing, described the free CPD for primary school teachers on offer from BT. I’ve signed up and hope to plug some of the shortcomings in the Code Club Curriculum.
  9. Richard Jarvis demonstrated appJar, a handy Python library for teaching Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs). That’s Jar as in Jarvis and Jam, not JAR as in Java ARchive BTW. I’ve not tried GUIs at code club yet, but appJar looks like a good way to do it.

There were lots more people and projects at the conference not mentioned here including tonnes of workshops. If you’re interested in any of the above, the CAS conference will be back in 2018. Despite the challenging problems faced by Computer Science at GCSE level, it was reassuring and inspiring to meet some members of the vibrant, diverse and friendly community pushing the boundaries of computing in schools across the United Kingdom. Thanks again to everyone at CAS for putting on another great event, I will definitely consider attending next year and maybe you should too.

May 5, 2017

Venturing Further in 2017 with student entrepreneurs in Manchester #VentureFurther

venturefurtherVenture Further is a business startup competition that awards £50k of prize money to eight student entrepreneurs in Manchester. Running annually, #VentureFurther showcases the enterprising talent of students and graduates of the University of Manchester in four themed categories: Business, Research, Digital and Social. Here is a quick summary of results from the 2017 competition, now in its twelfth year.

This year there were were 16 finalists selected from a total of 73 entries. I was pleased to be invited to judge on the panel for the digital category, which saw some impressive and well polished business propositions. It was really was hard picking the winners!

The awards ceremony and dinner were held in the Whitworth Hall and attended by members of the North West business community. After a keynote from Dale Murray CBE on her distinguished career as an entrepreneur and angel investor, the awards were announced as follows:

Business category: Commercial potential for new products or services

First prize: Eleanor Trimble, Siddharth Kohli, Mohammed Abdulaal, Meera Dulabh, and Dr Alex Casson for Neurolytics, working on biometric data analysis

Second prize: Amir Khorasani and Mohammad Hajhashem for Russell Food Group’s Locally Sourced, a farming supply chain disruptor.

Runners-up: Bilal El Sayed and Benedict Vardey for UWispa a mobile phone case and Crystal Bromwell for Wardrobe in the City a clothing-rental subscription service

Research category: Businesses that focus on the application of university-based research

First prize: Salman Malik and Muftau Akanbi for Microspray Technologies enabling industrial and research scale particle manufacture using aerosols.

Second prize: Denis Bandurin and Alexander Obraztsov for GrapheX, developing portable x-ray sources with graphene-based cathodes.

Runners-up: Mohammad Nazmul Karim and Shaila Afroj for 2DTronics wearable e-textiles and Niall Coogan and Barry Johnston for Cable Coatings a novel low cost method to boost electricity grid capacity.

Digital category: Businesses that apply digital technologies

First prize: Rishabh Jindal for Otterly a food ordering service

Second prize: Michal Wisniewski and Edmund Moore for Simple terms crowdsourcing and gamifying recruitment.

Runner-up: Mubashshar Rahman, Jonathan Tang and Ali Ibrahim for HollaMe a student services exchange and Caleb Conner for SpareSpace Airbnb for luggage

Social cateogory: Businesses that improve the lives of people and communities

First prize: Duncan Swainsbury, Eve Chancellor, Jessica Stalmach, Ashton Coates and Neil Stewart for Bounceback Education a ‘buy one, donate one’ tutoring service giving disadvantaged students access to free tuition.

Second prize:Kathryn Pierce for Somewhere MCR CIC a social enterprise supporting the LGBT community.

Runner-up:Salman Malik and Jamshed Malik for Second Shave Barbers CIC a barbershop for homeless people and Hamza Arsbi and Farah Abu Hamdan for The Science League an educational platform

Congratulations to all the finalists, making it to the final 16 is an achievement in itself. Thanks goes to

If you would like to get involved in the next round of the Venture Further competition in 2018, as competitor, sponsor or supporter see the Venture Further website and details of the 2017 competition on LinkedIn.

December 22, 2016

2016: Annus mirabilis, annus horribilis or annus stupidus?

27751194385_4890747f8eThe year 2016 will go down as an interesting one, but was it magnificent, horrible or stupid? Or perhaps all three

Annus mirabilis? 🇬🇧

For some people, 2016 was a good year, an annus mirabilis. If you voted for Trump or are brexiteer who voted to leave the European Union, 2016 was a good year.

If you are a climate change denier, you probably enjoyed 2016 too. If you are a member of a far right or populist political party, you are sitting pretty. Marine Le Pen looks happy, as do Vladimir Putin and Nigel Farage.

Annus horribilis? 🇪🇺

If none of the above applies to you then 2016 was a horrible year, an annus horribilis. Liberal metropolitan elite? Welcome to the post-truth politics (previously known by the catchy name “lies”). Who needs experts anymore?

Annus stupidus? 🇺🇸

Whatever camp you are in, it is hard not to agree with Dan Jones analysis that 2016 was an annus stupidus [1] – silly season that was twelve whole months long. Where else would seeing a cartoon of Boris Johnson getting “diplomatic” with Donald Trump been unremarkable – (see picture top right)? Here’s hoping for some sanity to return in 2017. Have a happy and sane holiday, and a prosperous new year.

References

  1. Jones, Dan (2016) Trumpageddon is awful but America has seen far worse, London Evening Standard, November 11th.

July 1, 2016

Dear Europeans, do you know who your MEP is and what they do?

banksy-does-brexitAlong with 16 million other people on the 23rd June 2016 I voted to remain in the European Union (EU). I believe the benefits of EU membership exceed the costs. Free trade and free movement have been beneficial to me personally, many of those around me, as well as the wider UK economy [1]. I even married an EU migrant too, so I love Europe in more ways that one. Life outside the EU is very difficult to imagine, professionally, financially, culturally and personally.

So when I woke up to Brexit EuroDoom last Friday, to find I was in a minority outnumbered by 17 million leavers who disagreed, I felt sick. After a gloomy week of miserable soul searching, I realised I didn’t have the foggiest notion who my Member of European Parliament (MEP) was or how they got elected. Although not a student of (or expert in) politics or economics, I don’t believe I am apathetic or unaware. I follow the news, vote in general elections and write letters to my MP. I try to understand what is going on in politics and bend my head around the dismal science of economics. But until this week, I had little or no idea how the European Parliament (EP), let alone the European Commission (EC) or lots of other acronyms starting with E, actually work in practice.

Now if you are also a participant in the failing (?) European project, do YOU know who your MEP is? Any idea what they actually do? The chances are you don’t because Euroignorance is widespread [2]. Fortunately, Professor Google can help us. In Manchester, the MEPs for the North West Region of the UK comprising Cumbria, Lancashire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Cheshire are:

Unfortunately, I’d only heard of two of those MEPs beforehand, and neither of them because of their activity during the EU referendum. Nuttall I’d heard of because the comedian Stewart Lee performed a brilliant satirical piece mocking Nuttall’s views on immigration [3]. Woolfe I’d heard of because his campaign leaflet came through my letterbox during the 2015 general election. How did they get elected as MEPs because I can’t remember seeing their names on a ballot paper?

MEPs are elected using the D’Hondt method [4], a form of proportional representation (PR) used in the European elections in 2014 and elsewhere. As of 2016, the three largest UK parties in the European Parliament are: UKIP (24 MEPs), Labour (20 MEPs) and The Conservatives (19 MEPs). Isn’t it remarkable that so many of these MEPS were neither seen or heard during the almost entirely fact-free® debate [1] preceding the UK EU referendum?

So what is the nature of an MEPs power? Back in 1998, a politician by the name of Tony Benn proposed five democratic questions to understand the powerful:

“If one meets a powerful person–Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler–one can ask five questions:

  1. what power do you have?
  2. where did you get it?
  3. in whose interests do you exercise it?
  4. to whom are you accountable?
  5. how can we get rid of you?”

According to Benn, anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system. [5] Personally, I’d like to get rid of UKIP from the European parliament. How can I do this? While I can’t vote for individuals, I can vote for political parties. However, turnout in european elections is often embarrassingly low, in the UK a pathetic 35.6% showed up in 2014. Which means two thirds of UK voters were unaware or didn’t care who their MEP was, including me. My bad. You could call this democratic deficit, not one where people can’t vote but one where people are unaware or don’t bother.

Right now, it is really hard to see how any good can come of what is unfolding in Great Britain and Europe. Brexit leaves the sector I work in, and many others, facing huge uncertainty [6,7,8]. Let’s hope one thing will happen, a reformed EU where those in power are more engaged and accountable to the people they claim to represent. Personally, I am not in a position to judge if the European Union has a democratic deficit or not [9,10]. Neither can I judge if the European Union is as anti-democratic as some eurosceptics have suggested [11, 12,13]. But I do know something has gone badly wrong with the EU if many europeans have no idea of who their parliamentary representatives are and how they can exercise their democratic rights to get rid of them using the ballot box.

If you are staying in the European Union you have a duty to find out who your MEP is and ask them the five democratic questions above. You better do it quickly before risking a Frexit, Czechout, Swexit, Departugal, Grexit, Bygium, Italeave or bidding Austria La Vista.

References

  1. Zanny Minton Beddoes (2016) The Brexit Briefs: The 17 things you need to know before Britain’s #EUref—in one handy guide, The Economist
  2. Oana Lungescu (2001) EU Poll reveals huge ignorance, BBC News
  3. Stewart Lee (2014) Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, Series 2: England
  4. Jeremy Vine (2009) D’Hondt Explainer, BBC News
  5. Anon (1998)  House of Commons Debates, Hansard, parliament.uk
  6. Anon (2016) Brexit vote sparks huge uncertainty for UK universities, Times Higher Education
  7. Alison Abbott, Daniel Cressey, Richard Van Noorden (2016) UK scientists in limbo after Brexit shock: Researchers organize to lobby for science as country prepares for life outside the EU Nature, Vol. 534, No. 7609., pp. 597-598, DOI:10.1038/534597a
  8. Anon (2016) Brexit vote highlights lack of leaving plan: Scientists — just like everybody else — have little idea what will happen now that the United Kingdom has voted to exit the European Union. Nature, Vol. 534, No. 7609., pp. 589-589, DOI:10.1038/534589a
  9. Andrew Moravcsik (2008) The Myth of Europe’s “Democratic Deficit” Intereconomics, Volume 43, Issue 6, pp 316–340 DOI:10.1007/s10272-008-0266-7
  10. Michael Dougan (2016) The UK’s position following vote to leave the EU, University of Liverpool, School of Law and Social Justice
  11. Tony Benn (2013) Tony Benn speaks at the Oxford Union on Euroscepticism, The Oxford Union.
  12. Martin Durkin (2016) Brexit: The Movie (warning: contains Nigel Farage and dubious opinions europhiles will find offensive, factual content is highly questionable in places)
  13. Tony Benn (1975) Letter from Tony Benn to his constituents about the UK European referendum of 1975, The Spectator, Coffee House

* Disclaimer, like I’ve already said, my grasp of politics and economics is pretty basic. I have made every reasonable effort to get the facts right but correct any mistakes I might have made below. These are personal views, which do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

December 16, 2015

Review of 2015 @csmcr, anticipating 2016

Filed under: Uncategorized — Duncan Hull @ 11:41 am

23159833313_4f787129da_o2015 has been a busy year in the School of Computer Science at the University of Manchester (@csmcr). Here is a brief summary of some key activities during 2015 that will be of interest to employers and alumni, with a quick look ahead at what is coming in 2016 including:

  1. Industrial mentoring in software engineering
  2. Industrial experience
  3. Competitions & hackathons
  4. Guest lectures
  5. Careers fairs
  6. Research
  7. Alumni
  8. Keeping in touch

Find out more in our December 2015 newsletter.

Hackathons have continued to gain popularity during 2015 here in the UK, with lots of help from Major League Hacking (mlh.io). There are so many events to choose from, it isn’t always obvious which are the best (and why). The Economist published an interesting piece arguing that Hackathons have entered the corporate mainstream and are no longer just for techies. (Hat tip, thanks Antonio Marino) Which sounds about right.

IMHO, generally hackathons are a good thing, especially for students, but there are some thorny issues around Intellectual Property and unpaid labour that many people brush under the carpet. So if you’re organising or attending a hackathon in 2016, make sure you are clear about who owns the IP.

 

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