A Design Challenge, a Grand Design Challenge, if you will.

Question: What is one semester long, designed as a course for students who perform very well academically, has no prerequisites and can be taken by students with no programming exposure and by students with a great deal of programming experience?

Answer: I don’t know but I’m teaching it on Monday.

While I talk about students who perform well academically, this is for the first instance of this course. My goal is that any student can take this course, in some form, in the future.

The new course in our School, Grand Challenges in Computer Science, is part of our new degree structure, the Bachelor of Computer Science (Advanced). This adds  lot more project work and advanced concepts, without disrupting the usual (and already excellent) development structure of the degree. One of the challenges of dealing with higher-performing students is keeping them in a sufficiently large and vibrant peer group while also addressing the minor problem that they’re moving at a different pace to many people that they are friends with. Our solution has been to add additional courses that sit outside of the main progression but still provide interesting material for these students, as well as encouraging them to take a more active role in the student and general community. They can spend time with their friends, carry on with their degrees and graduate at the same time, but also exercise themselves to greater depth and into areas that we often don’t have time to deal with.

In case you’re wondering, I know that some of my students read this blog and I’m completely comfortable talking about the new course in this manner because (a) they know that I’m joking about the “I don’t know” from the Answer above and (b) I have no secrets regarding this course. There are some serious challenges facing us as a species. We are now in a position where certain technologies and approaches may be able to help us with this. One of these is the notion of producing an educational community that can work together to solve grand challenges and these students are very much a potential part of this new community.

The biggest challenge for me is that I have such a wide range of students. I have students who potentially have no programming background and students who have been coding for four years. I have students who are very familiar with the School’s practices and University, and people whose first day is Monday. Of course, my solution to this is to attack it with a good design. But, of course, before a design, we have to know the problem that we’re trying to solve.

The core elements of this course are the six grand challenges as outlined but he NSF, research methods that will support data analysis, the visualisation of large data sources as a grand challenge and community participation to foster grand challenge communities. I don’t believe that a traditional design of lecturing is going to support this very well, especially as the two characteristics that I most want to develop in the students are creativity and critical thinking. I really want all of my students to be able to think their way around, over or through an obstacle and I think that this course is going to be an excellent place to be able to concentrate on this.

I’ve started by looking at my learning outcomes for this course – what do I expect my students to know by the end of this course? Well, I expect them to be able to tell me what the grand challenges are, describe them, and then provide examples of each one. I expect them to be able to answer questions about key areas and, in the areas that we explore in depth, demonstrate this knowledge through the application of relevant skills, including the production of assignment materials to the best of their ability, given their previous experience. Of course, this means that every student may end up performing slightly differently, which immediately means that personalised assessment work (or banded assessment work) is going to be required but it also means that the materials I use will need to be able to support a surface reading, a more detailed reading and a deep reading, where students can work through the material at their own pace.

I don’t want the ‘senior’ students to dominate, so there’s going to have be some very serious scaffolding, and work from me, to support role fluidity and mutual respect, where the people leading discussion rotate to people supporting a point, or critiquing a point, or taking notes on the point, to make sure that everyone gets a say and that we don’t inhibit the creativity that I’m expecting to see in this course. I will be setting standards for projects that take into account the level of experience of each person, discussed and agreed with the student in advance, based on their prior performance and previous knowledge.

What delights me most about this course is that I will be able to encourage people to learn from each other. Because the major assessment items are all unique to a student, then sharing knowledge will not actually lead to plagiarism or copying. Students will be actively discouraged from doing work for each other but, in this case, I have no problem in students helping each other out – as long as the lion’s share of the work is done by the main student. (The wording of this is going to look a lot more formal but that’s a Uni requirement. To quote “The Castle”, “It’s about the vibe.”) Students will regularly present their work for critique and public discussion, with their response to that critique forming a part of their assessment.

I’m trying to start these students thinking about the problems that are out there, while at the same time giving them a set of bootstrapping tools that can set them on the path to investigation and (maybe) solution well ahead of the end of their degrees. This then feeds into their project work in second and third year. (And, I hope, for at least some of them, Honours and maybe PhD beyond.)

Writing this course has been a delight. I have never had so much excuse to buy books and read fascinating things about challenging issues and data visualisation. However, I think that it will be the student’s response to this that will give me something that I can then share with other people – their reactions and suggestions for improvement will put a seal of authenticity on this that I can then pack up, reorganise, and put out into the world as modules for general first year and high school outreach.

I’m very much looking forward to Monday!

One Comment on “A Design Challenge, a Grand Design Challenge, if you will.”

  1. Nick, I hope you will be blogging about the journey. I am beginning to carve out dissertation questions and am looking broadly at leadership, learning (both adult and student), the role of technology, and mindfulness. This whole emergent world of learning, the role of technology, and the function of the school house is part of the grand design and grand conversation. I am looking forward to listening to your story.



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