First Adelaide Computing Education Conventicle

Well, my hosting duties are done and I’m relaxing at home, having hosted the first successful Adelaide Computing Education Conventicle! I’m absolutely exhausted and I have to jump on a plane very soon and so I crave your indulgence because today’s post is going to be a reposting of my welcoming speech to the Conventicle. My thanks to all of the guests, presenters and attendees – we started a new tradition well. I look forward to filling in the details over the next few days. Without any further ado, here is my speech:

“Welcome to the first Adelaide Computing Education Conventicle.

I would first like to acknowledge that we are meeting on the traditional country of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide plains, the original inhabitants of the land upon which the University of Adelaide was built, and who have shared with us a name for this building. Ingkarni Wardli means ‘place of learning’ or, my favourite, ‘the house of inquiry’ and is the first building in the University’s history to have a Kaurna name. I recognise and respect their cultural heritage, beliefs and relationship with the land, and I acknowledge that they are of continuing importance to the Kaurna people living today.

In the spirit of today’s events, I would like to share with you the history of the name of this building, to emphasise the importance of today’s meeting – a meeting of people who are dedicated to learning, to knowledge and to sharing what they know with other people. This building had a working name of “Innova21” but a new name was always sought and, after a great deal of discussion, the then-Dean, Professor Peter Dowd, decided to seek advice on a name from the Kaurna people.

It would have been very easy to look at what we, as outsiders, know of the Kaurna language and pick a name that seemed right – especially when the word for knowledge “Ingkarni” was so close to the word “Innova”. However, the Kaurna language is protected by its custodians, because of people with less than perfect understanding or, in some extreme cases, a desire to exploit by association, so we needed to seek approval before the naming. As it turns out, calling the building “Ingkarni” by itself would have been nonsensical and would have undone the intent of the namers, which was to recognise and respect the cultural traditions of the Kaurna, in their role as educators.

If you have ever had the good fortune to hear the Kaurna Elder, Uncle Lewis O’Brien, you will know that the Kaurna placed great value on education and were respected among the neighbouring communities as educators and conference leaders. When big decisions were being made, when important knowledge had to be shared, the Kaurna were generally to be consulted and would have an instrumental role in the process. What better name for a building that contains science and education than the name “House of Enquiry” from a people who were known for their knowledge and their importance in the sharing of wisdom?

Today, we gather to discuss our knowledge of education, to share our successes and to understand and to seek to address those areas where we are yet to succeeed. I would like to thank the Australian Council of Deans of ICT’s Learning and Teaching Academy, for funding both me and Simon under the Fellows program. I would like to thank the inimitable Simon for his encouragement to run this, and to thank our other interstate guest, Dr Raymond Lister, for being here today to share his research. I would also like to thank you all for agreeing to present, or to just show up and listen. It is far easier to ignore alternative approaches to learning and teaching than it is to sit in a room and prepare to discover that you might be able to do things differently, with greater effect. I welcome you all and I hope that this is the first of a long and fruitful cycle of Conventicles. It is now my pleasure to introduce Simon!”


Unearthing the Community: A Surprisingly Rapid Result

I am thinking of a number between 1 and 100…

Next Monday I am co-hosting the first Adelaide Computing Education Conventicle, an offshoot of the very successful program in the Eastern states which encourages the presentation of work that has gone to conferences, or is about to go, and to provide a forum for conversations and panel discussions on Computing Education. The term ‘conventicle’ refers to “A secret or unlawful religious meeting, typically of people with nonconformist views” and stems from the initial discussions in Melbourne and Sydney, back when Computing Education was not perhaps as accepted as it is now. The name is retained for gentle amusement and a linkage to previous events. To quote my own web page on this:

The Conventicle is a one-day conference about all aspects of teaching computing in higher education, in its practical and theoretical aspects, which includes computer science, information systems, information technology, and branches of both mathematics and statistics. The Conventicle is free and open to all who wish to attend. The format will consist of presentations, discussion forums and opportunities to network over lunch, and morning and afternoon tea.

The Conventicles have a long history in other states, allowing a discussion forum for how we teach, why we teach, what we can do better and provide us with an opportunity to share our knowledge at a local level without having to travel to conferences or subscribe to an every growing set of journals.

One of my ALTA colleagues set his goal as restarting the conventicles where they had stopped and starting them where they had never been and, combining this with my goal of spreading the word on CSE, we decided to work together and host the informal one-day event. The Australian gravity well is deep and powerful: few of my colleagues get to go to the larger educational conferences and being able to re-present some key papers, especially when the original presenters can be there, is fantastic. We’re very lucky to have two interstate visitors. Simon, my ALTA colleague, is presenting some of his most recent work, and Raymond Lister, from UTS, is presenting a very interesting paper that I saw him present at ICER. When he mentioned that he might be able to come, I didn’t wast much time trying to encourage him… and ask him if he’d mind presenting a paper. It appears that I’m learning how to run a conference.

The other good news is that we have a full program! It turns out that many people are itching to talk about their latest projects, their successes, recent papers and about the things that challenge so many of us. I still have space for a lot more people to attend and, with any luck, by this time tomorrow I’ll have the program nailed down. If you’re in the neighbourhood, please check out the web page and let me know if you can come.

I hope to see at least some of the following come out of the First Adelaide Computing Education Conventicle:

  1. Raised awareness of Computing Education across my faculty and University.
  2. Raised awareness of how many people are already doing research in this!
  3. An opportunity for the local community to get together and make connections.
  4. Some good discussion with no actual blows being landed. 🙂

In the longer term, I’d love to see joint papers, grant applications and all those good things that help us to tick our various boxes. Of course, being me, I also want to learn more, to help other people to learn more (even if it’s just by hosting) and get some benefit for all of our students.

There’s enough time to get it all organised, which is great, but I’ll have a busy Monday next week!


In A Student’s Head – Mine From 26 Years Ago

I attended an Australian Council of Deans of ICT Learning and Teaching Academy event run by Elena Sitnikova from the University of South Australia. Elena is one of the (my fellow?) Fellows in ALTA and works in Cyber Security and Forensic Computing. Today’s focus was on discussing the issues in ICT education in Australia, based on the many surveys that have been run, presenting some early work on learning and teaching grants and providing workshops on “Improving learning and teaching practice in ICT Education” and “Developing Teamwork that Works!”. The day was great (with lots of familiar faces presenting a range of interesting topics) and the first workshop was run by Sue Wright, graduate school in Education, University of Melbourne. This, as always, was a highly rewarding event because Sue forced me to go back and think about myself as a student.

This is a very powerful technique and I’m going to outline it here, for those who haven’t done it for a while. Drawing on Bordieu’s ideas on social and cultural capital, Sue asked us to list our non-financial social assets and disadvantages when we first came to University. This included things like:

  • Access to resources
  • Physical appearance
  • Educational background
  • Life experiences
  • Intellect and orientation to study
  • Group membership
  • Accent
  • Anything else!

When you think about yourself in this way, you suddenly have to think about not only what you had, but what you didn’t have. What helped you stay in class?What meant that you didn’t show up? From a personal perspective, I had good friends and a great tan but I had very little life experience, a very poor study ethic, no real sense of consequences and a very poor support network in an academic sense. It really brought home how lucky I was to have a group of friends that kept me coming to University. Of course, in those pre-on-line days, you had to come to Uni to see your friends, so that was a good reason to keep people on campus – it allowed for you to learn things by bumping into a people, which I like to refer to as “Brownian Communication”.

“Hey, Neutrino 3 is trying to put together a Learning and Teaching Grant. Who’s in?”

This exercise made me think about my transition to being a successful student. In my case, it took more than one degree and a great deal more life experience before I was ready to come back and actually succeed. To be honest, if you looked at my base degree, you’d never have thought that I would make it all the way to a PhD and, yet, here I am, on a path where I am making a solid and positive difference.

Sue then reminded people of Hofstede’s work on cultural dimensions – power distance, individualism versus collectivism, and uncertainty avoidance. How do students work – do they need a large ‘respect gap’ between student and teacher? Do they put family before their own study? Do they do anything rather than explore the uncertain? It’s always worth remembering that, where “the other” exists for us, we exist as “the other” reciprocally. While it’s comfortable as white, culturally English and English speaking people to assume that “the other” is transgressing with respect to our ‘dominant’ culture, we may be asking people to do something that is incredibly uncomfortable and goes far beyond learning another language.

One of the workshop participants was born and grew up in Korea and he made the observation that, when he was growing up, the teacher was held at the same level of the King and your father – and you don’t question the King or your father! He also noted that, on occasion, ‘respect’ had to be directed towards teachers that they did not actually respect. He had one bad teacher and, in that class, the students asked no questions and just let the teacher talk. As someone who works within a very small power distance relationship with y students, I have almost never felt disrespected by anything that my students do, unless they are actively trying to be rude and disrespectful. If I have nobody following, or asking questions, then I always start to wonder if I’ve been tuned out and they are listening to the music in their heads. (Or on their iPhones, as it is the 21st Century!)

Australia is a low power distance/high individualism culture with a focus on the short-term in many respects (as evidence by profit and loss quarterly focus and, to be frank, recent political developments). Bringing people from a high PD/high collectivism culture, such as some of those found in South East Asia, will need some sort of management to ensure that we don’t accidentally split the class. It’s not enough to just say “These students do X” because we know that we can, with the right approach, integrate our student body. But it does take work.

As always, working with Sue (you never just listen to Sue, she always gets you working) was a very rewarding and reflective activity. I spent 20 minutes trying to learn enough about a colleague from UniSA, Sang, that I could answer questions about his life. While I was doing this, he was trying to become Nick. What emerged from this was how amazingly similar we actually are – different Unis, different degrees, different focus, one Anglo-origin, one Korean-origin – and it took us quite a while to find things where we were really so different that we could talk about the challenges if we had to take on each other’s lives.

It was great to see most of the Fellows again but, looking around a large room that wasn’t full to the brim, it reminded me that we are often talking to those people who already believe that what we’re doing is the right thing. The people that really needed to be here were the people who weren’t in the room.

I’m still thinking about how we can continue our work to reach out and bring more people into this very, very rewarding community.


Grand Challenges and the New Car Smell

It has been a crazy week so far. In between launching the new course and attending a number of important presentations, our Executive Dean, Professor Peter Dowd, is leaving the role after 8 years and we’re all getting ready for the handover. At time of writing, I’m sitting in an airport lounge in Adelaide Airport waiting for my flight to Melbourne to go and talk about the Learning and Teaching Academy of which I’m a Fellow so, given that my post queue is empty and that I want to keep up my daily posting routine, today’s post may be a little rushed. (As one of my PhD students pointed out, the typos are creeping in anyway, so this shouldn’t be too much of a change. Thanks, T. 🙂 )

The new course that I’ve been talking about, which has a fairly wide scope with high performing students, has occupied five hours this week and it has been both very exciting and a little daunting. The student range is far wider than usual: two end-of-degree students, three start-of-degree students, one second year and one internal exchange student from the University of Denver. As you can guess, in terms of learning design, this requires me to have a far more flexible structure than usual and I go into each activity with the expectation that I’m going to have to be very light on my feet.

I’ve been very pleased by two things in the initial assessment: firstly, that the students have been extremely willing to be engage with the course and work with me and each other to build knowledge, and secondly, that I have the feeling that there is no real ‘top end’ for this kind of program. Usually, when I design something, I have to take into account our general grading policies (which I strongly agree with) that are not based on curve grading and require us to provide sufficient assessment opportunities and types to give students the capability to clearly demonstrate their ability. However, part of my role is pastoral, so that range of opportunities has to be carefully set so that a Pass corresponds to ‘acceptable’ and I don’t set the bar so high that people pursuing a High Distinction (A+) don’t destroy their prospects in other courses or burn out.

I’ve stressed the issues of identity and community in setting up this course, even accidentally referring to the discipline as Community Science in one of my intro slides, and the engagement level of the students gives me the confidence that, as a group, they will be able to develop each other’s knowledge and give them some boosting – on top of everything and anything that I can provide. This means that the ‘top’ level of achievements are probably going to be much higher than before, or at least I hope so. I’ve identified one of my roles for them as “telling them when they’ve done enough”, much as I would for an Honours or graduate student, to allow me to maintain that pastoral role and to stop them from going too far down the rabbit hole.

Yesterday, I introduced them to R (statistical analysis and graphical visualisation) and Processing (a rapid development and very visual programming language) as examples of tools that might be useful for their projects. In fairly short order, they were pushing the boundaries, trying new things and, from what I could see, enjoying themselves as they got into the idea that this was exploration rather than a prescribed tool set. I talked about the time burden of re-doing analysis and why tools that forced you to use the Graphical User Interface (clicking with the mouse to move around and change text) such as Excel had really long re-analysis pathways because you had to reapply a set of mechanical changes that you couldn’t (easily) automate. Both of the tools that I showed them could be set up so that you could update your data and then re-run your analysis, do it again, change something, re-run it, add a new graph, re-run it – and it could all be done very easily without having to re-paste Column C into section D4 and then right clicking to set the format or some such nonsense.

It’s too soon to tell what the students think because there is a very “new car smell” about this course and we always have the infamous, if contested, Hawthorne Effect, where being obviously observed as part of a study tends to improve performance. Of course, in this case, the students aren’t part of an experiment but, given the focus, the preparation and the new nature – we’re in the same territory. (I have, of course, told the students about the Hawthorne Effect in loose terms because the scope of the course is on solving important and difficult problems, not on knee-jerk reactions to changing the colour of the chair cushions. All of the behaviourists in the audience can now shake their heads, slowly.)

Early indications are positive. On Monday I presented an introductory lecture laying everything out and then we had a discussion about the course. I assigned some reading (it looked like 24 pages but was closer to 12) and asked students to come in with a paragraph of notes describing what a Grand Challenge was in their own words, as well as some examples. The next day, less than 24 hours after the lecture, everyone showed up and, when asked to write their description up on the white board, all got up and wrote it down – from their notes. Then they exchanged ideas, developed their answers and I took pictures of them to put up on our forum. Tomorrow, I’ll throw these up and ask the students to keep refining them, tracking their development of their understanding as they work out what they consider to be the area of grand challenges and, I hope, the area that they will start to consider “their” area – the one that they want to solve.

If even one more person devotes themselves to solving an important problem to be work then I’ll be very happy but I’ll be even happier if most of them do, and then go on to teach other people how to do it. Scale is the killer so we need as many dedicated, trained, enthusiastic and clever people as we can  – let’s see what we can do about that.

More on our image – and the need for a revamp.

Today, in between meetings with people about forming a cohesive ICT community and defining our identity, I saw a billboard as I walked along the streets of the Melbourne CBD.

A picture of a woman’s torso, naked except for a bra, with the slogan “Who said engineering was boring?”

Says it all, really, doesn’t it? I’ve long said that associating a verb in a sentence with a negative is the best way to get people to think about the verb rather than the more complex semantics of the negated verb. Now, for a whole lot of people, a vaguely leery billboard is going to put the words “engineering” and “boring” together.

Some of these people will be young people in our target recruitment group – mid to late school – and this kind of stuff sticks.

The building the billboard was on was built by civil engineers, using systems designed by mechanical and electronic/electrical engineers, the pictures were produced on machines constructed by computer systems engineers and elecs, images constructed and edited through digital cameras by tech-savvy photographers and processed on systems built by software engineers, computer scientists, electronic artists and many, many other people who are all being insulted by the same poster they helped to support and create. (My apologies because I didn’t list everybody, but the sheer scale of the number of people who contributed to that is quite large!)

Today, on my way home, a giant hunk of steel, powered by two big balls of spinning flame, climbed up into the sky and, in an hour, crossed a distance that used to take weeks to traverse. Right now, I am communicating with you around the world using a machine built of metal, burnt oil residue  and sand, that is sending information to you at nearly the speed of light, wherever you happen to be.

How, in anyone’s perverted lexicon, can that be anything other than exciting?

Identity and Community – Addressing the ICT Education Community

Had a great meeting at Swinburne University, (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), today as part of my ALTA Fellowship role. I brought the talk and early outcomes from the ALTA Forum in Queensland into (sunny-ish?) Melbourne and shared it with a new group of participants.

I haven’t had time to write my notes up yet but the overall sentiment was pretty close to what was expressed at the ALTA Forum initially:

  1. We don’t have an “ICT is…” identity that we can point to. Dentists do teeth. Doctors heal the sick. Lawyers do law. ICT does… what?
  2. We need a common dissemination point for IT, CS, IS, ICT, CS-EE… etc. rather than the piecemeal framework we currently have that is strongly aligned with subdivision of the discipline.
  3. We need professionalism in learning and teaching, where people dedicate time to improve their L&T – no more stagnant courses!
  4. We need to have enough time to be professional! L&T must be seen as valuable and be allocated enough time to be undertaken properly.
  5. It would be great to have a Field of Research Code for Education within the Discipline of ICT – as distinct from general education coding – to make sure that CS Ed/ICT Ed is seen as educational research in the discipline, rather than a non-specific investigation.
  6. We need to identify and foster a community of practice to get out of the silos. Let’s all agree that we want to do this properly and ignore school and University boundaries.
  7. We need to stop talking about the lack of national community and start addressing the lack of a national community.

So a good validation for the early work at the Forum and I’m really looking forward to my meeting at RMIT tomorrow. Thanks, Graham and Catherine, for being so keen to host the first official ALTA engagement and dissemination event!

Your Mission, Should You…

The ALTA meeting of the last two days has been really interesting. My role as an ALTA Fellow has been much better defined after a lot of discussions between the Fellows, the executive and the membership of ALTA. Effectively, if you’re at a University in Australia and reading this, and you’re interested in finding out about what’s going on in our planning for Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Learning and Teaching, contact me and I’ll come out to talk to your school, faculty or University. I’m concentrating on engagement and dissemination – trying to bring the diverse groups in ICT education in Australia (38 organisations, 686 separate ICT-related programs) into a more cohesive group so that we can achieve great things.

To say that this is going to be exciting is an understatement. To omit the words ‘challenging’ and ‘slightly frightening’ would also be an understatement. But I always love a slightly frightening and exciting challenge – that’s why I eat durian.

ICT education in Australia does not have the best image at the moment. That information is already out there. A lot of people have no idea what we even mean by ICT. But let’s be inclusive. It’s Computer Science, Computing, Information Systems, Information Science, Communications Science, Information Technology… everything else where we would be stronger standing together than apart.

There are important questions to be answered. Are we a profession or professions? Are we like engineering (core competencies with school-based variation) or more like science (core concepts and very different disciplines)? How do we improve the way that people see us? How do we make 13 year olds realise that they are suited for our profession – and that our profession is more than typing on a keyboard?

How do we change the world’s perception so that the first picture that people put on an article about computing does not feature someone who is supposed to be perceived as unattractive, socially inept, badly dressed and generally socially unacceptable?

If you are at an Australian University and want to talk about this, get in touch with me. My e-mail address is available by looking for my name at The University of Adelaide – sorry, spambots. If you’re from overseas and would like to offer suggestions or ask questions, our community can be global and, in many respects, it should be global. I learn so much from my brief meetings with overseas experts. As an example, I’ll link you off to Mark Guzdial’s blog here because he’s a good writer, an inspiring academic and educator, and he links to lots of other interesting stuff. I welcome the chance to work with other people whenever I can because, yes, my focus is Australia but my primary focus is “Excellence in ICT education”. That’s a global concern. My dream is that we get so many students interested in this that we look at ways to link up and get synergies for dealing with the vast numbers that we have.

The world is running on computers, generates vast quantities of data, and needs our profession more than ever. Its time to accept the mission and try to raise educational standards, perceptions and expectations across the bar so that ICT Education (or whatever we end up calling it) becomes associated with the terms ‘world-leading’, ‘innovative’, ‘inspiring’ and ‘successful’. And our students don’t have to hide between their brave adoption of semi-pejorative isolating terms or put up with people being proud that they don’t know anything about computers, as if that knowledge is something to be ashamed of.

We need change. Helping to make that happen is now part of my mission. I’m looking for people to help me.

The Classroom of 2020

There were many lively debates at yesterday’s ALTA forum. (ALTA is the Australian Council of Deans of ICT’s Learning and Teaching Academy and is concerned with raising the quality and perception of ICT higher ed courses across the country. No pressure. 🙂 ) When you get 40 or so academics in a room then, if they’re even vaguely engaged, you’re going to have a pretty free and frank exchange of views. And one of the great things about ALTA is that we are all very engaged!

There was a lot of discussion on the rise in on-line learning and what impact it would have on the physical presence of students on campus. What does the classroom of 2020 look like?

Is it a room full of computers with students lined up facing them? (If so, how? Rows? Islands? Back to back? Face to face? Suspended from the ceiling? Embedded in desks?)


Is it a room full of people without a computer in sight? (If so, how is that room set up? Traditionally? For collaboration? Random group formation?)


Is it somewhere between the two, much as it is now?

Or is the bricks-and-mortar University a ghost town? Giant empty lecture theatres repurposed as server rooms, cooling conduits snaking through the old desks and chairs, with the students sitting, by themselves, wherever they happen to be, hooked into our remote on-line systems?

(I found it too depressing a thought to put a picture of this in here. The coming together of our students has so many benefits that I really hope it never goes away.)

As always, rather than adapting education to space, our best bet is to look at what we want to achieve and adjust the space accordingly. A linear layout computer lab is great for getting code written but lousy for group formation and collaboration. A low density island style suite is great for groups and collab but doesn’t support a more tutorial style with only one lecturer because of line-of-sight and group focus issues. A traditional lecture theatre is often unsuited to heavy computerisation because of simple things like power requirements. Getting above the space, what is a classroom? What will the mix be of classrooms, between physical, virtual, ad hoc and all of the other subtleties? Delivery, content, methodology – so many variables and so much room for passionate debate to try and share what works and make things better across all of our students.

I think we already have a good idea of what works for at least some of this and it’s pretty obvious that the mix of mobile, on-line and traditional learning, which we refer to as blended learning, is becoming increasingly popular and providing some excellent results, as well as a number of challenges. The debate continues on what the proportions of the blend will be – does this mean that we have accepted blended learning or is there a fourth, or fifth, component that will appear and change everything by 2020?