Adelaide Computing Education Conventicle 2012: “It’s all about the people”

acec 2012 was designed to be a cross-University event (that’s the whole point of the conventicles, they bring together people from a region) and we had a paper from the University of South Australia:  ‘”It’s all about the people”; building cultural competence in IT graduates’ by Andrew Duff, Kathy Darzanos and Mark Osborne. Andrew and Kathy came along to present and the paper was very well received, because it dealt with an important need and a solid solution to address that need, which was inclusive, insightful and respectful.

For those who are not Australians, it is very important to remember that the original inhabitants of Australia have not fared very well since white settlement and that the apology for what happened under many white governments, up until very recently, was only given in the past decade. There is still a distance between the communities and the overall process of bringing our communities together is referred to as reconciliation. Our University has a reconciliation statement and certain goals in terms of representation in our staff and student bodies that reflect percentages in the community, to reduce the underrepresentation of indigenous Australians and to offer them the same opportunities. There are many challenges facing Australia, and the health and social issues in our indigenous communities are often exacerbated by years of poverty and a range of other issues, but some of the communities have a highly vested interest in some large-scale technical, ICT and engineering solutions, areas where indigenous Australians are generally not students. Professor Lester Irabinna Rigney, the Dean of Aboriginal Education, identified the problem succinctly at a recent meeting: when your people live on land that is 0.7m above sea level, a 0.9m sea-level rise starts to become of concern and he would really like students from his community to be involved in building the sea walls that address this, while we look for other solutions!

Andrea, Kathy and Mark’s aim was to share out the commitment to reconciliation across the student body, making this a whole of community participation rather than a heavy burden for a few, under the guiding statement that they wanted to be doing things with the indigenous community, rather than doing things to them. There’s always a risk of premature claiming of expertise, where instead of working with a group to find out what they want, you walk in and tell them what they need. For a whole range of very good and often heartbreaking reasons, the Australian indigenous communities are exceedingly wary when people start ordering them about. This was the first thing I liked about this approach: let’s not make the same mistakes again. The authors were looking for a way to embed cultural awareness and the process of reconciliation into the curriculum as part of an IT program, sharing it so that other people could do it and making it practical.

Their key tenets were:

  1. It’s all about the diverse people. They developed a program to introduce students to culture, to give them more than one world view of the dominant culture and to introduce knowledge of the original Australians. It’s an important note that many Australians have no idea how to use certain terms or cultural items from indigenous culture, which of course hampers communication and interaction.

    For the students, they were required to put together an IT proposal, working with the indigenous community, that they would implement in the later years of their degree. Thus, it became part of the backbone of their entire program.

  2. Doing with [people], not to [people]. As discussed, there are many good reasons for this. Reduce the urge to be the expert and, instead, look at existing statements of right and how to work with other peplum, such as the UN rights of indigenous people and the UniSA graduate attributes. This all comes together in the ICUP – Indigenous Content in Undergraduate Program

How do we deal with information management in another culture? I’ve discussed before the (to many) quite alien idea that knowledge can reside with one person and, until that person chooses or needs to hand on that knowledge, that is the person that you need. Now, instead of demanding knowledge and conformity to some documentary standard, you have to work with people. Talking rather than imposing, getting the client’s genuine understanding of the project and their need – how does the client feel about this?

Not only were students working with indigenous people in developing their IT projects, they were learning how to work with other peoples, not just other people, and were required to come up with technologically appropriate solutions that met the client need. Not everyone has infinite power and 4G LTE to run their systems, nor can everyone stump up the cash to buy an iPhone or download apps. Much as programming in embedded systems shakes students out of the ‘infinite memory, disk and power’ illusion, working with other communities in Australia shakes them out of the single worldview and from the, often disrespectful, way that we deal with each other. The core here is thinking about different communities and the fact that different people have different requirements. Sometimes you have to wait to speak to the right person, rather than the available person.

The online forum has four questions that students have to find a solution to, where the forum is overseen by an indigenous tutor. The four questions are:

  1. What does culture mean to you?
  2. Post a cultural artefact that describes your culture?
  3. I came here to study Computer Science – not Aboriginal Australians?
  4. What are some of the differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians?

The first two are amazing questions – what is your answer to question number 2? The second pair of questions are more challenging and illustrate the bold and head-on approach of this participative approach to reconciliation. Reconciliation between all of the Australian communities requires everyone to be involved and, being honest, questions 3 and 4 are going to open up some wounds, drag some silly thinking out into the open but, most importantly, allow us to talk through issues of concern and confusion.

I suspect that many people can’t really answer question 4 without referring back to mid-50s archetypal depictions of Australian Aborigines standing on one leg, looking out over cliffs, and there’s an excellent ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) exhibit in Melbourne that discusses this cultural misappropriation and stereotyping. One of the things that resonated with me is that asking these questions forces people to think about these things, rather than repeating old mind grooves and received nonsense overheard in pubs, seen on TV and heard in racist jokes.

I was delighted that this paper was able to be presented, not least because the goal of the team is to share this approach in the hope of achieving even greater strides in the reconciliation process. I hope to be able to bring some of it to my Uni over the next couple of years.


When Does Failing Turn You Into a Failure?

The threat of failure is very different from the threat of being a failure. At the Creative Innovations conference I was just at, one of the strongest messages there was that we learn more from failure than we do from success, and that failure is inevitable if you are actually trying to be innovative. If you learn from your failures and your failure is the genuine result of something that didn’t work, rather than you sat around and watched it burn, then this is just something that happens, was the message from CI, and any other culture makes us overly-cautious and risk averse. As most of us know, however, we are more strongly encouraged to cover up our failures than to celebrate them – and we are frequently better off not trying in certain circumstances than failing.

At the recent Adelaide Conventicle, which I promise to write up very, very soon, Dr Raymond Lister presented an excellent talk on applying Neo-Piagetian concepts and framing to the challenges students face in learning programming. This is a great talk (which I’ve had the good fortune to see twice and it’s a mark of the work that I enjoyed it as much the second time) because it allows us to talk about failure to comprehend, or failure to put into practice, in terms of a lack of the underlying mechanism required to comprehend – at this point in the student’s development. As part of the steps of development, we would expect students to have these head-scratching moments where they are currently incapable of making any progress but, framing it within developmental stages, allows us to talk about moving students to the next stage, getting them out of this current failure mode and into something where they will achieve more. Once again, failure in this case is inevitable for most people until we and they manage to achieve the level of conceptual understanding where we can build and develop. More importantly, if we track how they fail, then we start to get an insight into which developmental stage they’re at.

One thing that struck me with Raymond’s talk, was that he starts off talking about “what ruined Raymond” and discussing the dire outcomes promised to him if he watched too much television, as it was to me for playing too many games, and it is to our children for whatever high tech diversion is the current ‘finger wagging’ harbinger of doom. In this case, ruination is quite clearly the threat of becoming a failure. However, this puts us in a strange position, because if failure is almost inevitable but highly valuable if managed properly and understood, what is it about being a failure that is so terrible? It’s like threatening someone that they’ll become too enthusiastic and unrestrained in their innovation!

I am, quelle surprise, playing with words here because to be a failure is to be classed as someone for whom success is no longer an option. If we were being precise, then we would class someone as a perpetual failure or, more simply, unsuccessful. This is, quite usually, the point at which it is acceptable to give up on someone – after all, goes the reasoning, we’re just pouring good money after bad, wasting our time, possibly even moving the deck chairs on the Titanic, and all those other expressions that allow us to draw that good old categorical line between us and others and put our failures into the “Hey, I was trying something new” basket and their failures into the “Well, he’s just so dumb he’d try something like that.” The only problem with this is that I’m really not sure that a lifetime of failure is a guaranteed predictor of future failure. Likely? Yeah, probably. So likely we can gamble someone’s life on it? No, I don’t believe so.

When I was failing courses in my first degree, it took me a surprisingly long time to work out how to fix it, most of which was down to the fact that (a) I had no idea how to study but (b) no-one around me was vaguely interested in the fact that I was failing. I was well on my way to becoming a perpetual failure, someone who had no chance of holding down a job let alone having a career, and it was a kind and fortuitous intervention that helped me. Now, with a degree of experience and knowledge, I can look back into my own patterns and see pretty much what was wrong with me – although, boy, would I have been a difficult cuss to work with. However, failing, which I have done since then and I will (no doubt) do again, has not appeared to have turned me into a failure. I have more failings than I care to count but my wife still loves me, my friends are happy to be seen with me and no-one sticks threats on my door at work so these are obviously in the manageable range. However, managing failure has been a challenging thing for me and I was pondering this recently – how people deal with being told that they’re wrong is very important to how they deal with failing to achieve something.

I’m reading a rather interesting, challenging and confronting, article on, and I cannot believe there’s a phrase for this, rage murders in American schools and workplaces, which claims that these horrifying acts are, effectively, failed revolts, which is with Mark Ames, the author of “Going Postal” (2005). Ames seems to believe that everything stems from Ronald Reagan (and I offer no opinion either way, I hasten to add) but he identifies repeated humiliation, bullying and inhumane conditions as taking ordinary people, who would not usually have committed such actions, and turning them into monstrous killing machines. Ames’ thesis is that this is not the rise of psychopathy but a rebellion against breaking spirit and the metaphorical enslavement of many of the working and middle class that leads to such a dire outcome. If the dominant fable of life is that success is all, failure is bad, and that you are entitled to success, then it should be, as Ames says in the article, exactly those people who are most invested in these cultural fables who would be the most likely to break when the lies become untenable. In the language that I used earlier, this is the most awful way to handle the failure of the fabric of your world – a cold and rational journey that looks like madness but is far worse for being a pre-meditated attempt to destroy the things that lied to you. However, this is only one type of person who commits these acts. The Monash University gunman, for example, was obviously delusional and, while he carried out a rational set of steps to eliminate his main rival, his thinking as to why this needed to happen makes very little sense. The truth is, as always, difficult and muddy and my first impression is that Ames may be oversimplifying in order to advance a relatively narrow and politicised view. But his language strikes me: the notion of the “repeated humiliation, bullying and inhumane conditions”, which appears to be a common language among the older, workplace-focused, and otherwise apparently sane humans who carry out such terrible acts.

One of the complaints made against the radio network at the heart of the recent Royal Hoax, 2DayFM, is that they are serial humiliators of human beings and show no regard for the general well-being of the people involved in their pranks – humiliation, inhumanity and bullying. Sound familiar? Here I am, as an educator, knowing that failure is going to happen for my students and working out how to bring them up into success and achievement when, on one hand, I have a possible set of triggers where beating down people leads to apparent madness, and at least part of our entertainment culture appears to delight in finding the lowest bar and crawling through the filth underneath it. Is telling someone that they’re a failure, and rubbing it in for public enjoyment, of any vague benefit to anyone or is it really, as I firmly believe, the best way to start someone down a genuinely dark path to ruination and resentment.

Returning to my point at the start of this (rather long) piece, I have met Raymond several times and he doesn’t appear even vaguely ruined to me, despite all of the radio, television and Neo-Piagetian contextual framing he employs. The message from Raymond and CI paints failure as something to be monitored and something that is often just a part of life – a stepping stone to future success – but this is most definitely not the message that generally comes down from our society and, for some people, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that their inability to handle the crushing burden of permanent classification as a failure is something that can have catastrophic results. I think we need to get better at genuinely accepting failure as part of trying, and to really, seriously, try to lose the classification of people as failures just because they haven’t yet succeeded at some arbitrary thing that we’ve defined to be important.

AAEE 2012 – Yes, Another Conference

In between writing up the conventicle (which I’m not doing yet), the CI Conference (which I’m doing slowly) and sleep (infrequent), I’m attending the Australasian Association for Engineering Education 2012 conference. Today, I presented a paper on e-Enhancing existing courses and, through a co-author, another paper on authentic teaching tool creation experiences.

My first paper gave me a chance to look at the Google analytics and tracking data for the on-line material I created in 2009. Since then, there have been:

  • 11,118 page views
  • 2.99 pages viewed/visit
  • 1,721 unique visitors
  • 3,715 visits overall

The other thing that is interesting is that roughly 60% of the viewers return to view the podcasts again. The theme of my talk was “Is E-Enhancement Worth It” and I had the pleasure of pointing out that I felt that it was because, as I was presenting, I was simultaneously being streamed giving my thoughts of computer networks to students in Singapore and (strangely enough) Germany. As I said in the talk and in the following discussion, the podcasts are far from perfect and, to increase their longevity, I need to make them shorter and more aligned to a single concept.


Because while the way I present concepts may change, because of sequencing and scaffolding changes, the way that I present an individual concept is more likely to remain the same over time. My next step is to make up a series of conceptual podcasts that are maybe 3-5 minutes in duration. Then the challenge is how to assemble these – I have ideas but not enough time.

One of the ideas raised today is the idea that we are seeing the rise of the digital native, a new type of human acclimatised to a short gratification loop, multi-tasking, and a non-linear mode of learning. I must be honest and say that everything I’ve read on the multi-tasking aspect, at least, leads me to believe that this new generation don’t multi-task any better than anyone else did. If they do two things, then they do them more slowly and don’t achieve the same depth: there’s no shortage of research work on this and given the limits of working memory and cognition this makes a great deal of sense. Please note, I’m not saying that I don’t believe that Homo Multiplexor can’t emerge, it’s just that I have not yet any strong scientific evidence to back up the anecdotes. I’m perfectly willing to believe that default searching activities have changed (storing ways of searching rather than the information) because that is a logical way to reduce cognitive load but I am yet to see strong evidence that my students can do two things at once well and without any loss of time. Either working memory has completely changed, which we should be able to test, or we risk confusing the appearance of doing two things at once with actually doing two things at once.

This is one of those situations that, as one of my colleagues observed, leaves us in that difficult position of being told, with great certainty, about a given student (often someone’s child) who can achieve great things while simultaneously watching TV and playing WoW. Again, I do not rule out the possibility of a significant change in humanity (we’re good at it) but I have often seen that familiar tight smile and the noncommittal nod as someone doesn’t quite acknowledge that your child is somehow the spearhead of a new parallelised human genus.

It’s difficult sometimes to express ideas like this. Compare this to the numbers I cited above. Everyone who reads this will look at those numbers and, while they will think many things, they are unlikely to think “I don’t believe that”. Yet I know that there are people who have read this and immediately snorted (or the equivalent) because they frankly disbelieve me o the multi-tasking, with no more or less hard evidence than that supporting the numbers. I’m actually expecting some comments on this one because the notion of the increasing ability of young people to multitask is so entrenched. If there is a definitive set of work supporting this, then I welcome it. The only problem is that all I can find supports the original work on working memory and associated concepts – there are only so many things you can focus on and beyond that you might be able to function but not at much depth. (There are exceptions, of course, but the 0.1% of society do not define the rule.)

The numbers are pasted straight out of my Google analytics for the learning materials I put up – yet you have no more reason to believe them than if I said “83% of internet statistics are made up”, which is a made up statistic. (If is is true, it is accidentally true.) We see again one of the great challenges in education: numbers are convincing, evidence that contradicts anecdote is often seen as wrong, finding evidence in the first place can be hard.

One more day of conference tomorrow! I can only wonder what we’ll be exposed to.

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!