Archive for March 26, 2012

Teaching 4,500 students to program ubiquitous computing: Mike Richards and My Digital Life

One of the highlights of SIGCSE 2012 was meeting Mike Richards and learning about the new introductory computing course at the Open University, My Digital Life.  It’s an interesting contrast to the Stanford on-line CS courses.

I met Mike at a BOF (Birds of a Feather) meeting on digital books for CS.  There were three major themes that I heard at the BOF: What standards are there going to be for electronic books, what features should there be, and what should authoring look like.  The answer to the first question was clearly, “Who knows?” It’s too early. There were book authors in the audience who were pretty upset with the answer, insisting, “I need to know what to write in now, and I don’t want to have to change later!”  That’s not going to happen yet.  The answer to the second question had a disappointing amount of posturing — lots of “Wellthink…” with no data, no evidence, no arguments.  Just claims of having the superior vision.  The third one was pretty intriguing, with some really important ideas.  Cay Horstmann had an interesting take on the value of XML, in any form. Mike described what their authoring process was like.

Mike said that it cost $3M USD to build “My Digital Life.”  It consists of a set of books, some really great videos (including one of Alan Kay that he showed in his session), and a terrific computing platform and a modified form of Scratch.  The interesting thing was that the majority of that $3M budget went to “proofreaders, testers, and editors.”  They hire people to try the lesson, and then they watch where it doesn’t work.  Iterative development with formative evaluation — what a great idea!

On Saturday morning, Mike presented his paper with Marian Petre on the SenseBoard that they use in “My Digital Life.”  The course is currently 2/3 through its first offering.  They have 4,500 students with no pre-requisites.  It’s 1/3 female.  2/3 have no previous background knowledge.  They have a wait list of 900 people for the next offering.  Historically, the Open U gets very high student satisfaction ratings, and over 50% completion rates.

They decided to emphasize that their students don’t want to just observe computation, they want to make things.  They decided to focus on ubiquitous computing, because that’s the future of computing from their students’ perspectives.  They created the Senseboard, an Arduino-based device with microphone, IR sensor, push buttons, sliders, servo motor connections, stepper motor connections, and sensors for temperature, motion, and light.  The board is included as part of the course (for which students pay around $800 USD), but should become available separately soon for about $80 USD.  They have created a version of Scratch for programming the Senseboard.  They extended Scratch with primitives for string and file handling, sensor handling, networking, and improved debugging.

I loved the way that they designed the curriculum.  One of their design mantras are “No blank screens.”  Each project comes with parts that already work, with descriptions and background images.  The clear descriptions go step-by-step (checked by testers), and “jump aheads” (“If you already know Booleans, skip to this page”).  All projects are provided with full solutions, so nobody ever gets stuck or can’t play with the result because they couldn’t figure it out.  What an interesting notion — that the point of the programming assignments is to give students something that they want.  Grading is not based on the assignments. Grading is based on seven marked-up assessments with a tutor, and one big final.

The projects looked great: Burglar alarms, a tank game with remote other players, a “tea ready” alarm, a BBC news feed (pull off your favorite articles and stuff them in string boxes), a network seismograph (showing the amount of traffic in your part of the network), live opinion polling, and games that the students found pretty addictive.  Mike had a great quote from a student saying that he wanted to learn to make a “ghost detector” by the end of the course.

Mike says that the Stanford and MIT open learning initiatives are forcing the Open U to make some of “My Digital Life” available on their open learning site.  But the Open U is worried about that.  Stanford and MIT are putting up material that faculty built for free, with no or little testing.  The Open U. spent $3M building this course.  How do you recoup your investment if you give it away for free?  There’s a flip side to that question.  The Open U spends the majority of its development cost on guaranteeing quality, in the sense that the assignments are do-able by students (see previous discussion on reasonable effort).  What guarantees can you make about free courses?  Does course quality matter?

March 26, 2012 at 9:27 am 5 comments


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