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

March 26, 2012 at 9:27 am 5 comments

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?

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Computational thinking, computational values, and academic freedom Secret Sauce of Successful Summer Camps

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alfred Thompson (@alfredtwo)  |  March 26, 2012 at 11:45 am

    Having written a couple of textbooks I quickly learned the value of a good editor and a good designer to layout the book. Those are not things I could have done near as well myself. I also felt like using those books in action would have allowed me to do a much better job on a next version. One of the things we have done at Microsoft with many of the curriculum resources we have developed was to run pilots with the matterials in real classrooms with real teachers and students for exactly that reason. The testing and revision is really important. A bit humbling to authors as well BTW.
    But when it comes down to it ensuring quality costs money. It’s easy to say that people will create free resources because they want to share but the fact is that the hard part tends to be the last 10% which takes a lot more work and a lot more effort but which is essential for the quality you want/need. Not everyone will do that for a pat on the back.

  • 2. jacktoole1  |  March 26, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    Hi Mark,

    Longtime listener; first time caller. I’ a TA for UIUC’s CS2; I’ve been reading your blog for over a year and really appreciate your writing.

    On topic: I think the Stanford Lectures are outstanding, but there is still room for improvement in the rest of the educational experience. To find out more of what they are offering, I’ve enrolled in the Algorithms I course ( https://class.coursera.org/algo/auth/welcome ). The lectures are great as far as lectures go – Tim Roughgarden is great at explaining things and a great speaker. The online nature also offers a couple other benefits – the lectures are broken down into short (so they can keep students attention for the entire duration) videos by topic (instead of by what fits in a 50-minute class period). They are still lectures though, and face the usual problem of one-way interaction (with a couple multiple choice questions thrown in).

    However, the non-lecture portions of the course don’t seem as innovative. The first programming assignment was easily brute-forceable, as it asked only for the output of the algorithm on a single, moderately-sized input. This is a step backward even from the somewhat poor standards for grading programming assignments many in-person classes have. “My Digital Life” sounds like it’s offering innovative assignments, and can probably do well there.

    The textbook recommendations (for Stanford’s Algo I) are also fairly standard. While there is no official textbook, there are a handful of recommendations, two of which are available freely online. These are traditional textbooks made digital, rather than new electronic books making use of their digital platform. I believe this area also has a lot of room for innovation, and it sounds like “My Digital Life” is focussing on the textbook aspect as well.

    I’ve only taken the first week so far, so this might not be accurate for the duration of the course. I’ll be especially interested to see how the future programming assignments turn out.

  • […] education (or virtual high schools) is not just one thing.  The evidence is strong that the Open University UK works, but it works because the courses are well-designed and well-tested.  We don’t know enough […]

  • […] best distance learning programs in the world (such as the Open University UK) rely significantly on text-based materials, because we know how to control costs while creating […]

  • […] of the common themes in these discussions is the Open University UK.  Here’s a university that has a proven track record in using technology for educating students at a distance.  The Open U. has just released a report on innovating pedagogies which looks really worthwhile. […]


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