Guest post from Gerald Haigh. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft Education series of blogs.
Anyone – teacher, parent, student – who thinks degree level computer programming must be a boring affair should have been with me at Derby University’s Microsoft sponsored ‘Games@Derby Expo’ the other week. Held in the big atrium at the main Kedleston Road site, the Expo featured dozens of games and apps created by students so it’s not difficult to imagine the scene as crowds of students, high on success and enthusiasm, gathered round the big screens.
My main reason for being there, though, was focussed on one particular screen displaying Windows 8 apps created by final year students of both the Computer Games Programming and Computer Science degrees. The task, one of the assessments for a final year module, was to develop a Windows 8 application that met the Microsoft certification requirements for release to the Windows Store. (Some, in fact, have made it to the store.)
‘We left it deliberately open-ended,’ says senior lecturer Wayne Rippin, ‘Challenging the imagination as well as their technical ability.’
Before visiting the Expo, I had a long talk to Wayne about computer science at Derby. It quickly became apparent that Microsoft technologies have a key role to play in an innovative department focussed on producing creative, enterprising and highly employable graduates.
‘It’s important that the tools we give them are the ones they will use in industry once they leave University,’ says Wayne. ‘ Microsoft DreamSpark http://www.dreamspark.com allows us to do that affordably.’
In particular, he says, the department’s labs are, as Wayne puts it,
‘Set up with the latest Windows technologies. We’re very aware that when the students go out into the world that’s what they’ll be working with. We were among the first with Windows 7 and so we wanted to give students early exposure to Windows 8. For us it’s an implementation platform that enables us to try different techniques in practice as well as in theory.’
The module has proved a real success, he says.
‘Students like being able to use Windows 8 and to have an assignment that allows them to create an app that others can use.’
As he says, it clearly ticks the employability box.
‘Imagine a student with a Windows Store app applying for a job and being able to say, “I wrote that. Would you like to try it out?”’
Sixty five students from the two degree courses completed the app development module, says Wayne.
‘The overall quality was very good. At the Expo we’re showing thirteen apps, all of which have met the Windows Store requirements.’
Leading on from that, second year students are now studying an application development module, the platform for which is also Windows 8.
A considerable advantage here lies in the cost-effective availability for students of Microsoft’s ‘Azure’ cloud platform see http://www.windowsazure.com/education
As Wayne explains,
‘They can have their own webspace, virtual machines, everything in the cloud so we don’t have to deal with web hosting. For example they can have admin access to their own space where typically in a university situation if we provide webspace we can’t give admin access. Azure gives us much more flexibility and ability to do things as in the real world.’
I had a quick look at some of the student apps shown at the Expo, such as Kevin Chandler’s ‘London Transport Info’ which pulls together published feeds about buses and trains in the Capital, integrating it all into something really useful. A nice touch is the live tile on the start screen that keeps up to date with problems. I also saw Christopher Morley’s ‘Project Smash’, a game which adds a twist by incorporating live weather information as one of the variables to be negotiated. And, too, there was Karn Bianco’s mind-bending ‘Sliding Blocks’ and Luc Shelton’s ‘Meme Factory’ for creating internet memes. I had a chat to Luc at the Expo about his app and he explained that there’s already plenty of activity around memes on the internet, and what he wanted to was to produce something very functional, using the features of Windows 8.
‘For example I made use of the Charm Bar – sharing, searching, settings, so that users can customise the experience.’
Thinking about the independent learning aspect of the task, I wondered if he’d had to ask for help at any point.
‘Once, I thought I’d got to email Wayne,’ he said, ‘But I decided I had to persevere on my own.’
That self-driven approach was evident in each of the students I met, as was the determination to exploit the available technology. Luke Chester’s app, for example, ‘Memory Bank’ is actually a multi-media scrapbook, a place to drop thoughts, ideas, photographs. Like Luc, he’s exploited the Charm Bar as well as Bing Maps and GPS. What makes this app particularly attractive is the Windows 8 feature that allows it to be brought up while another app is being used, so it’s possible to add a very quick thought that occurs as it always does, when you’re in the middle of something else. Luke’s Memory Bank app is now available on the Windows Store – http://apps.microsoft.com/windows/en-US/app/memory-bank/8b08e5b2-f358-430e-a8c8-eabdf50dd69a
The students view
With schools in mind, I asked some of the students about their back stories. I found that Luc Shelton, for example, had arrived via an FE course that armed him with the right number of UCAS points. Karn Bianco did humanities at school, and kept all of his programming interests to his spare time. Now he’s found what he was looking for.
‘I wanted problem solving, and I didn’t get any of that at school.’
In fact it’s important not to miss the pedagogical lessons that emerge from a course that’s run like the undergraduate programming degrees at Derby.
‘There’s no such thing as teaching to the test here,’ says Wayne. ‘We encourage independent learning. The student who sits and just listens to the lectures will pass, but if they want to get a good grade, they have to really demonstrate their ability to learn for themselves.‘
Open ended assignments play a big part in this, he says.
‘We give them the minimum standard they need to pass and then to get the top grade they almost need to wow us. Really there are no constraints.’
The thought is echoed by Dr Tommy Thompson, who leads BSc Computer Games Programming.
Describing the project leading up to the Expo, where students had been given twelve weeks to develop a game to show, he says,
‘In the real world it would take two or three years. Some of them put in a ridiculous amount of time. There was an interesting moment when students asked me whether I thought I had overworked them. But they conceded that the problem really lay with their own expectations.’
From the teacher’s point of view, says Tommy, it’s an ideal position to be in,
‘They want to be here. They have a passion for the programming.’
That means, though, that their expectations of teaching are high.
‘We have to meet that, and always try to throw something at them that they’re not expecting.’
I was interested, too, in Tommy’s insight into who are the successful students and the fact that it’s not necessarily about technical ability.
‘There are some in all years who, regardless of ability, have a fantastic maturity of general approach to taking the curriculum seriously.’
Very clearly, what gives the teachers on such a course the necessary high credibility with their students is their record of long-term and continuing engagement with the industry. Tommy puts it briefly and clearly when he says,
‘We don’t just look at the application, we look at the code, and we’re people who’ve looked at code for a living.’
This, in turn, means that courses are run with a continuing eye on employability. Both degrees are sandwich courses and, says Wayne,
‘Some students set up their own company during their placement year. The thing that’s changed for software development is the way the app stores have made it easier and cheaper to publish applications and make them available to a wide audience, so it becomes an interesting exercise to set a goal of producing a publishable app.’
The enterprise aspects aren’t neglected either.
‘A key thing about this university is that a lot of the staff have real industry experience so a lot of the advice we give is not just about the programming. It’s about how to set up a company, creating business plans, and so on’
This was one visit that gave me a lot to think about. I’m pretty sure, for example, that what’s happening in computer science at Derby, and no doubt at other universities such as UCL (we’ve covered their work extensively already) carries lessons for teachers of every level and subject about independent learning, motivation, creativity, and credible, real-world-relevant teaching.