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Computer Science: Active Learning in Computing (ALiC)

Work Programme and Vision

The following highlight our vision for achieving the aims of the ALiC project throughout the lifetime of the CETL (and beyond) and details the major activities contributing toward achieving these aims. Throughout this section, the period 2005- 2007 (i.e. Year 1 and 2) is referred to as Phase 1 and the period 2007 – 2010 as Phase 2.

Aim 1: Increasing levels of student engagement in the curriculum

The fundamental vision of the CETL is to identify and enable ways in which students can become more active in their learning. Through promoting project- (Activity 2) and group-working (Activities 9 and 14) ALiC will realise new learning approaches, enabling students to move towards independent learning guided by appropriate support materials. Furthermore, the assessments utilised will be sensitive to this new style of learning, being larger in scale and scope to encompass all aspects of the curriculum (Activities 7 and 8) thus providing a solution to the over-assessment problem. Together with better support materials for independent learning and the use of peer support groups (Activities 2, 6 and 8), these activities will provide the key to effective utilisation of staff student contact time and serve to make the learning of computing more fun (Activity 15).

A key aspect of ALiC will be to instigate change by ensuring that students are an important and integral part of curriculum planning. In pursuit of this aim, Activity 1 (Student Feedback) will encourage students to participate in working parties for both the preparation and planning of curriculum development. For instance, students who have already experienced a variety of different learning techniques will share their experiences and evaluations with those students who have yet to be exposed to them. To achieve this, students will make extensive use of the Techno-Café, and video-conferencing facilities to communicate their experiences and reassure the students at partner sites. Such interactions will be recorded and the key observations fed into the curriculum development working parties. Thus students will actively participate in all matters of curriculum development and planning.

Some of the challenges faced by ALiC include:

  • dealing with risks of AL, including resourcing issues and definition of appropriate assessments;
  • changing stakeholder expectations of the efficient use of staff/student contact time;
  • managing the expectations of staff and students concerning the increased level of student involvement in curriculum planning.

The satisfaction of this aim serves as a focus for many of ALiC’s early activities to underpin the following longer-term aims.

Aim 2: Better equip students for employment

This aim will ease the transition from university to industry and will be realised through both project- and group-work (see Activities 8 and 9). Its satisfaction will result in the generation of industrial-scale problems with wide applicability within HE. The industrial-scale problems set will require the interaction of specialist teams, assembling cross-disciplinary student groups to use collectively their differing expertise to solve the problem.

More active industrial engagement will be achieved through a liaison committee (Activity 3) providing support and case study materials to create and promote learning resources. These will be created in electronic format and made widely available within the UK HE computing community. Furthermore, some of the material produced to support the entrepreneurial or multi-disciplinary activities will have broader application to a large number of disciplines. ALiC will also seek to resolve the procedural problems associated with multi-disciplinary collaboration. The challenges of this work will include:

  • Gaining commitment from different departments;
  • Dealing with timetabling issues;
  • Ensuring that students communicate effectively and share resources;
  • Ensuring fair and equal (although possibly different) assessment for all students

A successful resolution of these issues is essential for the introduction of new programmes such as those in e-Science but will enhance employability for all students (Activity 16). Strong indications of how to meet these challenges will be gained from the Phase 1 activities (Activities 9 and 14) will allow us to gain experience of helping different sets of students communicate effectively while Activities 7 and 13 will help define fair assessments for multi-disciplinary groups.

The creation of the liaison committee(Activity 3) and the use of real-world case studies in project- and group-working will provide the insights and resources required to achieve this aim. However, we expect this to be challenging for reasons including:

  • It will be time consuming to liaise with the companies and their representatives to focus their support materials in a format suitable to use for teaching;
  • Some of the case studies and other material will need de-personalising in accordance with data protection;
  • It will be necessary to identify and negotiate interactions with the liaison committee which will maximise the benefit for the students without over-committing their time.

It will be the responsibility of ALiC’s Director (supported by the Site Coordinators) to maintain and shape industrial interactions and to provide advice and support for the creation of the learning materials.

Aim 3: Better Integration of Research and Teaching

The Boyer Commission [Kenny98] proposes the formation of an environment where ‘teaching is enhanced by the research experiences of both faculty and students’. He proposes the teaching curriculum should go beyond being informed by research to actually requiring students’ active involvement in ongoing research activity. Through group-working (Activity 9 and 14), ALiC will promote an integrated, interdisciplinary inquiry-based experience but it is through project-work (Activity 2 and 10) that the aim of delivering research experiences can be achieved. Realisation of these goals will be challenging for reasons including:

  • The defining of suitable and stimulating student research projects;
  • Providing appropriate support mechanisms for students to select a research topic;
  • Defining useful feedback for students conducting research projects;
  • Defining techniques and support materials to cover a wide variety research skills and topics.

Solutions and issues related to these goals are strongly correlated to Aim 2.

Aim 4: Revolutionise the Learning Environment

Focusing on independent learning will provide learning and assessment approaches and techniques that are sensitive to, and not discriminative of, gender, race and disability. Adopting best practice from a significant number of the activities (Activities 5 and 12), ALiC’s aims enable learners to control their personal learning environment. In particular, this will extend current learning contracts agreed with all students. This user-controlled environment will integrate best practice and sound theoretical principles to provide an environment where learners can control the way in which materials are presented to them. For instance, it will take account of different learning styles and present the same subject-specific information to students in their selected format. The support tools developed will enable user-control without placing additional burdens on the teaching staff (see Activity 11). The intention is to distribute such tools (as open-source) making them available to all learning-resource providers such that they may be integrated into widely used tools such as Blackboard and WebCT. The Techno-Café will also provide a significant environmental enabler (Activity 4).