Friday, January 24, 2014

Sir John Daniel on Open and Distance Education

Sir John Daniel, world authority on open, distance and online learning, came to Carleton for a special briefing on the future of online learning, covering topics such as the changing nature of the student body and its use of technology, myths and distractions in online learning, and opportunities for online learning to meet students’ needs.

Many interesting tidbits were offered during Sir John's talk.  I would have loved the opportunity to get into any one of them a bit more, but I still left with some good food for thought.

After opening with the suggestion that post-secondary education is facing turbulent times, Sir John shared some interesting stats about the students taking online courses these days.  Apparently they are generally older than traditional undergraduates, paying more to study, working at the same time, and often immigrants.  Based on all this, they want to have their existing skills recognized, and they want credit courses.

Another interesting point: we tend to think that digital natives will be the ones who embrace online learning the most, but in fact, not only did the older crowd answer the survey more often, but there is no evidence of a divide between them and the younger students when it comes to technology.

So online education won't lock out any particular generation, and it can address many needs of students from all walks of life.  It is difficult to achieve wider access, higher quality, and lower cost at the same time when it comes to post-secondary education, but technology makes it possible.

Some tidbits from the talk:
  • MOOCs: these are technically not higher education, as they lack accreditation in general; the explosion seems to have more to do with the herd instinct than anything else (Mark Guzdial would probably be onside with a lot of what was said about MOOCs)
  • You can't ignore any of these three key components: study materials, student support, and logistics/administration
  • Institutions need to expect blended learning to evolve; what sort of flexibility will be required? Will campus buildings need to be refurbished for new purposes?
  • British Columbia was the first province to offer free, online open textbooks for the 40 most popular post-secondary courses (some of our profs here at Carleton are making their own open access books, too, such as Pat Morin and his data structures book)
  • Student assessment is fundamental to the learning process, and contrary to popular belief, you can actually be more creative with it in online environments
  • Contact North (who hosted this talk) recently published A Guide To Quality in Online Education, which looks like a worthwhile read
If you want to find the slides for this and similar talks, check out Sir John's website.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Cruise Ship Conference

I've never been on a cruise before. Who would have thought that my first opportunity to sail would be for an academic conference on videogames? Come on, admit it. You're jealous.

The conference is Foundations of Digital Games, and the photo above shows where we'll be living for about 5 days in April.  This past fall, my supervisor and I worked really hard to get a paper we'd been sitting on into good enough shape to submit, and wrote up a whole new paper on my thesis work.  I was nervous about whether either would get in, but lo and behold, both did!

The paper on my thesis work, A Framework for Coherent Emergent Stories, got in with generally positive reviews, despite the very embarrassing fact that two important diagrams ended up as black boxes.  The one more negative review was actually extremely helpful - we will definitely be improving our write-up with those comments in mind.

The other paper was about non-linear stories in traditional media and games.  It was hard to know how this one would fare since the topic is more closely related to games studies, making me a bit of an outsider.  It was accepted in the work-in-progress track, which I am definitely satisfied with.  Lots of really useful comments in those reviews, too, so while this isn't the more important of the two papers, we should be able to improve it.

I have to admit that these successes are really great news after a recent string of rejections.  My publication luck is finally beginning to pick up!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Teaching Functional Programming With A Chicken That Crosses the Road

I'm currently teaching a third year course on programming paradigms.  For functional programming we look at Scheme, and for logic programming, Prolog.  I took this course when I was an undergrad, and it looks like not much has changed since then.  I decided to take a look at the visual image and animation contexts now available to help students get a good feel for Scheme right up front.  I hope to continue using these sorts of examples to help make new abstract concepts about Scheme easier to understand (though how well I do with that remains to be seen).

I started my search for teaching materials at How to Design Programs, Second Edition.  This free online book teaches programming from the ground up, and assumes no prior experience.  In some ways this is good, even for third year CS majors who are learning functional programming for the first time.  It can't be our main text, but there are many good sections to reference.

Even better, the book features DrRacket's image and universe teachpacks.  That means that there are some fun, visual examples among the usual traditional applications of programming.  That's where I started to learn about these tools, since I had never seen them before myself.

Another resource I found helpful was How to Design Worlds, a supplementary online book that covers how to use an older version of universe and the related worlds.  From there, I found the chicken-crossing-the-road example you see in the screenshot above.  The code for the chicken project is available online - the only problem is that it's based on the old teachpacks, and doesn't run out of the box in the newest DrRacket IDE.

Not to worry - I updated the code (which was not much work in the end), and added a few useful comments.  If you'd like to make use of it, download the zip.  If you are just learning Scheme, try using this as a fun example to get you started.  Good luck!