Tag Archives: MACS enhancement

BTL Surpass for online assessment in Computer Science⤴

from @ Sharing and learning

Over the last couple of years I have been leading the introduction of BTL’s Surpass online assessment platform for  exams in Computer Science. I posted the requirements for an online exam system we agreed on a few months ago. I have now written up an evaluation case study: Use of BTL Surpass for online exams in Computer Science, an LTDI report (local copy). TL;DR: nothing is perfect, but Surpass did what we hoped, and it is planned to continue & expand its use.

My colleagues Hans-Wofgang has also presented on our experiences of “Enhancing the Learning Experience on Programming-focused Courses via Electronic Assessment Tools” at the Trends in Functional Programming in Education Conference, Canterbury, 19-21. This paper includes work by Sanusi Usman on using Surpass for formative assessment.

A question for online exams in computer science showing few lines of JAVA code with gaps for the student to complete.
A fill the blanks style question for online exams in computer coding. (Not from a real exam!)

The post BTL Surpass for online assessment in Computer Science appeared first on Sharing and learning.

Thoughts on Support for Technology Enhanced Learning in HE⤴

from @ Sharing and learning

I was asked to put forward my thoughts on how I thought the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning should be supported where I work. I work in a UK University that has campuses overseas, and which is organised into Schools (Computer Science is in a School with Maths, to form one of the smaller schools). This was my first round brain dump on the matter. It looks like something might come of it, so I’m posting it here asking for comments.

Does any of this look wrong?

Do you/ have you worked in a similar or dissimilar unit and have any suggestions for how well that worked?

What would be the details that need more careful thought?

Get in touch directly by email or use the form below (if the latter let me know if you don’t want your reply publishing).

Why support Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL)?

Why would you not? This isn’t about learning technology for its own sake, it’s about enhancing learning and teaching with technology. Unless you deny that technology can in any way enhance teaching and learning, the questions remaining centre on how can technology help and how much is that worth. Advances in technology and in our understanding of how to use it in teaching and learning create a “zone of possibility,” the extent of which and success of how it is exploited depend on the intersection of teacher’s understanding of the technologies being offered and the pedagogies suitable for their subject (Dirkin  & Mishra, 2010 [paywalled 🙁 ]).

Current examples of potential enhancement which is largely unsupported (or supported only by ad hoc provision) include

  • Online exams in computer science
  • Formative assessment and other formative exercises across the school
  • Providing resources for students learning off-campus
  • Supporting the delivery of course material when students won’t attend lectures
  • Providing course information to students

Location of support: in School, by campus, or central services?

There are clearly some services that apply institution wide (VLE), or need to be supported at each campus (computer labs), however there are dangers to centralising too much. Centralisation creates a division between the support and the people who need it, a division which is reinforced by separation of funding and management lines for the service and the academic provision. This division makes it difficult for those who understand the technology and those who understand the pedagogy of the subject being taught to engage around the problems to be solved. Instead they interact but stay within the remits laid down by their management structures.

There should of course be strong links between the support in my School and others, central support and campus specific support, but an arrangement where these links are prioritised over the link between support for TEL in maths and computing and the provision of teaching and learning in maths and computer science seems wrong.

What support?

This is something of a brain dump based on current activity, in no particular order.

  • Seminar series and other regular meetings to gather and spread new ideas.
  • Developing resources for off-campus learning (currently we need in CS to provide support materials based on existing courses for a specific programme) these and similar materials could also be used to support students on conventional courses who don’t attend lectures.
  • Managing tools and systems for formative assessment and other formative experiences, e.g. mathematical and programming practice.
  • Developing resources and systems for working with partner institutions who deliver courses we accredit, some of which may be applicable to mainstream teaching.
  • Student course information website: maintenance and updating information, liaison with central student portal.
  • Online exams, advice on question design and managing workflow from question authoring to test delivery.
  • Evaluation of innovative teaching (where innovative is defined as something for which we are unsure enough of the benefits for it to be worth evaluating).[*]
  • Maintain links with development organisations in Learning Technology, e.g. ALT and Jisc and scholarship in areas such as digital pedagogy and open education which underpin technology enhanced learning.
  • Liaise with central & campus services, e.g. VLE management group
  • Advise staff in school on use of central facilities e.g. BlackBoard
  • Liaise with other schools. There is potential to provide some of these services to other schools (or vice versa), assuming financial recompense can be arranged.

[*Note: this raises the question of whether the support should be limited to technology to enhance learning, should address other innovations too.]


This needs to be provided by a core of people with substantial knowledge of learning technology, who might also contribute to other activities in the school.  We have a group of three or four people who can do this. It is a little biased to Computer Science and to one campus so there should be thought given to how to bring in other subjects and locations.

We would involve project students and interns provided this was done in such a way as to contribute sustainable enhancement of a service or creation of new resources. For example, we would use of tools such as git so that each student left work that could be picked up by others. As well as supervising project students within the group we could co-supervise with academic staff who had their own ideas for learning-related student projects. This would help keep tight contacts with day-to-day teaching.

Funding and management

This support needs an allocated budget and well controlled project management. Funding for core staff should be long term on a par with commitment to teaching within the School. Management and reporting should be through the Director of Learning and Teaching and the Learning and Teaching Committee with information and discussion at the subject Boards of Studies as appropriate.


Dirkin, K., & Mishra, P. (2010). Values, Beliefs, and Perspectives: Teaching Online within the Zone of Possibility Created by Technology Retrieved from https://www.learntechlib.org/p/33974/



Comments Please

The post Thoughts on Support for Technology Enhanced Learning in HE appeared first on Sharing and learning.

Reflections on a little bit of open education (TL;DR: it works).⤴

from @ Sharing and learning

We are setting up a new honours degree programme which will involve use of online resources for work based blended learning. I was asked to demonstrate some the resources and approaches that might be useful. This is one of the quick examples that I was able to knock up(*) and some reflections on how Open Education helped me. By the way, I especially like the last bit about “open educational practice”. So if the rest bores you, just skip to the end.

(*Disclaimer: this really is a quickly-made example, it’s in no way representative of the depth of content we will aim for in the resources we use.)

Making the resource

I had decided that I wanted to show some resources that would be useful for our first year, first semester Praxis course. This course aims to introduce students to some of the skills they will need to study computer science, ranging from appreciating the range of topics they will study to being able to use our Linux systems, from applying study skills to understanding some requirements of academic writing. I was thinking that much of this would be fairly generic and must be covered by a hundred and one existing resources when  I saw this tweet:

That seemed to be in roughly the right area, so I took a look at the University of Nottingham’s HELM Open site and found an Introduction to Referencing. Bingo. The content seemed appropriate, but I wasn’t keen on a couple of things. First, breaking up the video in 20sec chunks I fear would mean the student spend more time ‘interacting’ with the Next-> button than thinking about the content. Second, it seems a little bit too delivery oriented, I would like the student to be a little more actively engaged.

I noticed there is a little download arrow on each page which let me download the video. So I downloaded them all and used OpenShot to string them together into one file. I exported this and used the h5p WordPress plugin to show how it could be combined with some interactive elements and hosted on a WordPress site with the hypothes.is annotation plugin, to get this:

The remixed resource: on the top left is the video, below that some questions to prompt the students to pay attention to the most significant points, and on the right the hypothes.is pop-out for discussion.

How openness helps

So that was easy enough, a demo of the type of resource we might produce, created in less than an afternoon. How did “openness” help make it easy.

Open licensing and the 5Rs

David Wiley’s famous 5Rs define open licences as those that let you  Reuse, Revise, Remix, Retain and Redistribute learning resources. The original resource was licensed as CC:BY-NC and so permitted all of these actions. How did they help?

Reuse: I couldn’t have produced the video from scratch without learning some new skills or having sizeable budget, and having much more time.

Revise: I wasn’t happy with the short video / many page turns approach, but was  able to revise the video to make it play all the way through in one go.

Remix: The video was then added to some formative exercises, and discussion facility added.

Retain: in order for us to rely on these resources when teaching we need to be sure that the resource remains available. That means taking responsibility keeping it available. Hence we’ll be hosting it on a site we control.

Redistribute: we will make our version available to other. This isn’t just about “paying forward”, it’s about the benefits that working in an open network being, see the discussion about nebulous open education below.

One point to make here: the licence has a Non-Commercial restriction. I understand why some people favour this, but imagine if I were an independent consultant brought in to do this work, and charged for it. Would I then be able to use the HELM material? The recent case about a commercial company charging to duplicate CC-licensed material for schools, which a US judge ruled within the terms of the licence might apply, but photocopying seems different to remixing. To my mind, the NC clause just complicates things too much.

Open standards, and open source

I hadn’t heard much about David Wiley’s ALMS framework for technical choices to facilitate openness (same page as before, just scroll a bit further) but it deals directly with issues I am very familiar with. Anyone who thinks about it will realise that a copy-protected PDF is not open no matter what the licence on it says. The ALMS framework breaks the reasoning for this down to four aspects: Access to editing tools, Level of expertise required, Meaningfully editable, Self sources. Hmmm. Maybe sometimes it’s clearer not to force category names into acronyms? Anyway, here’s how these helped.

Self-sourced, meaning the distribution format is the source code. This is especially relevant as the reason HELM sent the tweet that alerted me to their materials was that they are re-authoring material from Flash to HTML5. Aside from modern browser support, one big advantage of them doing this is that instead of having an impenetrable SWF package I had access to the assets that made the resource, notably the video clips.

Meaningfully editable: that access to the assets meant that I could edit the content, stringing the videos together, copying and pasting text from the transcript to use as questions.

Level of expertise required: I have found all the tools and services used (OpenShot, H5P, hypothes.is, WordPress) relatively easy to use, however some experience is required, for example to be familiar with various plugins available for WordPress and how to install them. Video editing in particular takes some expertise. It’s probably something that most people don’t do very often (I don’t).  Maybe the general level of digital literacy level we should now aim for is one where people are familiar with photo and video editing tools as well as text oriented word processing and presentation tools. However, I’m inclined to think that the details of using the H264 video codec and AAC audio codec, packaged in a MPEG-4 Part 14 container (compare and contrast with VP9 and ogg vorbis packaged in a profile of Matroska) should remain hidden from most people. Fortunately, standardisation means that the number of options is less than it would otherwise be, and it was possible to find many pages on the web with guidance on the browser compatibility of these options (MP4 and WebM respectively).

Access to editing tools, where access starts with low cost. All the tools used were free, most were open source, and all ran on Ubuntu (most can also run on other platforms).

It’s notable that all these ultimately involve open source software and open standards, and work especially well when then “open” for open standards includes free to implement. That complicated bit around MP4 & WebM video formats, that comes about because royalty requirements for those implementing MP4.

Open educational practice: nebulous but important.

Open education includes but is more than open education resources, open content, open licensing and open standards. It also means talking about what we do. It means that I found out about HELM because they were openly tweeting about their resources. I think that is how I learnt about nearly all the tools discussed here ina similar manner. Yes, “pimping your stuff” is importantly open. Open education also means asking questions and writing how-to articles that let non-experts like me deal with complexities like video encoding.

There’s a deeper open education at play here as well. See that resource from HELM that I started with? It started life in the RLO CETL, i.e. in a publicly funded initiative, now long gone. And the reason I and others in the UKHE know about Creative Commons and David Wiley’s analysis of open content, that largely comes down to #UKOER, again a publicly  funded initiative. UKOER and the stuff about open standards and open source was supported by Jisc, publicly funded. Alumni from these initiatives are to be found all over UKHE, through which these initiatives continue to be crucially important in building our capability and capacity to support learners in new and innovative settings.


The post Reflections on a little bit of open education (TL;DR: it works). appeared first on Sharing and learning.

Technology enhanced learning in HW MACS⤴

from @ Sharing and learning

At the beginning of the summer I was handed an internal project convening a group to put into action the strategic plan for the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning at the School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences (MACS) at Heriot-Watt. Yesterday the first phase of that came to fruition in a show and tell seminar.

Our initial approach has been to identify and share what is already happening within the School, to try to make those open up those pockets of innovation where one or two people are doing something that many others could also try. We started with a survey, asking people to tell us about interesting uses of technology that they had tried. We left the individual respondents to define what they felt as “interesting” but did our best to encourage anyone who was going beyond basic PowerPoint and VLE use to let us know. We also asked what ideas for use of technology staff wanted to try in their teaching, and what (if anything) was stopping them from doing so. We had a decent number of replies, and from these identified some common themes from the two questions (i.e. there was overlap between what some people had tried and what other people were interested in trying, a bit of a win that deserves more than a parenthesis at the end of a sentence). Those themes were:

  1. managing course work in the VLE, e.g. setting up rubrics, delegated marking.
  2. online assessment
  3. promoting interaction in class
  4. use of video for short explanations, demonstrations etc.

We used this to decide what we had to include in the first event yesterday, which we billed as a show and tell seminar. We had three speakers on each of the first three theme listed (it seemed that explanations and demos of how to use video for explanations and demos could be done as videos :-) ). The speakers had 10 minutes each to show what they had done, so really just enough time to provide a taster so that others could decide whether they wanted to know more. So that’s 9 speakers in 90 minutes, it was a real challenge to come up with a format which didn’t last too long (because academics are always busy, we couldn’t expect to get much more than an hour or two of their time) but did cover a wide range of topics.  We had an audience of 40, which is pretty good–I’ve been to plenty of similar events covering a whole institution which have had lower turnouts. The feedback has been that not everything interested everyone, there was something for everyone that made the time committed as a whole worthwhile. So on the whole I think the format worked, even though it was hectic.

Of course by packing so much into a compressed schedule few people will have been able to get all the information they wanted and so follow-up will be crucial to the success of this work as a whole. The show and tell was a kick-off event, we want to encourage people to continue to share the ideas that are of interest to them and for there to be other, smaller, events with a tighter focus to facilitate this.

Quick notes: Ian Pirie on assessment⤴

from @ Sharing and learning


Ian Pirie Asst Principal for Learning Developments at University of Edinburgh came out to Heriot-Watt yesterday to talk about some assessment and feedback initiatives at UoE.  The background ideas motivating what they have been doing are not new, and Ian didn’t say that they were, they’re centred around the pedagogy of assessment & feedback as learning, and the generally low student satisfaction relating to feedback shown though the USS. Ian did make a very compelling argument about the focus of assessment: he asked whether we thought the point of assessment was

  1. to ensure standards are maintained [e.g. only the best will pass]
  2. to show what students have learnt,
  3. to help students learn.

The responses from the room were split 2:1 between answers 2 and 3, showing progress away from the exam-as-a-hurdle model of assessment. Ian’s excellent point was that if you design your assessment to help students learn, that will mean doing things like making sure  your assessments address the right objectives, that the students understand these learning objectives and criteria, and that they get feedback which is useful to them, then you will also address points 2 and 1.

Ideas I found interesting from the initiatives at UoE, included

  • Having students describe learning objectives in their own words, to check they understand them (or at least have read them).
  • Giving students verbal feedback and having them write it up themselves (for the same reason). Don’t give students their mark until they have done this, that means they won’t avoid doing it but also once students know they have / have not done “well enough” their interest in the assessment wanes.
  • Peer marking with adaptive comparative judgement. Getting students to rank other students’ work leads to reliable marking (the course leader can assess which pieces of work sit on grade boundaries if that’s what you need)

In the context of that last one, Ian mention No More Marking which has links with the Mathematics Learning Support Centre at Loughborough University. I would like to know more about how many comparisons need to be made before a reliable rank ordering is arrived at, which will influence how practical the approach is given the number of students on a course and the length of the work being marked (you wouldn’t want all students to have to mark all submissions if each submission was many pages long). But given the advantages of peer marking on getting students to reflect on what were the objectives for a specific assessment I am seriously considering using the approach to mark a small piece of coursework from my design for online learning course. There’s the additional rationale there that it illustrates the use of technology to manage assessment and facilitate a pedagogic approach, showing that computer aided assessment goes beyond multiple choice objective tests, which is part of the syllabus for that course.


New projects for me at Heriot-Watt⤴

from @ Sharing and learning


I’ve been at Heriot-Watt University for many years now but haven’t really had much to do with the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning here. A couple of new projects might change that.

The Learning and Teaching Strategy for the School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences mentions using technology to create a more student centred approach to learning, and also reshaping the soft learning environment to meet challenges raised by things like delivering courses across campuses in Edinburgh, Dubai, Malaysia, and with learning partners around the world. So it references ideas like the use of khan-academy style videos where appropriate, effective use of formative assessment and feedback and use of the virtual learning environment to facilitate student interaction and collaboration across those different campuses.

To put this strategy into action the School has set up a working group, which I am convening. The approach will not to be prescriptive and dictatorial, that wouldn’t work; we want to focus on identifying, nurturing and disseminating within the School the existing practice that aligns with those strategic aims. We also want to bring in ideas from outwith the School that can be realised in our contexts, they will have to be practical ideas with demonstrable benefits (I’ll still do explorative researchy things, but through other work). We started work a couple of weeks ago, with two initial tasks: 1, a survey to identify what people are already doing that might be worth sharing and to identify what ideas they would like help progressing; and, 2, an internal show-and-tell event to discuss such ideas. I rather hope that the event isn’t a one-off, that it leads to other similar events, and also that the practice we find through it and the survey can be made open so that we can interact with all the other people doing similar at their own institutions.

Coincidently, I have also been asked to look at automated assessment, especially in exam scenarios in Computer Science. We have run electronic exams in the past, and many staff appreciated the automatic marking, but the system that we used until now is no longer available. So I shall be working with colleagues to try to find a replacement. I haven’t worked much with online assessment before, but I think there are three related but separate strands that will need following: 1, the software system, its functionality and usability; 2, policy issues such as security for high stakes assessment; 3, pedagogic issues. Clearly they are interdependent, for example if your pedagogic considerations lead you to decide that students should have access to the web during exams, then the security issues you need to consider change.  My feeling is that only an off-the-shelf system will be sustainable for us, so I’m looking at commercial and open source systems that have already been developed. However, Computer Science obviously has a very particular relationship with the use of computers in teaching and assessment that may not be exploited by general purpose computer aided assessment.