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Open Online Course as of end of year 2

This report summarises the status of the open online course for making construals as reviewed by the project team at the C3 Short-term joint staff training event hosted by UEF in September 2016.

As discussed in reviewing the progress towards an open online course for making construals at the end of year 1, two key concerns emerged: to make a case for developing OERs based on making construals rather than conventional programming, and to further enhance the prospects that use might lead to modification and eventually perhaps to creation of OERs by teachers themselves. Workshops with teachers and pupils at C2 in Athens in September 2015 were encouraging as far as engagement with secondary school children concerned, but highlighted limitations concerned with file management and conceptualising the mental model of the current state of a construal as a script. A Feedback from teachers exposed a problematic relationship between making construals and science teaching on account of the quality of well-established existing tools (such as Geogebra and Interactive Physics). This highlighted the importance of not being in direct competition with traditional programming with its core objectives of delivering specific applications with minimum effort.

Year 2 had witnessed a radical development of the MCE, as represented by the 'scifest16' version of JS-Eden. This had involved enhancements of the MCE in several significant respects:

  • moving from files and directories to online resources by represented construals in the Project Manager
  • eliminating input of syntactically incorrect definitions by introducing a hand-crafted parser
  • blending editing of scripts with their interpretation through the introduction of a live edit feature
  • the introduction of the with-construct, with major implications for scaling models and expressing functions
  • the introduction of the when-construct, which transformed the way in which agent actions can be expressed,

These innovative features were compatible with previous MCE practices, but pointed towards a different approach to developing construals in which functions and triggered procedures were no longer essential and could be deprecated. As far as the aspirations for the OOC were concerned, this had both helpful and problematic aspects: on the one hand, it promised to bring a distinctive novel character to making construals; on the other hand, it sharpened the distinction between making construals and traditional programming (cf. the way in which the original Eden interpreter made use of functions and actions expressed in a conventional procedural style as a foundation for developing definitive scripts).

Associated with the development of the new style MCE (subsequently referred to as the Construit variant of the MCE, as opposed to the JS-Eden variant), there was minor revision and consolidation of existing construals (such as the shopping, MENACE, OXO laboratory construals) and development of new construals (purse, vending machine, solar system, the solar1, onmars and launchdate construals from the Mars workshop at Scifest, giving change, number representations in several different pedagogical variants, the triangle and trigonometry construals, mathematical resilience - ratio, Napier Chessboard Abacus, linear algebra, penny rolling, sorting, Conway's Life, factor snake) and applications (Mario, Logo). The curation of these resources in the project manager pointed to new potential for elaborating an open online course. This was illustrated in several workshop-style events held in the latter part of Year 2 (i.e. post the Construit variant of the MCE introduced at C6 in December 2015):

  • The Teacher Workshop at C15 in Athens in April 2016
  • The CAS 2016 workshop presented at the UK National Computing At School conference in June 2016
  • The ALT-C workshop presented at the annual ALT-C conference at Warwick in September 2016.

In response to concerns raised by Piet Kommers and Hamish Macleod about contextualising making construals in the broader educational and pedagogical context (cf. the Pedagogy Interim Review at Warwick in March 2016), more attention was devoted to exploring appropriate ways in which to engage with other communities of learners and learning paradigms. Scheduled project meetings and participation in local events with teachers helped the project team to appreciate more fully the perspective of teachers of computing and the challenges that both novice and expert teachers face when confronted with making construals. The CAS 2016 workshop proposed "computer support for computing unplugged" as a way of connecting making construals with the CAS agenda. It became apparent that making construals was a way of exposing epistemolical issues that had much in common with mathematics education, especially at primary level. This was vividly illustrated in a Skype webinar with Jane Waite organised at C6. Further confirmation of the potential role for making construals in mathematics education came from positive reactions to presentations at conferences on mathematics teaching led by Steve Russ between January and March 2016. Favourable reponses and expressions of interest from learning technologists at ALT-C indicated that they might also be an appropriate target group.

The development of the online Project Manager confirmed that there was great potential for sharing construals and for co-creation of OERs in which use, modify and create roles are blended. The project repository gave much scope for interesting experiments of this nature, but scaling this up was clearly problematic. In principle, the Project Manager allowed exceptionally rich communication and elaboration of scripts through reuse and ready access to versions of construals that could either be declared public or kept private. However, it was hard to ensure that the suite of scripts associated with a construal was presented in a way that could be readily viewed, comprehended and initialised (especially when diverse factors such as the maturity of the construal, the organisation and documentation of the scripts and the dependence of script layout on screen resolution were taken into account).

With respect to the key topical key claims for Year 2, the Project Manager represented significant progress towards collaborative construal making in an asynchronous mode, but was not so well-suited to live interactive collaboration. Experiments at C6 revealed performance issues for synchronous collaboration in relation to concurrent systems modelling, as in two-player Mario and in reviving the construal of the Clayton Tunnel scenario originally implemented using the distributed version of the tkeden interpretation. The novel scope for instrumentation for assessment was demonstrated in relation to the introductory solar system exercise engineered by Ant Harfield and Nick Pope for the student workshop at C2 (as documented in a paper published by representatives of the project team at Constructionism 2016 in Thailand).

Other experimental work in the course of year 2 highlighted possible directions for further development of the MCE. A visual programming style interface to the MCE was explored and rejected as inappropriate. Eliminating traditional procedural programming elements and devising more a concise notation for with-constructs indicated potential for a far simpler interface that is adapted to some degree even for mobile use. It has become clear that being able to organise a rich variety of interactive experiences that are presented simultaneously in the visual field has a transromative impact on making construals. A positive technological development that should favour this is the emergence of relatively cheap 4K screens to support the simultaneous display and organisation of many different views on a single screen.