Saturday, 26 December 2009

Christmas grouch or ...

I am not one to enjoy the Christmas extravagance and the mad Christmas eve rush to buy presents so it was nice to find, as we returned to Birmingham from picking up our son at Heathrow, that the local shopping mall in Solihull was closed apart from the restaurants. This did cause a few problems as our son really wanted to purchase some toys as Christmas presents for the grandchildren and he hadn't wanted the extra weight when he had all his gear for moving over here. Despite the inconvenience, I was pleased to see the commercialism hasn't taken over fully in the UK.

Although there have been times of celebration at Christmas, we have had few in which we celebrated as a family. So often since our children have been married, Marilyn and I have celebrated Christmas on our own our with one or other of the children. There have been the occasional sharing with either Marilyn's extended family or with my family.

This Christmas was different as we shared with my daughter's family and our son at our home in Birmingham. People talk of the importance of spending Christmas with family and for us, this Christmas was one of those times. Sure there were gifts and food but the most important part was being able to spend some of the day with the family and especially the grandchildren. It was nice to be able to share in their joy of receiving and playing.

Another thing that makes Christmas different here from New Zealand is that here there isn't the summer holiday shut down so Marilyn will return to work for three days next week and I will return to work on the 4th. In New Zealand, many people are looking forward to their summer holidays and an extended period away from the workplace. This changes the atmosphere considerably and in some respects makes Christmas day all that more special.

So was I the Christmas grouch this year? No, I found myself feeling sad when our daughter's family climbed in the car to head for home. The day of fellowship had been important and seemed more valuable than anything else that might have happened today.

The importance of having family around and being able to share with them was really the importance of this day. The fact that Christians want to celebrate this day as Christ's birthday is significant but I no longer have a desire to force such a celebration on others. Instead, I am pleased to see families celebrating together and enjoying one another's company. My prayer is that all might no something of the joy of friendship and love of sharing together as a family.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Working together

Before starting to read Luke 8:19-21, I had been thinking about loving all peoples even those who do not share our faith. Can we share in ecumenical worship with other faiths? I am beginning to believe that the answer is yes. To some extent, we should be prepared to support what they want to achieve to build unity in the world.

The attempts to force others to conform is what has generated hatred and division. Seeking the welfare of others is what will bring down the barriers and encourage renewed consideration of the principles of faith.

For Jesus, his family were those who sought to be part of the kingdom of God. They were those who in some way sought to live out God's will. It wasn't those who had an exclusive attitude but those who needed help and were willing to listen and work together. He reached the outcasts of society by associating with them and reaching their real needs.

If we are to live in the kingdom of God, we have to refrain from competition and jealousy. We have to cease trying to make others like ourselves and simply reach out in love and friendship. If they reject us, that is their choice. It isn't for us to put up barriers and to make life difficult.

In a way, this continues my thesis that the way to resolve conflicts in the middle east is to build understanding, to hear the concerns of the people, and to address their needs. By reducing the alienation, we remove the hatred and build bridges that enable the real problems to be addressed. Addressing those real problems may mean challenging our own assumptions and approach to life.

Freewill and automata

If there is a God, why does he allow so many bad things to happen? But wait a minute, what would our lives be like if God kept intervening to ensure that nothing ever went wrong? Which is a more effective way to show my love for my children? Should I step in any time there is a risk of something bad happening or of them failing and remove them from that situation or should I in love allow them to experience the good and the bad, the successes and the failures that they might learn and grow stronger. That is precisely the decision that God has to make in His love for people. Should He surround them in cotton wool and stop them doing things that might hurt them or others or should he give them the freedom to make their own choices and to fail from time to time?

Barclay in commenting on Luke 7:30-35 makes it clear that God has chosen the way of love and giving men freewill. The difficulty is that men through their freewill choose ways that frustrate God's plans and hinder the implementation of his plan. The passage describes it as God's plan for them.

Each day, we are faced with choices. We can seek to know God's path of love but often we look for the ways that bring personal satisfaction rather than service to others. In the work place do we seek personal satisfaction or do we seek to serve others? Reflecting on my own work, often it is personal satisfaction rather than serving.

Barclay closes his commentary with the statement “Had God used the force of coercion and laid on man the iron bonds of a will that could not be denied, there would have been a world of automata and a world without trouble. But God chose the dangerous way of love, and love in the end will triumph” (pp 92-93).

Providing this freedom of choice is what brings differences in understanding. Each of us has the freedom to interpret what we read or hear according to how we perceive it. As a consequence, teaching doesn't deliver a single understanding, it delivers a diversity of understandings based on the way that the learner experiences the teaching and relates it to their current understanding. We work in a world of diversity that provides its interests and its challenges.

Without that diversity, in a world of automata, the interest and challenge would be removed. We would be little more than mechanical robots repeating tasks each day. The freedom to choose is what gives interest to life but it also leads to the uncertainty and struggles.

My preference is for freewill over automata.

Reference

Barclay, W. (1975). The gospel of Luke (revised ed.). Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press.

Struggle or peace

The origins for this entry date back to attending a Computing Education conference in Wellington in January of this year. One of the themes that was discussed was the journal and conference rankings for evaluating research contributions. The claim is that research is evaluated based on its contribution but in reality is that the contribution is assessed based on where the research results are published. As a consequence, if a researcher seeks the recognition for their research in this world, then they had better ensure that their work is published in the highly rated conferences and journals. Failure to publish in such journals and conferences leads the researchers work being regarded as inferior regardless of its quality or importance.

What it boils down to is that this world promises riches and contentment but only if you participate in the games. If you challenge the system, you are seen as not playing the game. If you seek to advance in this world's systems then you must play the game and not seek to serve and help those who need our help. Don't challenge the system if you want the rewards of this world.

Christ challenges us to serve others and to sacrifice our advancement in this world in order top receive the eternal joy and contentment (Luke 6:20-26). Is it struggle or peace or is it struggle and peace?

Barclay commenting on this passage quotes Maltby who says “Jesus promised his disciples three things – that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.” If we seek to follow Jesus and to serve those who are in need then we shouldn't expect the recognition of this world or the short term wealth that it might bring. We need to be prepared for a life time of struggle as we seek to serve those in real need.

At the conference, I made a decision that I would prefer to publish my work in places where it is needed and it can prove useful rather than chase the “A” rated publication outlets. I seek to publish to help others and not to grow my own status.

I did become frustrated at times in a workshop because we didn't get enough time to deal with things that I felt were important but was my frustration with the lack of time to help or the lose of recognition for understanding the issues that I felt were important? I suspect my frustration was more because of lack of recognition. This is the difference in attitude caused by walking in faith. If we walk in God's guidance, we will work away from the places of recognition and quietly help those who are in need. If we seek this world's glory, we will focus on gaining status and possibly miss the need. There is more pleasure in meeting the need than in gaining status.

Reference

Barclay, W. (1975). The gospel of Luke (revised ed.). Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Banker's bonuses

UK Bankers who receive bonuses over $25,000 are to have their bonuses taxed at 50%! “Yeah right” say the local papers. The banks and bankers will find some way around it.

“Hang on” Why are these bankers who are already being paid exorbitant rates for stuffing up the banking system being paid a bonus that is double what the tellers are being paid? They expect their tellers to survive on a measly $13,000 but can't afford to give up their bonus. Who is being greedy? Don't argue they deserve it because they do more work. I don't believe it. If they showed more appreciation for their staff then they might actually reduce their work load. If they showed more interest in their customers then they might find their wasn't such an outcry against their greed.

What even frustrates me more is that in order to do so many things here in the UK, I must have proof of a bank account. It is difficult to live in this society without one. We were credit checked to rent the house. We required a bank account to sign up for utilities. The bankers have it all running their way. It is time they were given a shake up and began to really serve the people.

The western banking and financial system is corrupt and these payments simply reinforce that fact. Give the customers back their money and stop ripping them off. All the bankers are doing is protecting their income and their wealth and not showing any concern for the person who is trapped by the imbalance of the financial system.

And politicians, all around the world, who have been living off the perks, show that you mean business in reshaping the financial system by paying back the perks and ensuring that those who are struggling to survive have a fair share of the produce of the land.

We are coming up to Christmas, a time of giving, but the thought that is in my mind is of Jesus throwing the money changers and traders out of the temple. Why did he do it? Because they in their greed were charging more than what the product they were selling was worth. They were preying on the vulnerable for their own gain. Jesus saw their deceit and took action. His action showed real love for the people and their needs.

My call this Christmas is for the bankers and politicians to come clean and repay what they have ripped off from the people. Give the people some reason to have confidence in you rather than continuing to feather your own nests.

Weren't you told you won't be able to take it with you!! If you want to sleep at peace each night then show justice and live simply so that others may simply live.

For the rest of us. Don't get sucked in to the giving and getting of big gifts and non-essential items. Don't borrow just to give. Often the best gift isn't the extravagant item. It is the love that you share or maybe the things that you build with your own hands.

It's time to stop the commercialism that drives so much of our lives and to return to some of the simple ways that demand our time and presence rather than our wallets. We are enslaved to western commercialism and greed. Break the cycle. Show love and compassion for those in real need.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

A learning environment

While at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, I was involved in developing a series of distance learning courses for a Bachelor of Information Technology degree. My writing style was to write a problem scenario that required the knowledge that the student needed to learn in order to solve the problem. We then presented a series of learning exercises with supporting reference materials so the students could learn the required knowledge and skills. Each learning task was designed to for the student to learn at a specific cognitive level within a taxonomy (Facione 1990). The theory behind this work became a chapter in a book (Thompson 2003). I continued to use this approach in developing worksheets for practical tutorials at Massey University and proposed the development of a scenario-based learning environment for learning programming (Thompson 2004). I was challenged by one of my future PhD supervisors as to how I would evaluate the success of my proposal and this led me into my research than became my PhD (Thompson 2008). Some things would now change with respect to my learning environment proposal although many of the core principles remain unchanged.

The learning environment proposal (Thompson 2004) was intended to be collaborative in nature. The learners would work on learning exercises together developing a solution to a proposed software development exercise. They would be encouraged to explore alternative solutions. The system integrated a discussion forum with a design and development environment that utilised version control and enabled comparison of alternative design proposals. The students would be encouraged to write critiques of the designs highlighting their strengths and weaknesses.

The unique feature of this environment was the integration of the different learning contexts and the ability for the students to link discussions to specific elements of the design. With the version control, it would be possible for students to go back in the design and take a different development path and then compare these two paths at a later point in the project. My concern in specifying the environment was that I wanted to ensure that the students were encouraged to think critically about their designs. Caspersen and Kölling (2006) proposed a strategy where students had to prepare two design solutions for a programming problem and evaluate them before implementing a solution. This style of thinking would work well with the learning environment proposal.

With my PhD research (Thompson 2008), my focus has shifted to thinking about the variations that need to be presented to open up a space of learning around a core concept. The goal is to foster conceptual change in the way that a learner thinks about the subject matter. The original learning environment would support this proposal. Further because the student solutions are open for comparison and discussion, it is possible for the lecturer to question the proposal in terms of the desired conceptual understanding and propose variations in solutions to foster the development of the desired understanding.

The difficulty with developing the desired learning environment isn't the technologies required but rather the planning required for teaching and ensuring that appropriate variations are presented to the learners. No learning environment does away with the need for the teacher to understand their topic and the core conceptual ideas that are required for the learner to operate within the field. It is easy to present technologies or single solutions but this doesn't generate the thought patterns in the learner that enable them to be able to tackle other problems within the domain.

As I look back at the original proposal, I would still like to see the learning environment developed but I recognise that it isn't the environment that will be evaluated other than in its abilities to present the desired teaching strategies. Ultimately, it is the teaching strategy and its ability to present the materials in a way that fosters the desired understanding that needs to be evaluated. The learning environment may help facilitate an interaction or the exchange of ideas but the learning that occurs will only be as good as the materials planned and utilised in that environment.

The strategy used at the Open Polytechnic wasn't really about the scenario-based environment, it was really about the combination of scenarios and the way that the opened up the space of learning around the concepts. As a learning environment, it succeeded or failed based on the planning and development of the teaching strategy. Such planning takes time.

Reference

Caspersen, M. E., & Kölling, M. (2006). A novice's process of object-oriented programming. Paper presented at the OOPSLA 2006 Educators' Symposium.

Facione, P. A. (1990). Critical thinking; A statement of expert consensus for purposes of educational assessment and instruction, research findings and recommendations (ERIC Reports ED 315.423). Fullerton.

Thompson, E. (2003). Giving a context to learning. In E. Errington (Ed.), Developing Scenario-based Learning: Practical insights for tertiary teachers (pp. 74-82). Palmerston North: Dunmore Press.

Thompson, E. (2004). Design issues for a scenario-based learning environment (Technical Report No. 4/2004). Palmerston North: Department of Information Systems, Massey University.

Thompson, E. (2008). How do they understand? Practitioner perceptions of an object-oriented program. Unpublished Dissertation, Massey University, Palmerston North.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Economics and people

It is my belief that our current economic system puts profit ahead of people. I admit that some of my thinking is influenced by my Christian faith and by my reading of Economic Democracy (Douglas 1974). Douglas talks of the society as being not consumerist but dominated by 'productionism' or 'employmentism.' which he defines as “the provision of work and the distribution of money” (Dobbs 1974, p 19). The system produces because it must in order to survive. It promotes products not based on satisfying needs but rather to stimulate want and waste. This is most noticeable in our current environment with items such as mobile phones, TVs, computers, games, and other electronic consumer items. Here in the UK, we have found that furniture is produced on a just-in-time system meaning there are delays in delivery. Despite this difference, I would still argue that the foundation of the system is still productionism. An emphasis on needing to produce and generate sales to keep the system operating.

As long as there is demand and wastage from the system, it can survive. Employment will be generated and money distributed to people so they can buy. Any restriction in the ability to produce (i.e. a credit crunch) has far reaching impact on the system. Disposing of excess production becomes a major issue and the system falters.

However, the system has other ways of discarding people. People are seen as simply another resource in the system. When there is no longer a need for their services, they are made redundant and forced to seek help from reluctant governments. Being unemployed is seen as a failure of the person and not the system. Yet in events like the current recession, there are many highly skilled people who find themselves in the queue of the unemployable. Some of this is the selection practices of companies but these practices simply reinforce my view that people are resources rather than the focus of the system.

Caring for people can be engrained into the operation of a business. Some notable examples are Cadburys who built houses and established communities for his workers, Farmers (NZ) whose founder Robert Laidlaw believed in employing people for life, and IBM in the Watson era. Watson again employed people for life. These firms cared for their people and put the people ahead of the business. Decisions for employment involved not the current potential to return a profit but the longer term caring for the staff.

There are companies even in the current environment who make their staff partners in the company. For example John Lewis Partnership (http://www.johnlewispartnership.co.uk/) on their web site claim that all 69,000 staff are partners and boldly state that they put “the happiness of Partners at the centre of everything it does. It's the embodiment of an ideal, the outcome of nearly a century of endeavour to create a different sort of company, owned by Partners dedicated to serving customers with flair and fairness.” We have no practical experience of what this means but the web site paints a picture of putting staff (partners) ahead of profits. Another with this philosophy is Starbucks (Behar 2007). This means that in decisions of downsizing, they are forced to be more open and caring about the staff.

These examples are organisations that look after and care for their employees but I would contend that individual organisations operating in this manner isn't enough. The economic system has to put people first and be focused on caring for people. Any sign of people being left without resources has to be questioned.

Douglas argues that “we must build up from the individual, not down from the State” (p 30). Decisions about how to design an economic system has to be built from individuals and not from the top down. Companies that work on a partnership basis might argue that the decision making has to involve the individuals. If our structures have too many people in them then maybe we need to look at organising into smaller units to enable individual participation.

Douglas argues that “our premises require that it must be the co-operation of reasoned ascent, not regimentation in the interests of any system, however superficially attractive” (p 31). Competition seems to be attractive until we begin to see that it discards those who are not competitive. There is a need to foster excellence but through co-operation rather that competition. I would push further and argue that it is co-operation to lift the performance of the total system. We want to maximise the benefit for all not just for the elite that are at the top of the field.

I am involved in education. As I look at what happens, I want to argue that education isn't about indoctrination. Yes, we desire skills that the students can put into effect immediately on graduation but even more important is that they have skills to challenge existing structures and systems. Our students are the generator of the next generation of systems and solutions. Part of our role as educators is therefore to foster critical thinking and analysis that never assumes that the status quo is the way things have to be. Our graduates should be willing to challenge the status quo and propose alternative solutions. They should also be looking to co-operate with others in developing innovative solutions.

As I look at what we do in education, I am particular concerned about assessment practices. It is easy to assessment as a gatekeeper task. If the student passes then they are accepted. If they fail then they are discarded. It is easy to argue that we should discard current assessment practices but assessment has an important part to play in uncovering where students are at. What things have they learnt, what things are they struggling with, and what needs further reinforcement? From the perspective of the educator, the assessment helps define where the learning journey needs move next.

Education through its assessment and reward practices an generate competitive atmosphere. If we are really looking for excellence then we need to reward co-operation and achievement through co-operation. The educators as well as the students has a part to play to enable all individuals to reach their potential and to fully participate in society. Individual winners and losers has to be secondary to achieving a system that builds up all individuals and the development of the potential of the system as a whole.

Reference

Behar, H. (2007) It's not about the coffee: Lessons on putting people first from life at Starbucks. Portfolio, Penguin group.

Dobbs, G. (1974). Introduction. In C. H. Douglas (Ed.), Economic democracy. Epsom, Surrey: Bloomfield Publishers.

Douglas, C. H. (1974). Economic democracy. Epsom, Surrey: Bloomfield Publishers.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Learning in relation to programming

To some extent, this is a shameless plug for people to read my PhD thesis (Thompson 2008). However, because of the nature of a thesis or dissertation, there are many ideas or ideas that don't reach the written page. One of my supervisors said that a PhD can set up the research agenda for the remainder of your academic life. I would like to think that in my case, it might continue beyond retirement as I take the principles that I have learnt about learning and apply them in a range of contexts.

The focus of my these was on understanding practitioner perceptions of the programming paradigm behind the language. I have held the belief for quite some time that the way that a person understands a task dictates how they perform that task so my goal in my research was to understand the differences that exist in the way programming practitioners understood or expressed their understanding of the programming task. I restricted my study to one paradigm although a number of my more experienced participants freely expressed views related to other paradigms. Although there is diversity in the way that practitioners expressed their understanding, there were common threads or critical aspects that helped identify the differences in awareness.

Ramsden (2003) and Biggs and Moore (1993) talk about the influence of the learner's perception on the learning task. Marton and Säljö (1997) and Marton, Dall'Alba, and Beaty (1993) have conducted studies on conceptions of learning. There are many other studies that could be referenced that further support the concept that in teaching, we need to help the learner change their conception of learning and of the subject matter.

What I claim my thesis does is help uncover some of the critical aspects and their variations that need to be addressed if we are to help the learner achieve the level of understanding that we desire.

For me, the work needs to be continued to further understand the critical aspects for understanding programming that apply across the programming paradigms. My work focused on object-oriented programming. More importantly, the results need to be applied in planning teaching so that the appropriate space of learning (Marton and Tsui 2003) is opened up to the learner and they have the opportunity to come to the level of understanding that we desire. The teaching strategy shouldn't simply be planed and used, it should be evaluated to determine whether it is opening up the correct space of learning and whether it is bringing about the desired change of awareness in the phenomenon being learnt.

However, I see a wider use of the research and teaching approach that I am envisaging. The core foundation is in the variations that are presented to the learner (Marton and Tsui 2003, Marton and Pang 1999). It is through the careful selection of variations in relation to the phenomenon that the learner becomes aware of the critical aspects that we want them to understand. In a programming context, these variations may be in the type of problem to be solved with a particular programming construct or the variations in the constructs used to solve a specific problem. There may be other variations as well.

The question that still challenges me is whether we can address a number of societies social issues and international disputes by looking at the variations in the way people are aware of specific issues and then presenting variations that help the participants see the alternative perspectives that exist. The goal would be to bring an understanding of the diversity of perspectives and the underlying critical aspects that bring about the differences. Hopefully instead of forcing people to conform, we might see greater acceptance of diversity and a willingness to work through the issues that tend to divide us rather than draw us together.

Reference

Biggs, J. B., & Moore, P. J. (1993). The process of learning (3rd ed.). New York: Prentice Hall.

Marton, F., Dall'Alba, G., & Beaty, E. (1993). Conceptions of learning. International Journal of Educational Research, 19(3), 277-300.

Marton, F., & Pang, M. F. (1999). Two faces of variation, 8th European Conference for Learning and Instruction. Göteborg University, Göteborg, Sweden.

Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1997). Approaches to learning. In F. Marton, D. Hounsell & N. J. Entwistle (Eds.), The experience of learning : implications for teaching and studying in higher education (2nd ed., pp. 39-58). Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

Marton, F., & Tsui, A. B. M. (Eds.). (2003). Classroom discourse and the space of learning. Mahwah, NJ; London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). London: Routledge Falmer.

Thompson, E. (2008). How do they understand? Practitioner perceptions of an object-oriented program. Unpublished Dissertation, Massey University, Palmerston North.

Unity in diversity

Barclay (1975) commenting on Luke 6:12-19 says “It is one of the miracles of the power of Christ that Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot could live at peace in the close company of the apostolic band. When we are really Christian the most diverse and divergent types can live at peace together” (p 75).

I am not going to claim that unity in diversity only occurs in Christian communities. Rather it is a trait that I have seen within some academic departments as I have observed universities in operation. In such groups, individual lectures and researchers can hold strongly very diverse opinions yet form a cohesive group that works well together to build a strong reputation for the department and university.

I notice this particularly because I came out of a department that self exploded because there wasn't this unity in diversity. When there isn't unity, the internal infighting destroys the ability to build a community that grows.

There are problems with communities that hold strongly diverse opinions when others who are not part of the community endeavour to interact with it. My mix of experience with the two universities led to a reluctance to express my views and to join one such community when something that I expressed was strongly criticised and I was cut off from speaking. Talking to the individual later, he apologised but it does present one of the problems where groups have internal unity where there is a diversity of views but fail to be able to interact with others outside their group.

Reflecting on the Christian community, it isn't a group that has internal unity in the midst of diversity. It is a group that should be able to reach out to those around them who disagree with the Christian ethos. It is this ability to draw others to the fellowship that should be a real characteristic of the Christian community.

Reference

Barclay, W. (1975). The gospel of Luke (revised ed.). Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

What's happened to customer service?

We have now been in the UK for four months with one month in a rented house. What frustrates us is that we don't seem to be able to get any service from any organisation. The banking and insurance systems keep throwing up obstacles and now we don't seem to be able to get a phone line or broadband access in any sort of reasonable time. Everything seems to be credit checked, security checked, or any other inane check before they will do anything useful. We ring and ask for service and spend minutes just getting through the stupid front end voice systems and when we get somebody, they want information about things that don't yet exist in their own system.

In trying to find out what phone number we would have for our new installation, we were asked first what our phone number is and then told that they couldn't tell us and we would find out by ringing some code once the line was installed. Who designed this procedure? They knew the call was about a new installation. That is what the voice system asked in its long winded multi-level, time consuming introduction. This is poor design.

This isn't the only instance with this company. Their online system for ordering the service gave us possible dates that weren't available in their booking system. So we were sent a letter saying the install would be two weeks after the date we selected online. The operator when we asked whether we could have an earlier date went into a long excuse blaming the computers for why the systems are not linked. So operator, you are talking to someone who develops systems and teaches others how to develop systems for a living. Stop making excuses for bad business practice and get the systems sorted. Remember you have customers who want service not excuses.

Yes, New Zealand had delays in getting some connections but nothing like the delays and frustrations that we are having here. We feel like we are bleeding money into the UK system for nothing in return.

Come on UK, learn something about service and meeting the needs of people. Pull your heads out of the bureaucratic sands and see that people matter and their needs need to be satisfied. This is more than a government regulation or a leadership issue. This seems to be ingrained in your culture.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

SOLO applied to programming

Over the last five years, I have been involved in the BRACELet project in which we have endeavoured to learn something about novice programmers from data gathered primarily through exams (Whalley and Lister 2009, Lister 2008). this work has involved an iterative cycle of data gathering and analysis very much like an action research project but utilising different groups of students around the world.

One of the key tools in analysing our data has been the SOLO taxonomy (Biggs and Collis 1982, Biggs 1999). Our initial use of the SOLO taxonomy was to analyse student responses to a code summarisation question (Whalley et al. 2006). That has now been repeated in a number of studies revealing a very similar pattern of results (Sheard et al. 2008, Clear et al. 2008). There have also been some discoveries that have been a little like side journeys (Lister et al. 2006, Thompson et al. 2006). The work has also been extended in an attempt to find a correlation between reading, tracing, and writing (Lopez et al. 2008). A paper accepted for publication later this year draws together all of these studies and extends the work into new areas including using SOLO to classify code writing exercises (Clear et al. 2009).

As the research has progressed, the use of the SOLO taxonomy for analysing reading responses has been revised as we have learnt more about the classification issues. A summary of the principles applied is:.


SOLO categoryDescription
PrestructuralSubstantially lacks knowledge of programming constructs or is unrelated to the question
UnistructuralProvides a description for one portion of the code (i.e. describes the if statement)
MultistructuralA line by line description is provided of all the code. Summarisation of individual statements may be included
RelationalProvides a summary of what the code does in terms of the code’s purpose. Provides a summary of the code that recognises applicability of the code segment to a wider context

This hierarchy is based on the degree of integration and abstraction from the code. At the lowest level, the student has no or little comprehension of the code. At the next level, they are looking at individual constructs. At the next, they are working with multiple lines but still not seeing the whole as a unit. It isn't until the relational response that they are seeing the whole as a unit..

The translation to writing isn't quite as simple. Clear et al. (2009) will describe an initial attempt at using SOLO for analysing code writing responses. It is based on the following principles..

SOLO categoryDescription
PrestructuralSubstantially lacks knowledge of programming constructs or is unrelated to the question
Unistructural – direct TranslationRepresents a direct translation of the specifications. The code will be in the sequence of the specifications.
Multistructural - RefinementRepresents a translation that is close to a direct translation. The code may have been reordered to make a valid solution.
Relational - EncompassingProvides a valid well structured program that removes all redundancy and has a clear logical structure. The specifications have been integrated to form a logical whole.
Extended Abstract - ExtendingUsed constructs and concepts beyond those required in the exercise to provide an improved solution

This draws on an example of translation presented by Hattie and Purdie (1998).

Since the work done for Clear et al. (2009), we have done more work to verify the SOLO classification for writing. This work applies the analysis to further questions and seeks to clarify the principles for the analysis of code writing questions. This type of replication is important to ensure that an analysis tool achieves its objectives..

In the code reading exercises, we realised that come code snippets provided a better question base for summarisation questions than others. Code that had difficult to identify coding tricks presented particular problems (Lister et al. 2006). In code writing questions can be written that require little interpretation in order to be able to perform a direct translation. Other questions require considerable interpretation before a line of code can be written. The relationship between the wording of the question and the written code becomes more critical..

There is another element that these code writing questions raise. The different solutions represent different levels of integration of the code segments to form a comprehensive whole. This idea of integration was used for assessing major programming assignments (Thompson 2004, 2007). applying these principles to smaller code segments may appear to present some additional options for presenting code variations in teaching. This is a direction of research that I am keen to pursue..

References

Biggs, J. B. (1999). Teaching for quality learning at University. Buckingham: Open University Press..

Biggs, J. B., & Collis, K. F. (1982). Evaluating the quality of learning: The SOLO taxonomy (Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome). New York: Academic Press..

Clear, T., Lister, R., Simon, Bouvier, D., Carter, P., Eckerdal, A., Jacková, J., Lopez, M., McCartney, R., Robbins, P., Seppälä, O., & Thompson, E. (2009). Naturally occurring data as research instrument: Analyzing examination responses to study the novice programmer. Inroads - The SIGCSE Bulletin..

Clear, T., Whalley, J., Lister, R., Carbone, A., Hü, M., Sheard, J., Simon, B., & Thompson, E. (2008). Reliably classifying novice programmer exam responses using the SOLO taxonomy. In S. Mann & M. Lopez (Eds.), 21st Annual conference of the National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualifications (NACCQ 2008). Auckland: NACCQ.

Hattie, J., & Purdie, N. (1998). The Solo model: Addressing fundamental measurement issues. In B. Dart & G. M. Boulton-Lewis (Eds.), Teaching and learning in higher education (pp. 145-176). Camberwell, Vic: Australian Council of Educational Research..

Lister, R. (2008). After the gold rush: toward sustainable scholarship in computing. In Simon & M. Hamilton (Eds.), Tenth Australasian Computing Education Conference (ACE 2008) (Vol. 78, pp. 3-18). Wollongong, NSW, Australia: ACS.

Lister, R., Simon, B., Thompson, E., Whalley, J., & Prasad, C. (2006). Not seeing the forest for the trees: Novice programmers and the SOLO taxonomy. In M. Goldweber & P. Salomoni (Eds.), Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education (ITiCSE 2006) (pp. 118-122). Bolonga, Italy: Association for Computing Machinery..

Lopez, M., Whalley, J., Robbins, P., & Lister, R. (2008). Relationships between reading, tracing and writing skills in introductory programming, Proceeding of the fourth international workshop on Computing education research (pp. 101-112). Sydney, Australia: ACM..

Sheard, J., Carbone, A., Lister, R., Simon, B., Thompson, E., & Whalley, J. L. (2008). Going SOLO to assess novice programmers, Proceedings of the 13th annual conference on Innovation and technology in computer science education. Madrid, Spain: ACM..

Thompson, E. (2004). Does the sum of the parts equal the whole? In S. Mann & T. Clear (Eds.), Proceedings of the seventeenth annual conference of the National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualifications (pp. 440-445). Christchurch, New Zealand: National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualifications..

Thompson, E. (2007). Holistic assessment criteria - Applying SOLO to programming projects. In S. Mann & Simon (Eds.), Proceedings of the Ninth Australasian Computing Education Conference (ACE2007) (Vol. 66, pp. 155-162). Ballarat, Victoria, Australia: Australian Computer Society Inc..

Thompson, E., Whalley, J., Lister, R., & Simon, B. (2006). Code Classification as a Learning and Assessment Exercise for Novice Programmers. In S. Mann & N. Bridgeman (Eds.), The 19th Annual Conference of the National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualifications: Preparing for the Future — Capitalising on IT (pp. 291-298). Wellington: National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualifications..

Whalley, J., & Lister, R. (2009). The BRACELet 2009.1 (Wellington) specification. Paper presented at the Proc. 11 Australasian Computing Education Conference (ACE 2009), Wellington, NZ..

Whalley, J., Lister, R., Thompson, E., Clear, T., Robbins, P., Kumar, A., & Prasard, C. (2006, 16 - 19 January). An Australasian study of reading and comprehension skills in novice programmers, using the Bloom and SOLO taxonomies. Paper presented at the Eighth Australasian Computing Education Conference (ACE2006), Hobart, Tasmania, Australia..

The move so far

We have now been in England almost four months. We had been away from New Zealand for five months in 2007 but this time, we know that there is no plan to return. What is more, there is no home base in New Zealand to return to. This is a one way ticket.

Finding work that would allow us to set up a home base took three months. I did have a two week contract back in August but the costs of doing the contract didn't leave much left to actually establish ourselves. The economic climate hasn't helped as well although there is clearly a need for some of my skills in the market here. However, employers are being fussy and not wanting to spend money on people who may not deliver. The selection process can drag out with no certainty of being employed or of the position being filled.

This is our third week of establishing a home base and we are beginning to realise just how much we have let go. Appliances (fridge and vacuum cleaner) and furniture items (sofa, dining suite, desks, bookcases) are all things that we are having to purchase. What do you rank in order of importance when you are starting from scratch?

In such a situation, it is easy to question the sanity of the move that has taken you to the other side of the world. This move isn't the same as a move across town or to another town in the same country. When you move house in the same town, you may have to pack some things into boxes but there are a lot of things that simply travel in the drawers or cabinets that they were already in. Our move has seen everything packed away, drawers and cabinets sold and many things having lost their storage homes. Now we are re-establishing the security that was lost but are we really going to regain it?

Things will never be the same as they were in New Zealand before we left. A return wouldn't re-establish any of those things lost either. When there looked like no work on the horizon we considered returning, but would things be any better? We would still need to find work, a home, furniture, etc. The New Zealand market place is smaller and it isn't where we believe God was calling us to be at this time.

Will the situation be different in eight months time when my current work contract comes to an end? I don't think so. By then we may have shed more of the excess baggage, but the dreams and visions that we had before our departure from New Zealand would remain unfulfilled. Retreating or going back is not an option. As always in life, we need to focus on the dream and what we believe we really need to be doing. When that happens, we can continue to move forward believing that we are on the path to achieving that dream.

My current work allows me to teach and to practice some of what I have learnt from completing my PhD in Computer Science Education. However, the bigger challenge is to continue that research and its application to make a difference in the delivery of computing education and to see where the techniques learnt may be applied in other fields. My PhD research looked at the variations of practitioners' awareness of object-oriented programming. It reinforced what I believed about the importance of our perceptions in what we do. The research also uncovered a possible way of helping change perceptions by looking at the variations that open up a space of learning.

In another project, we (myself and others from other institutions around the world) have been exploring how we can use data coming from our assessment practices to better understand the way our students understand or are learning programming. In that work, we have used the SOLO taxonomy to analyse student work and to see the correlations between reading, tracing, and writing of code. That work, like my PhD research extension, is ongoing.

I see a strong connection between these two themes. The BRACELet work is helping reveal variations in answers to what appear to be simple questions. These variations in answers help us to see the differences in the way that students have integrated even simple ideas. I am now asking the question as to whether we can use these variations in solutions to open up a space of learning for our students? I have in the past used variations of solutions to help students see how different programming constructs can be used to achieve the same thing. I will continue to do that. But on this journey, I want to use variations to extend the understanding of the students and to stretch them to see things in a new way.

In my current position, I don't have responsibility for the course but I can plan some lectures and tutorial sessions. It is in these sessions that I will endeavour to utilise the techniques that I have learnt. However, I will not be getting the research data that I desire. There is more work to do before I can be in that position. Some of that work is ensuring that I publish some of my current findings and that I am getting the message out there to those for whom this work is relevant. That has to be more focus and I must avoid the distractions related to our living circumstances. Retaining focus when the world around us has changed can prove difficult but it is something that we have to do if we want to achieve the vision or dreams that we have set ourselves.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Reawakening Faith

Now that we are endeavouring to resettle at least for the next nine to twelve months, we are realising that, despite our efforts to travel light by disposing of quite a lot of stuff before leaving New Zealand, we still have far too much stuff for an English house. However, it isn't just the accumulation of assets that causes problems with these moves.

As I reflect, I realise that I had come to trust in the comforts of our New Zealand home and the certainty of having work. Although I now have work, it is only for nine months so I have to keep looking for the next position. We now have a roof over our heads but it doesn't feel like home. The sense of comfort has gone but we have too many possessions that stop us living simply.

I observe the canal boats and think of the release; the freedom to go where the canals lead. This has led me to think of the cycle journey vision (26 July) and what we would need to discard in order to be able to move freely around the country. I see that we have become settled people rather than travellers living in a confined space with limited resources. We are a people who have settled and who are used to collecting “things.” Some of these remind us of the journey already travelled but many are simply clutter taking up space that we no longer have. They act as anchors to make us settle.

As I reflect, I think about faith and what it means. Do we really have faith when we have developed a settled mentality? If our faith were threatened, would we let go in order to hold on to the comforts that we have? I suspect that my faith is really secondary to feeling comfortable and settled. My faith, like my New Zealand living arrangements, has its regular settled routines. Sure, I reflect and consider things but my faith isn't shaken or stretched very much. I may dream of the journey but in the end I want to be able to return to the security of a settled faith and life. My faith may have elements of a journey but in reality it is a place of settlement where there are few struggles and issues to face. Maybe my faith, like my life, needs a shake up so that I really learn what it means to trust and walk in faith.

Moving around the world with no certainty of employment is reawakening my faith. It is forcing me to consider whether I want to retain the settler mentality. As I write this, I am thinking that in twelve months when we may have to move on again, I want to have less of the clutter and an increased freedom to move where God might lead us. What will that mean? It will mean reconsidering what is important and and releasing assets so we are less encumbered by a settler mentality. Each day has to be another step in faith.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Balancing the books

As the UK attempts to recover from the recession and prepares for the coming elections, there seems to be a focus on reducing expenditure supposedly to balance the books. The government, including local government seems to have spent more than it has earned. Admittedly, there may be some waste in the system but with the government having had to bail out banks because of bad debts, I would have thought there would have been some warning bells that suggested that something is really out of balance in the economic accounting.

As I understand the cause of the current recession, it related to the defaulting on high risk debts. If the government removes a large chunk of its expenditure or endeavours to balance its books by increasing taxes then surely this is going to put more pressure on those struggling with debt.

The government in its bid to reduce costs makes more people redundant. This shifts the cost from the government's operating bill but increases the social welfare bill. The savings may exceed the increased cost from an accounting perspective but what is the social cost to society caused by increased unemployment. At what point can a government say these things are needed and we need to inject capital or credit into the system to bring it into balance?

People need to live. They need shelter and food. Can this social responsibility be ignored simply so an accounting equation can be brought into balance? It seems to me that the foundation of our economic system is faulty and that the balancing equation isn't one of balancing need with available resource. Rather some monetary figures that don't reflect the needs of society seem to be dictating the way governments and society behave.

I am not advocating unlimited expenditure. Rather I am asking whether the method used to decide whether the government's books are in balance be re-examined. The solution to all problems seems to be increasing income (i.e. increase taxes) or reduce costs (laying off workers or reducing services). Certainly services need to be examined to determine whether they are still needed but I am not convinced that the proposed slashing of costs is based on accessing the need for services. I am not even against charging for services especially when a service isn't a necessity.

I would like to hear the government talking about accessing the need for services rather than a need to balance the books by reducing services. All that will happen is that there will be a reduction of services that will be reinstated when either the economy improves or when there is enough political pressure that the politicians see it as necessary in order to be re-elected.

What I see is that monetary issues are dominating the decision making and not clear thinking about what is required for the people to foster a balanced society.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Creation and Evolution

I have been thinking about whether evidence of evolution is proof that creation never happened and whether this means there is no God. My conclusion is that the answer depends on the frame of reference of the person when gathering evidence and presenting an argument. What do I mean?

Evidence for evolution seems to be that there is some identifiable evidence for a progression in development. I would argue that we can see such evidence in the human designs such as houses, cars, computers, clothes, etc. Human understanding of what is possible is revealed through the products that have been developed. I doubt whether there is anyone who would argue that such designs evolved without a human designer / creator. This is because our conception is that these items are designed and not naturally occurring in nature.

If an outsider were to visit this world without meeting humans, what would they conclude? Would they argue that on the evidence there must have been an intelligent designer of these artefacts or would they see the evidence of evolution in these artefacts and argue that they must have evolved without a creating influence. Surely this will depend on their perception of what the evidence is reporting and what they perceived as the evidence for creation.

I contend that the evidence for evolution doesn't rule out a creator / designer influence. There is the argument that says who put the rules in place by which natural selection occurs? Are they simply random rules or is there some order to them? It is my belief that there is evidence of some order to those rules. They are not chance creations. From my perspective, evidence for evolution is not evidence against a creator influence. It simply shows that the process of creation may have occurred over an extended period of time.

The difficulty is with the perspective that takes Genesis 1 literally, that is God created in seven days. Is that what the author of the passage intended to communicate or was the intent to communicate seven phases of development or may be simply that God created. Again, this is based on the perception of the reader of Genesis. This perception will influence what evidence is acceptable or unacceptable as proof of creation. A narrow focus of God creating in seven days means that evidence of development over a longer period of time rules out creation but I have a problem with that perspective.

To me, the Bible talks of God's developing relationship with man. That relationship develops and changes throughout the Bible. God didn't create humankind and say this is how I am or this is what I want you to be. The Bible seems to show a development in humankind and his relationship to the world and to God. This seems to say to me that God is more interested in evolutionary development rather than big bang creationism.

Just as human creation shows signs of evolution, I am willing to accept that God's creation would also show signs of evolution. This means that I don't see evidence of evolution meaning that creation has not occurred or that God does not exist. The more I observe the natural world, the more I see evidence of design and no chance development. There is too much order to be some chance production. Just as I would never argue that buildings or cars were created by chance, I wouldn't argue that the natural world is a chance evolution.

Since it is not possible to go back to there being nothing (i.e. creating out of nothing), I can't see whether there can be evidence that would convince me that evolution was possible from a point of there being nothing if there ever was such a point.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Recession will happen again

The BBC reports that Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chief, as saying the financial crisis “will happen again.” Their web article concludes with the statement "It's human nature, unless somebody can find a way to change human nature, we will have more crises and none of them will look like this because no two crises have anything in common, except human nature."

Is it really human nature to assume that human created financial systems can't be changed and that we are not able to learn from past failures and make transitions to new systems that don't have some of the same flaws? I will accept that human knowledge is incomplete but I don't accept that we can't learn from failures. However, we do seem to be blind to faults in our financial systems. The solutions may be more difficult to resolve.

As I reflect on the economic system and the issues that have led to the recession, I am forced to consider some of the equations that might relate to its operation. I recognise that I am not attempting to model every aspect of the economy but there seems to be some fundamental requirements that are not satisfied by the current system.

In order to be able to sell all product that is produced and to avoid production for waste, the available product for purchase should not exceed the available purchasing power. The basic assumption is that the market should be able to purchase all production. If production exceeds the purchasing power then either product is being manufactured to waste or prices have to decrease.

However, there is a fundamental principle of cash flow is that for any economic entity and that is that the cash in has to be greater than or equal to the cash out. As a general principle, the amount received from the sale of product should exceed the costs of production. Part of the cost of production is wages, salaries, and dividends; the primary source of purchasing power.

All economic units endeavour to live within their income but income is related to what is produced. If the income is inadequate then the economic unit must borrow. Borrowing is simply a mechanism for redistributing purchasing power. This means that there has to be economic units whose income exceeds their spending.

Borrowing comes with a cost (interest) that increases the outgoing cash flow of the borrower. Consequently, the borrower seeks to increase their cash flow to ensure that they cover the increased outgoing. The interest charges reduce the borrower's purchasing power and increase the lenders.

Anything that upsets the balance between available purchasing power and available items to purchase is going to cause problems with the economic system. If an economic unit is unable to cover their outgoings then there is going to be an imbalance in the economic system that will need addressing. If that is addressed with further costs then that puts extra pressure on the available purchasing power. The result is recession and financial collapse.

The solution is some fundamental changes to the way that we think about economics and our understanding of a just economic system.

Monday, 31 August 2009

But God loves

My reflection on the British banking system and on today's children culminates in a passage that we were reading this morning. Barclay (1975) in ending his daily commentary on Romans 3:19-26 says “the way to a right relationship with God lies, not in a frenzied, desperate, doomed attempt to win acquittal by our performance; it lies in the humble, penitent acceptance of the love and the grace which God offers us in Jesus Christ” (p 59).

God in his justice accepts us, the sinner, not as a criminal, but as a son whom he still loves. Despite what we do and the number of times that we break his heart, he continues to love us and reach out to us. We shut him out by failing to recognise his love and rejecting the forgiveness that he offers us each day. Despite all this, he continues to love.

As a grandfather, I seek that my grandchildren will come to us seeking our help to learn and grow. We know that they wont always achieve what we would like and often fail to satisfy their own goals. With learning to ride, we accept that they will fall off but we help them up and set them off again for another attempt. With console games, they get upset when beaten or they don't achieve what they wanted, you sit down with them and encourage them that they haven't achieved what they wanted this time but with practice, they will get better. When they don't do what we want or they fail to live up to our expectations, we don't reject them, we show them love and endeavour to help them understand. Hopefully, we treat them as we would like them to become offering encouragement and support.

God's relationship with us is the same. He reaches out to us by not rejecting us for what we are but seeing the potential in us to be what he desires for us. He treats us as he wants us to be so that we might learn more about him.

Reference

Barclay, W. (1975). The letter to the Romans (revised ed.). Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press.

Broken Heart

I have been struggling with seeing my grandchildren entertained for long periods of the day with computer games and movies. OK, there wasn't TV around when I was growing up and we had a lot of space in our backyard so we could really get out and kick balls around or race bikes around the back lawn. The problem is that I wonder what is happening to the next generation brought up on a diet of games and little opportunity to react with people.

My personal desire is to get my grandchildren out enjoying things that they can do for themselves. Inspire some creativity and enjoy what God has created. A day at a kite festival yesterday proved refreshing for all.

At the same time, I am concerned that we can put too much pressure on young children to be what we want them to be. Back on 8 August, I talked about learning and the lessons learnt. As my heart yearns to see children with a greater desire for creative, active enjoyment than for computer or game console games, I wonder about the lessons that we need to learn as grandparents and parents.

Those around us don't necessarily understand what is the inner desires of our heart. They will often disappoint us and let us down. Do we close the door on them and discipline them every time this occurs or do we try and reach out in love seeking to help them understand our pain and to try and continue to build the relationship. How much easier life would be if we could walk away every time something upset us but turning our backs on problems doesn't solve the problems nor does it help others to develop into the types of persons that we believe they should be. Nor does it help us to be the type of person that we should be.

We have to learn to love despite the pain inflicted and the lack of response that we might receive. In the process, we need to grow and adapt so that we can better respond to others and can understand more of the pain and hurt that they might be feeling. Maybe it isn't so much what is wrong with them but what is wrong with us.

I write this blog knowing that I have a great list of tasks that could keep me from spending time with the grandchildren. This happened when my children were growing up. When my children were at the same age as and a little older than my grandchildren, I was working a full time job, involved in youth ministry, trying to organise a group to support the use of computers in Christian mission, and was the secretary for a church that had just lost its pastor. At anyone time, I was doing between the equivalent of one to three full time jobs. If my wife hadn't spent most of her time focused on the children, they would have been neglected and ignored. Looking back, I regret not having taken the time to enjoy their childhood and to be with them as they grew up. Having tasks to do wasn't an excuse.

I can see the same happening with today's children. Mums and dads have busy lives. Grandparents also have things to get on with. What happens to the children and their need to be loved and guided through the developmental years. They are left to nurseries and schools to teach them with interaction from busy parents in the evening and weekends.

As I reflect, my heart breaks and I cry out for compassion and strength to show a different side and to treat today's children as I would like them to become and not as I am.

A Banking System

We have now been in England for a little over two months and we are still having problems with getting the UK banking system to work for us and not against us. Our initial slow progress was caused by working through a suitable foreign exchange arrangement but it is also slowed by the over regulated and over managed banking system.

To open a bank account in the UK, you have to have a permanent address at which you are paying for services such as power. The problem is to rent or purchase a property, you need a bank account. The way around it is to have an overseas bank vouch for your credentials which is what we did. That gave us a base from which to work. Having our daughter living here gave us a UK address so in theory, we had a head start.

However to get a better interest rate on our savings, we decided to open an Internet account with a building society. It took us a while to review the possibilities but it is nearly three weeks since we started the process of opening the account a beginning to transfer the money. The process is long winded and fill of delays each of about five working days.

The first step of the process was to submit paper work along with proof of identity. We came away from that thinking all that we needed to do was register online and we would have our account but we had to wait for the building society to send us through the post an customer number. This would take five days. Once we received that identification code, we could register online but not open the account. That required yet another snail mail notification through the postal system. Now we have that we got in and had to transfer the money (oops!! there is a limit to how much you can transfer electronically in a day – Ok! We will just spread it out over a few days and we will be right). Not quite!!! Having activated the savings account online and deposited the initial transfer, we weren't allowed to look at the account or do any transactions on it until it was unlocked by the building society. This could take up to another 5 working days.

If you have done the calculations, this is three weeks to do a simple investment. You have to ask whether these banks really want our business. We are informed that this is all about ensuring credibility and security in the system so that no one can defraud us and so we can't launder an ill gotten gains.

In effect, we are being treated as possible criminals. Should the banking system be surprised that ordinary people who in their normal daily operations wouldn't think of defrauding the system begin to do so? We are concerned that it might take a month to get our money out when we decide to buy a house. What is that going to do to the purchase process. Mind you we are told there are other issues in the purchase process that could cause a house purchase to drag out for a year or more. One has to ask whether the British system of finance is really designed to work for the customer but there again maybe they haven't heard of the customer. They have only heard of the criminal.

One philosophy argues that if you want the best from a person, you should treat them as you want them to be. As I reflect on the British banking system, I see that everyone is regarded with suspicion and is treated as a potential criminal. It is difficult to believe that the majority of 61 million people have criminal intent. There is no trust in the system and as a consequence little trust develops.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Collar Interfaces

In working on a recent programming contract, we were using test-driven development (TDD) with a mocking framework. The test calls a method of the object under test but doesn't isolate the method from the objects that it calls. This is the input interface to the class. It defines the way that we will use the object. References to objects that it uses may be passed to the object but that doesn't define the expected behaviour of these objects that the object under test is using.

Mocking requires that you consider the dependent object behaviour. The mock object creates a replacement for objects used by the object under test and defines the expected responses of that object without actually creating the object. Using the mock object, we define what method we expect the object under test to call, the parameters that we expect to be passed, and the any expected return value. The result is that we verify the operation of our object independent of other objects that it might use. As long as the authors of dependent objects agree to the interfaces and behaviours that we have tested to, we should be able to plug the objects together and have an operational system.

In effect, the combination of TDD and mocking has defines both the input (usage) interface and the dependencies interface for the object being tested. The difficulty is that the object / class doesn't carry that information with it. We have to go to our tests to determine the required behaviours.

One of the people that I interviewed for my PhD thesis (Thompson 2008) talked about how with hardware these dependencies were defined in what is called a collar interface. He suggested that a collar interface should be defined for objects. My experience with TDD and mocks suggests that a collar interface definition would really help. The mock is looking to ensure that the objects downstream dependency relationships are working as expected. With these defined as part of the collar interface, it would become easier for the programmer to write test cases for objects.

There is another aspect of using mocks. When you you test-drive development from the calls and return values, you ignore the downstream effect other than ensuring that the dependency objects are in place. If there are too many downstream dependencies then it can be difficult to set up the conditions for the test. There can also be a lot of side effects that are difficult to control.

Using a mocking framework removes the need to create all the downstream dependencies and how to simplify them. The programmer doesn't simply define the call and expected return values. In defining the mock objects, they define precisely what methods they expect to call, the parameter values that are expected on those calls, and the values to be returned. That id they have defined the complete collar interface for the method under test.

The mock expectation and return should / could be used as test drivers for the classes being mocked out. None of the tools that I have used so far do this type of verification. It in theory could generate test stubs from the mock definitions. After all, these are the behaviours that our system is expecting of the dependent objects.

Taking this thinking, it seems possible that tables of calls and expectations could be used to build tests with mocked dependencies. If the full collar interface was defined for a class, generating the tests for these dependency chains may be easier to achieve.

Reference

Thompson, E. (2008). How do they understand? Practitioner perceptions of an object-oriented program. Massey University, Palmerston North.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Learning – Lessons learnt

Working with young children helps provide insight into learning. This blog is about lessons learnt by working with my grandchildren.

Lesson 1: Variations

In 2007, I drafted a paper in which I included some material on my grandchildren learning to distinguish between a duck and an owl. At that point, any big bird was automatically a duck. So the question was how do you help them distinguish the difference. The answer is by helping them to see the differences or variations between a duck and an owl. These differences might be in the environment or in the structure of the animal. You don't see an owl on a pond. An owl and a duck stand differently. The owl appears to be more upright. The differences in facial features and feet. All of these things help us distinguish between a duck and an owl. As we learn, we learn by increasingly recognising the variations that exist and how they make something what it is or is not.

There is a theory of learning that is related to the use of variations (variation theory) (Marton and Tsui 2003). This theory talks about the space of learning being created by the variations used in teaching. The variations define the enacted object of learning. This should relate to the teachers intended object of learning and the what the student takes away as the lived object of learning. When working with young children, the differences between the intended, the enacted, and the lived objects of learning become very visible.

Lesson 2: Learning from failure

I have had items in my collection for some time that talked about learning from failure (Dörner 1997, Gick and McGarry 1992, Ginat 2003). It has also been part of my thinking that students in learning to program, have to see some of their code fail in order to learn appropriate ways to write the code.

Over the last few weeks, I have been helping my grandchildren learn to ride a bicycle. They started on trainer wheels but now, my grandson is beginning to ride without them. Of course every now and then he rides into something or falls off but I encourage him to get up and try again. The question is can they learn to ride and in particular learn to balance without having the experience of falling off or failing to ride. Yes, there has been a struggle sometimes encouraging him to get back on but in the end, falling off is part of the learning process.

Schank (1997) talks of expectation failure. Children have this experience frequently in their learning process. My grandson expects to be able to ride without falling off and without having to think about what he is doing. He also thinks that he should always win in computer games (I will come back to this issue later). Failure can lead to giving up or it can be used to learn and to try a different approach. Without the expectation failure often nothing is really learnt. Learning and failure can go together if we can build the confidence to try again or approach the problem from a different perspective.

Lesson 3: Learning in games

This has really presented quite a challenge over the last few weeks. When our children were growing up, there was no such thing as computer games or video games. Now, my grandchildren have computer and video games all around them. They watch mum and dad winning and expect to win themselves. They don't understand that losing is as much part of the game as winning. Mum and dad don't seem to lose or if they do, they observe the protest.

I think of my own experience in playing Monopoly. One of the people that we played with insisted in any trade that he came off best. The result is that I won't have the game of Monopoly in my house. What did the game teach me? It didn't help me to learn to lose. I just wanted to escape. I wonder whether by bringing our children up playing games that reward winners and penalise losers whether we are encouraging a generation who will take the escape path.

It is difficult to encourage a child who is disappointed at losing to go on and try again. There seems to be no reward. Maybe we need games that are more a case of fostering having fun and being rewarded for encouraging and helping others.

Now that I have thought about this issue, I have decided that when I play some of these games with my grandchildren, I am going to purposely make mistakes and lose simply to encourage them and to show that I don't always succeed as well. Better still, I will look for games which they find easier to play and are less competitive in nature.

Lesson 4: Learning to serve

My major priority has been looking for employment but I have also been attempting to write research papers and do some programming (actually experimenting and testing the next version of FlashBuilder and the Flex SDK). When there are two young children in the house with expectations of being able to play often with a lot of noise and of granddad doing things with them, it can be difficult to make progress. Trying to enforce quiet behaviour isn't the solution. What really works is an adult spending time with them playing games, baking, going for walks, flying kites, … basically encouraging them to learn how to create their own fun.

As I reflect on the bringing up of my own children, I recognise that it was my wife, Marilyn who took on most of that responsibility. A classic example was planned expedition during one holiday period from our home in Onehunga up to One Tree Hill (the North Pole). The kids had to help plan the expedition. They were encouraged to be creative with the use of their time.

In this situation, we need to think carefully about our priorities. It is so easy to be caught up in our own activities and forget the needs of those around us. When those around us are young children, they don't necessarily understand that we want to get other things done. They create noise and place demands. We need to serve them and help them to build independence. We need to see that we can't play the games in front of them and then expect them not to want to play those games. We need to show constraint around them and be willing to give up some of our precious time to serve them.

There is another aspect to this learning to serve. In talking with recruiting agents and possible employers, I am often asked what I want to achieve. This is difficult because what I would really like to do is continue with my teaching and research but that isn't always possible. If I say that is what I would prefer to do then work in industry isn't a possibility. Since my research is in computing education, even lecturing and research positions in many computer science departments are not open to me.

In the end, my personal goals have to be subordinated to those of the organisation that I work for. I come as a servant seeking to offer what I can and influence what I can with the skills and knowledge that I have gained over a number of years.

But it isn't easy being the servant or having the servant attitude. There is also a need to recognise who we really serve. There are times when we need to challenge those that we work for and the systems that we work under but in general, the key attitude has to be one of service and accomplishing what is required of us. Sometimes, we have to serve in order to gain the right to have a voice.

Reference

Dörner, D. (1997). The logic of failure : recognizing and avoiding error in complex situations. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.

Gick, M. L., & McGarry, S. J. (1992). Learning from mistakes: Inducing analogous solution failures to a source problem produces later successes in analogical transfer. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 18.

Ginat, D. (2003). The greedy trap and learning from mistakes, Proceedings of the 34th technical symposium on Computer science education (pp. 11-15). Reno Nevada: ACM.

Marton, F., & Tsui, A. B. M. (Eds.). (2003). Classroom discourse and the space of learning. Mahwah, NJ; London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Schank, R. C. (1997). Virtual learning: A revolutionary approach to building a highly skilled workforce. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Monday, 3 August 2009

God's judgement

I have already indicated that I am reluctant to link the current economic downturn with being God's judgement but on reading Leviticus 26:3-46 and Knight's (1981) comments on it, I am led to reflect that if the nations that claim to be Christian or a Christian base tot their society are not living as God's witness then as this passage indicates, they should expect to receive God's judgement.

Knight makes the statement “For the Church, the People of the New Covenant, has now been chosen to be the instrument in God's plan that every knee should bow to him, and every tongue should give him (Christ) praise (Rom 14:11). If therefore the chosen instrument of the universal paln should itself be the means of frustrating the realization of that plan, then the People of God must surely bear a curse beyond anything that natural man, as he clings to the various religious and ideologies of the world, will ever have to suffer” (p 165).

If God's word is indicating that we should be using a different economic principle to that currently in place and the modern church stands idle in proposing an alternative system then surely, we should expect to see something of God's wrath. Israel was sent into exile and the land was given its Sabbath rest. Israel had her prophets warning of the pending judgement but sadly, I don't hear any modern day prophets calling the Christian community to repent of their selfish exploitation of non-Christian nations. If the modern church is God's voice then it should be leading the way in reforming western society and building bridges to Eastern nations that find capitalism unacceptable.

My call is for Christians to re-examine God's word and to seek out what it means to operate a fair and just economic system. They should then be willing to take the steps to put in place the system that they believe God is calling them to implement.

Reference

Knight, G. A. F. (1981). Levitcus. Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

God's Sabbath

This morning, I was reading Leviticus 26. In this passage, God reminds Israel of the blessings of walking in his statutes and observing his commandments. He also warns of what will happen if they fail in their observance. What interested me was the emphasis placed on the Sabbath for the land. This passage clearly says that Israel would be removed from the land so that the land could have is Sabbath rest if Israel failed to observe God's statues and commandments.

I am usually reluctant to claim that current events such as the recession are a sign of God's judgement or wrath but I do believe that the economic system that we operate under will result in boom and bust (recession) cycles. It seems clear that from this passage, if the land is not farmed sustainably then we should expect periods of low yield or see times when the land needs its Sabbaths. God's command to Israel was that every seven years, the land should be given its rest. We are also told to take every seventh day as a Sabbath rest. The land and us need these times to restore our productive ability. When we fail to maintain these Sabbaths, productivity falls.

I want to extend this to my own current situation. We made the move to the UK believing that God wanted us to come here. We also believe that there is a task that he wants us to do but we are not really seeing the opportunities opening up a present. Our engrained experience says that we should ensure an income before moving forward with our vision. God's desire is that we move forward with the vision and trust him for the income. This isn't our default mode of operation. Because we have failed to act on God's vision maybe we are having an enforced Sabbath rest to allow us to learn to trust in Him and to focus on the vision ahead of the desire for income and security.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Cycling photographer

I was a late starting in competitive cycling and have now reached a point where I am happy to help run events and a commissaire. However, I like the idea of being a touring cyclist provided I am not riding an overloaded bicycle. One of my thoughts is to carry my camera gear and take a series of photos from a cyclists perspective as I travel through countries It is so easy to travel the tourist trails and not to see the real beauty of a place or the struggles of its people. The idea would be to travel the roads that are less travelled especially by cyclists and vehicles. It would take in some of the mountain bike tracks and back country roads.

I had started to plan such a journey around New Zealand before we left. I hope that I will still get the opportunity to do it although that could be ten years from now. In the mean time, it would be nice to take such a journey around countries in Europe.

How would I finance such a journey and would I do it simply for my own pleasure? My original thought was that I would produce a photo book revealing some of the beauty of God's creation in these less travelled places. To some extent, this would still be the first priority but I am thinking of

  1. highlighting the destruction caused by man in the name of progress
  2. highlighting natures fight back
  3. revealing the struggle of people against man made systems
  4. revealing the freedom of living by alternative systems aimed at providing for the good of all
  5. raising awareness needs and alternative ways of thinking
  6. raising funds for a charity

An Economic Philosophy

As I remain without an income, I have had time to think about what it is that I would really like to achieve over the coming years. I find myself at a point of contradiction. My desire is to see a system in place that uplifts people and offers encouragement and yet we have set our priority on finding an income and establishing a base here in the UK. Are these two goals in conflict? I look back over my life and see how earning money or the employment that I have has tended to influence what I achieve. Sure there have been other things that I have been involved in but it is employment or the need for an income that has really set the tone of our lives.

Over the last few months, I have been thinking through these issues and trying to see what alternatives there are. There are some deep questions when you read of those in poverty because of systems that drive them from their lands to scratch for survival amongst the rubble of large cities (Grigg 1984). Why does our economic system caste some people aside like rubble?

Douglas (1974) argued that the economic system that he was observing was based on productionism and not consumerism. What he argued is that although it was producing product in theory for consumption, a lot of that production was actually going to waste. Products were built with obsolescence in mind. This is a trend that continues today except that I would argue that we are in monetarism. We do anything including gambling on exchange rates or future trades if we believe it will bring us in more money. There is little concern for the impact of our monetary focus.

Examples are investment companies who take risks with others money in the belief that high risk projects will maximise the return on investment. The company collapses losing most of the money invested in it leaving many without what they thought were their retirement incomes. What went wrong? The standard answer is that the company invested in high risk projects. The problem is that the focus is on money ahead of people.

Knight (1981) in commenting on Leviticus 25:25-38 says that it has the emphasis of “people come before property” (p 155). He argues that “money is not a commodity in its own right. Money is only a means whereby you may feed and clothe your family and show your comparison for the needy and unfortunate” (p 155). Knight takes this perspective because in this portion of Leviticus, the rules for dealing with property and people who are in need are spelt out.

In the Leviticus rules, the concern is that people should never lose the right to their fields or their home. If they seemed force to sell because of poverty, it was always able to be redeemed. Their relatives where to help ensure that their property was redeemed. For fields, in the year of jubilee, the land reverted to its original owners. For houses in the city, they could be redeemed within a year of sale. The concern is that a person should never be permanently separated from their ability to provide food or shelter. People came before property.

In Leviticus 25:8-24, it describes the year of jubilee. The pricing of land is based on the years of production to the next year of jubilee. The purchaser is buying the crops and not the land. The land is seen as belonging to God. Douglas (1974) argued that the plant used for production should be seen as common property (this isn't the same as common ownership) and that it's cost shouldn't be included in the price of the product. The plant and its use was purchased through a community credit arrangement. The purchasing power is distributed to people based on human time-energy units. In Douglas' perspective, he saw people reducing their hours of work as the efficiency of plant improved but retaining their purchasing power since they would be producing more.

The biblical perspective in Leviticus has the land having a Sabbath rest ever seven years. This is to allow the land to recover. There is also the principle of not reaping to the corners of your fields so that the poor and sojourners in the land may reap for their needs. The biblical perspective promotes sustainability and concern for people over efficiency and maximisation of profit.

Reading this material has lead me to think in terms of some principles for economic systems.

  1. We are stewards of the land and all resources. This means that we should be looking at sustainable practices rather than exploitation. If sustainability is the goal then we should also avoid waste in production, promote recycling, and avoid obsolescence of products. If products are replaced by new releases then there should be a plan to recycle or upgrade previous products.
  2. We are to ensure that all people are provided for. All should be able to live. The method of distributing purchasing power should ensure that all are able to have shelter, food, and clothing. There needs for living should be satisfied.
  3. The distribution of purchasing power should be sufficient to allow all product produced to be purchased without incurring debt and not be tied exclusively to hours of work. Douglas (1974) proposed a scheme that encouraged increased share to those who helped improve the efficiency of production.
  4. All should be given the opportunity to contribute to the good of society. Those who work to help others should receive a fair portion of the purchasing power. We should be concerned about the welfare of all people and the economic system should encourage this.
  5. We need to ensure that prices are fair. Since we are distributing purchasing power, the system should ensure that prices reflect the purchasing power distributed and not add a cut for additional profit. Having prices exceed the available purchasing power simply leads to debt and inflation.
  6. The means of determining value and of trading (currency) should not be something that is traded in. There can be no stability in pricing if there is no means of establishing value of a product.

I recognise that the last of these principles would rule out much of our financial system but I see it as an absolute principle if there is to be stability and sustainability in the system. How would a system operate that was based on these principles.

Reference

Douglas, C. H. (1974). Economic democracy. Epsom, Surrey: Bloomfield Publishers.

Grigg, V. (1984). Companion to the poor. Sutherland, NSW: An Albatross Book.

Knight, G. A. F. (1981). Levitcus. Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Intelligence and Insight

I have trouble believing in the value of intelligence tests or believing that those who do well in quiz shows are necessarily brighter than others. Intelligence isn't about how much you know. Intelligence is about seeing things in different ways and coming up with new and innovative solutions.

In a previous post, I mentioned Altshuller (1997, 1999) who proposed ways in which to foster innovation. He didn't see his proposal as being a tool only for those judged to be intellectually superior. His principles are available for all to use if we are willing to develop the skill to use them and to look at problems from new directions.

Another who fosters innovation is Goldratt through his theory of constraints. Goldratt's initial focus was on improving manufacturing (1993) but he later applied his theory to other contexts (1994, 1997). His techniques involved identifying the underlying problem and the root cause of the problem. By resolving the root cause, what appear to be innovative solutions are proposed. For manufacturing and project management a core idea is that scheduling should be based around the constraint or bottleneck. It sets the pace for the activity so if we want greater productivity, we need to look at how to modify the restrictions caused by the bottleneck. To do that, we need to know what is causing the restriction and not try and fix the surface problem.

There are many other sources that talk of innovation and creativity. It is something that can be fostered but more often it is stifled, not by the innovator but by the society of the day. Berkun (2007) says “Every great idea in history has the fat red stamp of rejection on its face” (p 54). Once society has gained the benefits of an innovation then it forgets that it once rejected it. We want to stay within our comfort zone. Berkun goes on to say “Innovation conflicts with this desire. It asks for faith in something unknown over something known to be safe, or even pleasant” (p 56). It isn't just the desire for safety and comfort that restricts innovation. We invest heavily in certain processes or systems. That investment is something we don't want to lose so when someone comes with an innovation that might put our investment at risk, we move to protect the investment (p 61-62).

Kuhn (1996, 2000) documents a number of scientific advancements that struggled to gain currency because they didn't fit the paradigm of the day. He argues for paradigm shifts as the foundation for innovation and advancement in the sciences.

I have seen this when talking about the need for a fundamental rethink of our financial processes and our competitive society. To suggest that we should look at methods of collaboration or of justice in the distribution of wealth is to threaten the investment that so many have made in building their personal wealth. A recession may cause the wealthy to write off some of the value of their assets but it doesn't hurt them as much as the person who loses all of his or her income and may lose even their home. Only innovative solutions that challenge the self protection interests of those who manage the financial systems will bring a lasting solution to the bust and recession cycles of our economic system. Further proposals are there if we will only open our eyes to see them or move outside out comfort zone and utilise new paradigms to review proposals.

Innovation and creativity draw on being able to synthesise ideas from different areas. To see the commonalities and the differences. To create solutions that don't quite fit the current mode of thinking within the domain to which they apply. To foster innovation means that we have to foster the ability to think in new ways rather than to conform to existing practices and behaviours.

I write this as a software developer who utilises design patterns (proven solutions to programming problems) to create software. From my research (Thompson 2008), I recognise that the best programmers see the design patterns more as a tool for thinking about solutions rather than as solutions. They are not restricted by a programming paradigm or by conventions in the use of a particular programming language. They create solutions by drawing on past experience and ideas drawn from a wide range of areas. A good programmer doesn't simply have a list of languages, tools, and environments on their CV. They have the ability to adapt and keep on learning. They are able to utilise new languages and new techniques even when they haven't seen them before. They are able to see the strengths and weaknesses of the tool set that they are currently using and expand that tool set within the constraints of the project that they are working on.

My thesis (Thompson 2008) describes hierarchies in the way that software developers are aware of what they are creating and their design approach to the development of software. At the lowest levels, the awareness is restricted by narrow definitions of the nature of a program or by a particular programming language or paradigm. At the higher levels in the awareness hierarchy, the developer is thinking in terms of interactions between components in a system and is applying ways of thinking about design that draw on a range of languages, programming paradigms, design principles, and programming practices. They tailor their approach to the programming task based on the problem at hand and the tool sets available. Innovation is simply what they do on an every day basis.

The next stage of my research is to develop courses that help foster these ways of thinking while building the basic skills required to program. Yes, the programmer needs to know a programming language but they need to see it as a tool and not as the constraint on solving the programming problem. I briefly propose an approach in my thesis but the time constraints inherent in that work stopped me progressing further.

Innovation comes from an ability to think outside the constraints of the predominant paradigm of the field. We should foster such thinking in our education systems. Have the computer scientist read some philosophy and study languages. In assessing work, don't just look for the obvious answer but look to see the connections the learner is making and the way that they are drawing ideas together. Encourage them to have a wider focus but also lay a solid foundation in the principles and techniques of the domain.

Such a philosophy shouldn't simply apply to computing education. It should apply to all education. The economist needs to understand more than the economic thinking of our time. The engineer needs to be able to see alternative design solutions. Foster creativity by encouraging our learners to draw on ideas from other domains and to reason about the problems they face from as many perspectives as possible. Remove the threat of failure if they fail to conform to the existing norms of the discipline. You never know we might actually get solutions that are real solutions.

Reference

Altshuller, G. (1997), 40 principles: TRIZ keys to technical innovation. Technical Information Center.

Altshuller, G. (1999), The innovation algorithm: Technical Information Center.

Berkun, S. (2007). The myths of innovation. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media Inc.

Goldratt, E. M., & Cox, J. (1993). The goal : a process of ongoing improvement (2nd ed ed.). Aldershot: Gower Publishing.

Goldratt, E. M. (1994). It's not luck. Great Barrington, MA: North River Press.

Goldratt, E. M. (1997). Critical Chain. Great Barrington, MA: North River Press.

Kuhn, T. S. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago.

Kuhn, T. S. (2000). The road since structure. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Thompson, E. (2008). How do they understand? Practitioner perceptions of an object-oriented program. Unpublished Dissertation, Massey University, Palmerston North. Available at: http://www.teach.thompsonz.net/img/Thompson2008PhDThesis.pdf