Hi folks -
Another better late than never article; bit of a long posting, but comments would be appreciated.
A SOUTH AFRICAN IN DALLAS
During the latter half of 2010 I was privileged to attend POSSE South Africa. This was an awakening for me as a South African computer science professor because I had never really considered making the world of Open Source the basis for teaching any of my courses. POSSESA really opened my eyes and psyche to the possibilities inherent in this idea. First though, I'd like to give my readers a little background about teaching CS in Africa in order to put what will follow into perspective.
Africa is the world's second-least developed continent after Antarctica. If you look at a world map of computer science and open-source contributions, you will be struck by the blank canvas that is Africa. We are essentially quite isolated over here and don't really have the habit of open-source participation, with the exception of a few dedicated souls who mostly spend inordinate amounts of time in basements and campus computer labs adding their efforts to the open-source community. The distance that separates us from the developed world is one that is as much about technology and access to technology as it is about distance and finances.
There are other constraints in South Africa in particular, chiefly the parlous state of education in this country. After our first democratic elections in 1994, the government embarked on a program of education reform and made the decision to embrace the concept of Outcomes Based Education a concept that had enjoyed very mixed success elsewhere, but was attractive to the government because it seemed to provide a means to leveling the playing field for millions of previously disadvantaged secondary education scholars. This program was embarked on in the almost complete absence of a teacher body competent to put such a program into place. The majority of South African teachers had been poorly educated under the apartheid regime, and mathematics and the sciences were grossly neglected in the so-called 'Homelands' where the majority of previously disadvantaged pupils were educated. Consequently, the government's ambitious plan merely resulted in the lowering of education delivery and standards to the lowest common denominator. No real improvement was achieved and government began to search for other ways to show some kind of improvement in the number of scholars eligible for university, and needed an improvement in the graduation figures for tertiary education as a whole, where large numbers of students admitted to university were failing. Essentially, they simply lowered the bar to entry to well below a 50% average mark in the high school final examinations, and removed mathematics as a compulsory school subject; students could instead take a subject known as 'Maths Literacy' the definition of which still escapes me.
Consequently, faculty in the South African universities are faced with an ever-increasing number of students eligible for university entrance, with ever-decreasing levels of academic achievement and little meaningful participation in math and science. Of course, we are still required to teach science and math to such students, which as you can imagine presents us with an almost intractable problem. Universities have adopted different approaches to the problem; my university for example has instituted a so-called 'foundation program' that adds an extra year onto the time required to complete an undergraduate degree. The extra year is of course utilized to bring students up to the required high school equivalency level for the successful undertaking of a university degree. Other schools have instituted entrance examinations, but we at the University of the Western Cape as an institution that has always catered to the disadvantaged communities of South Africa, felt that we still needed to be as inclusive as possible hence the foundation program. In its wisdom, the government further decreed that they would no longer pay subsidies for students as they progressed through their degrees; instead subsidies would be paid only for those students that actually passed their degree. Of course, this was intended to motivate institutions to make a greater effort to teach students, but in reality it has led to a tendency to lower standards in order to achieve required pass rates and get the subsidies desperately needed after three or four years of supporting and educating students without the government's contribution to the costs.
Personally, I currently struggle with second-year students that display a startling absence of critical thinking and problem-solving skills; computer programming being chiefly an exercise in problem-solving makes the learning curve in my classes extremely steep as a consequence. What to do? I have been gravitating more and more towards practical application because I have found that my students do better if they work completely hands-on at a keyboard, making their way from solved examples to attempting the first steps at solving their own programming problems. My courses have become lighter on theory and math and heavier on applied computing that follows an algorithmic approach; nonetheless the pass rate is still only about 60% of the number of students that enroll for the modules. This is partly why I have been experimenting with TOS; I find it a good vehicle for getting the complete spectrum of my students' abilities to work on real computing projects in a way that allows everybody to make a meaningful participation.
Returning for a moment to the technological and distance divide I mentioned a little earlier: there is a light at the end of the tunnel and it's coming from mobile devices. In South Africa for example, cellphone penetration is more than 100%; it's growing at a very accelerated pace throughout Africa. Africa is short on landlines but long on mobile phone coverage all at least 3G, which makes mobile computing the likely future of ICT in the continent. For this reason my current chief interest and research direction lies in mobile computing. I believe that we will be able to achieve great things in Africa with mobile if we put our minds and some resources to the problem. Where everybody has at least one mobile device then reaching them with education and community support offerings is perfectly possible. Take for example the Open Data Kit developed for Africans for exactly this purpose developed largely by faculty at U Washington in Seattle though, and not by Africans. Go figure ...
Mel Chua from Red Hat was one of the very able POSSESA presenters and she suggested that I apply for a grant to attend SIGCSE 2011 as a POSSE alumnus. I duly did so and was very privileged to receive a grant to attend the conference. I saw from the conference program that there would be a workshop on Android, so just for the opportunity to attend this and to meet some of the people involved in teaching mobile technologies would make the entire trip very worthwhile for me personally. So, I embarked on the 30-hour Cape Town Johannesburg Amsterdam Memphis Dallas/Fort Worth flight with anticipation and sleeping pills.
To say that the conference was an education for me would be like saying that the first atomic bomb was a bit of a bang. To begin with, I realised that they really do things bigger in Texas when I gathered that about 1200 delegates were attending the conference. I sincerely doubt that we have 200 computer science faculty at universities in the whole of South Africa, never mind 1200! The sheer number of participants was overwhelming for me and I found it very difficult to locate anybody in the crowd. Fortunately, by accidentally volunteering to help with getting the information packs etc. ready for the delegates, I found myself standing at a point where people I had only ever communicated with by e-mail like Sebastian Dziallas and Matt Jadud were more or less compelled to pass by. It's always good to be able to put a face to a name.
How was my experience of the conference generally? It's difficult to know where to begin: my first and overwhelming impression was of the incredible resources available to American computer science educators, both in terms of literal physical resources and in terms of finances. In addition, the community of practice is very well-developed and networked; I found that very interesting and enviable. The general exhibits in the exhibits hall were excellent and staffed with knowledgeable and helpful people. Everybody was very interested in hearing about my experiences and challenges and everybody went out of their way to help me with all kinds of things, from evaluation copies of textbooks to assistance with finding online and other resources. In this regard a special vote of thanks goes to all the folk at the robot hoedown who did everything they could to make sure that I had a great time with their robots, and even arranged for me to take a couple of robots home with me for my students to experiment with. As fate would have it I also had my name drawn out of a hat to win an iRobot, so I ended up with an embarrassment of robot riches! My students are already programming the robots and I am pleased to report that they have made a very real and meaningful contribution to my teaching and their learning. Of course, to all the first-world participants the incredible energy, enthusiasm and sharing is probably just business as usual, but for your African cousin it was a new and exciting experience.
So how were the sessions I attended and were they helpful? Although the Android workshop was fun I was a little disappointed to find that it was really aimed at complete beginner-level, but then I remembered that SIGCSE has a very large K12 teacher component as well as college professors, so the workshop was in fact probably well aimed. I found the plenary sessions the most interesting and the 'Learning Through Open Source Participation' session and the TOS BOF the most useful. I agreed with the conclusion that TOS is most valuable as a formative activity and provides ample opportunity for formative assessment. It was interesting that there was some debate about how to assess student participation particularly where code changes proposed by students are not accepted for adoption by the community. I haven't experienced any problems with this because I use a category-based participation approach; in other words I require my students to show evidence of meaningful participation across a range of participation opportunities, from documentation to hard coding. To me the participation experience is worth more than the final result, although the latter does have some bearing on final grades. I also enjoyed the session on Qualitative Research Methods as I am busy with some mixed-method research at present and I'm hoping to find the time to do a little qualitative research on my students that are participating in open source, their experience of the process and the learning they achieve. The session on iOS vs. Android on the Saturday was a lot of fun and very interesting. I still vote for Android, and not only because I'm an open source kind of guy I still feel it's the way to go.
Overall then, what did SIGCSE mean to me, particularly from a TOS perspective? The most valuable part as regards TOS for me was the discovery and appreciation of just how large and dynamic the community of CS teachers that embrace TOS has become. I have a new perspective on the whole idea and I have access to more and better resources both in terms of people as well as data. I have also developed a new enthusiasm for what I'm doing because not only am I not alone, but there are so many people out there who are willing to share what they're doing with others and provide support when needed. As far as TOS in South Africa as a whole is concerned well, I think the same thing goes. There is so much in the way of resources for us out there that there's no reason why we shouldn't improve and expand on TOS practice over here. We're already in the process of trying to get a POSSE Nigeria going, and although we seem to be struggling to find professors to help present the workshop, I'm sure that we'll get there in the end. Down south in the Western Cape a major new initiative has been announced re mobile computing which we're all very excited about, and I guess that's the way forward for the four major universities down here:
In conclusion then, let me begin by expressing my thanks to Red Hat for funding my trip to SIGCSE from my perspective it was a truly valuable experience. I am looking forward to more and better TOS participation as a result, and also to getting some research done around the TOS perspective. My thanks also to all at SIGCSE who engaged with me, all of whom went out of their way to assist me and help me to have a good and productive time at the conference. I guess I'm looking forward to SIGCSE 2012 in Raleigh!