Programming Challenge 4 Girls has got me thinking

Today I took two students from my school to the Programming Challenge 4 Girls event at the University of Melbourne. I can’t remember how I found out about it, but I registered them a couple of months ago and they were certainly excited to participate. They haven’t had any experience with programming and since we’ve spent quite a bit of time in my Language of our Times class discussing the need for better representation of women in the field of computer programming, they were keen to have a go.

The programming language they were using was Alice. It has a graphical user interface and the students were dragging and dropping commands into it  – they could preview what the commands were directing their characters do and were learning by doing. While they got the hang of the drag and drop interface, the precision and attention to detail required to get the character to perform the most basic of functions was very challenging for them. After the 3 hour challenge, they came out quite exhausted with the mental effort that was required to see them create 15 seconds of what would equate to a game type interface. I’m very sure they have new found appreciation for the programmers of games they play and the thousands of hours that must go into creating the landscapes and complex scenarios.

While they were participating in the challenge, the teachers present were listening to Steven Bird,  Associate Professor in Computing and Information Systems at theUniversity of Melbourne. Steven was discussing the new Unit 3 and 4 VCE Computer Science curriculum due to be offered across the state in 2015. My tweets from the day are below:

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*apologies for the spelling mistakes! When you’re trying to tweet and keep up with the presenter, mistakes happen!

What was very interesting was the discussion around delivery of this curriculum. Steven Bird and a computing professor from Monash University are going to be delivering some of this curriculum via video using Google Hangouts and utilising Google + to form the learning community around it. This is in recognition of the fact that the expertise to teach a curriculum like this is going to be difficult to source in Victorian schools.

Is this the beginning of MOOC style delivery of curriculum for VCE students? It looks a bit like it to me, and why not? If expertise is required and it’s not available within our ranks, then we do have to do the right thing by our students and find ways to provide it.

The challenge is going to be finding students who want to study this discipline. Teachers at the event today were talking about the low numbers of students choosing the VCE IT Software Development course. Steven was talking about how the new Computer Science course is really directed at the kinds of students who are currently selecting courses like Specialist Mathematics and Physics and teachers were again sharing how courses like these often attract only small numbers of students. Hopefully the new Australian Curriculum Technologies subject will see some students’ eyes open to possibilities, but Steven discussed how that curriculum doesn’t go far enough into the computational mathematics and algorithmic thinking that is required for Computer Science. It was mentioned that we may have lost an opportunity given that our new Australian Curriculum for Mathematics has not identified computational mathematics within its scope and sequence.

If you’re a Victorian teacher and interested in joining a discussion around this new VCE Computer Science curriculum, an event is being held at the University of Melbourne from November 20th – 22nd. The programme for CS4HS looks very interesting. I’m hoping to make it to the first day at least.

Thank you to the organisers of the Programming Challenge 4 Girls. Definitely an event that has me thinking!

Talking plagiarism with students

Today I spent some time with students discussing the issue of plagiarism. It’s an important issue to discuss, and one that I would prefer to cover at the start of the year rather than nearer the end of it, but I take heart from the fact that we are having these important discussions with our student population. I thought I’d share some of the resources I used to put my presentation together. First up, I think it’s important to note that one of the General capabilities that need to be addressed in the upcoming Australian Curriculum is Ethical behaviour. Here’s the information pertinent to this from the Australian Curriculum site.

In the Australian Curriculum students develop ethical behaviour as they learn to understand and act in accordance with ethical principles. This includes understanding the role of ethical principles, values and virtues in human life; acting with moral integrity; acting with regard for others; and having a desire and capacity to work for the common good. As they develop ethical behaviour students learn to:

  • recognise that everyday life involves consideration of competing values, rights, interests and social norms
  • identify and investigate moral dimensions in issues
  • develop an increasingly complex understanding of ethical concepts, the status of moral knowledge and accepted values and ethical principles
  • explore questions such as:
    • What is the meaning of right and wrong and can I be sure that I am right?
    • Why should I act morally?
    • Is it ever morally justifiable to lie?
    • What role should intuition, reason, emotion, duty or self-interest have in ethical decision making?

Understanding the need to behave with academic honesty certainly is an ethical understanding our students need to have.

The definition of plagiarism I used came from the Smartcopying website, an excellent source of information about copyright for Australian schools and TAFE institutions.

“Plagiarism occurs where a student uses someone else’s ideas or words in their work and pretends they are their own. If the student has used a lot of someone else’s words without that person’s permission, copyright infringement may also occur.”

A conversation like this can be a bit dry, so I used some recent controversy surrounding Beyonce  and accusations of plagiarism of choreography to spark the student’s interest. Watch for yourself to see what you think.

Interestingly, I’ve just seen a post where Beyonce has admitted that the Belgian choreographer’s work was an influence on her latest video. I’ll keep watching this story as it’s bound to have some good fodder for future discussions with students.

We explored our school’s plagiarism policy and discussed actions the students could take to avoid falling into the plagiarism trap. We discussed effective notetaking, and techniques such as making dot points under information they might have cut and pasted from the internet to ensure they synthesise the information and write in their own words. The importance of proper attribution of resources they have used in a bibliography was explored, and I reminded them of the SLASA  online referencing generator we have subscribed to, and mentioned EasyBib, as we are just starting the process of subscribing to this and think it is going to be incredibly useful for our student population. (We need to use APA style here in Australia, hence the need to purchase a site license rather than use the free version).

I wanted our students to understanding the view Universities take on incidents of plagiarism, so we took a look at the University of Melbourne’s page about Academic honesty and plagiarism. 


I really liked the quote they use on their page, and made a point of discussing it in detail.

The most important attribute that the University of Melbourne would like to see in its graduates is a profound respect for truth, and for the ethics of scholarship. The reason why this is so important is that we want our graduates to be capable of independent thought, to be able to do their own work, and to know how to acknowledge the work of others.
Professor Peter McPhee (Provost 2007-9)

We had noted that the University of Melbourne uses Turnitin to check for incidents of plagiarism, something we do not have at our school. I showed the students Plagiarism Checker and explained how we are able to insert text and receive a list of Google links that may provide the source of where they have obtained information, if they have indeed plagiarised.

I then thought it wise to show the students a site they could use to help them check their work for incidents of plagiarism. We have to always remember we are dealing with young people, and even though they may have been part of a discussion like this, there’s no guarantee what they have heard has stuck. Sometimes, their issues with plagiarism are not because they have deliberately intended to cheat, but more because they have not understood that cutting and pasting people’s ideas is the wrong thing to do. I showed them PaperRater, and there was a fair bit of interest in this site.

I’ve only just discovered this site thanks to a tweet in recent days, so I haven’t had time to check its effectiveness. Another similar site is Grammarly, and I discovered this when I saw my son using it recently. He was using it to check the quality of the grammar in his writing, and I have to say, I was pretty impressed that he was the least bit interested!

I need to learn more about these sites, who is behind them, and how they work. If anyone is armed with more knowledge that will help us all out in understanding them more, I’d appreciate you leaving some feedback as a comment.

I’m pretty sure today’s discussion went somewhere towards hitting the mark with these students. This is the kind of discussion we need to continually revisit in our schools, even when kids tell us they’ve heard it all before!