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Department of Computer Science and Technology

The headline that large lectures will be delivered online next year, rather than in person, has raised some concerns.

But offering students a mix of recorded lectures and face-to-face teaching, as we’ll be doing in 2020-21, is not new for us. In fact, it's something we started doing more than 50 years ago.

Like other departments across the University, we will be offering 'blended learning' next academic year – i.e. a mix of remote online and face-to-face learning.

Mass lectures where it would be hard to socially-distance students will be pre-recorded and delivered online, as they have been this term. (Some lectures may also be delivered live, via Zoom, and the lecture recordings made available afterwards.) And alongside the remote lectures, there will be as much in-person small-group teaching – such as supervisions, seminars or individual tuition – as is possible in the circumstances. 

I can watch the course videos naked at 4am, re-watch parts I haven’t understood, and pause the lecture to Google something - all without missing anything!

Prolog programming language course student

This blended learning model first started here as far back as 1968. David Hartley, a University Lecturer in the department (which was then called the Mathematical Laboratory), was responsible for teaching programming to computer users across the University.

"We had research students from all disciplines – Arts and Humanities as well as Sciences – wanting to use computing in their research," he recalls. Needing to give the same course to large numbers of students every year, it was decided to record the course lectures onto videotape.

The benefit was that lectures could then be repeated on different days of the week, as other lectures were. And they were alternated with practical sessions "because it's no good trying to learn programming from a series of lectures without having any practical experience." So, after each lecture, students would take a practical class, using punched paper tape to programme the teaching computer, Titan. 

Two years later, David was appointed the founding Director of the University Computing Service, and his colleague – Frank King – took over the course. The first (Amplex one inch) videotapes were already deteriorating in quality, so Frank re-recorded them. Students would file into a lecture theatre and watch the video on television and then have the opportunity to ask questions. The course proved so popular that "eventually it was being run several times a year," David says. 

Lectures are no longer recorded on videotape – and are now delivered online rather than being screened on a small television – but the blended style of teaching continues. Our students appreciate it. And several of our teaching staff have won prizes for it.

Award-winning teaching

Professor Simone Teufel was awarded a Pilkington Prize last year (2019) for delivering outstanding teaching in the Computer Science Part 1A 'Machine Learning for Real World Data' course. This was described as "an exceptionally innovative course, from its design and content through to its mode of delivery".

Professor Alastair Beresford and Dr Andy Rice also received Pilkington Prizes in 2014 after jointly revolutionising the teaching of programming languages (such as Java, Further Java and Prolog) in the Computer Science Tripos. They moved away from traditional lectures and developed the use of computer-aided course delivery and assessment, such as in-video quizzes and online exercises, to stimulate student engagement and allow them to study at their own pace. This model also enables supervisors, in the small-group teaching sessions, to concentrate on expanding and deepening students' learning.

Using the 'flipped classroom' approach

The Prolog course takes a flipped classroom approach where the content is delivered through a series of online interactive videos that students can watch (and re-watch) at any time. Andy Rice then uses the traditional lecture time to run an interactive session and answer questions that students have after working their way through the online videos and attempting the questions embedded in them.

These newer teaching methods are greatly appreciated by students. As one said in response to a survey about the Prolog course: "I can watch the [videos] naked at 4am while eating cereal. Also, I can re-watch the parts that I haven’t understood… I can pause the lecture and Google something… or even write some relevant code while the lecture is ongoing, all without missing anything!"

And such teaching methods have also fed into the development by Andy, Alastair, and a team of technical experts here of the online 'Isaac' teaching platforms that are now being used across the UK to help teach Physics and Computer Science to A Level students.

The Isaac teaching platforms use web technology and computer-based educational techniques to improve the teaching of the subject. For example, students can work through auto-marked sets of questions. These allow students to get an immediate automated assessment – and allow teachers to see, in real time, how their students are faring as they work their way through the problems.

The platforms have proved popular: at peak periods of the school year, there have been as many as 800,000 question attempts per week on Isaac Physics. And since new material was added in May to help students learning from home during lockdown, question attempts on that platform hit record levels.

In 2015, Andy and Alastair carried out research to investigate the impact of some of the new teaching methods they were using on students’ engagement in learning.

Replacing traditional lectures with videos containing in-video quizzes

In their paper Investigating Engagement with In-Video Quiz Questions in a Programming Course they described how they used videos augmented with in-video quizzes as a replacement for traditional lectures within the programming course here.

"The ability to introduce new concepts and immediately test learners' understanding on an individual basis provides a number of benefits," they said. "One of the most important of these is the ability to quickly deliver feedback to students. This allows students to take some form of corrective action, if necessary, to support the learning process."

Meanwhile, they added, "The data available after students have engaged with the lecture material can also be used to improve support for individuals in face-to-face sessions, or indeed, to identify common issues that can be addressed in later video sessions."

The way teaching is delivered next academic year will necessarily alter because of the changes enforced by the coronavirus outbreak. But that presents opportunities for us to experiment further with, and enhance, the blended learning model that we already use.  



Published by Rachel Gardner on Monday 8th June 2020