Fanfare!

Trumpets, agitation, excitement! Half an hour ago midnight struck. That second marked the end of my last course in my master’s degree. I completed the most challenging courses available, including: Computer Forensics, Computer Communications and Networks, IT Project Management, QA Management, and Security Engineering.

I loved those courses. And even though I won’t remember the details of what I learned (typical student) – I believe I’m better off now, having been exposed to and having had to figure out problems and solutions in these unfamiliar fields.

Looking at the calendar – it’s been 17 months since I started. The dissertation will take another 9 months. So from a calendar point of view I’m 2/3 done, but from an effort point of view it may turn out to be a different story 🙂 Regardless, this is definitely a major milestone and I have to find a way to celebrate.

Project scope

I’ve read a paper today – “Experience Report: Peer Instruction in Introductory Computing”. It’s about use of clickers in CS courses: a clarification of someone’s prior work, concentrating on question development and typical results (student participation and understanding improved).

The interesting question from reading this was a bit unexpected. It wasn’t about how I can use this on my own project (answer to that is – perhaps a fleeting reference) it was about the scope of my project.

The paper has everything: abstract, introduction, review of prior work, experiment setup, description of limitations, interesting observations from running the experiment, analysis of the results (including statistics), followup surveys, recommendations, conclusion, and references.

That’s all fine, the problem is that the entire thing is 5 pages long – that includes everything. I’m supposed to write 40 pages of solid text for my dissertation. having read this paper and guesstimated at the amount of work that went into it – I was concerned that I would either need to fill my 40 pages with fluff, or take on a much more exhausting, full-time project.

But Greg assured me that this paper was made so short because of the publisher’s limitation, and the authors had to keep many things out of it. That’s why it’s exactly 5 pages, not a single blank line in the end. Hopefully he’s right and my new worries are not founded.

Bureaucracy

I’ve been putting this off too long. Now is the time for me to go over the official requirements for the dissertation in detail, and make notes of anything that wasn’t already obvious.

The main aim of the final project and dissertation is for a student to develop and demonstrate autonomy in the management and development of realistic projects in the specific chosen program, which may have either a research or application orientation.

That’s very nice, though I have to confirm that the application orientation is not considered less good by default.

There are several suggestions that I use my employer as a sponsor, and have the project related to that. I wonder what will happen if I no longer work for the same employer after X% of the time has elapsed. Start over?

It says I choose the project during the 2-month-long research methods course. Waiting so long seems rather risky. And it means 2 months less to do the real work. I will not use this an excuse to slack off.

It also says I have to pick a subject area in week 2, and a DA in week 4 – so I better already know what I want to do before week 2.

There’s a textbook I need to get for that course.

All documents concerned with the progress of the dissertation during the dissertation process (proposals, monthly reports, specifications, and design) are internal documents submitted to the University for Assessment. They should thus be regarded as coursework assignments which belong to the UoL/Laureate rather than to the student. In particular, the dissertation is an internal document until after final assessment, at which point it becomes public. However, permission from the university is still required should you want to publish it or make other public use of it (contact your Student Support Manager).

My research is supposed to be locked up while I’m working on it? And still doesn’t belong to me after I’m done? I definitely need to clarify what this means.

Will send an email with these questions to my SSM tomorrow.

After the chat with Greg and the gang today it’s become obvious that I have no idea what computer science really is. My conception of the field has always been AI, data structures, distributed computing, stuff like that.

Given this very poor frame of reference I am nowhere near qualified to decide what would be of scholarly value for my dissertation. Some time this week I have to make a list of vague potential ideas and send it to someone (not really sure who) at Liverpool, to see if I’m on a good track.

I have nothing against Wikipedia or Google (my dissertation advisor isn’t grading my blog) and this page I mentioned in the previous post is a great intro to the technology.

Apparently existing clickers do require a piece of hardware to be plugged into the presenter’s workstation, and work wirelessly (RF or IR or Internet). I don’t know how I avoided realising this. There “server” software can be either standalone or a plugin to powerpoint. Cellphone/SMS systems also exist.

According to this study (slides here) the profs love it and the students like it very much. It does increase participation and engagement significantly, and facilitated discussions. They even helped many students concentrate on the material, and the grades showed statistically significant improvement.

Here’s a “clickers are good” PDF. Here’s a nice overview video from a university prof. This is an impressive list of capabilities of one clicker system.

Interesting (sort of funny) critical video of clickers, promoting ResponseWare. “No more 4 different clickers for 4 different classes, cluttering your desk”. Interestingly I can’t find responseware via the Blackberrty store. And I can’t find any info about how the system works, except that it’s web-based on the client, and there are Blackberry/IPhone apps.

Academic papers on the topic (via Liverpool Google Scholar proxy):

Clickers in the large classroom: Current research and best-practice tips

None of the research to date makes it obvious that clickers are in fact as obviously useful as informal surveys suggest. But there appears to be “ample converging evidence” that they are.

Using electronic voting systems in lectures

This one goes over not only the benefits but also the problems, e.g. poor questions will cause frustration rather than participation.

Here we go

I’m nearly done with my courses (they call them “modules”) at Liverpool’s Master’s of IT. The second and final part of getting this degree is writing a dissertation. That’s supposed to be a 40-50 page “full, scholarly, and critical exposition of your project, presented in a conventional academic format, as a series of chapters”. There is a template and all sorts of guidelines I have to review, but I’ve spent some of the last two months fishing for a project – which hopefully will be the meat of the work and the thing that will keep me going.

Greg Wilson has been very helpful, offering much advice and several project ideas. There are two that stuck in my mind, and I am considering both:

Cowichan Problems

This is a set of relatively simple but computationally complex algorithms that are connected via IPC and implemented in several languages – the purpose being to evaluate a language’s or library’s utility in parallel programming.

My rough understanding of the potential project’s purpose is to implement the problems in several languages, and compare how easy it is to do. This would give clues as to whether any of today’s tools actually help with parallel programming, or whether it’s all syntactic sugar with no substance.

The original paper is here. The previous work is stored in svn here: http://cowichan.googlecode.com/svn

The project is interesting because I would learn new languages, and I would learn parallel programming, which I have nearly no experience with. The fundamental question is also something I feel is worth answering.

Clickers

This project is to use some existing technologies (e.g. smartphones, wifi) to enable professors to ask questions from students. The idea is similar to how “clickers” work, but would not require extra hardware (clickers aren’t free).

Here’s my first list of questions I had about this project:

  • Mike sent me this link which may be telling me that the client software has already been written.
  • My Master’s is in IT and I am required to write /some/ code, so this may turn out to be a concern (depending on how good the existing implementations are).
  • More generally, what would be the scholarly value in this project?
  • I am wondering how much of an issue the requirement for WiFi connectivity is.
  • If the client-side app is in a web browser, is typing in the URL a major pain for the users?
  • Can the server be the presenter’s laptop? Can that laptop be already connected to a wireless network or does it need its own? Are networking rules/filters in organisations a concern?
  • What’s the best way to integrate this with other presentation technologies like powerpoint?
  • Are there applications outside a presentation room?
  • How difficult will it be to do test runs with real students, depending on the questions my thesis is trying to answer?
  • Is my thinking too narrow, what possibilities am I missing?

After a chat with Greg and Karen Reid I got some answers:

  • If the software has already been implemented, that may actually make the project easier, I would still write code (and thus satisfy the Liverpool requirements) but for backend/tools/analysis rather than the application.
  • The real goal of this project is to encourage classroom particilation, but not at the expense of extra effort from the professor, who doesn’t normally have the time to play with neat new gadgets. This has to save time, not be a burden.
  • Networks in many schools are so poor or so restricted that using them may be a serious pain. And from what I remember cellphones don’t work very well in all classrooms at Seneca, which may be true in other schools too.
  • If the user (student) is given a choice – participate using this software on a private network or be connected to the internet and read Slashdot – it’s not clear they would choose to participate, but that may be an interesting question to answer.
  • Smartphones have better capabilities than generic clickers. One idea is to have the users point at something in an image.
  • Outside the classroom is out of scope.

I’m still not quite clear on the academic value of this project, and that the client software already exists makes it less sexy for me (i would love to learn some mobile development).

- Mike sent me this link:
http://www.turningtechnologies.com/audienceresponseproducts/responseoptions/responseware/
which may be telling me that the client software has already been written.
My Master's is in IT and I am required to write /some/ code, so this may
turn out to be a concern (depending on how good the existing
implementations are).
- More generally, what would be the scholarly value in this project?
- I am wondering how much of an issue the requirement for WiFi
connectivity is.
- If the client-side app is in a web browser, is typing in the URL a major
pain for the users?
- Can the server be the presenter's laptop? Can that laptop be already
connected to a wireless network or does it need its own? Are networking
rules/filters in organisations a concern?
- What's the best way to integrate this with other presentation
technologies like powerpoint?
- Are there applications outside a presentation room?
- How difficult will it be to do test runs with real students, depending
on the questions my thesis is trying to answer?
- Is my thinking too narrow, what possibilities am I missing?