Learning to code in context

Photo credit: Tim Drysdale

In this post, Professor Tim Drysdale, Chair of Technology Enhanced Science Education in the School of Engineering, highlights the importance of developing new students’ confidence to question their digital destiny, and to play around with coding in context…

By the time I went to university, the tide had already turned. That year, the penguin was adopted as the Linux mascot. A symbol of democratised computing for those that didn’t mind thinking a bit like a machine (this is a good thing – read on!). Meanwhile, the dot-com bubble and the attendant market forces went the other way and ensured that mainstream consumer computing technologies adapted themselves to humans.

Today, those consumer computing technologies (smartphones, cars, TVs, tablets, even whole homes) have become so good at interfacing with humans that computer use is ubiquitous. 100% of British households with children have internet access1, and our teenagers are amongst the heaviest users of smart phones in the world2.

Yet are all our computing technology users really in full control of their digital destiny?

Are they even aware of the full extent of the agency available to them?

In one apocryphal tale, I was told about a graduate from another undisclosed institution who was unable to finish an engineering task because “there wasn’t an app for that calculation.”

It begs the question why the graduate did not create their own digital means of making the calculation. Perhaps it is a lack of awareness that they could, or a lack of familiarity with the means of doing so. I doubt that this was an isolated experience. What can we do to make life better for all? The high cost of producing computers means that the structural factors are not going to change, because computers must be simple enough to use that they can be sold in large quantities.

This often translates into protecting customers from inadvertently ruining their machine. Unfortunately, these protections need circumventing by experienced users who want to make interesting and useful creations. Trivial operations on one operating system can be made quite frustrating on another by those protections3. Many customers accept these constraints with good grace, but perhaps they shouldn’t, because it steers them away from noticing that they could be doing more4.

Compare this modern experience to an early computing experience, where there were no such protections. You didn’t need them – the machine’s memory was wiped at power-off anyway. Every time you powered on, you had to re-load the code, or type it in. But at least in cursing the inconvenience, you were aware of the agency that you had to modify and create, if you so wished to exercise it.

Taking this kind of approach to modern computing is certainly one possibility – loading a lightweight operating system takes about the same time as it used to take to load a programme on an early computer. But still feels like a high-stakes game, especially if you only own one computer. It takes precious time, and it still doesn’t solve the problem of eloquently expressing all the possibilities and benefits that come with developing enhanced digital literacies5.

An approach I tried recently was intended to give new students – with no formal electronics or programming teaching from us – the confidence to develop an electronic or computerised control mechanism for a small solar panel that was required to track the sun.

I developed a webapp (try it here) that included a controllable 3D model of a solar panel, a moving sun, sunlight sensors, a live graph of data, and a panel for using Blockly graphical code to try out programming to bring all of those together – an ensemble of digital literacies represented on one screen.

Photo credit: Tim Drysdale

Did it work? My sense is that yes, it helped. All groups implemented a control mechanism, rather than skipping over it, and around two-thirds went for programming a microcontroller.

What next? I see opportunities to better understand and describe why, when, and how to deploy and evaluate interventions like this, as well as evolving the code and interface to make it easier for others to remix and use6.  Going further, we’re investigating Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality experiences in our Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme-funded (PTAS) project, which, ironically, raises not dissimilar issues of agency in terms of extending ecosystems to create new assemblages. You can read more about this PTAS project to improve understanding of teaching, learning and assessment through augmented and mixed reality here.


1Office for National Statistics, Internet access – households and individuals, Great Britain: 2018, Figure 2, retrieved on March 20, 2019.

2The Guardian, British teenagers among world’s most extreme internet users, report says, retrieved March 20, 2019.

3For a great introduction to how the philosophy of whoever wrote the operating system defines your computing experience, see Both’s article: The impact of the Linux philosophy.

4This podcast claims that the browser you use can predict your career success – do you push the boundaries by downloading a different browser? Adam Grant, The surprising habits of original thinkers, TED Talks Daily, Spotify, Mon 25 March 2019.

5These digital literacies are neatly laid out in this JISC document: Building digital capabilities: The six elements definedretrieved 20 March 2019.

6Let me know if you want to remix because this would justify me hurrying up at least some of the improvements. Or if you just want to have a look yourself, the code in its current form is at: https://gitlab.com/activities_virtual/solarpanel

Tim Drysdale

Professor Timothy Drysdale is the Chair of Technology Enhanced Science Education in the School of Engineering, having joined the University of Edinburgh in August 2018. Immediately prior to that he was a Senior Lecturer in Engineering at the Open University, where he was the founding director and lead developer of the £3M openEngineering Laboratory. The openEngineering Laboratory is a large-scale online laboratory offering real-time interaction with teaching equipment via the web, for undergraduate engineering students, which has attracted educational awards from the Times Higher Education (Outstanding Digital Innovation, 2017), The Guardian (Teaching Excellence, 2018), Global Online Labs Consortium (Remote Experiment Award, 2018), and National Instruments (Engineering Impact Award or Education in Europe, Middle East, Asia Region 2018). He is now developing an entirely new approach to online laboratories to support a mixture of non-traditional online practical work activities across multiple campuses. His discipline background is in electronics and electromagnetics.

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