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  5. Visualising the code: are students engaging with programming at level 1?

Visualising the code: are students engaging with programming at level 1?

Project leader(s): 
Elaine Thomas, Soraya Kouadri Mostéfaoui and Helen Jefferis

The Visualising the code: are students engaging with programming at level 1? project will investigate the impact of using a visual programming environment on student engagement with programming. Our case study will be the level 1 module TU100 My digital life.

There is considerable debate about effective methods of introducing programming to Computing and IT to students at all levels of education. Programming is difficult for many students and the drop-out rates are high across the HE sector internationally. There are different interpretations as to the reasons for this. For example, Djikstra (1989) contends that learning to program entails ‘radical novelty’ as novices may not have acquired the necessary prior skills on which to build and progress. Jenkins (2002) argues that the reason behind the difficulties in learning to program is the blend of learning types required: surface learning for remembering features such as syntax and order of precedence, and deep learning in the understanding of concepts and development of true competence. Others e.g. (Scott and Ghinea, 2013) focus on the whole learning environment explaining that ‘soft scaffolding’ and detailed feedback and motivational practices are most likely to be effective.

In recent years, the teaching of Computer Science has moved up the national agenda as the UK government has required fundamental changes to the way that computer programming is taught in schools. At the heart of the new curriculum lie skills in algorithmic thinking and programming which are now compulsory from the age of six until sixteen. The first students sit the new ‘A’ level Computing in 2016 but only 5383 students sat the current Computing ‘A’ level in 2015 whereas 36287 students sat the Physics ‘A’ level (Stubbs, 2015). If the new curriculum is successful, numbers of students sitting ‘A’ level Computing may improve dramatically in coming years.

Given the age range of OU students, the majority of new Open University students over the next 5-10 years will not have experienced the new National Curriculum. Therefore, there will be a strong need for the teaching of introductory programming at level 1 for the next decade. The Computing and IT Programme Board in the University considers it essential that students engage with programming in order to obtain a Computing and IT honours degree. Yet, the student cohort is diverse and many students have been out of education for a long time. The question for level one Computing & IT module teams is how to introduce new students to programming in a way that will engage them but not alienate more experienced students.

Previous teaching of programming at level I (M150) involved a text-based programming environment, JavaScript, but unpublished data collected by the M150 Chair, Rita Tingle, suggests that half of students avoided answering the question on programming in the End of Module Assignment (EMA). Feedback from students and associate lecturers suggested that JavaScript was unpopular with students (Richards & Woodthorpe, 2009). The current level 1 module, TU100 My digital life, uses a visual or graphical programming environment Sense which is based on Scratch. While the module chairs acknowledged that Sense has limitations in terms of employability, it allows students to learn fundamental skills and concepts and build their confidence to enable them to succeed with other programming languages (Richards & Woodthorpe ibid). However, the retention rate on TU100 could be better and level 2 module chairs have observed that many students struggle with programming at second level.

This project will aid understanding whether the visual environment is engaging students in learning.


Djikstra, E.W. (1989) A Debate on Teaching Computer Science: On the Cruelty of Really Teaching Computer Science. Communications of the ACM, 32, 12, 1398-1404. (accessed 10th July 2016).

Jenkins, T. (2002) On the Difficulty of Learning to Program. Proceedings of the 3rd Annual HEA Conference for the ICS Learning and Teaching Support Network, 1-8. (accessed 10th July 2016).

Richards, M. & Woodthorpe, J. (2009). Introducing TU100 ‘My Digital Life’: Ubiquitous computing in a distance learning environment. In: Ubicomp 2009, 30 Sep - 3 Oct 2009, Orlando, Florida, USA. (accessed 10th July 2016).

Robins, A, Rountree J. & Rountree, N (2003) Learning and Teaching Programming: A Review and Discussion, Computer Science Education, 13:2, pp 137-172 (accessed 10th July 2016).

Scott, M. A. & Ghinea, G (2013) Educating programmers: A reflection on barriers to deliberate practice - (accessed 10th July 2016).

Stubbs, B (2015) Student Performance Analysis: National percentage figures for A level grades (accessed 10th July).