Building Community Sites for Computing Educators

One of the things our research group does is run three different resource sharing/discussion sites for computing educators. We intended to make one; we liked it enough that it made sense to make a second one, while the third was largely unplanned. I’ll explain all this below, and detail some of the findings from running the three sites which we have just written up into a research paper (freely available, linked below).

This is what we did…

We develop two large pieces of software for computing education, to help novices learn to program. One of these is Greenfoot, aimed at pupils aged 14-18. One question we had frequently been asked by teachers was if we had developed teaching material to share with them. However, ours is a small team: there was no way we really had time to develop the teaching materials that teachers want, as well as developing and maintaining the software itself.

Our solution was, in modern jargon, to crowd-source. We were sure that many teachers out there had developed a small amount of teaching material for themselves. The idea went: if every teacher shared what they had with each other, we could build up a good shared repository of teaching material. This is not a new idea, but it seemed like a good idea — and it seemed justified to have a Greenfoot-specific site for this. (Concepts may transfer to any language/environment, but once you’re down to the level of writing worksheets for an hour’s lesson, it does matter what language/environment you’re in.)

Thus the Greenroom was born. (You can join now, for free.) We also develop another piece of software, BlueJ, aimed at pupils 16-21 (especially first year university). Since we had the code for the Greenroom site, it was fairly trivial to re-skin it and thus the Blueroom was born. (Ditto.) We work a fair amount with Computing At School, who are the school subject association for computing in the UK. They were having trouble finding a suitable system to host a resource-sharing site… so we stepped in, offered our software, and another incarnation of the site was born. My suggestion to call it the Redroom, for symmetry, was politely declined, and “CAS Online” was born. (Ditto.)

…and this is what happened

Although it’s nice to have all these sites running, we are still researchers. So it was inevitable that we would look to write a paper or two about all this. A previous (ICER 2010) paper is half about the Greenroom, and we have just written a new (ICER 2013) paper about the three sites. The opportunity seemed good: we had three near-identical sites being used by three different communities — a sort of accidental attempt at a research design. So we set out to see how the different communities were using the sites.

The growth of members/contributions on the three sites, relative to when they each opened (up until 31st March 2013). Bigger version in the paper.

If I’m honest, we didn’t turn up any particularly earth-shattering results; the whole paper is mildly interesting. But if you are thinking of building your own site for educators, or are a member of any of the sites in question, you might be interested in what the data turned up. Most of the interesting points relate to the CAS Online site:

  • CAS Online is much more popular than the other two sites. Its joining rate is pretty crazy. We opened almost exactly one year ago, in mid-August 2012. In September 2012 we had 300 people join, and thought this was quite good for a temporary high after opening (and start of the school year). Last month, July 2013, we had 600 people join.
  • One thing I don’t mention much in the paper is that we approve each of those applicants manually. That’s over 30 per week day during July (not all applicants end up completing the process), across a team of four of us.
  • CAS Online also managed to break the common rule of thumb that only 10% of a site’s members/visitors participate. In the first three months of 2013, 27% of all CAS Online visitors (717 of 2650) did something active on the site (posted in discussions, created, edited, or commented on a resource), and 22% posted to the discussions. I expected that this number would decrease as we got more members. However, expanding the same calculation to the first seven months of 2013, I get the same 27% rate (1292 of 4733).
  • Very few people on CAS Online seem to ask programming questions, which is odd for a computing forum with a lot of members who are desperately trying to upskill themselves. We haven’t followed this up yet to know exactly why, but I suspect that they either may be too intimidated, or may feel there are better places to ask elsewhere.
  • No-one in the Blueroom (which mainly has university teachers as its members) takes advantage of our wiki model to edit other people’s resources. Too reluctant to mess with other’s work, or too busy?
  • Our random sample of 20 resources on each site found no negative comments. I know there have been one or two nasty comments on CAS Online (and this is about resource comments, not discussions), but as a general trend, it seems those are few and far between.

The full paper is publicly available here. I plan to blog next week about some of the other papers presented at ICER 2013.

One thought on “Building Community Sites for Computing Educators

  1. Interesting to hear your side of things. I think the resources thing is partly because teachers are usually too busy to really play as much as they like with creating resources, and partly because they appreciate the work that’s gone into what is created and don’t want to publicly criticise, but will instead thank for the contribution and tweak it themselves.
    I’ve just left the classroom, and intend to use some of my time in creating resources for teaching computing (the rest of the time will be private tutoring or copyediting/proofreading, including academic/computing works, I hope! Need a proofreader?).
    One limitation I found was that the kids I was working with quite often had moderate or low literacy and numeracy skills, which meant they found it hard to work independently with computing. The thinking skills they would develop would help them in the long run, but we’re not there yet – and I’m concerned about teachers teaching computing with no experience of the subject themselves.

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