Computing outreach during the pandemic

By Shirley Atkinson and David Walker. Posted

A student exploring a virtual-reality world

The University of Plymouth’s computing department refactored its outreach activities during Covid-19, learning how to play to the strengths of online delivery

The University of Plymouth’s computing department provides outreach activities for students and teachers across South West England. These activities are usually face to face and range from lectures presenting the state of the art in computing, to exposing students to topics in computing with practical lab sessions, to delivering CPD activities for teachers. As the pandemic arrived in early 2020, we were faced with having to figure out how we could refactor our sessions for online delivery.

Outreach before Covid-19

Plymouth first began working with the UK’s grassroots Computing at School (CAS) community in 2014, providing training for local Master Teachers at schools, and running our first on-campus event. Between 2015 and 2018 we were a CAS Regional Centre, before becoming a regional delivery partner for England’s National Centre for Computing Education. By 2019, we were running a multitrack conference for primary and secondary audiences and featuring workshops aligned with curriculum requirements, including hands-on activities and interesting and relevant presentations and discussions. Eighty-four people attended the 2019 conference.

Alongside our CAS work we participate in university-run events, presenting outreach relating to our specialisms of cyber security and artificial intelligence. Activities have included practical demonstrations of computer forensics tools, and talks on AI and big data. 

Outreach during Covid-19

As soon as lockdown started, we knew that our outreach activities should continue being a priority, but we also knew we would have to change our approach. An early effort was to repackage some of the face-to-face talks as webinars. Early talks on AI and big data were successful, and it was clear from these initial activities that we were able to reach a much wider group of participants than before, with students from right across England taking part. Participants did not have to travel to Plymouth to attend, and it was much easier for them to find a spare hour in the day than it was to find a whole day. Schools were also able to use the talks as activities within their teaching sessions. 

Running a conference posed a bigger challenge. We extended the event by including a student track in the conference for the first time — one that was designed to put cutting-edge information in front of students with an interest in computing. We also continued to ensure that the tracks for teachers would be relevant. Then, we invited relevant speakers who were comfortable with Zoom, and leveraged our outreach team’s experience to set up the web infrastructure. Sessions were kept to 45 minutes, with plenty of breaks throughout the day to reduce Zoom fatigue. Each session had a university student ambassador who monitored the chat and ensured that everything was running smoothly. We received over 600 registrations for the event, again with participants joining from as far afield as the north of England.

We also moved our coding challenge online. We had previously run Code Skool days for Year 7s and 8s (ages 11–13), and this time we adjusted the challenge to account for older, more experienced students. Again, running the event virtually made it accessible to a much wider range of students than when we ran it in Plymouth.

What we’ve learnt

This last year has been a learning experience like no other. A big takeaway for us has been how vital admin support has been. The one time we tried running a webinar without a moderator to manage the chat and admit people was easily the least slick! Having someone to concentrate on these areas, so that the person delivering the session can focus on their material and engage with the students and teachers who have come along, is better for everyone. 

Another major challenge is battling Zoom fatigue. It’s vital to break up the material so that attendees are guided through a set of activities beyond simply watching and listening — more so than in face-to-face sessions. The conference included a good number of activities, and in the webinars, reducing the material and extending the discussion time afterwards worked well.

Running the conference virtually really highlighted the difficulties of running practical sessions remotely. Despite our having prepared code snippets and provided an online JavaScript editor, the distribution of these did not go according to plan, and it was very clear that this was one activity that would not port well to the remote environment. Further, there was no opportunity for the student ambassadors to help those attending, as they would have done in a normal lab environment. The time slot was also too short for a workshop — with hindsight, scaffolded activities that built up during the day would have been more beneficial in the online environment. We’ve definitely learnt a lot about how to do this in the future, and will be putting this experience into practice as we design our future outreach activities.

We’ve also found practice runs are vital, to ensure that the extra infrastructure required for online delivery works properly. We discovered on more than one occasion that the university firewall stood between us and the successful completion of an activity — fortunately prior to the real event. It’s really important to check simple things such as whether resources can be accessed remotely, or it can really throw off your session, and these are easy enough to check if you have access to a friendly off-site helper.

Outreach in the post-Covid world

As things return to normal, we expect that we will resume face-to-face outreach. With that comes the task of integrating the lessons learnt during the last year. One thing that we intend to keep are the webinars. They offer a much greater geographical reach, and give students the confidence to engage with us in a way that many struggle with when they are in front of other people.

As we carry on delivering webinars, we’ll also continue working on new ways of interacting with attendees to further enrich the experience for them.

Find out more about our outreach opportunities at helloworld.cc/plymouth.


Authors

Shirley Atkinson is the associate head for computing at the University of Plymouth. Her research field is in privacy, and her lecturing in software engineering builds upon years of industry experience.

David Walker is a lecturer in computer science at the University of Plymouth. Alongside teaching and research into AI and software development, he has for several years designed and delivered outreach for schools.


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