Dancing to the algorithms

Tony Parkin explores algorithms at KS1, and at university...

Superhero dressing chart


“But we are training to be Key Stage 1 teachers, I don’t know why we would need to study algorithms!”

As some of you may know, I am occasionally a Visiting Lecturer at a nearby university, working in educational Computing, and this remark was made to me last week on one of my regular campus visits.

Now Visiting Lecturer is university speak for supply cover – as the students well know – so I have no illusions of grandeur; I know exactly where I stand in the HE pecking order. But I don’t just get the students to watch DVDs, or do colouring-in, I actually teach the same timetabled content as my fellow lecturers. So I always take such student comments seriously and professionally, and seek to address them.

The easiest and first resort was to make them aware of the relevant section of the KS1 national curriculum for Computing (see above). You know, the bit that made certain body parts of KS1 teachers’ bodies head in an upwards direction when they first caught sight of the new publication. Right at the very beginning of subject content where it states ‘Key stage 1 – Pupils should be taught to understand what algorithms are!’ – Whoa, there… are you serious?

Extract from KS1 Computing curriculumWell yes, we are, and of course we lecturers don’t just rely on saying “It’s the law”. We go on to explain algorithms, their relevance and how to make them accessible as possible at KS1. Explaining why computational thinking and algorithms underpin much of what we all do, every day.

The would-be teachers realise that putting on your underpants before your trousers, unless of course you are a superhero, means that KS1 children DO use algorithms every day, even if they don’t call them that. So do their parents, even if they call them recipes. And of course, so should the university, when designing their workflows… aye, now there’s the rub!

Catch 22…. uni-style

I almost didn’t even make it to be there having this algorithmic conversation. Not having received my required Visiting Lecturer contract not long before I was due to teach, I pursued my line manager, who in turn pursued it with the university’s Human Resources Dept (HR). “Ah,” said HR, “we have sent it to him ages ago. It’s awaiting his signature.” Ball neatly lobbed back into my court.

“Oh no it isn’t, I haven’t received it”, said I. “Yes you have, it’s in your university email inbox”, says HR, “we have sent it several times, but you haven’t responded.”

“Ah,” say I, “that will be the Visiting Lecturer email account which the university closes and archives every July, and to which I don’t regain access until I have signed the new contract?”, I ask. “That’s the one” says HR, starting to see that there may be an issue here. “You’ll just need to ask the university’s IT Help Desk for access to your archived email account.”

So, not wishing to rock the boat,  I ring the IT Helpdesk. I suspect you can already see where this is heading, but I’ll continue anyway. “Oh, you can’t have access to that email address”, says the chap on the IT HelpDesk, “you don’t have a contract with us, so you are not allowed access to university email.”

“Ah”, says I, “the contract is sitting there in that email box, and it won’t be a valid contract till I sign it”. “But the university regulations expressly forbid me from allowing access to our email servers to anyone not registered with the university” says the nice man in IT, who really was trying to help. Back to HR… “No, our policy is to use our internal email addresses with staff who have worked with us previously, not an external email account. You will have to go back to the IT HelpDesk”.

catch22So here I was, sitting right in the middle of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. A book which I have loved since sixth form days, but not one in which I have ever particularly wanted to be a character. All of which might have been more amusing if something similar hadn’t also happened the previous year, and the first teaching session wasn’t quite so imminent.

I was caught in between two conflicting algorithms. At least in a computer program, that position tends to lead to an error message, or a blue screen of death, or some other digital resolution. With human beings, dodgy algorithms have a way of turning you from being a character in a Joseph Heller novel to a participant in a Franz Kafka one, as you rush from one official to another, though not on this occasion waving the relevant papers of authorisation because they are stuck in the **** email that you can’t access!

As ever, some commonsense and common humanity finally broke the deadlock. After the nice man on the Help Desk had spoken to my line manager and established my bona fides, I was given brief access to the archived email box to allow me to retrieve the contract, and do the necessary. Which, in a sort of ultimate irony, was then all handled digitally in a online payroll system that clearly hadn’t been informed of the access exigencies facing mere visiting lecturers. Obviously they should have used my external email account for initial correspondence, but that isn’t what the algorithm said.

Of course, this is what all algorithms depend on… being created by human beings with commonsense that establishes all the possibilities they need to deal with, and who then write them accordingly, making sure they integrate with, rather than contradict, existing algorithms elsewhere in the system. This is computational thinking beautifully exemplified! Just a shame the university doesn’t practice what it teaches.

Handling the print…

It did remind me of a similar incident at the previous university at which I had worked, albeit briefly, some twenty years previously. The one where, charged with being revenue generating, I found that the courses that I was meant to run to actually generate the revenue would take three years to get approval through their labyrinthine committee structure. And where the major expenditure, the essential printing of course materials, resources and flyers, would cost five times as much from the university’s in-house print team as they did from the commercial printer that I had previously used – and use of the in-house team was mandatory.

Again, commonsense and common humanity saved the day. Over a lunch with the very nice Head of Print at the university (who was equally frustrated by the university’s regulations),  a cunning plan emerged. It turned out that when overloaded she was allowed to put out printing commercially, for a 10% handling charge. Thereafter, all our project’s essential printing mysteriously coincided with peak demand on the print unit, and was immediately redirected to my original printer. 10% seemed to me a fair overhead to pay to avoid a 500% increase in costs. The great thing about that particular algorithm was that it had at least been created with a suitable alternative branch, addressing a set of potential conditions. Plus, of course, it was being implemented by an understanding human being. Oh, and another skillful supporter managed to work out how to get the course approval though in one year rather than three. However I still left the university after that one year, happy to get away from the worst bureaucracy with which I had ever had to deal. Some great people, but caught up in the worst workflow and accountability designs ever.

Being a social media user, I shared some of my university HR/IT HelpDesk challenges with friends, via Facebook. My timeline was instantly filled by folk recalling their own conflicts with university workflows. Top of the list was a cousin who actually works in university administration. “You don’t know the half of it, Tony”, she said… but of course professional etiquette wouldn’t allow her to share the other half that she obviously knew intimately. It seems likely that all university workflows are a tangled mess of conflicting algorithms. And these are the places charged with making an understanding of algorithms, and computational thinking accessible and intelligible to our would-be Key Stage 1 teachers?  Hmmm, no problem there, then!

In an ironical postscript, I now find that I can access my university mailbox when not on campus, but it remains blocked to me when on-site. Another failed algorithm? Nowadays we all have to learn to dance with algorithms, even if on this occasion they have led me a rather merry dance. We can also conclude however, that when it comes to dancing with algorithms,  universities may well be the Ed Balls of computational thinking…

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