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Building apps to brighten futures

15 May 2012

Set a class of first-year undergraduates loose on an android application development platform and the results can be both inspiring and surprising. Ele Cooper talks to Dr Graham Roberts and Dr Dean Mohamedally to find out more.

iPad with app icons spelling out 'The future is mobile'

Image courtesy of the UCL Faculty of Engineering

The number of mobile applications available to download is growing every day, allowing multinational and one-man operations alike to make eye-watering amounts of money. Developers are using technology to give the public everything from genuinely useful tools (think Next Bus London) to the phenomenally successful and equally time-wasting Angry Birds – and the ability to use app-building software is becoming increasingly important to employers.

In September 2011, keen to innovate not only alongside but in partnership with industry, UCL’s Department of Computer Science made mobile application development a core component of its undergraduate programme. Explaining the decision, Dr Graham Roberts, Computer Sciences’ Director of Studies and Departmental Tutor, says, “The world’s changing. Mobile application development is now a major aspect of software development – some people are even talking about the post-PC era.”

But this atmosphere of innovation and rapid change is not confined to the world of technology. Higher education is also in a state of flux, with the traditionally accepted methods of teaching and learning facing their first serious challenge in hundreds of years. “It’s quite clear that the way students want to learn is changing,” says Roberts. “Lecture-based teaching is becoming less and less appropriate.”

As part of a wider effort to introduce more problem-based learning and group work, Roberts and his colleague Dr Dean Mohamedally, Senior Teaching Fellow and Director of the MSc group projects in Software Systems Engineering (SSE) and Financial Systems Engineering (FSE), decided to ask 2011-2012’s first-year undergraduates to build an app with their classmates in their very first term - an idea they had already had great success with on the MSc programmes. They were met with enthusiasm and some surprising results.

A new way of learning

At the beginning of the course, the tutors gave their students a set of basic starter materials and then tasked them with working out how to use an android platform through experimentation and research. The students’ understanding has come on in leaps and bounds since then, and the teachers have experienced a similar learning curve. Says Mohamedally, “I often see students doing obscure things which I had thought there was no rationale for teaching. Then they’ll show me how they’re relevant and my teaching materials grow.”

Both Roberts and Mohamedally report that the two-way interaction they now enjoy with students has led to a more positive teaching and learning experience for all parties.

The department’s stringent selection process ensures that every student is engaged with the subject matter and eager to learn – in fact, Mohamedally says that students regularly ask him for extra assignments. Some have even requested projects to work on over the summer holiday. “Those that really want to push themselves are completely able to do so. They’re no longer constrained by ‘big lecture’ boundaries,” he says.

Generating ideas

Duc Anh Khu, first-year UCL Computer Science student

"Learning about apps gives me a lot of new ideas and stimulates my creativity, encouraging me to push the boundaries of what apps can do. As the market is still growing, learning about apps also opens up opportunities for my future career."

Duc Anh Khu, Computer Science student

The first-year project takes students through the entire process of creating an app, from requirement capture and design to building, testing and final deployment. This model of learning – beginning with an idea and ending up with a tangible product – has been so successful that the department is now looking to use it in other modules.

A key element in the app-building project’s success has been allowing students to learn from their own mistakes. Roberts says, “In programming, nothing works first time round, and you learn more from making mistakes and fixing errors than you do from just getting something working immediately. It’s like detective work; students begin to develop strategies for problem-solving. It may be called ‘Computer Science’ but really it’s much more of a craft.”

Part of the beauty of building applications is that they have the potential to enjoy real popularity and widespread adoption. One of Roberts’ past students created the UCL iMap application, which allows users to navigate the university campus using their mobile handsets, as part of their final-year project. “As well as the actual development, it involved liaising with the relevant UCL people to obtain permission to use the logo, negotiating the app store process, ensuring that it met their standards and so on,” says Roberts.

A subsequent project saw students working with the British Olympic Association, while the current first-year cohort have collaborated with two charities: Health Partnership Nepal and Restless Beings. The app that the students have developed for the former allows surgeons to capture medical data while working in the field in Nepal, while the app for the latter enables local authorities to learn more about homeless children in their areas.

Learning a language

Jay-Krishna Tailor, MSc student in the UCL Department of Computer Science

"Learning how to develop mobile apps has been the most enjoyable part of the Masters course so far. Being able to learn a new programming language from the basics to the more advanced features means that hopefully in the near future I’ll be able to release my own app on Google Play."

Jay-Krishna Tailor, Computer Science student

So, how have the students reacted to working on real-life projects? “They have been very motivated and excited, both in meeting the clients and in exploring just what they can do with an app,” says Mohamedally. “We give them code examples but ultimately it’s up to the students to pick and choose what they build. It’s like giving someone a set of Lego bricks and seeing what they construct.”

Enhancing employability

Working in partnership with industry is vital in ensuring that UCL is providing students with relevant, current skills. Companies regularly approach the department asking if students can build apps for them and Roberts argues that the university’s location is a big bonus both for the course and for students’ futures: “One of the major advantages of being in central London is the amount of industry activity going on within an accessible distance,” he says. “This rich environment leads to more job opportunities for our graduates. Being in the heart of London does make a difference.”

Unsurprisingly, employability is a priority for most students on the course, and the changes that have been made to lend the curriculum a more practical edge will undoubtedly give them an advantage over other graduates when it comes to finding a job. Roberts says, “Many of our graduates head a few miles east to the City. We have a lot of interaction with the banks and they tell us that they want students to have very strong technical knowledge and group-working skills.”

The Department of Computer Science also works with an advisory board comprising representatives from major industry names including Microsoft and Google. Roberts and Mohamedally report that the board members constantly emphasise the importance of mobile and cloud computing: the message is very much that this is the technology of the future and therefore it’s where they want new employees’ expertise and practical skills to lie.

Reaching large audiences

Craig Furman, MSc student in the UCL Department of Computer Science

"Learning about mobile apps was a great insight into modern methods of software development, and it's easy to reach a large audience through app stores. The skills I've learned at UCL can only be helpful in the future as more companies embrace the mobile internet."

Craig Furman, Computer Science student

It would seem that UCL is ahead of the game in this respect: as far as Roberts and Mohamedally know, this is the only university that requires all Computer Science undergraduates to learn app-building – and the institution’s forward-thinking outlook has lent it a significant advantage. Mohamedally says, “Some universities might think of mobile computing as a little experimental thing and just buy one or two devices, but we’ve put in place the infrastructure and future projections to have facilities across the entire department.” All of the Computer Science labs offer access to app development tools and the department has recently invested in iOS (Apple technology) too. “This empowers students because they now have the ability to choose exactly what they want to use and just go for it,” says Mohamedally.

The 2011-2012 first-year cohort was the first undergraduate group to have been taken through the new programme. From September, app-building will also be incorporated into the second-year syllabus. Says Roberts, “One of the good things about UCL is that we are very free to innovate and experiment. Of course we have quality control mechanisms in place but we’re not in a straitjacket where once a syllabus is defined, that’s it and you’ve got to stick to it. The UCL system gives real flexibility so that we can build on our successes and move things forward year on year.”

Given the department’s passion, the talent of its students and the support of so many influential industry names, UCL’s market-leading status in the field of Computer Science looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.

Page last modified on 14 may 12 13:16

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