Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Recent Press Coverage

I've been mentioned in a number of press articles following the recent announcement of a Royal Society investigation into IT teaching in schools.
I'll be writing more on the Royal Society investigation in later postings.

UCAS Clearing: Some Advice

Given the reports of an ever increasing shortage of undergraduate places this year, it is timely that I revisit the article 'Getting a computing course in clearing: Some advice' that I wrote for ComputerWorld UK last year. The key points of advice for students who find themselves in clearing were:
  1. Don't panic - decide in haste, repent at leisure. Keep in mind the reasons why you chose your original course.
  2. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Before the A-level grades come out, it's useful to have a list of target courses based on your previous research.
  3. First thing on getting the grades to do then is to finalise your list of target courses in clearing. The UCAS website and the Independent have official listings.
  4. Then start phoning universities. Clear thinking, with a systematic approach, will maximise your chances of success. Be polite and have your results ready as university switchboards will be busy.
Note that the UCAS Track website will not display decisions until the morning of the 19th August (usual practice), and this year not allow students to formally request clearing choices until the early evening (this is to give students time to make a considered choice, I presume). See the UCAS website for details of the process; I would read this before the results come out.

The article also has useful advice for parents:
"What can parents do? They can provide moral support and guidance in what may be a fraught few days. They can help find information on courses. What parents should avoid is phoning on behalf of applicants or acting as agents: admissions tutors will want to access the student, as it is the student who has to win the place on their merits."
I've worked in the admissions tutor role for a number of years so I know how much the A-level grades mean to people who wish to secure a place on the university course of their choice. All I'd like to say is good luck and I hope all goes well!

PS. All queries regarding courses at City University should be addressed to them directly, and not the comments of this blog (since this is my personal blog, as per comments policy and I'll be too busy to read them).

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Computing Drop-out: What's the Evidence?

This (rather long) blogpost is a response to a discussion on the Computing at Schools mail-group about student retention on computing degrees. I said I would come back with notes on some of the evidence base for members - this blog is a convenient place to put it as it is of potential interest to a wider audience.

This post should also be read in conjunction with an earlier blogpost, that I won't repeat here.

The focus is on framing issues around the Computing discipline so issues of retention that are not directly linked to discipline are not the subject of the discussion (though there is evidence of disciplinary differences on intake as regards social-economic circumstances).

I am looking at the evidence at a discipline level across the UK HE sector, so inferences should not be drawn about particular universities (they'll likely be wrong). What I'll say is known in the public domain - see the references list.

Student as Customer: Does it Matter?

The idea that students are customers (in the transactional sense) has of late been replaced in the HE management literature with a view that the interaction is on where both sides generate (co-produce) value by the interaction. The co-production metaphor helps resolve the ‘student as customer’ narrative, as it implies partnership in the learning process (Eagle and Brennan, 2007). However since the active engagement of students is required, there are limits to what extent the student experience can be managed. Rather attention needs to be turned to what factors enhance or inhibit a positive interaction.

Kotze and du Plessis (2003) consider the co-production of services in HE, and provide a model of how students socialise and participate with university services (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Model of Student Socialisation and Participation, from (Kotze and du Plessis, 2003).

Considering the model of student participation in Figure 1, we see that the student’s socialisation in the university appears to be the first stage. To this end, the alignment of student, discipline and institutional identity is key. Stensaker (2007) discusses the issue of identity in HE and how it impacts on wider strategic developments and how students see themselves. James (2001) notes that student expectations affect student satisfaction, where incoming student identity plays a major role. This will be explored later.

As we will see socialisation plays a part in retention, and issues of retention and the overall student experience are linked.

What Factors Affect Retention?

Much of the work on retention is based on Tinto (1975) that takes a longitudinal view of the student journey. In this model, the student’s initial commitment to the institution and to graduating affects their integration and thus retention. In many respects, this maps to the model of student socialisation given in Figure 1. The approach by Tinto (1975) is based on studies of full-time students in American universities.

The model is however complex with intermediate stages and so it is arguable that a simpler and more direct model may inform discussion more clearly. DeShields Jr, Kara and Kaynak (2005) use the case study of an American business school to validate empirically a simplified version of the ideas of Tinto (1975). This model, from Keaveney and Young (1997), focuses on aspects of the student experience that the university is responsible for providing (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The Student Satisfaction and Retention Model (SSRM), from (Keaveney and Young, 1997)

The usefulness of this model is that empirical validation allows us to separate ‘hygiene’ factors that must be addressed, from factors that have a positive effect on satisfaction and retention. The study by DeShields Jr, Kara and Kaynak (2005) concludes the following.
  • The role of advising and central service staff is a hygiene factor. Thomas et al (2003) notes that it is difficult to directly relate services to retention which supports this finding; though Universities UK (2002) has some good practice guidelines to this end.
  • The effects of the faculty and classes have a key and positive effect on student satisfaction and retention.
This implies for Computer Science departments that their teaching and learning is important for retention and supports the findings from the National Student Survey that issues of student feedback and academic support require attention and investment.

The First Year Experience

The first year experience is a topic attracting some attention and is noted as a key factor in retention (Krause et al., 2005; Harvey, Drew and Smith, 2006). It is when undergraduate socialisation in the university takes place. This is arguably important in the case of universities where students typically commute into classes rather than live near campus.

Yorke and Longden (2008, p. 14) have examined the reasons why first year non-returners left their course. For computer science non-returners the main reasons were as follows.
  • Wrong choice of field of study.
  • Difficulty of the programme.
  • General quality of the teaching.
  • Class sizes being too large.
  • Poor provision of specialist equipment.
  • A lack of personal support from staff.
The first two issues can be related to some extent to student expectations prior to university. It is a common complaint of computer science departments that information technology teaching in schools bears little relation to what is taught in universities or used in industry (Bowkis, 2006). Careers advice is also in my experience outdated or inaccurate (I have rewritten careers guides in the past). It is therefore not surprising that students enter computer science courses with mismatched expectations. Though it is hard for a university to address this problem alone, an information-led recruitment approach that emphasises a realistic account of applicants’ career choices and what they will study may be useful (and is often done in my experience).

Furthermore, there is a tension between the discipline of computer science and the information technology profession. They have distinct identities that cause difficulties in linking research and teaching between the two in a way that aligns with student expectations for an education for an IT professional (Denning, 2000; Denning, 2001). The computer science discipline is heavily theoretical/technological in nature, whereas the IT profession has evolved to become a provider of business services underpinned by technological innovation (Bowkis, 2006). This tension needs to be actively managed at all (and so makes the problems above worse).

The third and fourth issues support the discussion so far regarding the role of teaching and assessment.

The final issue fits closely with the NSS scores around academic support. Hixenbaugh (2006) discusses the role personal tutoring in retention. In this context, attendance data can be used to improve retention (Bowen et al., 2005).


The above analysis highlights two sets of issues. The first is around provision of services and teaching, the second to do with a mismatch between what students think IT/computing is and the reality.

The first of these is in principle actionable by the university sector. The worry is that the second of these issue is not, and if we are to get the most from out talented students we need to align schools, universities and the wider IT profession and industry better than we do at the moment.

I close with noting that the culture in UK HE is still largely one of wanting students to progress if admitted to the course, for moral and professional rather than financial reasons. We have not yet reached the state in a number of overseas HE systems where the first year is used as a crude filter to sort those (un)able to do the degree (A-levels have traditionally been considered to play that role).


Bowen, E., Price, T., Lloyd, S. and Thomas, S. (2005), 'Improving the quantity and quality of attendance data to enhance student retention'. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 29 (4), 375-385.
Bowkis, M. (2006), Developing the Future: A report on the challenges and opportunities facing the UK Software Development Industry Reading: Microsoft UK.
Denning, P. J. (2000), 'Computer Science: The Discipline'. In A. Ralston and D. Hemmendinger (eds), Encyclopedia of Computer Science. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Denning, P. J. (2001), 'When IT becomes a profession'. In P. J. Denning (ed.), The Invisible Future. New York: McGraw Hill.
DeShields Jr, O. W., Kara, A. and Kaynak, E. (2005), 'Determinants of business student satisfaction and retention in higher education: applying Herzberg’s two-factor theory'. International Journal of Educational Management, 19 (2), 128-139.
Eagle, L. and Brennan, R. (2007), 'Are students customers? TQM and marketing perspectives'. Quality Assurance in Education, 15 (1), 44-60.
Harvey, L., Drew, S. and Smith, M. (2006), The first-year experience: a review of literature for the Higher Education Academy. York: The Higher Education Academy.
HEA. (2006), Academy Exchange: The student learning experience. York: The Higher Education Academy.
Hixenbaugh, P. (2006), 'Relationships and Retention'. Academy Exchange: The student learning experience, 22-24.
James, R. (2001), Students’ changing expectations of higher education and the consequences of mismatches with the reality Management responses to changing student expectations. Queensland University of Technology: OECD-IMHE.
Keaveney, S. M. and Young, C. E. (1997), The student satisfaction and retention model (SSRM), Working Paper. Denver, CO: University of Colorado.
Kotze, T. G. and du Plessis, P. J. (2003), 'Students as "co-producers" of education: a proposed model of student socialisation and participation at tertiary institutions'. Quality Assurance in Education, 11 (4), 186-201.
Krause, K.-L., Hartley, R., James, R. and McInnis, C. (2005), The First Year Experience In Australian Universities: Findings From A Decade Of National Studies. Canberra: Australian Government, Department of Education, Science and Training.
Lusch, R. F., Vargo, S. L. and O’Brien, M. (2007), 'Competing through service: Insights from service-dominant logic'. Journal of Retailing, 83 (1), 5-18.
Stensaker, B. (2007), 'The Relationship between Branding and Organisational Change'. Higher Education Management and Policy, 19 (1), 1-17.
Tinto, V. (1975), 'Dropout from higher education: a theoretical synthesis of recent research'. Journal of Higher Education, 53 (6), 687-700.
Universities UK. (2002), Student Services: Effective approaches to retaining students in higher education. London: Universities UK.
Yorke, M. and Longden, B. (2008), The first-year experience of higher education in the UK: Final Report. York: Higher Education Academy.