Life skills for the 21st century

    UAlberta launches new massive open online course in computational problem solving and programming video games.

    By Michaela Ream on July 16, 2018

    The University of Alberta’s Faculty of Science is pleased to announce Problem Solving, Programming and Video Games, a new course focused on life skills in the 21st century—computational problem-solving and computer programming.

    This new massive open online course (MOOC) was developed by UAlberta computing scientists, including Duane Szafron, a beloved long-time professor of computing science. In fact, the course was Duane’s final project before he officially retired in the summer of 2018.

    A pioneer of blended and discovery-based learning, Szafron is a sought-after and innovative instructor who specialized in programming languages—from programming itself to the creation and evaluation of new languages. When he noticed a lack of focus on this topic for senior undergraduate students, Szafron made it a priority to build this into his own teaching.

    Szafron’s work and legacy at the University of Alberta will continue to support the learning of established and aspiring computing scientists for many years to come.

    “I don’t think I’ve worked with anyone else, maybe ever in my career, who has the same amount of passion and dedication and integrity and everything else that he touches, that Duane has had in my experience working with him on this course,” said Anne McDonald, PVG MOOC program assistant.. “This is really something special that Duane has done, and I think it’s going to help a lot of students.”

    Hear more about the PVG MOOC from its creators, including Szafron, on the course, its development, and what’s next for aspiring computing scientists. Interested in registering? Visit Coursera today.


    Why is it important to have Problem Solving, Programming and Video Games as a massive open online course (MOOC) as opposed to a classroom-based course?

    Emma McDonald (MOOC subject matter expert): The MOOC gave us this opportunity to make the experience available beyond just the people who can get into CMPT 174, which is a very popular class. Even within the University of Alberta, there are not enough spaces for everyone who wants to take it, so we can make that experience available to anyone who wants to learn how to program and has an internet connection, and I think it’s very important because the field of computer science has a lot of issues with inclusivity, and it can be very alienating for people. So we really want students to learn, and we really want them to be a part of this field, and we’re here to help them and like package that so that anyone can have that, which I think is really important for this field.

    Anne McDonald (project assistant): I think online learning is such a big part of getting people involved who aren’t traditionally involved in technological fields, because a lot of the barriers towards something like computer science or towards pursuing a career are either really technological or something you’ve had to have had as a lifetime hobby. So, to have that step be accessible so you don’t have to worry about failing in front of others, it is just really important to making this field more accessible and by making it more accessible, ultimately making it so much better.

    Why did you decide to incorporate the video game element into the teaching aspect of the MOOC?

    Duane Szafron: My research background of programming languages led me to work in computer games in trying to make programming languages that allow game designers to create their games without needing to design this low-level C-code. Working on computer games as my research led me to introducing games in a blended learning course as a fun way to learn material. We also did a study with high school students where we had them create games, and what we found was that, unlike playing games which is dominated by males, the enjoyment of female game designers was really high, and it was a good way to get female students to learn something about computing science. Games are fun and interesting, and creating games is something that had a much more diverse appeal to people, so the computer games and the computer programming came together.

    What experiences have you had with assumptions or biases about video games in this course?

    Emma: There’s a problem with the way that games are portrayed, but games themselves are not the issue. We are conscious of the fact that a lot of people have negative connotations about video games because of the ways that peers have made them feel, but –our course is a community of education. We are careful to say that you don’t need to play video games, and you don’t need to have a video game background to take this course because there’s no prerequisite knowledge of games to do this.

    Paul Lu (professor and associate chair (undergraduate studies): We definitely face a communications challenge when we just announce to the world that the title of our MOOC is “problem solving, programming, and video games.” If someone has no interest in video games, they can get a lot out of the course, and hopefully it will be a little bit more fun than the more typical programming problems.

    What else does this course offer to students?

    Anne: Even if you’re not going to be a computer scientist, or even if you’re not going to be working in a technological field, at its essence, it’s a course about thinking and how you can structure your thinking, designing, and planning to be more efficient. And I think that’s valuable for anyone, anywhere, let alone in a society that’s becoming so focused on computation and computers in general.

    Duane: I’m most excited about students, who are maybe not interested in computing science as a career or even as a hobby, taking this course and getting something out of it that they can use to just make their lives better when they try to build or create anything.

    Paul: I do sincerely believe that it does have the potential to have a huge impact on this department and on students. One of the big dreams about MOOCs is having that big impact well beyond your country and around the world, so I really believe that could be the long term of what the course is remembered for. It won’t be remembered for python programming, it won’t be remembered for any of the specific games, but it might be remembered for everything from the way it approaches computer science to some of the innovative ideas.