Archives for : me

2018 Update

This hasn’t been updated in ages, but…

As of July 2018, I’m a secondary computing science teacher (“probationer” in Scotland, newly-qualified teacher, or NQT). I’ll mostly be keeping this site on as an archive, but I tweet more often as @mrmckaycomp. I did the Strathclyde PGDE and worked in two great placement schools. I’ll now be taking up an NQT post in another (I’m not telling you which) secondary school.

Pi-Wire stays (it hasn’t been updated in ages either) – and we’re now both teachers!

My Google Scholar page is here too, with a list of publications/citations.

HCI 2013 publication – cognitive models

I have a paper coming up at BCS HCI 2013 (September 11-13th, London), “Predictive Modelling for HCI Problems in Novice Program Editors” (Fraser McKay and Michael Kölling). It’s a predictive human performance modelling approach to learner programmer tools, carried out with CogTool. Second author is my PhD supervisor. From the abstract:

We extend previous cognitive modelling work to four new programming systems, with results contributing to the development of a new novice programming editor. Results of a previous paper, which quantified differences in certain visual languages, and feedback we had regarding interest in the work, suggested that there may be more systems to which the technique could be applied. This short paper reports on a second series of models, discusses their strengths and weaknesses, and draws comparisons to the first. This matters because we believe “bottlenecks” in interaction design to be an issue in some beginner languages – painfully slow interactions may not always be noticeable at first, but start to become intrusive as the programs grow larger. Conversely, text-based languages are generally less viscous, but often use difficult symbols and terminology, and can be highly error-prone. Based on the models presented here, we propose some simple design choices that appear to make a useful and substantive difference to the editing problems discussed.

This is a short paper, that ties up the loose ends of a previous HCI paper.

EDIT 12/09/13: I’ve posted a link to my copy of the PDF, and it’s also in open-access on the KAR (my university’s institutional repository). ACM and BCS links will (presumably) follow once available.

PPIG Publication, November 2012

In press is a conference paper I’m about to present at the Psychology of Programming Interest Group (PPIG) workshop in London, 21st-23rd November 2012. As I noted on my HCI 2012 post, some of these have now been going on longer than the participants (this being PPIG no. 24). This is a full paper written with my PhD supervisor, Prof. Michael Kölling (well known in the field of computing education). The paper reports on a pilot study where we evaluated the effectiveness of new HCI usability heuristics (which we created), specific to the domain of learner programming systems (e.g. Greenfoot, Scratch, the Mindstorms kits, etc.). The abstract follows below.

EDIT: The paper is now published, and a PDF can be downloaded for free from the Kent Academic Repository, or directly from this link. The Q&A session after the talk gave an opportunity for some interesting discussion with the likes of Thomas Green, Alan Blackwell, and the other cognitive dimensions “grandees”!

Evaluation of Subject-Specific Heuristics for Initial Learning Environments: A Pilot Study

Fraser McKay & Michael Kölling

“Heuristic evaluation is a “discount” technique for finding usability problems in well-established domains. This paper presents thirteen suggested heuristics for initial learning environments (ILEs). To investigate the usefulness of these heuristics to other developers, we conducted a pilot study that compared two groups of evaluators: one using an older, generalised set of heuristics from the literature, and one using our domain-specific heuristics. In this study, we compare not just the number of problems found, but the way in which the problem reports were expressed. There was a significant difference in the length of written comments when problems were found (those from the new set being longer). New-set reviews touch on more themes – many make suggestions about what would improve the problem; many comments refer to a suggested cause-and-effect relationship. As designers, we find this detail helpful in understanding problems. Quantitative data from this study is not large enough to support any robust conclusions about the relative thoroughness of the heuristics at this time, but we plan to use lessons learned from this study in a larger version shortly.”

HCI 2012 publication

I’m presenting a work-in-progress paper at the BCS HCI 2012, next month in Birmingham. HCI (the “People and Computers” series) is one of the big international HCI conferences, now older than some of the participants, in year 26 (I’m 23!). This is a work-in-progress paper entitled “A Prototype Structured but Low-viscosity Editor for Novice Programmers”. The abstract, below, is on the conference programme site. The paper will be published in the proceedings, and on the ACM digital library and the BCS ewics archive - which I’ll link to here later.

EDIT: BCS ewics repository (PDF – open access)
EDIT: ACM digital library (PDF – login required)

“This paper presents work in progress on a prototype programming editor that combines the flexibility of keyboard-driven text entry with a structured visual representation, and drag-and-drop blocks. Many beginners learn with Java, a traditional text-based language. While text entry is ideal for experts desiring speed and efficiency, there is evidence in the literature that a significant portion of novice errors are related to syntax. Some beginners learn with Scratch, Alice and Star Logo, all of which have drag-and-drop, “block”-based interfaces. Validation makes them less prone to syntax errors, but they are very “viscous” – there is resistance to changing or rearranging statements once they have been entered. The new system combines keyboard input with statements that can still be manipulated with the mouse as whole blocks. Standard text idioms can be used – highlighting code by dragging the mouse, copying & pasting (as text), etc. With CogTool cognitive/keystroke models, we show that the new system effectively overcomes the viscosity found in block-based languages, but it retains much of the error-proofing. Work is ongoing, but there are implications for the design of a new novice programming system.”

Interfaces: HCI for Beginner Programmers

This morning, I got my spring copy of the BCS HCI magazine Interfaces. I’m pleased to be published in this quarter’s issue, as part of the “My PhD” series. In the article, I give a brief overview of my general project, and then run through some of the usability heuristics that we’ve been developing for novice programming tools.

McKay, F. HCI for Beginner Programmers. Interfaces, British Computer Society, 90 (2012), 22-23.

Update 19/04/12: an open-access PDF is available from the BCS.

I’ve pasted the introduction here:

My PhD is based in the Programming Education Tools group at the University of Kent, and my project concerns the development of a new way for novices to enter and maintain code. Coding in schools has recently been a more topical issue than usual [1]. Most of my work so far has been about analysing existing systems, but I’ve also begun to work with some early designs. My review of existing systems has been structured with thirteen new heuristics. These are based on previous heuristics [7], the cognitive dimensions [2], and a wider review of the literature on novice programming errors. For specific features, Cog Tool models [4] have exposed subtle differences in the effort a novice might need to exert to make changes in two comparable code editors. Now, at the start of my second year, I am working on prototypes that might make it into a new programming tool.

PPIG, and mini-thesis upgrade

Back in September, I was at my first PPIG conference. I gave a quick talk on my project summary at the doctoral consortium, the work-in-progress paper for which is here:

…The intended outcome of this project is the design and implementation of a new programming language with focus on improved interactions for creating and maintaining novice programs. Evaluating the HCI in current novice programming systems (Scratch, Alice, Greenfoot) has led us to propose new heuristics for these kinds of tools. Cognitive models of viscous interactions in block-based and text-based languages have also been compared. Early prototypes have been created, with some preliminary evaluations being used to refine the ideas…

McKay, F. Work-in-Progress: Design of a Beginners’ Programming Language with a Focus on Novel Interaction Techniques. Doctoral consortium, Psychology of Programming Interest Group. (York, September 6-8th). 2011. [Google Docs].

This month, I also passed the viva based on my minithesis, which includes detailed reviews of the evidence we use in support of the new heuristics, mentioned only briefly in the PPIG paper.

Microsoft prize for imaginative computing

Last night, I attended an awards dinner hosted by the School of Engineering and Computing at Glasgow Caledonian University. I was delighted to receive The Microsoft Award for the Most Imaginative Computing Honours Project 2009-2010, recognising the innovative original work put into JAKE.

Microsoft generously provided a quite substantial prize of software and other merchandise on the night, in connection with Microsoft Student Partners and Dreamspark. The poster showcasing JAKE (seen right) was on display during the reception.

Degree complete

I’ve received my results this week, and have achieved a first-class honours degree (BSc Hons).

I’m also awaiting the verification of my MBCS status after upgrading from being a student member.


Since I’m starting this blog at the same time as working on my honours research, I thought I’d post a little summary. Right now I’m working on objects-first programming education, particularly with Karel the Robot and other virtual worlds. Objects-first programming is all about teaching object-oriented programming from the start, rather than the “traditional” model of introducing objects on top of procedural programming.

Over the next few months, I’ll be developing a prototype tool for teaching programming with virtual robots, hopefully bridging the gap between “pure” robot worlds and standard applications programming.