PPIG WIP 2008 Report

PPIG Workshop: 

by Luke Church and Chris Douce

A work-in-progress meeting of the Psychology of Programming Interest Group

21-22 February, 2008
Department of Informatics, University of Sussex, UK

The fourth PPIG work in progress meeting was hosted (and skilfully organised) by Johanna Hunt, from the Department of Informatics of the University of Sussex between the 21st and 22nd February.

The aim of the workshop was to provide an informal forum to foster discussion of new and on-going projects within the area of the psychology of programming. As with all PPIG events, the interdisciplinary nature of the 'organisation' was highlighted with an introductory presentation by Thomas Green.

The first presentation, entitled, 'Work practices and the economics and psychology of Software Testing' by John Rooksby connected the importance of testing practice to some ethnographic studies of diagnostic practice he had conducted. John also presented an overview of the forthcoming annual workshop which is to be held in Lancaster University. He tempted us all with sumptuous images of Lancaster, the university, the venue and promised that a good time would be had by all.

The organiser of the work in progress workshop, Johanna Hunt, gave a thought provoking presentation how programmers of mixed ability levels can work together to solve a programming problem within an event known as a 'Coding DoJo'. Pairs of programmers were randomly selected to work together for five minutes at a time before being changed. I found it interesting that the activity also occurred within the Brighton Arts festival, and that the resulting solutions were quite substantial in terms of their length. More information about what a DoJo is can be found on the CodingDojo website

Sharing of knowledge and wisdom is something that always happens at PPIG events. In this workshop a special slot was made for Judith Segal who talked about what she has been doing, what has inspired her and the challenges that she has faced. Judith described some of the areas in which she worked: beginning with algebra, looking at the understanding of recursion and the emergence of tutoring systems. Recently she has been performing qualitative studies of programmers working within science communities. Judith emphasised that both qualitative and quantitative approaches are equally useful and passed on to us her observation that people are sometimes more willing to help with research than you might expect.

A presentation by Chris Douce took us to a different dimension where he spoke about how the immersive virtual environment Second Life might be able to be used to teach certain aspects of Programming. Chris took us on a quick tour of the things that he found during a short period of investigation, taking us to a nightclub, a poster exhibition, a programming class, two libraries and a 'sandbox' area where you can build things. Potential uses may include introduction to what a programming language is, the use of 'virtual quests' and the potential to develop immersive animations of data structures and algorithms.

Luke Church presented a visually appealing presentation that described a continuum (or dimension) where programming as a formal design activity exists on one side and programming as an activity where designs emerge from the environments in which they are situated is on the other. An interesting example from the came Command and Conquer was used to illustrate the difference between the two extremes. Following Thomas's introduction, Luke's presentation was thoroughly interdisciplinary. He drew on gaming, design and choreography as sources of inspiration.

Alison Hull presented her work within the area of Intelligent Tutoring systems where she addressees the important areas of user interface design and how it may effect end user motivation. Her work to date has explored the feedback mechanisms of a number of different intelligent tutoring systems, including that of ELM-ART, a system described by Weber and Brusilovsky. Alison poses a number of current research questions including whether storing of earlier code fragments in an ITS may be useful, issues surrounding task granularity and how motivation might be recorded.

Quentin Cutts with the help of Emily Durrant presented a study that assessed the effectiveness of interventions that were designed to improve the views of students who may be experiencing difficulties with programming. Their presentation opened an interesting and relevant discussion about experimental methods, statistics and ethics - issues that underpin every one of the earlier presentations.

After a rather exciting bus ride back into town the meeting moved to the Gars Restaurant in Brighton, serving an excellent range of Chinese food. As the beef sizzled and the wine was consumed the day's events were discussed and digested.

The second day started with a talk by Judith Good and Pablo Romero demonstrating the STAGE project, helping children to learn programming techniques through recording scripts for virtual characters. Much thought was given to the educational question of how children might go from the specific tasks, to a general understanding of 'computational thinking'.

Luke Church then returned to present a discussion of how lessons learnt in the psychology of programming community could be applied to the design of programming languages for modelling biological systems, with some consideration of how such languages may share properties with domain specific languages in general.

Thomas Green then wrapped up, concisely summarising the material covered and wondering whether natural language processing technology has become sufficiently mature to support interesting programming languages such as Inform, a language for interactive fiction. Is this an interesting way to reduce viscosity, or just a recipe for hidden dependencies? Perhaps time will tell...

Thanks are extended to Johanna Hunt who provided the badge making equipment, fantastic refreshments and bags containing copies of all presentations.

As a result of discussions that occurred during the main PPIG workshop, the next Work in Progress event is likely to take place in the Open University, Milton Keynes.