Star turn

January 21, 2000

Computer science boring? Lectures ineffective? Not at Kent University.

Jennifer Currie meets the Jerry Springer of the lecture hall.

Give Sally Fincher a microphone, and she could give Jerry Springer a run for his money. For Ms Fincher, a lecturer in the University of Kent at Canterbury's department of computer science, delivers her professional issues course to 120 second-year students in a style more reminiscent of a hard-hitting television chat show than of a conventional lecture.

"I think the lecture style of teaching is ineffective," says Ms Fincher, who prefers to play devil's advocate while darting up and down the aisles of the lecture theatre. "As one of my students pointed out, this is the only lecture where those sitting up the back are unable to chatter all the way through. Everyone has to learn to talk together and to work in teams," she adds.

The students debate the professional and personal issues that are raised by "The case of the killer robot" - a mini-saga case study released in ten weekly instalments, which are then discussed Kilroy-style in lectures.

An approach used more commonly by school teachers, the story-line method is something Ms Fincher believes helps to increase students' interest and motivation. "They need some stimulation and this work later provides the basis for their written work."

"The case of the killer robot" is the story of a fictional robotics firm accused of producing lethal computer software. The students are allocated a viewpoint during week one, representing the individual groups affected by the revelations.

This week, the students have learned that the robotics company has been reading internal emails following the death of an employee. "What is the difference between reading a private email and bugging an office phone?" Ms Fincher asks. The management immediately claim that they reserve the right to do this responsibly when necessary, whereas lower-ranking employees and the public in general are appalled at such a blatant invasion of privacy. Ironically, this time it is the newspapers that are uncharacteristically quiet over the invasion of privacy issue.

"Various people knew about the problems with the product. Why did no one say anything at the time?" Ms Fincher asks. This time the public get in first. "Many of the workers will have families at home and need to be able to provide for them. Speaking out might cost them their jobs."

A five-minute summary at the end of the session reveals that a blame structure is firmly in place. The programmers point the finger at the middle management, while the managers turn on the corporation. The corporation claims that they reserve the right to do what is best for the shareholders - which is met with a loud groan - while the public simply proclaim that the company is sick. Having gained a bit of confidence, the newspapers finally speak out. "What a story," they enthuse. "It's got everything - death, corruption, and a cover-up."

Although Ms Fincher admits the students tend to drop their characters after a few weeks, she is convinced the course still produces results. "By actively involving them in the issues, they become more aware of them and of the crossover between the personal and professional. It also demonstrates that decisions made by those in higher-ranking positions have an impact on the lower workers."

Matthew Bull, 20, and David Hinson, 19, both second-year computer science students, agree that the course is a valuable exercise. "It's the best way to teach ethics as they need to be talked about," Mr Bull says. "It's much better than normal lectures," Mr Hinson says . "The class makes people more aware of what the issues are all about."

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