About Thomas Lancaster

I am an experienced Computer Science academic, best known for research work into academic integrity, plagiarism and contract cheating. I have held leadership positions in several universities, with specialty in student recruitment and keen interest in working in partnership with students. Please browse around the blog and the links, and feel free to leave your thoughts.
Website: http://thomaslancaster.co.uk
Thomas Lancaster has written 165 articles so far, you can find them below.

Analysing A JISC Supporting Technology Startup Project For Potential

With the world of data that surrounds us (both big data and smaller data), there’s a lot of information available to help students and entrepreneurs make smart decisions.

I’ve posted on the blog before about the students that I’m working with to add gamification ideas to programming learning. This all forms part of the JISC Supporting Technology Startup Projects contest. Here, I’ve analysed what made a winning entry in that contest in 2015.

I thought it would be interesting to compare how closely our competition entry for eduLevel matches the winning trends suggested by the data from 2015 (and yes, in future years, it may be useful to do this before putting the entry forward).

How Well Does eduLevel Match The 2015 Trends?

Strengths Of The Entry

  1. Word count of the marketing copyThis runs to 676 words, which is on the longer side. However, two of the winning four entries from 2015 were also long (at 672 and 514 words respectively) and generally the longer entries do well. The instructions about what to include also included more components in 2016 than in 2015.
  2. Large and identified team. The team consists of five people (four students plus me) and larger teams were clearly favoured in 2015. One winning team had four members and another team had five members. I believe that the staff and student partnership here is also a strength.
  3. Employability aspects to the project. Programming is a key area for jobs and this work is supporting students towards employment.
  4. Mobile aspect to the project. The eduLevel software is being developed to run on a desktop or a mobile device This can be accessed however is preferred by individual learners.
  5. Key words used. Students, their skills and associated universities are all key to this work. These are words that featured frequently in the winning entries.

Possible Negatives of the Entry

  1. Video length. The video pitch is only 2 minutes 37 seconds, shorter than the videos for any of the winning entries in 2015. The belief putting the video together is that people would prefer to watch shorter videos, but that may have been misguided.
  2. Discussion of collaboration. The potential for eduLevel to encourage collaboration, as students try and set challenges and gain awards, was mentioned several times in the video and copy. But, out of three projects that focused on collaboration in 2015, none were funded. Thankfully here, collaboration is a benefit, but not the main purpose.

Overall though, the strengths look to outweigh the possible negatives and it’s hoped that the industrial support behind eduLevel will also be looked at as a strength.

The Future Of eduLevel

It is certainly true that eduLevel will move forward in some form regardless of the result of the competition.

BCUHackeduLevelIt will be instructive to see how closely the results in 2016 match the patterns that were established in 2015. The field is bigger and more competitive, with 22 entries and the expectaton that five of these will be funded.

You can find out more about the plans for eduLevel and adding gamification to programing learning here.

Here’s How To Win The JISC Supporting Technology Startup Competition (With Infographic)

I’m currently involved with a JISC Supporting Technology Startup Project, aimed at improving the ways in which students learn computer programming.

The idea behind the JISC competition is a strong one, involving taking existing technologies that support education and putting these through a robust startup and development programme so that they can benefit from large scale trials. Teams submit both a video and written pitch about their technology. The successful teams receive financial backing to move their ideas forward.

I’m working with a team of students as partners.  I enjoy collaborating in this way, as it matches well with my teaching and learning ethos and the overall direction in which I feel higher education should be moving – a win, win.

This isn’t the first year that JISC has run the Supporting Technology Startup Projects competition. I’ve analysed the competition entrants from 2015 to see if I can identify what look like fundable trends. Clearly, this isn’t a complete solution, as it does not have the details of the full pitches from the interview process, but it does raise some interesting ideas.

The results are shown in the infographic (click the graphic to view it at full size).

JISC Supporting Technology Startup Projects 2015

The sample size is relatively small, and unfortunately the data isn’t there to identify which teams were invited to interview (a process from which the winners were selected), but it’s interesting to see that the number of votes doesn’t seem to have mattered too much. One winning team gained only 72 votes, under the usual target of 250 votes that were requested.

The 2016 competition has many more entries and what looks like a stronger field overall, so I suspect that the voting threshold will be important. But, the question exists if the same areas still be considered of importance and be judged successful.

All of the winning projects from 2015 are interesting. The range of ideas there are diverse, including a project that focuses on electronics and computer hardware. There is no clear indication of whether staff or students team fair better, or if there are any benefits to partnerships (my personal belief is that there are).

Some quick notes about data collection. Out of the 12 entries in 2015, one of the unsucessful entries has also since hidden the video pitch, which slightly reduced the sample size for this aspect, but I don’t believe that this has changed the results. I have also only processed the written pitch in detail. If any additional information was included only in the video pitch this hasn’t been seen.

Some projects mentioned that they had access to a team of developers, but as these people were not named or included as official participants, I have assumed that these were essentially developers for hire. They have not been included in the team size analysis.

There is a lot more potential for further analysis to determine what makes a winning video pitch, as well as how closely the video pitches and written pitches are aligned.

Why I’m Working With Student Entrepreneurs To Add Gamification To Programming Learning – And How You Can Get Involved

Students Find Learning Programming Challenging

I taught my first computer programming class way back in September 2000. There, I helped HND students learn the joys of JavaScript programming, mainly integrated within simple HTML websites, using form input to generate standard output.

For many years after that, programming became a standard part of my teaching, often accompanied by interface design concepts through HCI. As well as JavaScript, I’ve taught C and most notably Java. I’ve always been a reflective practitioner and way back in 2005 I participated in a Disciplinary Commons aimed at improving the teaching of programming within the UK. Here is the programming portfolio that I developed during that Disciplinary Commons.

One of my observations, which will be of little surprise to anyone involved with teaching students to program, is that many people find programming difficult. This is a concern, as programming is core to many jobs that are open to Computing graduates, and even where jobs where programming is not a core aspect, assume that students have some understanding of it.

Although my direct teaching class contact has reduced substantially as I’ve taken on other managerial roles, I’ve been working on areas to help motivate students to be interested in programming and for them to put the time in required to become proficient at programming. I’ve been encouraging students to attend hackathon competitions and I’ve been supporting their attendance at hackathons. There are several presentations on this area in progress, but briefly, this has helped students to work on real-world examples, gain intensive programming practice time and to develop their team participation skills. I’ve also worked with Codio, who provide an online platform for learning programming within a web browser and my colleagues at Coventry University are trialing the use of Codio within their first year programming modules to make this subject more accessible to students.

Using Gamification To Support The Teaching Of Programming

The idea of using gamification to encourage progress and participation has been around for a long time, although the exact origins of the term are debated. The term gamification itself does not appear to have made it into popular use until 2010, when it was mostly associated with adding reward aspects to games in order to encourage players to continue with them (and ultimately to spend more money with the company in question).

The more widespread and current use of the gamification term relates to applying similar techniques to those that would be used to design successful games to other aspects of life. A simple example relates to the online question and answer site Quora, where answers given can receive Upvotes, a form of community recognition, as well as badges for areas such as the Most Viewed Writer in different categories. These gamification aspects encourage those people answering questions to return to the site and subsequently help to generate fresh written content for Quora. I provide answers to areas I’m familiar with on Quora when the opportunity allows. You can check out my Quora profile here.

As I’ve identified, there are challenges with getting students to engage with learning programming. It’s here where I think that gamification can encourage students to participate more with active programming learning and ideally to collaborate with their peers during that process.

For instance, it would be simple to set programming challenges for students to work through and receive badges, or ranking positions within a leaderboard. It should also be possible to involve students in generating challenges and trying to encourage that the gamified elements are at the correct academic level. Some of the larger programming sites, where people self-teach themselves to develop software, have already started to include elements of gamification. There have also been several academic studies, although many classed as gamification look much more at adding an overarching theme to modules to make them seen more game like. There is certainly potential for more work in this area

Our Plans For The Further Development Of eduLevel And How You Can Help

I was impressed by the winning entry at the BCUHack hackathon, a 24-hour hackathon that I arranged for students. Here, the students came up with an innovative idea, whereby they allowed Python programming evaluation questions to be submitted to a database and processed using a Twitter hashtag. Other people could then connect to a site automatically generated through the user submitted questions and try and work out the correct answers, for which they received a score. The system was unique, in that only the questions needed supplying and not the valid answers. The user interaction therefore indicated elements of gamification.


The system, known as eduLevel, has been subsequently developed through hackathons and other activities into a more complete solution. Working with the team of students, Daniel Pacheco, Jacques Ryan, Michael Senior and Alex Wiley, we intend to use the core idea from BCUHack, the user-generated content and automated assessing of solutions, to create a robust prototype to make learning programming fun. Because eduLevel is web-based, this can be used by students of all ages, although the team has current links with Coventry University and Birmingham City University to more formally trial eduLevel within the classroom. Integrated learner analytics will also make eduLevel useful to the staff who are tracking and supporting student progress.

There are several ways that we can drive the development of eduLevel forward, but we have entered eduLevel into the JISC Supporting Technology Startup Projects competition.

The JISC competition provides a platform to allow eduLevel to gain entrepreneurial support and to reach a larger audience, where this style of additional programming help for students is desperately needed.

In order to progress through the stages of the competition and to gain funding, eduLevel does need to receive votes. It is a quick process, just enter a vote and verify this through email.

You can vote here:


eduLevelWe’d also welcome any comments about the future development of eduLevel, any ideas and any offers of support. I have been constantly trying to demonstrate to computing students that enterprise is a valid option for them and that hackathons are a valid to route to professional and useful employment, and I hope that the eduLevel case study can be seen as a positive step in that direction.


Will Tweeting Get Your Next Essay Written For You?

As part of my continued research into the marketing of essay writing services, I’ve always been amazed by how developed the industry is that is funnelling students into using cheating services. I’ve covered the use of Twitter as part of this industry in talks before, but I haven’t written about it in detail on my blog.

One observation I’ve made is that a student only has to tweet about having an essay to write, an assignment to produce or a homework to complete and they’ll immediately begin receiving writing offers from individual writers and companies offering to do that work for them. Some of the wider issues behind this formed the focus of a Twitter conversation I had with AcadEnforcer, which you can see captured in this Storify record.

Now, perhaps a wider question to be asked here is, would you hire an unknown writer who contacted you through Twitter? It is hardly difficult to find companies and individuals who are offering academic writing services for students and to perhaps identify those from whom you could perhaps have a great level of confidence that they would deliver what they had promised.

It would be interesting to commission a larger volume of written work from a selection of different writers and companies, then to verify the academic quality and originality of the results. Although there have been some small scale studies of this, they are hardly conclusive. In many studies, particularly those undertaken by media contacts, they can only budget to buy a single assignment. Even larger studies tend to bottom out at three pieces of work and these are not always solutions to the same assignment problem, making direct comparisons of quality and pricing difficult.

If any funding providers are in a position to commission and support a larger-scale study where we can buy and analyse ghostwritten work produced by essay firms, I would be keen to share my expertise on contract cheating and to be involved.

Creating An Engaged Student Community Through Hackathons Video

Based on my experience of running hackathons, I have a lot of material available for talks and teaching seminars, as well as to develop for future research.

Here is a video version of the talk I gave at a recent Learning Lab at Birmingham City University. You can see the slides from the original talk on hackathons and a short discussion here.

Without the pressure of a short time slot, I was able to expand a lot on the presentation given at the Learning Lab, giving more examples, as well as working in some ideas about how the hackathon area could be expanded to other academic disciplines.

Flipped learning activities like hackathons are of great value to students and they also allow them to develop skills that their peers may not have. They also simulate a trend that is increasingly popular in the computing industry. I think that there’s a lot of potential for them to become a core part of Computer Science and other Computing courses in the future.

Page 19 of 33« First...10«171819202122»30...Last »