Three Observations From Startup Grind Europe 2016 For Students And Startups Looking To Work Together

My work on computing student employability, along with my wider interest in entrepreneurship, puts me in regular contact with companies of all sizes. In recent years, I’ve developed a particularly affinity for technology startups.

Technology startups are useful places for students to work and gain experience. For those students who are willing to take the risk, the rewards of joining a startup in its early stages can be huge if the startup takes off.

I was able to attend the Startup Grind Europe 2016 conference, a one-day event aimed at bringing together startups of all sizes for a series of presentations and what were called fireside discussions (read, structured chat-show style interviews in front of a live audience).

Startup Grind Europe was an interesting experience. I met some cool people, including several wanting advice from an academic perspective, or looking to see if I was suited as an investor.

One disappointment I did have was that I totally failed to encourage any computing students to attend with me. That was a shame, as there were certainly jobs and internships on the table, as well as many tips designed to help students when they did progress to look for employment or to launch their own startup.

I collected some of my immediate thoughts (read my tweets) from the day in this Storify.

There were no shortage of interesting nuggets of information shared, but I want to pick up on three areas that should be of particular interest to students looking to progress their career within the startup scene.

 

1 – The Startup Market For Matching Candidates With Jobs Is Saturated

I keep seeing the same so-called disruptive ideas looking to match candidates with potential jobs come up again and again. I spoke to two main players during the conference who wanted to tell me how this was their business plan. I spoke to another similar startup a couple of weeks back. I also saw a further recruiter exhibiting at the event, although I didn’t capture the details of how their technological solution worked. On top of this, I know of a student who worked in a company moving within the startup space matching jobs and candidates several years back.

The current premise seems to be that data-driven recruitment is the way forward. Now, it’s not long since this type of recruitment just included automated scanning of candidate LinkedIn profiles in order to find those who might be a match for a particular job.

The latest systems are more sophisticated. For example, they use personality tests to recommend companies for people to work for, or they analyse how closely a candidate will fit within company culture based on the information they’ve published on social media.

The main differentiators within these startups seems to be in the size and type of their user bases. These include both people wanting employment and the companies they’re working with who offer employment. For instance, several startups now focus solely on the job-hungry student market. Others focus on a particular type of employers. Marketing employees to other startups also seems to be in vogue. To me, this does rather suggest that startups have more money to spend than I would otherwise have assumed.

There may be a startup market here, but my recommendation is that this area is just too crowded for anything other than for an idea that is really original and tightly marketed.

I also overheard a discussion where people I took to be potential startup investors were expressing the same concern about overexposure regarding dating sites.

 

2 – Startups Are Struggling To Recruit Technical Candidates With An Entrepreneurial Mindset

Several speakers stressed that the first employee of a startup needs to be very carefully chosen and that this person would likely make or break the future success of the startup. Other speakers discussed the difficulty of finding employees who possessed the necessary skillset, generally requiring both technical and business skills.

You might think that startups would provide an ideal opportunity for students, but for many, this is not the case. The challenge here is that most students are not all-rounders and many of the most technically able graduates have no interest in moving into a combined role like the one being requested. The best graduates are also snapped up by the traditional companies. The idea that every student is a potential entrepreneur and is interested in the startup world is often pushed, but it’s a false one.

What that does mean is that students who do want to join leading startups at an early stage, perhaps as a Chief Technical Officer, should be looking to identify their weak skill points and correct them. That may mean gaining additional programming experience, but more likely, this means engaging with the startup culture and developing the skills needed to pitch and present. I’ve covered the benefits of hackathons on the blog several times and these offer an excellent way for students to simulate the skills needed by startups, as well as to provide for CV enhancement.

I did hear one of the speakers demeaning the lack of JavaScript teaching on Computer Science degrees. Although I’m not completely in agreement here that this isn’t covered, I would hope that students wanting to work in startups would be looking to learn additional technical skills for themselves to supplement the core subject knowledge and principles taught at university.

 

3 – Computing Students Need To Have A Developed Professional Online Presence

I was one of the first people in the UK to promote the need for students to have a developed professional online presence and to use this to present themselves positively on social media. Since then, I’ve provided many staff development workshops on the subject, developed podcasts to help students and published findings as academic papers.

For Computing and Computer Science students, the need for a developed professional online presence and portfolio is even greater than for many others students. That’s one more reason I’ve encouraged students to work on open source projects, develop software at hackathons and publish on Github.

During the conference, Leela Srinivasan from Lever listed the 10 sites that she believed best for finding talented employees to work on students.

Students looking to work for a startup or for summer experience could do far worse than reverse engineering this list. As well as being visible online, having even a simple app on an app store demonstrated additional skills and the difference maker mindset that so appeals to startups. Posting valuable technical information online is also a good indicator of student talent.

 

Take Advantage Of Opportunities

I do have to stress how valuable events like Startup Grind are for students and for startup companies, but they are also valuable to others on the fringe side of those movements.

Just tweeting at an event like Startup Grind is an excellent way to grow a professional reach. It helps to share the event with people who couldn’t attend, helps to promote the companies involved and helps with the development of professional contacts. And, I can tell you that the reach from many of my tweets was massive.

I’m continually interested in working with startups, consulting with them, providing access to students and helping students to gain opportunities. For companies looking to share the knowledge that they’ve gained during their startups, student (and academic) audiences are also perfect for that. Feel free to talk to me if I can help further.

A Decade Of Contract Cheating – The Demand For Essay Writing Jobs

10 In 10 Contract Cheating Series – Part 3

This is the third in a 10 part series looking at how contract cheating has changed since the term was first publicised in a research paper and presentation in June 2006.

 

The Academic Job Market

One of the lesser spoken about developments in contract cheating has been the emergence of a whole group of writers who are willing to create original work for students.

On the face of it, academic writing services (as these are commonly known), do not look to offer the most appealing employment prospects. The work can be repetitive and includes long periods sat in front of a computer screen. The work is seasonal and demand unpredictable. And, this work is helping students to cheat, an area which should raise ethical concerns for anyone involved in the industry.

So, why do people complete assignments for others and how in demand really is this work? This contract cheating blog post sets out to explore what’s involved.

 

Who Writes Essays For Other Students?

Although, this used to be an industry that operated behind closed doors, nowadays writers seem much happier talking to academics and the media about what they do and why, as well as publishing their own blog posts (and even books) about their involvement in the industry,

Here are profiles of just a few of the types of people involved in writing essays and preparing bespoke assignments for students,

  1. The Accidental Essay Writer
    There are examples all over the Internet of people who have signed up for online writing jobs, expecting to be writing feature articles or web content, only to discover that most of the work was academic in nature. Other people have signed up looking to deliver tutorial services, only to find that most of the work was actually doing all of the work for students.
    Vic Boyd tells one such story in the Times Higher Education, talking about a website opportunity she was offered that stated “Develop your academic writing career online!” It turned out to involve writing work for students.
  2. The Business Opportunist
    The money involved in writing academic work for students can be good, particularly for writers who are skilled enough to identify assignment types that they can turn around quickly and achieve a high wage for.
    The Shadow Scholar, Ed Dante, for instance talked about making more than $66,000 USD a year as a ghostwriter for student work (and later published a book and a series of blog posts about his academic ghostwriting experience).
    Others have discussed how writing work for students is one of the most lucrative forms of writing jobs out there.
  3. The “Would Rather Be An Academic”
    An unusual culture of writer has developed who state that they would have preferred a lecturing position, including people with PhDs.
    Their academic writing work may then have come about through necessity.
    One such online quote, which also expresses the money available, says:

    I write for an essay mill. The pay can be really good, $50 for an hours work? Ok! Got my PhD in history, but the schools chose to cut jobs and create online courses.

    BBC Radio 4 featured an interview with a UK academic ghostwriting (a summary is available here). He expressed that he was offering this service as revenge for not being able to obtain an academic position.

  4. The UK Graduates
    Several examples have emerged of graduates from a UK degree then moving overseas to their home country and offering assignment production services. They would take the skills that they’d developed during their degree and would hence be in demand.
    The article, A Close Encounter With Ghost-Writers, explores several such cases. It also identifies very qualified writers, such as those with doctorates and those with experience teaching in higher education – all areas that I’ve explored in my own research.
  5. The Career Writers
    One of the most concerning developments is the set of writers who look at this as a valuable career path.
    On the face of it, academic writing for students can be a good profession. There’s flexibility to work from home and to not need to keep set hours. It can fit around other responsibilities. It is brain work, rather than manual work. And, there is the potential to earn well for people who know who to identify the correct links.
    But, most of the ghostwriters that I’ve identified in this field seem to be more the equivalent of web content writers. That means, they’re like those people who turn out multiple low quality blog posts every hour, receiving only a few dollars back for a day’s work.
    One such site which helps people to find writing jobs states the likely wage that they’ll receive as an academic writer:

    During the low season the CPP (cost per page) can go as low as $2 – $5, but during the peak season depending on the level of your account, the CPP can go as high as $10 – $20

    From my observations, the lower end of that pay scale is a much more common pay rate for writers, particularly for those in developing economies or whom English is not their first language. A page is approximately 275 words, so writing can cost under 1c per word.
    Still, rates such as these can be considered high in many economies, particularly where work of any kind is in short supply. I’ve even seen examples where freelance workers have asked not to be paid more, for fear that it could bring unwanted attention to them.

Would You “Pay To Work” As An Academic Writer?

A further interesting development is the market in people helping others to get academic writing jobs.

Much of this is financially driven. I’ve seen examples of all of the following ways of making money from other writers:

  • commissions on writer earnings by referring writers to a site
  • paid training packages, showing writers how to pass essay site tests, or how to writers essay in the form that sites like
  • services to take the entrance tests required to get accounts on writing sites
  • services to hide the location of writers, so they can get around location restrictions (for instance, none native writers trying to get the rates advertised for natives)

There are whole online communities where writers discuss the different essay industry providers and try to identify which sites are the best to work for.

A whole black market in developing and selling accounts for essay writing firms has also developed, aimed at those writers who can’t easily get their own accounts.

Although much of this is done through private communities, there are some examples visible on public sites, such as Facebook.

academicwritingaccounts

As the image shows, the range of accounts available is huge, covering many popular academic freelancing sites, some of which even have an account balance waiting to be withdrawn. This particular example is largely for the writing market in Kenya, one of many locations where writing jobs are sought after.

The rates for buying writing accounts such as these are not cheap, ranging from anything from $100 USD at the lower end, to $1000 USD for established accounts at the upper end. That would take some time to pay back at the bottom end rate of $2 USD per page. There is also always the risk of accounts being shut down once transferred, particularly if the new owner receives poor feedback.

 

Should We Address The “Writing Providers” For The Essay Industry?

These are just a few examples of the power behind the online writing industry, particularly when it’s accompanied with many more writers than are ever needed for the demand that is out there. Indeed, there are workers who have complained about the internal competition within the writing industry bringing wages down.

I’ve only included a few examples of the types of writers completing assessment for students here. There are many more examples in the recent talks and keynotes that I’ve delivered.

Indeed, the whole field of who writes what and why is much more complicated than this. I’ve observed a writer online who only likes to take on high level work at MSc or PhD level as he relishes the intellectual challenge. I’ve also spoken to a writer who is happy to complete work on a variety of subjects, regardless if he has any personal experience, but draws the line at subjects that causes him ethical concerns, such as nursing.

Nevertheless, there is good work available for writers who understand the marketing side of the business, how to develop student links and how to charge more for the work that they’re doing.

From an academic perspective, we need to be continuing to address all sections of this writing business. How can we identify the low-end writers who turn out continual turn-key type assessments, but clearly do enough to pass? And, how can we make producing high end assignments impossible, even though there is a lot of money moving around here, so clearly incentives from the writing side for this to continue?

The essay industry continues to be a complex beast.

 

This article is part of a series of posts looking at the developments in contract cheating over the past 10 years. Take a look at the remaining parts of the 10 in 10 contract cheating series here

 

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.

BCUHack_eduLevel

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:

https://elevator.jisc.ac.uk/e/startup-projects-2016/idea/unilevel-learning-programming-th

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.

 

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