Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS)



Professor Andrew McGettrick, Pre-eminent Educator and Scientist, shares his views on education and the broader computing challenges

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Andrew McGettrick.

Professor Andrew McGettrickEducation:

  • BSc (hons) in Pure Mathematics, University of Glasgow
  • PhD in Pure Mathematics (Number Theory), Cambridge
  • Diploma (distn) in Computer Science, Cambridge (Peterhouse)
2005 SIGCSE Award for Lifetime Service presented at the 36th SIGCSE Technical Symposium held in St. Louis, Missouri, February 23-27, 2005.
Honorary degree of D Univ from Open University, conferred in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 28th May 2005.


52.422 - High Integrity Systems

Royal Society of Edinburgh, ACM, BCS, IET

Research Interests:
Software engineering, in particular formal methods in support of safety critical systems
Use of computers in support of teaching and learning
Quality issues in higher education

Research Affiliations:
EPSRC reviewer
Associate editor of the Computer Journal
Reviewer for IEEE Software
Reviewer for Research Councils in Australia and the Swedish Council for the renewal of Undergraduate Education

Chair of ACM Education Board and Education Council 2007 - present
Vice-President (Qualifications and Standards) BCS 2004 = present
Computer Science series editor for Taylor and Francis
Member of UK Engineering Council
Member of UK Science Council
Chair of Committee producing UK Computing Benchmarking Reports


To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link

The latest blog on the interview can be found in the IT Managers Connection (IMC) forum where you can provide your comments in an interactive dialogue.


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

:00:48: Andrew profiles his background and what triggered his interest in computing.

:02:29: In your prior roles, what were the three most difficult challenges that you were not able to overcome at that time? What would you do differently now?
"....In terms of what I would do differently, there's not much that I would really change. You do your best at the time and then you live with it. I've never really looked back with regrets, I've always tried to look forward and be positive...."

:05:58: What were the key disruptive forces driving change in your life and how can we learn from your experiences?
"....Disruptive forces are not always bad....Having a family is a disruptive force that has taught me a lot. Particularly it's taught me that every single student is different, has different needs and aspirations and therefore have to be treated differently....Technological developments are certainly disruptive because they cause you to reflect on what you teach and tend to change your views on many things including how you teach and what constitutes good work, etc....I get involved in a lot of editing of textbooks and that can be disruptive. You get proposals coming in from all walks of life, from all corners of the earth and you get people presenting different views...."

:08:14: In "all" of your current roles, what are the biggest challenges and their solutions?
"....As Chair of ACM's Education Board my biggest challenge is pushing ahead with computer education agendas at all levels of ACM education and Board and Education Councils....One of the major challenges is the pace of technological developments and the fact that some of the developments such as multi-core computing are actually threatening the way we do business (the way we program, develop software, etc.)....As someone involved in the educating of students of computing, we need to change all the aspects of that process. We need to change what we teach, how we teach it....I'm also involved as one of the vice-presidents of the British Computer Society. I've just been given the task of putting together a new engineering and science board. The challenge is how do we support engineering and science within the society. How do we move the society in a meaningful way closer to the engineering and science community...."

:13:15: What do you see as the role of Informatics Education in the 21st century?
"....When you put that all together, computing and informatics are really about enhancing the capability and capacity of the individual, extending their horizons and abilities; making them more effective as individuals in all sorts of ways. That's true only if individuals have a disciplined and an educated approach to the way in which they use computers and information that they make available. For me, Informatics Education is about just that...."

:16:28: How can we heighten the status of computing education?
"....It's about changing views and about changing attitudes. We all know that change on that scale is not easily accomplished...."

:18:43: Andrew talks about the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery).

:20:46: Can you expand further on the challenges in computing education?
"....Education has got to be conducted in a context that is meaningful to the audience. For us the audience is normally young and is highly diverse (males, females, ethnic minorities, etc.). The education has to appeal to all of them, but be relevant to all of them....There's a lot of scope and deep insight for experimentation in that whole area in order to understand what we need to be doing now....."

:22:28: Do you see your work and others tying into this whole idea of computational thinking? Can you also define computational thinking or computational concepts?
"....One of the biggest contributions of the phrase 'computational thinking' actually is to stimulate discussion about what it means and how to properly interpret it. I think those who coined the phrase had in mind the notion that in other disciplines, in physics, chemistry, biology and math, etc., there are ways of thinking that come from computing and are relevant in these other disciplines...."

:29:34: In the K-12 space many of the attitudes are set and that's going to determine enrollments into post-secondary. What do you think about the Alice and Scratch environments for both the teaching and learning about computing?
"....One of the things we have to do in computing education is to address this whole issue of the context in which students learn, and part of that is finding languages or environments that they find attractive and appealing so they want to explore...."

:31:07: What are your views on safety critical systems development?
"....I think it is very hard and very technical. It's not just about building software that needs to be perfect, but it's also necessary that whatever translations software, the compilers, etc. or the supporting software such as operating systems and interfaces including the hardware and the communications - they all need to be perfect as well....Another difficulty with these safety critical systems is that they tend to be long life systems....Yet if you're dealing with a safety critical system, that system has got to continue to work properly even in the context of all that level of change....Safety critical systems keep getting larger and larger because the imagination of individuals shows no bounds and people want to make bigger and better systems....."

:34:02: Can you share your ideas around formal methods and software engineering?
"....One of the problems is that it is usually associated with mathematics and mathematics with younger people is often not that popular. In the computing context, formalism is important in that it is often the key to automation to building software and automating something. One of the challenges in computing education is conveying and demonstrating the benefits and attractions of formalism to students and doing that in a way that doesn't drown them in the mathematics...."

:35:26: What are the three most important broader computing challenges and solutions?
"....The public image of the discipline in the eyes of students, parents, employers....Programming and the teaching of programming....Formal methods - they tend to be unpopular. Yet exposing students to a certain amount of formalism is actually important...."

:40:12: When you look at some of the other professions there is a tie-in between the educational system and the profession. Do you see IT and this whole area of computing moving in that direction? What are your views on that?
"....In the field of engineering there is the Washington Accord, an agreement about recognition of engineering degrees in different countries, such as in the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and so on.....In the world of Informatics, approximately a year ago there was a new Accord that was developed in Seoul, South Korea. The Seoul Accord is a developing mutual understanding of all undergraduate degrees in the UK, US, South Korea, and various other countries. The developments are about trying to look at qualifications of professionals and seeing mutual recognition between different countries. This has been developed under IP3 and there are things happening there that are at a relatively early stage of development and it will be interesting to see how that goes...."

:44:14: Provide your predictions of future computing trends and their implications/opportunities?
"....The technological trends are clear in that they relate to faster, cheaper, and so on. Part of that is increasing attention to mobility and what that entails. The trends in terms of hardware, the increasing number of cores. They are not just leading to huge challenges in the world of software development but all of that has an effect on the world of education. Also in the world of licensing...."

:49:10: How can industry and academia work more effectively together?
"....In many computing departments you'll find that the departments have industrial advisory boards to offer advice and guidance as to what they want from graduates....There are issues there for universities and institutions to make sure they get a balanced and representative perspective....Another thing about industry is the issue of the context in which computing is taught. Industry can typically offer context which students find inspiring and motivating....Developing relatively close partnerships between the industry presenters and the teacher, and also producing materials that can be used in the classroom that can be built on and developed will ensure that the work of the inspirational presenter is not confined just to the single lecture and reaps longer term benefits....Another way in which academia and industry can work together is that if industry is doing some amazing developments, it would be wonderful if good students could have the opportunity to access the latest developments and to be involved in them in some sense...."

:54:00: What can we do to foster international cooperation between disciplines and different types of bodies in order to achieve benefits for society?
"....The international dimension of education is something that's very important. At the level of student mobility on an international front within Europe we have an agreement called the Bologna Agreement. This agreement encourages the mobility of students, exchange of staff, etc....The purpose is to ensure that some elements of comparability can occur...Within the computer societies in various countries there is attention to the mutual recognition and standing and we've spoken about the Washington Accord, the Seoul Accord and also about the development of those accords as an underpinning for professional qualifications that will facilitate mobility. In the ACM we see ourselves as an international organization involving folks from other countries and the international dimension is a rich source of input and a rich source of resource...."

:58:05: Can you talk more about the key initiatives in your role as Chair of the ACM Education Board and Council? What you hope to achieve?
"....The way in which the Education Board and the Education Council work together is that the Education Board manages the work of the Council. I would like to see the Educational Council being the place where it all happens, where major developments come before the Council, people get informed and so on. From the perspective of ACM what we need to do is to harness the enormous resources which exist within the ACM and apply them in such a way that it can bring about the resolution of some of the problems we have within the computing education community...."

:01:01:40: Andrew talks about the September meeting in Vancouver of the Education Council.

:01:09:57: From such a long history of success, what are some lessons you wish to pass on to the audience?
"....It's important to develop yourself to your maximum potential and take good opportunities when they come your way....If you are in the world of computing education, it's important to convey the passion and elegance of your discipline....Distinguishing between computing and bureaucracy....Developing the right kind of network from the level of students to the professional level. It's important for everyone that they never feel isolated....If you are dealing with quality in any sense, it's important to seek evidence of that quality. Remember that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link...."

:01:14:20: Which are your top recommended resources and why?
"....Other people, other thoughts, other experience, other institutions....Internet and digital libraries....Computer societies...."

:01:17:30: Andrew shares some stories (something surprising, unexpected, amazing, or humorous) from his work.

:01:23:13: If you were doing this interview, what questions would you ask and then what would be your answers?
"....'If you were given 10 million dollars for use in computing education, how would you use it?'....'How do you think the conflict between the research and teaching should be addressed and reconciled?'....'Why should computing or Informatics education be allowed to elbow its way in and therefore presumably elbow something out?'...."