Computer Science & Philosophy

From Leeds to Oxford

While at Leeds, my teaching had focused largely on the boundary between Computing and Philosophy, and I had put great efforts into establishing three interdisciplinary degrees (Computing & Philosophy, Computing & Linguistics, and Cognitive Science). But after the University went modular in 1994, it became much harder to sustain these, and within a couple of years after my departure in 2005, all three had disappeared. Coming to Oxford raised the possibility of establishing the Computing/Philosophy combination far more prominently and securely, in a university which could guarantee good numbers of seriously bright applicants who would be able to cope with both the technical and the philosophical challenges. Oxford was also a place which might, in time, lead other universities to follow its example, as it had done so conspicuously with the excellent degree of PPE.

Accordingly, the term after I arrived at Oxford, I started investigating the possibility of founding a new degree programme in Computer Science & Philosophy – this would be the first new Philosophy combination since PML in 1973 (three years before I first came as an undergraduate!). Discussions with the head of teaching in Computer Science (Prof. Gavin Lowe) proved positive, and over the next few years we together cautiously developed plans and started pushing them through the University's baroque committee structures (which seemed like an endurance race with hurdle after hurdle that had to be crossed, convincing Departments, Faculties, Divisions, Colleges, Admissions, Libraries, Careers, and various other oversight bodies). It became clear to me, however, that before making this big push, it was crucial to provide a strong answer to the perennial question that had been familiar to me throughout my career: "Computing and Philosophy – how [on earth] are they connected?" So I put together the website (pictured above on the right) to answer this question emphatically, by spelling out at length and in detail the huge range of connections between the two disciplines. This helped to persuade the sceptics, and in October 2012 the first eight students finally arrived to study the new degree, four of them being at Hertford College.

The Key Problem

Now the key problem was to persuade schoolchildren, teachers, and parents that this was an attractive and viable degree programme (see Why is This a Great Combination of Subjects? for some recent propaganda). Most students with the necessary mathematical ability would likely hate the idea of essays (as I did at school), and it was bound to be an uphill struggle persuading them to leave behind their strongest school subject(s) and opt for a joint degree combining two subjects that they were unlikely to have studied before. Even Computing seemed unattractive to most bright young mathematicians, because of its ubiquitous conflation with "Information Technology", a subject commonly aligned with business studies and widely considered as little more than tedious exercises learning to use Microsoft Office software etc. But very fortunately, in the same year that the new degree began, the government decided on a radical (and very welcome) change to the National Curriculum ...

2012: A Big Year for Computer Science (& Philosophy)

In January 2012, UK Education Secretary Michael Gove gave a speech announcing an overhaul of the school syllabus to do away with "boring IT lessions" and introduce teaching of Computer Science. In the wake of this, I was invited to speak at the national conference of IT teachers, explaining how programming could be taught effectively to young children using self-learning systems that require no prior special training on the part of the teachers. One of the upshots of that conference, on 21 June, was the first visit of very young children to Oxford to learn programming. Some memories of this were captured by Headteacher Karine George in her Tweets of the visit of Westfields Primary (35 children aged 9-10).

Meanwhile, also in 2012, Chris Roffey – a teacher who had created Coding Club – piloted a small UK version of an international schoolchildren's competition in computational thinking, called Bebras (Lithuanian for "beaver"). This attracted large numbers of contestants in European countries (especially France and Germany, where Angela Merkel had been supportive). His pilot involved only around 200, but it worked well, and in 2013 he rolled out UK Bebras on a larger scale, attracting around 21,000 British schoolchildren ...

Reviving Turtle and Elizabeth

In the wake of the introduction of Computer Science into schools – and spurred also by the start of our new Computer Science & Philosophy degree programme in October 2012 – I returned to the Turtle Graphics Programming and Elizabeth Chatbot systems which I'd created for introducing programming and artificial intelligence (respectively) when teaching in Computing and Philosophy at Leeds University. Both have been developed much further in the intervening years, and used in many dozens of outreach events.

Bebras and the Oxford Computing Challenge

Within a month of the 2013 Bebras competition, I heard that Chris Roffey was trying to link up with a university to build up further, as Bebras had done in most other countries. Thus Oxford University and Hertford College became jointly the UK Bebras "National Organisation". Chris and I together won sponsorship from ARM, Raspberry Pi, and Google (and vital support from the Hertford College Janeway Fund), which enabled us massively to expand the competition, while offering it entirely free to participants. In 2019, we entered into partnership with the Raspberry Pi Foundation, who are now providing continuing financial support, thus ending our yearly ordeal of seeking sponsorship. And thanks to Chris Roffey's magnificent efforts, the numbers taking part have grown hugely, reaching over a quarter of a million in 2019!

Since 2014, we have invited the top performing students to Oxford, spending the morning in the Department of Computer Science (where they have talks and undertake the final round of the competition) and the afternoon in Hertford College (where they have more talks, and an award ceremony in the Chapel). We do this over two weekends (four days), with around 60 (plus a guest) invited in each of the four age-groups (Years 6 to 13). In 2019 this meant that fewer than 1 in 1,000 applicants qualified for the final – a brilliant way of identifying promising students! A particular pleasure in the 2019 admissions round was to find that three of the top-performing UK Bebras participants from 2017 had applied to Hertford College to study Computer Science & Philosophy (I'm looking forward to teaching two of them)!

We have recently built on Bebras with a follow-on competition, to which the top 10% of contestants are invited. This is the Oxford Computing Challenge, which again has a prizegiving ceremony at Hertford College. As we had hoped, the system we developed to support this is now being used internationally, with an Australian version of the Oxford Computing Challenge.

Other Outreach Events

Since around 2014, I've typically been involved in roughly 25 to 30 outreach events for Computer Science & Philosophy per year. The pandemic has massively disrupted the current year, but prior to that, I was expecting: four Bebras "finals" days; two 4-day UNIQ summer schools (using Turtle and Elizabeth); two Royal Institution Masterclasses (again using Turtle and Elizabeth); one Computer Science dayschool, and an "Oxford Computing Challenge" prizewinners' event. This is in addition to the long-running standard events such as Open Days (both general and specific), school visits, teachers' conferences, and departmental taster days such as "Further Maths: What Next?", "Lesser-Spotted Sciences", "Philosophy Plus", and "Women in Computer Science". I've also presented a couple of times at the Hay Festival, at the Wellington Festival of Education, and at the BETT Show. So far, these outreach efforts appear to be succeeding: we have seen year-on-year rises in applications for Computer Science & Philosophy. Long may this continue!


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