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Integrating Communication Skills into the Computer

Science Curriculum

Katrina Falkner Nickolas J.G. Falkner


School of Computer Science School of Computer Science
The University of Adelaide The University of Adelaide
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia, 5005 Adelaide, South Australia, Australia, 5005
katrina.falkner@adelaide.edu.au nickolas.falkner@adelaide.edu.au

ABSTRACT ICT discipline at the Tertiary Education Level, identifies


Computer Science majors must be able to communicate eff- the teaching of personal skills, including communication of
ectively. Industry surveys identify the development of com- all kinds, as a key area for curriculum reform in the sec-
munication and critical thinking skills as key to the reform tor [15]. Employers identified communication and problem-
of the higher education sector. However, academics are chal- solving skills as the areas most in need for improvement.
lenged by time and discipline content pressures, as well as Communication skills are crucial to the careers of Com-
a lack of familiarity with the teaching and assessment of puter Science graduates. Graduates tend to be more suc-
communication skills content. There is considerable existing cessful when they demonstrate good communication skills
work in the area of communication skills development, po- and the ability to communicate clearly within a broad range
sitioned both in terms of curriculum guidelines for effective of settings [8]. The increasingly inter-disciplinary and inter-
communication skills development, and example communi- national nature of the Computer Science industry requires
cation skills activities. However, this research is deficient in professionals to be able to communicate clearly with clients
detailed, contextualised methodologies and frameworks for and colleagues, beyond the simple need to produce clear
the development of communication skills within the Com- and understandable software and software documentation.
puter Science curriculum. We present a new methodology, Pomykalski [23] states ‘the inability to write and think crit-
building upon well established theoretical frameworks, de- ically put information systems professionals at risk of being
signed to assist academics in the development of commu- left behind in a rapidly changing technological environment’.
nication skills activities integrated with discipline content The development of communication skills is more than
across the curriculum. We illustrate this methodology in the development of effective writing and presentation skills
the design of a CS1/CS2 communication skills course. for communicating with peers. A professional must learn to
communicate within the language of their discipline, and to
also communicate in the language used by readers or listen-
Categories and Subject Descriptors ers outside of the discipline. Communication, both spoken
K.3 [Computers & Education]: Computers and Informa- and written, is a crucial tool in the development of crit-
tion Science Education ical thinking skills and in support of the development of
discipline knowledge. Emig [6] discusses the broader under-
General Terms pinnings of the relationship between writing and learning,
drawing our attention to the established belief that higher
Human Factors
cognitive functions develop most fully when supported by
communications activities.
Keywords Why do Computer Science students rarely receive the de-
Communication Skills, Curriculum Design, CS1/CS2 gree of training in communication skills development that is
called for by both academic and industry groups? Very few
1. INTRODUCTION Computer Science curricula include a core course that incor-
porates the development of communication skills in the con-
Academics and industry bodies both recognise that Com-
text of computer science and, where these courses do exist,
puter Science students are characteristically grouped at the
the focus of these courses is on general writing skills, rather
middle and lower end of the spectrum of communication
than oral skills or professional communication skills [18, 10].
skills. The 2009 Australian Learning and Teaching Coun-
An increasingly crowded curriculum leaves little room for
cil (ALTC) report, Managing Educational Change in the
the development of non-technical areas [19].
We introduce a new methodology for the development of
communication skills within the Computer Science curricu-
Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for lum, building upon well established theoretical frameworks
personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are for understanding and designing communication skills activi-
not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies ties. We extend these approaches through a methodology for
bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to (a) identification of communication skills activities that pro-
republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific
permission and/or a fee.
vide depth and breadth in skill development, and (b) their
SIGCSE’12, February 29–March 3, 2012, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA. composition and integration with discipline content and as-
Copyright 2012 ACM 978-1-4503-1098-7/12/02 ...$10.00.

379
sessment activities. To demonstrate our new methodology, an approach whereby writing is integrated across all courses
we provide several examples of extended and new activities within the curriculum, and used as an active learning ap-
and demonstrate their inclusion in an integrated curriculum. proach to facilitate the development of both non-technical
and technical skills. The WAC model is based on the fol-
2. RELATED WORK lowing principles:
The ability for students to reflect upon the need for com- • writing is the responsibility of the entire academic com-
munication skills in their future careers is key to their learn- munity,
ing. Placing the teaching of communication skills within a
discipline context is more engaging and crucial in the long • writing must be integrated across departmental bound-
term recollection and application of these skills [1]. Sev- aries,
eral studies have reported on Communication Skills courses
• writing instruction must be continuous during all four
designed for the Computer Science context, both as indepen-
years of undergraduate education,
dent courses [14, 12] and through integrating communication
skills content within an existing course [4, 16, 21, 22]. Inde- • writing promotes learning, and
pendent courses, the majority, are often tangentially placed
within the discipline context, and fail to include discipline- • students begin to communicate effectively within an
specific tasks. Students are, therefore, unable to relate the academic discipline only by practising the conventions
writing activities directly to their experiences of the disci- of that discipline.
pline [12], missing an opportunity to express information
The consistent integration throughout a curriculum, based
about their discipline in new and productive ways.
on WAC, identifies communication as a requirement of the
Kay [14] introduces a dedicated communication skills
discipline. Further, it allows students to experience the
course for Computer Scientists that contains a wide range of
learning impact of communication and assists them in adopt-
communications activities including technical writing, oral
ing communication as a learning tool. Teaching communi-
presentations and writing for electronic media. Kay pro-
cation in context encourages students to use the direct ex-
poses the inclusion of a specialised technical context through
plication of writing skills to develop an awareness of, and
the construction of a simple prototype software system
habitual use of, communication, both in general and in dis-
around which example assignments can be framed. Michael
cipline specific communication.
[21] builds upon Kay’s work to identify the strategies re-
Consistent integration of communication skills promotes
quired in constructing an integrated communication skills
opportunities for practice and reflective development; it is
course for Computer Scientists. Fell et al [7] identify a set of
well recognised that practise is a crucial component in the
writing assignments that may be used from introductory to
process towards achieving expertise in an area [24] and this
advanced courses. Several authors have defined course struc-
is no different in the development of communication skills.
tures for specific discipline courses, including data struc-
Further, the development of expertise in communication pro-
tures [13] and junior programming [21]. Pollock [22] dis-
motes the development of discipline expertise: students’ un-
cusses the structure of a graduate level course with an em-
derstanding of the discipline content associated with com-
phasis on writing for developing research skills, while Der-
munication tasks correlates to the degree of practise, and
rick [3] presents strategies for efficient assessment within a
number of tasks undertaken [2].
similar context.
In this paper, we move beyond the definition of a single
communications skill activity or course, to present a method- 3. PROPOSED METHODOLOGY
ology for the construction of communication skills curricula We build upon, and extend, the well established framework
for the Computer Science discipline. Fell et al [7] present of WAC and the categorisation work of Taffe to define a
a summary of writing in CS courses, and examples of in- methodology for understanding and designing communica-
tegrating communication skills components within common tion skills curricula. This new methodology enables aca-
discipline assignments in introductory and advanced pro- demics to identify activities that demonstrate depth and
gramming courses. Kussmaul [17] develops a methodology breadth in communication skills development. A matrix as-
for developing communication skills based on Agile methods. sists academics in the selection and appropriate composition
Dugan and Polanski [5] present a taxonomy of writing of activities, with an accompanying series of principles that
tasks, defined by writing for learning, writing for academic assist academics in integration with discipline content.
communication, and writing for industrial communication,
and a general guide to incorporating writing into any com- 3.1 Theoretical Foundations
puter science course. This taxonomy can be used to select a Developing facility with the language of Computer Science
specific subset of writing tasks appropriate for the purpose requires two areas of focus: learning to understand and ap-
and experience of the students. Taffe [25] identifies three ply the technical concepts introduced, and learning to com-
categories of writing within Computer Science: writing to municate these concepts in both specialised and ordinary
develop facility with the language of the discipline; writing language in ways appropriate to the audience. Writing to
to explain results of a study; and writing as a process of explain the results of a study incorporates the more formal
clarification. Despite their contribution, these studies ne- communications tasks undertaken by discipline profession-
glect the perspective of developing communication skills in als, including user documentation, performance reports and
both depth and breadth across the curriculum. software documentation, as well as more informal commu-
Perhaps the most successful approaches to teaching com- nications, such as presentations, program summaries and
munication skills are those based on Fulwiler and Young’s discussions. It is this category that is commonly integrated
Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) [9]. WAC describes into the Computer Science curriculum.

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Table 1: A Matrix for Communication Skills Activity Identification.
Developing Facility Explanation and Description Clarification

Reflections (journals, blogs); One Minute


Reflections (journals, blogs), Question One Minute Activities (designs, program
WTL Activities (concept summaries, essays);
d posing summaries), forum postings, email
Question posing
e
p
t Project Proposals; Thesis Statement;
Concept Maps; Glossaries; Resume; Portfolios; Project Reports; User
h Article Reviews; Program Comparisons;
WID Thesis Statement; Experimental Documentation; Essays; APIs; Online
Program Summaries; Meeting minutes;
Descriptions; Citation Documentation; Demonstrations
Group discussion and debates

CDC Innovation Report; Performance Report; Lab Reports; Presentations

WAC programs typically promote the use of Writing to be combined with a concept map in order to provide deep
Learn (WTL) activities: informal writing assignments that development of facility with the discipline language. Similar
enable students to analyse and develop key concepts pre- activities are represented at different points within the ma-
sented in a course. This is in contrast to Writing in the trix, for example the classification of one-minutes activities.
Discipline (WID) activities, which model the formal com- This demonstrates the utility of a single activity in develop-
munication required for professionals within a discipline. In- ing multiple skill areas - and the importance of recognising
corporating both WTL and WID tasks within a curriculum these activities as such so that they can be framed and as-
is necessary as the capacity built through the completion of sessed appropriately.
WTL activities leads to the ability to successfully attempt We identify four communication skills activities within
WID activities [20]. the CDC category: innovation report, performance report,
laboratory report and presentation. These activities repre-
3.2 Developing Curricula sent the culmination of skill development in terms of depth
Our methodology combines the categorisations introduced gained through experience in WTL and WID activities, and
by WAC and Taffe to develop a matrix of communication span Taffe’s categories.
skills categories that guide the inclusion of communication
skills activities within the Computer Science curriculum (Ta- 3.3 Guiding Principles
ble 1). The matrix acts as a curriculum mapping tool that We identify four principles to guide both the selection of
can be used to ascertain expected depth and breadth in ex- activities from the provided matrix, and their integration
posure to communication skills development within a cur- with discipline courses.
riculum. In addition to the categories of WTL and WID,
1. Link communication skills activities with discipline ac-
we define a new category, Communicating Discipline Con-
tivities and course objectives to provide motivation,
tent (CDC), which represents the deepest level of commu-
engagement and active learning.
nication within the discipline while, concurrently, enabling
students to model the full range of Computer Science com- 2. Bridge informal to formal activities, to enable model-
munication skills. ing of communication via informal activities and ap-
Table 1 illustrates both the classification of communica- plication within the discipline to provide a professional
tion skills activities when combining both categorisations perspective.
and how these activities may be combined to achieve both
depth and breadth. When both categorisations are viewed 3. Use a range of activities that reflect the different types
together, with the appropriate classification of activities, of writing undertaken by Computer Science profession-
we are able to identify more precisely the aspect of skill als, including the kind of communication involved (as
development that is being addressed. For example, using per Taffe), and communicating for a range of audi-
this matrix, we are able to identify that although the se- ences, a range of mediums and levels of interactivity.
lection of reflections and user documentation provide depth 4. Use self- and peer-assessment where appropriate to en-
through the development from WTL to WID, they are each gage students further in the reflection and review pro-
addressing a different form of Computer Science communi- cess, and provide opportunities for informal grading
cation, and hence the desired bridging between activities is and feedback.
not achieved. Similarly, the combination of an experimental
description, performance report, and program summary can The principles we define assist faculty to identify commu-
be combined to demonstrate the spectrum of discipline com- nication skills activities that work with their existing dis-
munication skills. This particular combination of WID ac- cipline content or assessment tasks. Gribbin advises that
tivities, however, we can identify as more appropriate for an one ‘need look no further than the course objectives stated
advanced course where students have had prior opportunity in the syllabus’ when designing communication skills activi-
to develop their expertise through informal WTL activities. ties [11]. This statement makes a direct connection between
Our matrix enables faculty to determine a target aspect of each writing or speaking activity and the discipline objec-
skill development: how we can design courses to provide the tive that it is supporting. Communication skills activities
intended depth, breadth, or combination, that is intended. are complementary to discipline content; they are designed
For example, the selection of reflections as an activity can to aid understanding of the discipline content, engaging the

381
Table 2: An Example Curriculum.
Developing Facility Explanation and Description Clarification

d One Minute Activities (designs, program Reflections (blogs); One Minute Activities
WTL Reflections (blogs)
e summaries) (concept summaries)
p
t WID Glossaries; Citation APIs; Online Documentation; Group discussion and debates
h
CDC Innovation Report; Performance Report; Presentations

students through their independent study and assignment entry each week with appropriate citation for all sources,
work to explore further the discipline concepts. contributing an element of peer review and feedback. This
Many discipline academics are also reluctant to adopt sig- activity provides practice in the use of language within the
nificant communication skills assignments in their courses discipline, through the development of a discipline tool that
because of the perceived time required for assessment and can be used throughout the remainder of their studies.
evaluation of these assignments [11]. However, not all com-
munications assignments require formal grading. Peer re- 3.4.2 Explanation and Description
view is a commonly used form of assessment for informal Informal One Minute Activities require students to complete
learning activities, providing the valuable components of as- a small communications task prior to, or during, class that
sessment and feedback, while further encouraging analysis is related to a concept or assessment task from their dis-
and reflection within the class. cipline courses. In the context of explanation and descrip-
tion, we focus on the use of small design tasks or program
3.4 Implementation summaries, primarily targetting the understanding of funda-
To demonstrate our methodology, we define the activities mental programming concepts and the application of those
and structure of a pilot communication skills course designed concepts through the development and analysis of brief code
to be taught in an integrated fashion across two discipline segments [26]. Again, peer review and feedback can be in-
courses - an introductory programming course and a data corporated to provide regular, informal feedback and oppor-
structures course1 . We apply our methodology in both the tunities for reflection.
selection of activities (as illustrated in Table 2), and in their • Write a pseudo-code description of the following algo-
integration with discipline content. rithm: ...
We can immediately identify the need to include several
WTL activities, as these activities will serve as the bedrock • Explain the design of the algorithm that you have de-
for future communication skill development, and will enable veloped for this assignment...
students to develop good learning behaviours built around
Building upon the One Minute Activities, we define a com-
communication. However, it is also necessary to include
bined API and online documentation WID activity, involv-
aligned WID activities to encourage skill development within
ing the development of detailed online Application Program-
the discipline, developing communication skills and enabling
ming Interface (API) documentation for a Java class that
deeper learning of discipline concepts. The course structure
students had developed in their introductory programming
culminates with the inclusion of CDC activities, to provide
course. Students were required to use the Javadoc environ-
a unifying activity within the discipline combining all forms
ment to develop their API documentation, and were asked
of Computer Science communication. Detailed assessment
to provide a psuedo-formal algorithm description for each
criteria, in the form of rubrics, are provided for each activ-
method in their class, identifying any special cases and pro-
ity, with an emphasis on understanding assessment criteria
viding an explanation of data used in the method. Students
integrated into the assessment of all activities.
were also asked to provide several examples of the usage of
each method, highlighting special cases. This activity en-
3.4.1 Developing Facility
abled students to develop a better understanding of object
Personal reflections in a journal or blog enable students to oriented design and the algorithms they had designed and
write freely about their study experiences, their transition implemented.
to tertiary study and the associated assessment practices.
In the context of developing facility, reflections encourage 3.4.3 Clarification
students to learn and use the language of their discipline Reflections and One Minute Activities are also used for
and study environment. their ability to aid clarification. In their regular reflections,
The glossary activities require weekly contributions to an students are able to move beyond use of the discipline lan-
online collaborative glossary, with each student required to guage to clarification of concepts, aiding by self review of
contribute one new entry, or add discussion to an existing their reflections each week to observe their own develop-
1 ment. In this context, concept summaries are adopted as
In our case study, the communication skills course exists
as a separate course as it is undertaken by a specialised the One Minute Activity, again influenced by Zobel [26].
cohort of international students, from multiple prior institu- For this subset of One Minute Activities, we integrated a
tions, however, these activities could be as easily embedded group discussion element to mimic professional behaviour,
directly into the discipline courses. bridging directly from WTL to WID.

382
• Select a section of your textbook (less than 1 page) ments to test their hypothesis, the design and completion of
and identify the five main points. a test code suite to undertake their experiments and the final
write-up of all of the stages along with the analysis of their
• Take the five main points you constructed earlier and results. This activity was designed to develop understand-
rewrite the section without looking at it. ing of complexity analysis (typically a challenging topic for
our students), the process of performance analysis, as well
• Select a section from your textbook (1-2 pages) and
as models for documenting performance information.
summarise it in 500 words. Repeat this using 400
words, then 300 words and finally 100 words. Which
is the best version?
3.5 Findings
3.4.4 Communicating Discipline Content In our analysis we explore the impact of continual expo-
Our new CDC category highlights discipline activities that sure of communication skills development in a pilot study,
build further upon the skills developed in WTL and WID, following the first cohort who have taken this course and
combining skills chosen from the range of developing facility subsequently graduated. Students found the activities in
through to clarification. In our course structure, we adopt the communication skills course to be more challenging than
three activities to illustrate CSC: the innovation report, per- those they had previously undertaken in general communi-
formance report and presentations. These activities effec- cations skills courses. This is unsurprising, in that our ex-
tively act as capstone experiences in relation to the develop- pectations were greater: students are developing discipline
ment of communication skills, enabling students to further knowledge concurrently with facility with communication.
develop and also evaluate their skill development. However, students also found these activities more reward-
Perhaps the most engaging of the communication skills ac- ing and helpful in developing their understanding of disci-
tivities, the Innovation Report requires students to research pline content. Perhaps the best way to analyse the impact
and write a report on an innovative technology of their of the communication skills activities is to ascertain whether
choice. Demonstrating the creativity and breadth within the students involved in the course felt the impact of the
Computer Science, this assignment asked students to iden- course activities on their communication skills and their un-
tify a new innovation, provide evidence of the innovative na- derstanding of discipline content. It is worth noting here
ture and give a brief description of how this innovation might that these students are international students undertaking
change our world. The Innovation Report enables students their first semester of study, and as such are unfamiliar with
to develop their research skills within their discipline, and both informal and formal communication in English. Within
requires them to master discipline concepts in order to un- the Reflections exercise, students wrote freely about their
derstand their innovation. The Innovation Report provides experiences, and reflected upon both the changes to their
the opportunity for students to demonstrate each category learning and understanding of appropriate study skills:
of language skill: facility, explanation and description and
This week I started to prepare my performance
clarification, and through its extension in the presentation
analysis report. It was my first time to do write
skills activity (below) utilises multiple communication medi-
this kind of report. It is much harder. I needed to
ums. Sample topics were provided to the students, includ-
test more and analysis the programs much deeper.
ing: the influence of cloud computing on high performance
It was a good way for me to understand the pro-
computing, nanocomputing, touch screen devices, and the
grams what I need to analysis.
integration of technology into every day items.
Presentation activities are included throughout the course All the week, every classmate are working on the
structure, typically building upon the One Minute Activ- practical exercises. It is really a hard work for
ities embedded throughout. These presentations enabled a newcomer student. Frequently, I think I have
students to further embed the skills associated with those mastered the knowledge after took the lecture, how-
homework activities through the use of several communica- ever, once I’m in practice in front of the com-
tion mediums, whilst also acknowledging the student pref- puter, I found it’s not quite as I thought before.
erence for a specific communication medium. In addition, Even more, I can not run a program. I believe
we included two more substantial presentations, the first on that is the main difference between practice and
a discipline topic of the students’ choice, enabling students merely thinking.
to build familiarity in the use of formal presentation tools
and structure, and the second a presentation on their In- We have been able to observe the performance and behaviour
novation Report. This second presentation employed the of this pilot group across their program of study. Course Co-
same presentation tools, structure, and assessment criteria. ordinators for the related discipline courses have reported
In this presentation, students were also asked to complete increased facility by these students in understanding assess-
peer-assessment for one other student. Building from the ment tasks and completing language-rich assessments. Final
feedback from their WTL presentation enabled students to examination questions for these courses were classified as ei-
reflect upon their own assessment and assessment criteria. ther mathematical or linguistic, based on whether the ques-
The performance analysis report requires students to anal- tion could be solved using a mathematical solving method,
yse, compare and report on the complexity analysis of two or required deeper understanding and discussion of concepts.
data structures studied in their discipline course. This activ- Students who had undertaken the communications skills ac-
ity again provides elements from developing facility to clar- tivities achieved better performance in the linguistic ques-
ification, in that it consists of several sub-activities: start- tions than previous cohorts, as they were able extract more
ing with the identification of their hypothesis - verification information from the question and then provide an answer
of algorithmic complexity, the design of a series of experi- in a way that matched more appropriately the assessment

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