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Case Studies in Computing

Tariq Aslam (Senior Lecturer) & James Shuttleworth (Assistant Head of Department)

Faculty of Engineering and Computing, Coventry University


We looked at various underlying principles and facets of computing from the BT Archives and overlapped this with the problem-based style of learning by way of exploration, interaction and discovery.

A set of case studies have been developed from the BT Archives to address a sample of the wide spectrum of computing and to fit in with various techniques of teaching and learning. Some of the cases have been successfully trialled in classes, labs and in research streams and some are currently in the process of being piloted.

The case studies and related exercises are aimed at a wide range of pedagogic levels - University Master level, some at undergraduate level and some involve the research of a wider body of source material beyond that found in BT Archives in drawing comparisons and conclusions.

Themes of study and research

The relationship of BT in formulating computing strategies and how that contributes to their proposition of business value as a representation of the Telecoms industry in the late 1970s. This requires analysis using Porter's value chain model considering not only primary and secondary activities but also external influences in the shape of a P.E.S.T.L.E. This research theme is then extended further to Masters- level research with a wider remit of the analysis of change in strategic thinking between a nationalised Post Office IT Strategy and that of a privatised British Telecom, looking at the role of global communications in the modern business culture and that of the future.

Another theme that is studied is the concepts of ‘design and the use of technology' by considering an early 1970s BT payphone kiosk and projecting to the current technology landscape. One looks to see how the internal design, technology and content can be mapped and realised in more current technologies shaped by the internet, web design, content management systems, social networking , Skype etc. By taking the interiors of a kiosk and then partitioning it into components of functionality and then using wire-framing techniques and applying ‘usability' principles one arrives at a web design that could then lend itself to implementation. This allows students to interact, apply and produce artefacts within a class/ lab session, enhancing the learning experience and contextualising academic principles.

Concepts of computing hardware and software are sometimes a challenge for undergraduate students to comprehend without the ‘hands on' approach. By developing cases where students can inspect original hardware concepts developed and used by BT, and then translate and implement them using current simulators, the students can then experiment with those simulations and thereby achieve that ‘hands on' interactivity and allow a better contextualised understanding of principles studied.

With respect to software, with the use of algorithms, cases have been developed that allow students to inspect BT's use of some very constrained programming languages (in the form of Algol and Fortran) and compare and contrast with existing advanced programming languages (such as PHP, Python, C++ etc.). This allows the exploration into software development lifecycles from the late 1960s and early 1970s to current practice. Students can recreate and test portions of the compared languages with current languages to determine ‘fitness' and effectiveness and explore the concepts underpinning them.

Ethical issues and protection of the rights of individuals is so important especially as technology develops and widens and indeed a key consideration as a theme. One cannot fail to see how instrumental BT were in consulting with the government on defining the Data Protection Act. By inspecting a series of letter conversations and drafts students can appreciate the process and realisation of ethical boundaries subject to the changing landscape of technology and its use. Hence a case study has been developed for review and for students to demonstrate their understanding.



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