Lauri Malmi

Recipient of the 2020 SIGCSE Award for Outstanding Contribution to CS Education

Perspectives on Research and Practice in Computing Education

Computing education research (CER) can provide us valuable support for developing educational practices in computer science. In this presentation, I discuss a selection of results and experiences, mostly gathered from PhD research in CER that has been carried out at Aalto University during the last 20 years. The main research context has been large-scale courses in programming as well as data structures and algorithms with many hundreds of students and scarce human teaching resources. Therefore, a lot of our work has been motivated by the need for building engaging online learning content and providing better feedback for students on their learning results and progress. These include research in algorithm and program visualization, interactive e-books, as well as challenges in addressing dropout problems and procrastination in programming courses.

While many benefits for students have been gained, there is also a price for it. The complexity of the educational software environment also creates increasing challenges for teachers. Creating interactive elements for online learning content is not trivial. Changes in underlying software and hardware may cause both unexpected service breaks and the need for planned software updates. There emerges a demand for more professional software project management and staff, which may exceed the capacity and skills of the regular IT support team. Well-functioning support should also be available for new teachers using the software.

Research is, of course, not software development. Novel software has had an important role in facilitating our research, and many technical contributions have been publishable. The main emphasis on the work, however, has been collecting and analyzing data on how students use the tools and what kind of impact they have on their learning process and learning results. Log data and various forms of numeric data need interpretation, and the real challenge is to build an understanding on the undergoing learning processes among the students, which are reflected in the numbers. Theories from education, educational psychology, and cognition science do help us, but we also need domain-specific theories on learning computing, which are still underdeveloped.

While research can contribute to improving quality of education in many ways, combining research and educational practice is not trivial. Our planned research settings may have ethical challenges, we may fail in many different ways to collect all relevant data, or the collected data might be biased. Moreover, even if we manage to build a successful intervention, reporting this to our colleagues to allow them to replicate it is often difficult. Our educational context is likely to be different and reporting all relevant contextual factors and resources in the original research may be difficult or impossible. I discuss our gained experiences when we have tried to address the above mentioned challenges, and I seek to identify some better strategies in planning and combining research and educational development actions within the computing education community both in national and international levels. I conclude my presentation with discussion on some new avenues for research and building bridges between research and practice.


Lauri Malmi has been a professor of computer science at Aalto University/Helsinki University of Technology since 2001. He is leading Learning+Technology research group (LeTech) whose main research area is computing education research. The foci of the group include development and evaluation of advanced learning environments and learning tools for programming education, especially tools for automatic assessment and feedback, program and algorithm simulation and visualization, and gamified approaches to learning programming. Malmi has led the national Center of Excellence in Education at Helsinki University of Technology in 2001-2006, and a major strategic development project Aalto Online Learning at Aalto University (2016-2020), which seeks to build novel types online and blended learning solutions and pedagogies in all areas of the university (technology, business and arts & design). Prof. Malmi has chaired several international conferences in computing education research (Koli Calling 2004, 2008 and ICER 2017-2018). He has been a member of the editorial boards in ACM Transactions of Computing Education (2010-2015) and IEEE Transactions of Learning Technologies (2013-2019), and he is a regular columnist in ACM Inroads. He has been leading several international doctoral consortia in computing education research and he has continuous interest in improving research training in computing and engineering education research.