Malyn Mawby talks about the magic and relevance of coding

Malyn Mawby is head of Personalised Learning at Roseville College and previously taught Computer Science and Maths at Barker College, Abbotsleigh and Loreto Normanhurst. She was not always a teacher, and her previous career was in Software Design and Project Management for enterprise brands in banking, finance and manufacturing. Malyn is a die-hard fan of the National Computer Science School (NCSS) Challenge. Here she talks about why these courses are so vital for teachers and students – whether they are coding champions or humble beginners.

During your career, you witnessed the birth of the Internet era and the shift from legacy systems to cloud-based CRM. That’s pretty exciting. Why did you decide to become a teacher?

My shift to teaching was driven by a desire for greater work-life balance when I had my second child. I felt that the time was right for a career change and that my background would enable me to inspire students to consider careers in IT.


It seems that there are very few teachers with your qualifications and experience. What is your impression of how many Computer Science-trained teachers there are in Australia?

I think I am in the minority. I don't know many Computer Science trained teachers and it is true to say that many teachers feel unprepared to implement the AC:DT curriculum. This is why Australian teachers need all the help they can get from classroom-ready courses and competitions like the NCSS Challenge and others.


How does the NCSS Challenge help you achieve this?

One of the things I love about the way the NCSS Challenge is designed, is that it provides students with the opportunity for tangential learning. For example, there was a content creation task relating to Stan Lee – the famous Marvel Comics writer. At various points in the Challenge students were invited to learn more about Stan Lee and the comics he was most famous for, through a clickable link. It provided students with a laddered approach where those who are motivated to keep learning are encouraged to do so.


How do you make computing relatable for students?

Computing can be related to anything and everything. That is one of the key messages I focus on as a teacher. For example, many of my students who study digital media become fascinated about how images can be manipulated. This then becomes a real-world talking point. Is it ethical to manipulate images? When is it ok to do so?


I understand you sign up your students to the NCSS Challenge every year. Doesn’t it get repetitive?

No, the skills are repeated but the Challenge and application of those skills change every year. The NCSS Challenge also puts a lot of effort into engaging students with interesting, current and relevant topics, like how to build algorithms to create Twitter poetry from every day Tweets! I also encourage my students to go for a harder Challenge level so their skills build up. I do the Challenge every year as well and I love that every now and then, a student comes up with a solution I’ve never seen or thought up before.


What about girls? Are you seeing more female students signing up?

Previously, female students only made up a small percentage of my NCSS Challenge and coding students. But as I’m in a girls’ school now, and with the Digital Technologies curriculum, we are seeing more and more students signing up. Parents can have a big role to play here – particularly in primary and early high school. As a female IT professional-cum-teacher, I also hope that I can be a role model to female students.


If you were talking to parents, how would you sell the real relevance of coding to them?

OK. This is a real bugbear of mine. Imagine a world where people didn’t know what gravity was – or didn’t know what an atom was? Imagine a person not knowing what a noun, or an adjective was? We all know these things because society considers these concepts to be foundational, basic concepts for life. Yet we are all living in a digital world and most people do not know about the basic building blocks of this software-rich world. How can that be a good thing? So as we teach the AC:DT curriculum we examine these building blocks of the digital world. And these building blocks continue to be meaningful despite the rapid evolution of technology. So even though the world I worked in was very different to the Internet driven Cloud-based world of today, the current paradigm has the same basic elements as the old legacy systems I started out working with. Just like in English: Wordsworth may have written in a different style to T.S. Eliot, but Eliot could not have written his poetry without the foundations or building blocks laid by Wordsworth and earlier poets.


What about students who just don’t have technical aptitude?

Another important misconception of coding is that everyone has to be technical or mathematical. Yes, those elements are important if you want to be a software developer. But my message to students is that technology is ultimately about people. A software designer doesn’t just make stuff – the work is purpose-driven, it impacts the lives of other people. I always focus on two questions: Who are we designing for? And who are we designing with? Furthermore, we need to realise that whether we are developing technology or using it, we are all creating and using the data that is central to the digital world of today. Whether we know it or not, we are all part of its design.


You mentioned the ethics of technology. How do you integrate this into your teaching?

This is hugely important. My Year 9’s are currently doing Web.Comp and working on a web development project. As part of this, I get them to explore the nature of accessibility, including reading and understanding web accessibility guidelines. Inclusiveness, therefore, becomes an important component of web development. This is also about diversity – backgrounds as well as gender. When my students complete the NCSS Challenge I see many different approaches to the same challenge. The more diverse my classroom is, the more diverse the workforce will be. And we need diversity for true innovation.


Finally. If you can summarise in one sentence what the benefit of the NCSS Challenge is what would you say.

The thing I love the most about the NCSS Challenge is that I can examine and assess students’ code. For me, code is the closest I get to actually knowing how my students think. It is a window into their logic, their thought processes. Making thinking visible - that is magic!