Birmingham Digital

Published: Posted on


A fascinating  – and exciting – proposal submitted by:

Jean-Baptiste Cazier, Centre for Computational Biology, Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences

George  Gkoutos, Centre for Computational Biology, Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences, Institute of Translational Medicine

David Parker, Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing

Bob Stone, Human Interface Technologies Team, School of Engineering

The character of every academic discipline has been transformed by the advent of digital technology. Every researcher, teacher and student engages every day with concepts, tools and data that are its product. Even those who are sceptical of its value cannot escape its influence. And so a new generation is emerging which has a quite different attitude to the boundaries of research, because we are all developing new ways of thinking that we share with colleagues in every other discipline. As a result, the old boundaries between the natural sciences, humanities and social sciences are becoming porous. And the traditional division of roles between academics, librarians and IT is proving hard to maintain and is missing opportunities. This is partly because more and more research is becoming collaborative, since many projects needs one or more members with skills in programming as well as traditional subject-based expertise, and partly because storage and publication models are changing in the most significant way since the advent of printing, arguably even since the invention of writing.

While some universities have approached the new learning with the development of disparate disciplines such as Digital Humanities and Big Data, the University of Birmingham has the opportunity to take a unique approach by developing a fully integrative approach, Birmingham Digital.

Birmingham Digital is a concept for an undergraduate degree in which every student will be rooted within their chosen discipline for 80% of the course, with a 20% component in each year of study which will be digital and in which they will study with fellow students from many other disciplines. In this digital element, students from every part of the university would be engaging with each other’s research questions and methodologies. As well as embedding born-digital projects within the disciplines, this could be set up to appeal to those bright students who are good at many things and for whom the requirement to follow a single path is a disappointment – the ones who are fascinated by music and metallurgy, English and electronics, sociology and science: within the digital component of the degree they will work with cross-disciplinary challenges and teams. And they will be exposed to the vision and ideas of academics from every college.

What will the content of the digital curriculum be? We suggest that the following questions and areas are essential and provide the conceptual framework:

  • Philosophy
    • Philosophy and the development of the university
    • Research methods
    • Mathematics and learning (scientific research/scholarship)
    • User-centred issues of digital futures
  • Data:
    • Concept of analysis of data
    • How one searches, retrieves, analyses information
    • From Data to Information, to Knowledge and Wisdom
    • Impact of the digital world on human life
    • Visualisation of concepts
  • Computational
    • Historical development of the concept of the computer
    • What is a computer?
    • Conceptual Analytical methods
    • Concept of programming
  • Dissemination:
    • A final year project/dissertation, with a collaborative element
    • Dissemination of knowledge, the nature and significance of the transition from book culture into the digital age
    • Scientific/academic writing, presentation, communication

How may this be realised? There is much teaching going on in different colleges and schools that is already suitable for inclusion in Birmingham Digital. It is not a matter of starting from scratch. At the same time they will need reviewing and modifying as necessary in order to create a coherent course. We will take the things which are in different places and put them in the same one. We believe that this will have a transformative effect on the work of teachers and researchers as well as students.

Such a proposal cannot convincingly be put together within an individual college, but will need to be strongly supported and driven with central resources, including staff to put it together and run it. There are currently parallel efforts to address, at least part, of these issues within various schools under various names such as Transferable skills, Data Analytics, Big Data, Data Sciences, which would benefit from a coordinated approach.

We believe that the ideal group to take this forward should include administrators with expertise in teaching programmes and marketing, academics representing every college, leading IT staff and Library staff involved in training.

What should it be called? We have named it as Birmingham Digital here but as a start. The name needs to be one that will attract students who want to think.

Sponsorship might be possible for such a new concept.

What might lie beyond the beginnings?

Beyond the first cohort of such students, what opportunities will there be for postgraduate and postdoctoral –  and beyond – research and teaching? Could it be developed through into an M Phil with a fourth year?

This is the moment at which we must seize the opportunity to ask ourselves, ‘What is the most imaginative way in which we can respond to the digital world and create a unique opportunity which will attract even more of the brightest to Birmingham?’

Jean-Baptiste Cazier, Centre for Computational Biology, Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences

George  Gkoutos, Centre for Computational Biology, Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences, Institute of Translational Medicine

David Parker, Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing

Bob Stone, Human Interface Technologies Team, School of Engineering

12 thoughts on “Birmingham Digital”

  1. I love this idea – which has emerged from an interdisciplinary collaboration. Can we develop this idea? Can we do it? What do you think? This is a vision for the future that is also realistic.

    1. Apologies — Late last night I typed my response to this proposal into the comment box that happened to be at the bottom of my screen, not realising that that was intended for comments on Duncan’s message.
      (Prof Alan Bundy, a colleague in Edinburgh has a slogan for his students: “anything that can be misunderstood will be.”)
      Sorry for any confusion.
      (Using and designing software since the 1970s….. and still sometimes incompetent!)

  2. I think this is great idea.

    We all think that learning a spoken language is important for communication between people. Maybe learning a programming language so we can communicate better with computers is something that everyone, no matter their discipline, would benefit from? Computers can automate repetitive jobs and achieve complex analyses that mere mortals cannot, and relying on someone else to code the interface between us and the machine can be wasteful and/or doesn’t happen.

    My only worry about ‘Birmingham Digital’ is that it might be overlooked as some sort of university digital service – like canvas, e-library, printing, pure etc etc… how about ‘Birmingham Digital Language’ to reflect that it is about communication between a human and computer.

    1. This is a very important and complex proposal, whose discussion will require far more time than the remaining month of this initiative. I have had similar objectives since I wrote in a book published in 1978 (The Computer Revolution in Philosophy: Philosophy, science and models of mind: revised online edition freely available here ):

      “Computing can change our ways of thinking about many things, mathematics, biology, engineering, administrative procedures, and many more. But my main concern is that it can change our thinking about ourselves: giving us new models, metaphors, and other thinking tools to aid our efforts to fathom the mysteries of the human mind and heart. The new discipline of Artificial Intelligence is the branch of computing most directly concerned with this revolution. By giving us new, deeper, insights into some of our inner processes, it changes our thinking about ourselves. It therefore changes some of our inner processes, and so changes what we are, like all social, technological and intellectual revolutions.”

      (I was partly inspired by ideas developed in the USA by Alan Kay, Seymour Papert (influenced by Piaget), Marvin Minsky, Herbert Simon, as well as Kant’s philosophy. Later Jeanette Wing articulated some of the ideas under the label “Computational Thinking” in a very influential paper. )

      My 1978 prediction proved too optimistic: academics can be very slow to learn! And some of the research problems are very deep and difficult. Nearly 40 years later, computing is still seen mainly as a source of many useful applications, many forms of entertainment, many new ways to communicate, new ways to teach, many ways to make money, and an extremely useful practical aid to scientists and engineers who need to do complex calculations and analysis of large amounts of date. AI is seen as useful and/or threatening technology, but not as an intrinsic component of up to date psychology and philosophy of mind.

      The importance of information processing in Biology, especially the evolution of varieties of information processing across many species, is beginning to be acknowledged.

      The potential of computation to change our ways of thinking about what needs to be explained (e.g. in science and philosophy) using new forms of explanation is still not widely understood, for a variety of reasons, although there are many active spearheads, e.g. computational linguistics, computational biology, computational cognitive science, computational neuroscience, computational economic models, computational theories of mind, etc.

      Margaret Boden’s recent distinguished lecture here will have given examples. (We worked closely for many years at Sussex University, but I was in Seoul on that day and missed her talk.)

      Despite the view that computers are good at mathematics, it has proved difficult to produce computational models of the kinds of mathematical reasoning that produced the great advances in ancient mathematics reported in Euclid’s Elements. Trying to understand why that hasn’t worked yet may lead us to new models of information processing — perhaps combining analog and digital mechanisms in ways that more accurately model brain mechanisms. (Chemical processes are mixture of discrete and continuous change.) I am trying to understand the evolution of mathematical capabilities in humans and other species, hoping to learn about previously unnoticed forms of computation.

      Any plans made here must take account of the amazingly productive Computing at School (CAS) movement (, which began about 8 years ago. One of the earliest organisers was Prof. Achim Jung (School of Computer Science), as a result of which CAS holds a conference in this university for teachers, education researchers, administrators and many others every summer.

      I got involved several months after Achim, and tried to promote the idea that computation is not just about useful and entertaining things: it can change our understanding of what needs to be explained, in many fields. But the school teachers and computer scientists involved were not ready for that idea. That may change.

      Meanwhile the CAS initiative has had amazing results, at least in numbers of teachers and pupils influenced, with substantial government and industrial support. (Explore the web site, which includes a sophisticated multi-threaded discussion forum produced by Kent University — but not sophisticated enough!).

      Kids are now learning to program (e.g. in SCRATCH) from about the age of six, though no doubt the competence and confidence of many teachers still needs to grow. And they need to stop referring to studying computation as “learning to code”. Later some of those six year olds will be demanding new kinds of teaching, especially if they have heard that minds are essentially computational systems, but with parts that seem to be hard to replicate on computers as they are now.

      I suspect that before the end of the century leading research universities will all start their undergraduate degrees with at least the option of doing the sort of thing we started at Sussex in 1976: attending a multi-disciplinary course based around research on aspects of “natural computation” exploring techniques and ideas that learners can go on to apply across a wide range of disciplines in humanities, sciences, engineering and medicine.

      But there are many administrative and educational obstacles to overcome, including widely held misconceptions about the nature of computation, and the education of academics with “traditional” disciplinary backgrounds, many of whom still assume that the main scientific function of computation is statistical analysis of research data.

      I am willing to meet and talk to anyone interested in these issues.
      Retired but doing full time unfunded research:

  3. I like the idea, and more than a little.
    However, what about “Birmingham Computational Thinking” for the name. As Aaron Sloman (Professor of AI in my School has just reminded us, not all computation is digital, and also “digital” is rather dominated by wishy-washy things done at the BBC and other media outlets. Whereas, “Computational Thinking” is an established movement with the aim of getting people to think about information processing in all systems, from natural to man-made, and how we can understand them, develop them, and use them to our great advantage across all the disciplines, at all levels (from primary school upward), and out in the world.
    Joshua Knowles
    Professor of Natural Computation (and formerly Reader in Computational Thinking at University of Manchester)

  4. I think the title came from me. Digital seems natural to me since we talk about Digital Humanities, and it wanted to be something that gave the rough idea. It’s certainly a starting point and not prescriptive. Computational Thinking really describes what we were thinking about when we sat down to flesh out the idea.

    So Joshua, what could you see yourself teaching a group of students from ten different disciplines from across, say, the humanities, life sciences and engineering?

  5. Thank you all for the supportive and useful comments.

    It is encouraging to see the proposed concept resonating across campus. Still, it seems to come in various flavours as reflected by the semantic debate.
    I agree the title may require some adjustment to accurately match content to perception both within every College, and outside the University.

    Unfortunately I cannot reconcile the diverse views:
    I agree with Aaron and Joshua that Digital is far to restrictive, but I am afraid Computational does seem to exclude “pure” data, or information. That is the one that is not for computation, i.e. used by computers or calculation, e.g. L’Encyclopédie.
    Either of “Data” or “Information” would have been of interest if they had not been stereotyped in the past few years.

    Great to have this “Big Conversations” to address this important point.

    1. I think the point on which Josh and I agree is that “computation” is now used to refer to forms of information processing that go far beyond what digital computers do and far beyond numerical data. E.g. there are computational theories of visual perception, of creativity, of emotions, of learning, of theory-formation, of language understanding, of economic and social processes, of biological reproduction, of cell development, of cancer formation, of immune systems, … and many more that I don’t know about! Nowadays most of them are implemented digitally, but there have been analog and hybrid analog/digital models (e.g. of economic processes). Many virtual machines are not best thought of as digital: they abstract from such implementation details. And future theories/models/techniques may use forms of information processing that nobody has thought of so far. In some universities (e.g. Edinburgh, Sussex, and I think some continental universities) a word like “Informatics” has been used to avoid narrow connotations.

      Anyhow, the choice of terminology is not so important as agreement on the scope of the proposal. I guess we are all peering into parts of the future that are still quite dim.

      Incidentally I have now learnt from Achim Jung that the next Computing at School conference will be held here on 16-17 June. Alas I can’t be here as I’ve promised to talk at a conference in Geneva. But there will later be opportunities to propose CAS workshops/seminars, and perhaps the ideas behind “Digital Birmingham” could be shared with school teachers and CAS members from other universities. Some may already be far ahead of Birmingham, for all I know. The conference also attracts people from overseas interested in computing in education. E.g. the “Computing Unplugged” ideas, which now have a lot of followers, come from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand
      “…The activities introduce students to Computational Thinking through concepts such as binary numbers, algorithms and data compression, separated from the distractions and technical details of having to use computers. Importantly, no programming is required to engage with these ideas! …CS Unplugged is suitable for people of all ages, from elementary school to seniors, and from many countries and backgrounds. Unplugged has been used around the world for over twenty years, in classrooms, science centers, homes, and even for holiday events in a park! … The material is available free of charge…)”

      (It’s a pity this interface doesn’t allow quotations to be indicated clearly.)

      Perhaps there are useful things we can learn at the event, depending on the aims of this project.

  6. I wonder if ‘language’ isn’t the key word here, just to build on what Duncan says above (18 Jan). Students could be encouraged as strongly as possible to expand the ways in which they can communicate, either by learning programming or coding, or else by learning a new foreign language? These are both such valuable skills and surely learning one or the other would be rewarding for their own sake, and for the sake of employment in a globalised economy.

  7. The cover story in yesterday’s Observer (“Revealed: how US billionaire helped to back Brexit”) reports the use of AI to analyse social media and target undecided voters. It looks to me like democracy needs the curriculum to provide opportunities to explore tools to study and analyse the issues behind this – and soon.

    How do we find ways to create such opportunities in a crowded curriculum?

  8. The cover story in yesterday’s Observer (“Revealed: how US billionaire helped to back Brexit”) reports the use of AI to analyse social media and target undecided voters. Could this be evidence for the potential significance of ‘Birmingham Digital’?

    How do we find ways to create opportunities for anyone to study big issues like this in a crowded curriculum?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.