August 11, 2021

Life@CS101: Get to Know OpenLearning's CTO and Head Instructor David Collien


In our Life@CS101 series, we’ll meet the brains behind our bespoke computer science program, CS101 and get to know them a little better. The new accelerated program, powered by OpenLearning, is designed by industry and for industry, bringing together leading technology companies, computer scientists and learning designers to create a one-of-a-kind online program that makes computer science accessible to everyone.

Meet David Collien, OpenLearning’s Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder; and Head Instructor of CS101. David, an educationalist at heart, holds a Bachelor of Science (Computer Science) with 1st Class Honours from the University of New South Wales (UNSW). His former PhD research topic at UNSW centred on Computer Science and Education: pedagogy, motivational mechanics, and social dynamics which facilitate effective online learning communities, self-directed learning and online heutagogy.

This week, we sat down with David and had a candid chat on all things CS101 and his journey so far:

Tell me about your role at CS101. What do you do?

Currently, my role is to essentially come up with the course! [Laughs] I have a background in teaching Computer Science as well as running a Software Engineering team. I’ve also a background in Education Research and Learning Science. For me, it’s a combination of these three areas into one project, and that’s where I come into the picture as a subject matter expert. It’s about creating the activities, content and learning design and thinking, “What’s the best way we could teach this Computer Science program?”.

What led you to build CS101?

There’s a few things that come together for this, in terms of what led me to building CS101: I used to teach Computer Science face-to-face and I have always wanted to build my dream online version of a Computer Science course. Simply put, it’s a product of passion. It's also why I’m part of OpenLearning in the first place, which was to want to teach Computer Science one day and particularly, wanting to find ways to teach better online, generally speaking.

Specifically in terms of the design for CS101, I wanted a course that didn’t just focus on coding. It’s a point of frustration - there’s a lot of programs and courses out there making noise where you can just copy and paste code and left to fend for yourself, or perhaps they are more focussed on rote learning and lecture videos. To me, writing software is always a social activity and should not be done in isolated settings. Every piece of code created has been a collaborative effort whether it be with team members, colleagues or peers. So therefore, I wanted to create a social CS101 course, where learners can interact with one another and to build code that works with each other’s code. 

Also, another point is that I wanted to cover the fundamentals that I don’t often see other courses covering. From my past experiences of teaching and working with team members, I saw that some of the core fundamentals that really differentiate between someone who can write some code and someone who is an excellent problem solver with code.

What’s your favourite thing about working on CS101 so far?

Right as of now, I think the amount of fun with coming up with the activities for the course itself. The challenge with any course like CS101 is to generate ideas that are project-based, relevant and exciting for the learners. If we, as course designers, are having a lot of fun creating the courses, then learners will definitely gain that experience, or have a high chance of engaging with the content throughout the course (or we hope to think so!) [Laughs]. In other words, we have this opportunity to create something that's not too serious, but can be taken seriously, which in turn fits with the tone that we were aiming for with CS101.

What made you choose your career?

In short, I didn’t choose my career [laughs], it came to me! I was lucky enough to meet the right people at the right time. In particular, I think the community comes into play to a great extent. The idea of having an interpersonal approach to learning whereby these relationships were fostered at University for example - I was actually attending UNSW classes while I was still in high school. When I had started my Computer Science as a first year back at uni, I had fostered great relationships with my lecturers and before my second year, I began teaching as a tutor. From the start, I was very interested in involving myself with the learning and teaching community to which my passion grew in Computer Science and also into robotics - an area where it provided a holistic perspective on developing a range of skill sets. As there were limited opportunities back then, I began to delve into education-based technology. This is where I found there is a lot of cross-collaboration which calls for new opportunities and developments of innovation, where traditionally these won’t arise if sectors were to operate in isolation.

Going back to the idea behind CS101, this is the underlying premise we want to achieve for learners who are completing the course. Regardless of their background, whether in tech or non-tech, we encourage new ideas to flourish. It’s not about being an expert in Computer Science, but more about learning about new tools or insights that can solve problems in other areas and ultimately, use these skills to further their own passions.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

The best career advice I’ve received is to understand the difference between learning things and learning how to learn things. It comes down to the attitude of not just learning for the sake of learning, but more so playing to your strengths and understanding what you are already passionate about. Questioning yourself, how can you play to those strengths and have those as drivers to your learning success, rather than the other way around.

What advice would you give to someone who is looking to upskill or reskill in Computer Science?

Play with your passions. The skills that we learn in Computer Science or technology in general are tools that help you solve problems. Learning to code for the sake of coding is rarely what I would recommend. Rather, find that something that you are passionate about and then learn more  “Computer Science superpowers” that let you further explore that passion.   In my case, applying computing to education, for example.

Essentially, if you want to upskill or re-skill in Computer Science, focus on what Computer Science can do for your passion!

In your point of view, what makes CS101 different from other programs?

Since CS101 is designed to give you an accessible way to learn the foundational skill sets of Computer Science, you’ll be able to “learn how to learn” new things as well. The key differentiator is that you are learning a new way of thinking that you can tailor for any scenario rather than learning how to code in itself.

To sum it up, absolutely anyone and everyone can learn Computer Science!

Follow David on Twitter.

For the latest blogs and news on Computer Science, subscribe to our mailing list to learn more: