MDE4EDU – Towards a Corpus of Use-Cases for Model-Driven Engineering Courses

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After recounting our (mostly failed) experiences in teaching model-driven engineering, we (Dimitris Kolovos and myself) have embarked on a project to find (and/or define) good use cases for teaching several flavours of model-driven /model-based engineering.

Our preliminary proposal was recently contributed to the Educators Symposium, part of the Models 2016 conference. Below you can find the full text of the presented paper: Towards a Corpus of Use-Cases for Model-Driven Engineering Courses  (also available in pdf format here).

We hope to come up with additional use cases soon and since we do believe that this should be a community effort (similar to what I’m trying to do with the OCL benchmarks). Go to our dedicated MDE4EDU website if you’re interested in this initiative and would like to collaborate!

Abstract

Having  taught Model-Driven Engineering courses for a num- ber  of years,  in this  paper  we reflect  on the  importance of selecting  appropriate use-cases  for students to  explore  related principles and  technologies.  We  discuss  examples   on  both   ends  of the  spectrum and  we present guidelines  for selecting  use-cases  that are  pragmatic and  motivating  without being excessively  complex.

 

1. Introduction

While the value of teaching  software modelling and model-driven  engineering at University  level is increasingly  recognised [1], effective teaching  continues  to be a challenging task.  The authors of this paper  have been somewhat  unsuccessful in the past in convincing students about  the potential of MDE. We believe a key reason  for this  is the  poor  choice of use-cases  and  examples  we show in class. Based  on our  experience  and  on extensive  discussions  with  colleagues,  in this paper we wish to propose examples of alternative use-cases that have a potential to overturn the current situation.

 

2. Background – 3 key aspects to avoid when teaching

In  our  experience,  to  maintain the  interest of students in a course  they  need to  see practical value  in the  technologies  and  techniques  they  are  taught. For software  engineering  courses this  makes the  selection  of motivating use-cases a critical  point. On top  of the  bad  modelling  practices  discussed  in [2], we have identified  that use-cases we use often suffer from the  following weaknesses that can end up demotivating students instead  of sparking  their  interest:

Unrealistic Domains. In an attempt not to overwhelm students with the com- plexity  of developing  fully-functional systems,  educators often  use  unrealistic application domains.  For  example,  a common  use-case  – variants of which  we have used in the past  – is to ask students to develop a DSL for modelling book libraries1  and  then  write  model-to-text transformations that  generate  HTML reports  from library  models or define additional validation constraints. This use- case has two advantages: the DSL contains  concepts  that students can relate  to, and it exercises most of the features  of metamodelling technologies (inheritance, containment/non-containment/opposite references). On the other hand however, it is rather unlikely that one would implement a real-world  library  management system  using models instead  of e.g. a relational database as a data  persistence format.

Artificial Development Processes.  Another  common use-case to demonstrate model-to-model   transformation is the  (infamous)   UML  to  RDBMS  example. Here, students are typically asked to develop a transformation that produces  a relational schema from a UML class diagram.  This is a complex transformation that exercises many  features  of contemporary transformation languages,  how- ever,  at  the  end  of the  process  students end  up  with  a model  of a relational schema  that is of little  practical use. An additional model-to-text transformation  can be used to produce  SQL that can set  up a database, however,  this  is not  very helpful either  as in practice  students would then  still need to interact with  the  database using low-level SQL commands.  Extending the  use-case and asking  students to also generate  code that can provide  a high-level object  ori- ented interface  to the database from first principles is a rather complex task and the  results  are unlikely  to be of comparable  quality  to object-relational frame- works like Hibernate. An alternative would be to ask students to produce  e.g. Hibernate-based code, however this means that a complex framework Hibernate would have to be taught first – which is a major  deviation  from the  aims of an MDE course.

In our experience,  a significant proportion of highly-skilled  students quickly realise  the  discrepancy  between  such  use-cases  and  the  practices  and  processes they would need to employ in a real world situation and gradually  lose interest.

 

Non-Iterative  Development Scenarios.  Students who – despite  the  poor selection of use-cases – can see a potential in the principles  of MDE, often ques- tion its cost-effectiveness.  In our view, this is largely because in most use-cases, students are shown how to develop an appropriate modelling language to model a system  and  then  spend  the bulk of their  effort on developing  model-to-model and  model-to-text transformations that can transform their  models to working code. When the use-case ends there, students can feel puzzled as they have spent a substantial amount of effort to develop and debug non-trivial transformations only to produce  code – that they could have written manually  with a fraction  of the effort – once. Since it is well understood that developing MDE infrastructure takes  a few iterations/product instances  to pay off, it is important that this  is highlighted  to students by adding  more than  one change-adapt iterations to the development scenario.

3. Towards a Corpus of Use-Cases for  MDE Courses

Although  previous  work (e.g. [2]) has identified  the  importance of selecting ap- propriate use-cases, there  is a lack of concrete proposals in the literature. In this section  we attempt to  outline  a few use-cases  that address  some of the  issues above,  as  a  starting point for discussion  towards  building  a  community-wide body of concrete  use-cases that can be reused in MDE courses worldwide.

 

3.1     Auto-Synchronised (Opposite) References in  Java

Java lacks support for auto-synchronised (opposite) references. For example, con- sider  the  Customer   and  Invoice  classes in Listing  1.1. While  conceptually the Customer.invoices and Invoice.customer references are linked to each-other (i.e. setting  customer  c1  as the  customer  of invoice i1  should  ideally automatically add  i1  to  the  invoices of c1 ), in the  absence  of built-in  support for declaring this relationship, developers need to maintain the two references in sync manu- ally as demonstrated in Listing  1.2. This  is clearly tedious  and  error-prone. To achieve automated synchronisation, a developer would need to extend  the imple- mentation of Invoice.setCustomer(…) and  also the  behaviour  of the  add()  and remove() methods  of the  list returned by Customer.getInvoices(). While this  is certainly  feasible, it is a mundane and  repetitive task  that would benefit  from MDE-style  automation.

 

listing

To automate this  task,  the reference synchronisation code can be generated from  a UML class diagram  through a model-to-text transformation. To  make this  solution  practically applicable,  it should  be implemented to accommodate hand-written code either through an appropriate inheritance scheme or by using protected regions [3] which the  transformation preserves  during  re-generation. In the absence of such support, students are more likely to consider the use-case artificial  and lose interest.

The  main  advantage of this  use-case  is that it  addresses  a real  limitation of Java  while  not  requiring  knowledge  of third-party libraries.  A risk  on  the other  hand  is that students will need  to  develop  a  non-trivial model-to-text transformation to achieve this and that – as discussed above – they may consider that they could have written the reference synchronisation code manually  faster. To mitigate  this  risk the  use-case  should  involve more  than  one change  cycles and/or large class diagrams  that would reinforce the benefits of automation.

3.2     Using State Machines for  Behaviour Comprehension and Code Generation

Moving  away  from class diagrams,  in this  use-case  students can  be presented with a small state-machine (5-7 states) and the equivalent code in Java,  and can be asked  to  reason  about  the  behaviour  of the  system  e.g. how many  distinct states  the  system  can  be in, from which  other  states  the  system  can  get  to  a particular state  of interest, if there  are any unreachable states  etc. These should be straightforward to answer by inspecting  the state  machine but less obvious by reading through the Java code. The first aim of this use-case would be to demon- strate that models can help  with  understanding and  reasoning  about  complex behaviour,  which becomes much harder  to grasp at the level of imperative code.

In a next  step,  a significantly  larger  state  machine  can be introduced which is not  amenable  to  visual  inspection,  to  demonstrate the  need  for automated model analysis  capabilities (e.g. querying,  validation, reachability analysis).  In a final step,  a model-to-text transformation can  be used  to  produce  an  iden- tical  executable  Java  implementation of the  state  machine  from the  high-level model. Again, in each of the latter steps,  multiple  state  machines  should be in- volved  to  demonstrate how the initial  effort spent to  develop  the  queries  and transformations pays off after  a few iterations.

3.3     Wedding Organisation DSL

Moving away from UML, the  aim of this  use-case is to demonstrate the  useful- ness of constructing domain-specific  languages  (DSL)  when existing  modelling languages are not a good fit for the problem at hand.  We also wish to steer away from generating  executable  code to demonstrate the  breadth of applicability of MDE techniques. In line with our discussion so far, the DSL – and its supporting model management activities  – should  be relatively  simple but  genuinely  practical  for solving the  problem  at  hand  (unlike  the  library  example  discussed  in Section 2).

In this  use-case,  from models conforming  to  a wedding  event  DSL such  as the one displayed  in Figure 1 students can be asked to generate  (1) personalised invitation cards  in HTML/LaTeX (if a guest  is allocated  to  a table  it  means that they  have  been  invited  to  the  post-wedding  dinner  and  another  sentence needs to be added to the invitation card),  (2) lists that will guide guests to their tables  at the venue. Students can be asked to use a validation language to check models conforming to the DSL for the presence of conflicts (i.e. guests involved in a “conflict” should  not  be sitting  on the  same  table),  or even  to  employ  a constraint solver to suggest an acceptable  allocation  of guests to tables.

Although  at a first glance this use-case appears  to be similar in nature to the library  use-case discussed in Section 2 in our view it differs in a few key aspects. First,  it represents a domain  for which there  is no existing  widely-used software that students can compare  against.  By contrast, in the library  management do- main, students are likely to compare the produced MDE solution against existing library  management systems (e.g. university library)  that they are familiar with, with an unfavourable outcome  for the MDE solution.  Second, and perhaps  most important, in the absence of out-of-the-box user-friendly  software,  the proposed MDE solution  is arguably  a sensible way to support this activity in practice.

wedding DSL

 

4 . Conclusions

In this  paper  we have highlighted  the  importance of selecting  appropriate  use- cases for MDE courses, and identified a number  of common weaknesses that they can present. In an attempt to stimulate discussion  towards  a more convincing and inspiring MDE curriculum, we have outlined  three concrete use-cases which, in our view, are pragmatic without being excessively complex. As further  work, we plan to apply and validate  these use-cases in our institutions and to start an initiative for building  a corpus of examples  with similar  intentions on top of an appropriate technical  infrastructure (e.g. GitHub  organisation, Wiki).

 

References

  1. Marian Petre. UML in Practice. In Proceedings of the 2013 International Conference on Software  Engineering, ICSE  ’13, pages  722–731,  Piscataway, NJ,  USA,  2013. IEEE  Press.
  2. Richard F.  Paige,   Fiona   A.  C.  Polack,  Dimitrios  S.  Kolovos,   Louis  M.  Rose, Nicholas  Matragkas, and  James   R.  Williams.   Bad  modelling  teaching practices. In ACM/IEEE MoDELS  Educators Symposium  (EduSymp), 2014.
  1. Louis M.  Rose,  Richard F.  Paige,  Dimitrios S. Kolovos,  and  Fiona  A.  C.  Polack. The  Epsilon  Generation Language,  pages  1–16.  Springer Berlin  Heidelberg, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2008.
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