Accidentally in Code

Posts Tagged ‘teaching

I’m spending a lot more time teaching other people to code than I am actually coding at the moment.

Whilst I like teaching, this is not at all in line with how I want to be spending my time.

I TA a mandatory computer course in the management school, and I have a friend taking another mandatory programming course for Engineers. The course I TA teaches VB, and the Engineering course teaches C.

These students aren’t stupid, the students learning VB only have to ask you whether you use VB (of course not, does any self-respecting programmer?) and they know they aren’t learning anything that can’t be done using the built in functions in Excel. The students learning C notice that their TA’s (and the prof) keep accidentally giving them Java code. According to O’Reilly, Java has been overtaking C++ as a teaching language for over a decade. Why are these courses so behind?

I think this is a missed opportunity. Students taking Computer Science have signed up for a degree of torment-by-compiler. These students have not. Instead of a course that they hate why not take the opportunity to create a course that excites them about the potential of programming? Instead of alienating them about the whole concept you motivate them with the reasons and real world examples for why programming is a useful skill to have?

For instance: mashup creation, simple scripting, what an API is (and how to make calls to it), web apps.

Yes, it requires more creativity in course creation. Yes, it may require the people teaching these courses and the TAs to learn more skills. Maybe before it didn’t make a big difference to send a bunch of students into different fields with a hatred for programming. In the new reality though, an understanding of programming and why it is useful would potentially give them a big head start.

What do you think?

Tonight, I ran my first workshop in Wave. It was nice to have a space to discuss things, and unlike in a chat client it’s easy to indicate what you’re replying to. What I did was create a slide deck and make it available the day before. Then on the day, I was available to trouble shoot. The slide deck was fairly comprehensive (see it here) so I encouraged people to work through it at their own pace, whilst I clarified and helped with issues that arose.

Screenshot below shows mutiple threads of conversation happening simultaniously:

Multiple Conversations

Multiple Conversations

It’s also really easy to drag and drop screenshots, so that can help me see where people are at, and what could be going wrong.

Drag and Drop Screenshots

Drag and Drop Screenshots

Wave has nice indentations (kind of like we indent in Java!) that show a diversion:

Indentation shows the flow of the conversation

Indentation shows the flow of the conversation

Finally, trying to schedule when everyone can make the next session can be difficult – but Widgets sure make it easier!

Widgets help with scheduling

Widgets help with scheduling

So, all in all, wish Wave was faster but I think it was a success. Hopefully as people build up more knowledge they’ll discuss amongst themselves more. We will leave this wave going as people work their way through the rest of the slides (and I can help if necessary) and move to a new wave for the next session.

I’ll keep you posted about when that will be – and will put the slides up here soon!

Thanks to everyone who participated.

Tomorrow I’m running an introduction to Java via Wave. Because I’ve had a degree of interest from non-complete beginners in learning Processing, I’ve split the content so that one session will be Java: Building Blocks which will teach the very basics of Java but does not introduce Processing, and the other session will be An Introduction to Processing.

Java: Building Blocks covers the very very basics of Java – writing your first program, primitive types, conditions, and loops. At the end, we should be able to make a simple Hangman game using a framework I will provide.

An Introduction to Processing will cover getting started with Processing and be suitable for beginners who have gone through Java: Building Blocks but hopefully won’t be too dull for more advanced programmers. It will take you through creating your first little Java applet in Processing.

I’m taking suggestions for Topics, but things I’m contemplating are:

  • Java: Next Steps – covering arrays, multidimensional arrays, Objects, more on functions (passing arguments etc). Finishing with a TicTacToe or Pacman game (I have frameworks for both of these).
  • Test Driven Development and Exceptions – throwing and handling exceptions, writing code to pass test cases. Working on a Blackjack game.
  • Creating games in Processing – detecting key presses etc.
  • New Since Java 5 – Generics, enum, for each, etc.

Slides for Java: Building Blocks can be found below. As ever, I really welcome feedback!

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, given certain circumstances I find myself in. And I’ve realized that in all my time at university (I’m entering my 6th year) I’ve had two great professors. The kind that inspire you, the student, with passion. Who explain clearly. The ones who teach the classes that you work hardest for, where you leave feeling it was worth it because you learned the most.

Two. Out of  – lets take a pretty conservative estimate – thirty.

There were a few more who were good – they didn’t inspire the same level of passion, perhaps, but I at least got the impression that they cared about what they were teaching. A significant number just couldn’t seem to be bothered at all. They weren’t “present” in their presentations. They made something potentially interesting sleep inducing.

If this is typical in Computer Science, no wonder enrollment is dropping.

So what do these great instructors have in common? I feel these can be summed up into a concept of “Teaching Effectively, not Efficiently”. Efficient Teaching is putting all the concepts out there and trying to cram them into your students. Effective Teaching is sending your students away understanding the big picture and interested in learning the details that make it up.

  • Passion. They believe in what they’re teaching and convey that to the class.
  • Practicality. Being able to talk about the practical applications of something keeps students engaged.
  • Understanding > Learning. Memorizing something is pointless if the student can’t apply it.
  • Class Engagement. Class is interactive and doesn’t consist of a prof droning on whilst students fall asleep.
  • Engaging Assignments. These profs set homework students want to do, not what’s in the textbook.

Anything I’ve missed?


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