A blog about teaching Programming to non-CompSci students by Tim Love (Cambridge University Engineering Department). I do not speak on behalf of the university, the department, or even the IT group I belong to.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Teaching Aids

The evaluation of new courses isn't always easy, especially when technology's involved. There's the

  • Hawthorn Effect - students work harder when they know evaluation is happening
  • Novelty Effect - some students like playing with new tech (the effect soon wears off)
  • ??? Effect - students are affected by the increased motivation and interest of the staff

It's likely that the course needed an overhaul anyway, so even a less innovative re-write might have been popular

I went to a talk recently about the effect new tech might have on education. One person pointed out that years ago lap-tops were going to revolutionize education, but it hasn't really happened. Before that there was computer-aided-education (too often rote-learning). I think the web has changed things, more by evolution than revolution - information and help's more readily available. For computing there are Forums where sensible questions get quick and informative answers. There are Web pages covering issues that students might get stuck on - pointers, O-O, etc. Students no longer need to struggle on without documentation. Meanwhile however, the method of teaching programming doesn't seem to have changed much. Textbooks have become more varied (more jokes, more games) but the mainstream books haven't changed much. For C++ we suggest that students get Deitel and Deitel. The text (1600 page of it) is multicolored, there are asides in the margin and an associated Web site but the pattern remains of telling students about a concept then getting them to write a program that uses the concept. Some online books like Introduction to Programming Using Java (David J. Eck) have embedded Applets, which can be useful.

I've tried a few things

and a lecturer's written MetaCard animations. I've rewritten the 1st year C++ course and put it online. Though it's traditional in structure, it has links to supplementary material that students wouldn't follow were the links on paper. And we offer short and long versions of the document.

scratch For other subjects I think the availability of Apps (simulations, periodic tables, movies, animations) has assisted greatly. Not so in HE Computer Science. Facilities like Scratch are great, but have their limits. So what's next?

  • E-books - Most student work is still submitted on paper, and many handouts are on paper. A local department thinks it would be cost-effective to supply each student with an e-book loaded with course PDFs. The killer app is a program that makes freehand PDF annotaion easy
  • Tablets/Slates - In group activities with computers, it's typical for one person to hog the mouse. Tablets make the work more collaborative
  • GPS - Field trips, etc benefit from cameras with GPS
  • Smartphones - Students seem more likely to do something (e.g. provide feedback) if there's an App for it

but perhaps collaborative tools will make the most difference in the end. Google Docs can be used as a document collaborative tool: it's online, with version control and change tracking - and it's free.