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Code in the Classroom Wrapup

Code in the Classroom Wrapup

Thanks to all who made last night's Code in the Classroom panel discussion a success!  Our panelists had some great perspectives to share, and the audience initiated some great discussion as well.  By way of a writeup, I'd like to focus on a few themes that emerged last night. If any attendees would like to add anything, be sure to leave a comment below or shoot me an email.  Also, we discussed setting up a monthly video chat for those interested in teaching 'Intro to Computing for X' type classes that would all share some core content.  There's a huge need for this and collaboration amongst professors and grad students will be essential.  Shoot me a message if you're interested.

Edit:  I've started an open Google Group for those of us interested in collabroatively curating 'core' content regarding computation.  Please join and we'll see where it takes us! 


Coding Education: How deep?

Someone in the audience asked the question of how 'deep' to go when teaching technology. Ryan Shaw had mentioned that he's written a JavaScript library that he uses in his classes that hides some of the gritty details so that students can focus on learning core Web protocols like HTTP.  He suggested removing any of the details that might change over time, to focus on understanding the more basic and static technologies first.  Mark Olson said that he uses technology ranging from spacial imaging to C++ for different audiences. Mark expressed a conviction, shared by others, I believe, that an understanding of the granular workings of the technologies we use is crucial for their effective use, even use at a high level.  Additionally, he mentioned having to send exceptional graduate students to Engineering or CS classes when their abilities have outstripped the pedagogical resources of Art, Art History and Visual Studies.  He mentioned that there is little institutional support for this kind of hand-off, which has to be done on a case-by-case basis.  Tessa Joseph-Nicholas uses technology from MIT's AppInventor to the Unity game engine.  She noted that students felt empowered by the use of these technologies at any level, and that even the visual interface of a tool like AppInventor was teaching students concepts of programming. This seemed to me an interesting concept: teaching coding with images rather then text, to start at least. 


Coding Education: How long?

Another theme that emerged is perhaps a symptom of the stage we're in in the development of technical curriculum components: students taking a class soon before graduation, loving it, and it being too late in their careers to follow up or make use of their skills. Mark in particular mentioned that they're trying to get students in courses earlier in their careers and a series of courses planned, to develop deeper engagement with the students.  Tessa mentioned that she was able to develop a three course series with the help of her department.  All of the panelists expressed some degree of dismay at the uneaven technical skills of their students, suggestion that earlier education, perhaps coordinated by the University, might be in order.  Mark mentioned that Duke has a required 'Writing 20' course that all freshmen take to learn basic writing skills around varying topics.  A similar 'Computing 20' course would be a real innovation.


Department and University support

Speaking of university-wide policy, when the topic of departmental and university level support, the panelists and audiences had several interesting comments.  Mark said that it was an interesting position to be the 'technical' faculty.  On the one hand, he gets to push boundaries in teaching and research and collaborate with and learn from esteemed faculty in areas he wouldn't otherwise study.  On the other, it seems that too often the vast majority of technical responsibilities and projects can be handed to those with the requisite skills, leading to a bit of an overload.  It seems an unfair, unintended consequence, that those faculty with technical abilities would find them to be sources of extra work or expectation.  Ryan said that his department had been very supportive of his teaching efforts, but that for one of his courses, he was participating in an inter-institutional collaborative textbook editing effort in parallel with the course.  This provides a forum for him and the other professors to both shape the course and share ideas and feedback on teaching.  I thought this was a very interesting development and, hopefully, a sign of things to come.  Finally, Tessa mentioned how supportive the Computer Science department had been of her, but also their foot-dragging with regard to getting her on a tenure track.  In fact, I was quite surprised to hear her express 'not now' attitude toward the tenure track due to the added pressures for a certain kind of work and teaching it might entail.  


#altac and academic freedom

This brings me to our last theme.  Two of our three panelists and several in the audience began their academic careers in staff positions. I thought it was very interesting to hear that these alternative academic career paths, a.k.a. #altac, represent a new type of academic freedom: freedom from the tenure review. This is ironic to me because tenure is intended to enhance academic freedom, but for several of our panelists and audience members it represents a potential constriction on their teaching and research activities. Especially as some department embrace multi-year contracts for non-tenure track faculty, this group could represent a peristent source of innovation, especially in teaching.



Want to learn more?  Our panelists' info is below.  Also check out the UNC Digital Scholarship group and Semaphore, the latter of which provided funding for the event last night.  


A big thanks to our panelists, attendees, my Semaphore co-founders Whitney Trettien (who helped organize) and Adam Rottinghaus (who made the killer flyer below) and everyone else who made the event so enlightening!


Tessa Joseph-Nicholas

UNC Computer Science


Mark Olson

Duke Art, Art History, and Visual Studies


Ryan Shaw

UNC Information Science




Thanks for posting this wrap-up, Elliott! It's so helpful to those of us who couldn't make the event. I admire the work of all the panelists and value their insights into this topic.

David Bell pointed out on another HASTAC post that Duke students/faculty have access to training videos for free. I haven't tried them yet, but can imagine them being used to supplement courses, especially by instructors who feel a little shaky with some of their skills.

I like Mark's suggestion for a Computing 101 similar to the Writing 101 courses (the old Writing 20s at Duke). When I taught a media/tech-y Writing 20 last year -- which incorporated some coding/mark-up (though not anywhere near as much as I wanted, since the students had less tech knowledge than I was expecting!) -- several students said they signed up because it looked the most computer science-y. This shows there's a desire on the students' part to learn tech skills; the instution just needs to catch up. 


That being said, the bit about tenure being potentially restrictive is interesting to me. At some point, the institutional structures that are in limbo right now will calcify, and we'll all look back fondly on the time when our biggest problem was the freedom attending uncertainty.


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