Friday, March 4, 2016

Teaching an IT class (JavaScript, XML, C#, VB, CMS/PHP)

I've taught part-time at SAIT for 11 years now.  I've had more than 30 different classes with 5 different courses.  Recently I've been challenged by a colleague (also a part-time teacher here at SAIT) to make my courses better and more interactive.  While I thought my courses were pretty interactive to begin with, his ideas have definitely pushed me further in a good way.

All the courses I've taught have been introduction to different code languages or working with code:
Visual Basic, C#, XML, Javascript, PHP, and Content Management Systems like WordPress and Drupal.  Up until recently, my courses had been - at a high level - structured as follows:  I demonstrate a new concept/code idea to the class and I have them follow along.  Once they are reasonably comfortable with implementing it (perhaps an exercise or two of following along like this) I give them an exercise that they have to try and do themselves.  Sometimes I'll add a twist to make them think a bit.  For the most part this has worked great.  Its looked like this (an example with XML):
  • Intro to the Language and syntax - I'll go through several power point slides that discuss: 
    • What does well formed XML mean?  
    • How do you ensure your XML is well formed?  
    • What are the keys/rules to well formed XML? 
    • I'll ask the class questions as we go along and get them to answer.
  • We'll code a simple XML file together.  I'll make intentional mistakes along the way and see if the class is paying attention, or just call them out and ask 'Do you think this is right?'  I will also put comments in my code so the students can refer to them later.  Once done, I'll give this complete exercise to the students so they have it to refer to.
  • Then I'll give them an XML file that is not well-formed (completely broken) and get them to try and fix it.  
    • After about 15 minutes, I'll try and fix it myself in front of them, getting them to help me.
    • Once that's done with my comments, I'll again put it in a shared folder for the students to grab so they can refer to it later.
  • I'll give them another broken XML file and get them to fix it. 
    • Again, after about 15 minutes, I'll try and fix it myself in front of them, getting them to help me.
    • Once that's done with my comments, I'll again put it in a shared folder for the students to grab so they can refer to it later.
  • Then, next concept.... and repeat.
This has worked quite well.  I've followed this process with all my courses and it seems to keep students engaged and helps them grasp new concepts.

As I mentioned earlier, I've been challenged by a colleague to make my courses better, even more collaborative, and (hopefully) gets the students more return on their tuition investment.  Here's what I'm changing and improving:
  • Using a Repo.  Instead of using a shared folder to give files to students and have them turn in assignments, I'm using BitBucket with SourceTree (and forcing them to use it too).  This is great practice for them for the industry, and so far has worked really well.  My SourceTree client does get bogged down at times (with over 30 repositories) but it hasn't been a major deal.
  • Commenting. I continue putting lots of comments in my code for the class to refer to.  They really like this and find it helpful when they review after class.  I'll definitely keep doing this
  • Error Challenge.  I tend to fat-finger a bit when I'm coding in front of the class (even when I'm working off of a printed copy of a complete exercise).  Sometimes these errors are hard to catch and I waste some class time while I try and figure out what I did.  So instead of waste our collective time and to help them pay attention, I instituted a little game.  If a student catches an error I make in my code, they get a point.  Points accrue for the duration of the course.  The student at the end of the course with the most points gets a free Starbuck's gift card (or something like it).  This worked really well, and I'm definitely going to do it again.
  • Student Journal. Student feedback is key for me.  I teach in 'Fast-Track' programs where the students know that they are going to get inundated hard and fast with new concepts all the time.  Ensuring I'm not bull-dozing them with new stuff is key, so having a feedback loop helps.  Up to this point I've just been asking them in class 'How's the speed - am I going to fast?'  But my colleague suggested getting the students to journal and having them  commit that to their repo so I can see it as another feedback loop.  I did this in my last course and it worked quite well.  I don't have them journal every day - just once a week or so, but the feedback I got from them individually was great. 
  • Group Projects.  Out in the industry, most of these students are going to be working on teams, so having them do exercises in class as teams seems logical.  It turns out that students, for the most part, really like having group projects to work on.  They can collaborate together and learn from each other.  It also pushes them to compete a little which makes for an even better result.  I have them create a team repo for the project(s), and this also gives them experience with some BitBucket administration (branching and merging, etc.) which also prepares them for the industry.

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