For this season’s last episode, we talk with Jacqueline Smith, an Assistant Professor of the teaching stream in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto. We talk about U of T’s large flipped CS1. We started with the class’s specifics, how it’s flipped, and their “prepare, rehearse, and perform” cycle. Then we discussed their decision to have a synchronous part of the class despite remote teaching. We spent the rest of the episode on her thoughts on how best to flip a class, which included reconsidering if video is the right medium, flipping doesn’t need to happen all at once, and colleague buy-in from all others that could teach the course is important.
You can find this episode’s transcription down below!
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Kristin [00:00] Hello and welcome to the CS-Ed Podcast, a podcast where we talk about teaching computer science with computer science educators. For context, we are recording on October 21st, 2020. So potentially some of the things we talk about will feel dated by the time you listen to this. But, hopefully, the world will be better when this podcast is released than when it is recorded. With the disruption of Covid-19 and the latest calls for change in education due to racial inequality this season’s theme is, “Where should we go from here?” in hopes we can all take a pause and ask ourselves, “If I have time to reflect rather than react, what should I be doing?” I am your host, Kristin Stephens-Martinez, an Assistant Professor of the Practice of Duke University. And joining me today is Jacqueline Smith, an Assistant Professor of the teaching stream in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto. And Jacqueline, tell us about yourself.
Jacqueline [00:51] Yeah. So I’ve been at the University of Toronto for five years now. I think this is my fifth year. And the bulk of my teaching is in our first year courses. So I frequently coordinate our CS1 course, which at our institution is very, very large. This year it’s, we’re at two thousand students enrolled this term.
Kristin [01:13] Wow.
Jacqueline [01:14] Yeah, it’s a lot. And the course is flipped and it’s been flipped since actually before I got to U of T. I think it happened starting in 2013. Much of my colleagues flipped the course. And it’s been—both to teach in-person and now online—that flipped work has really paid off for me. So I’m a big fan of the way that our courses designed.
Kristin [01:37] Cool. I’m so looking forward to this conversation because I am super curious about the flipped and I’m sure now probably partially asynchronous because of Covid. Because I want… this is kind of, for me at least, the dream. Like this is what I want to do to our CS1 at some point, and I’m super excited to pick your brain. So let’s start with a little bit of details. So, what do you mean by flipped? How much work was it at the beginning, if you have any idea what that was? Maintenance costs? Tell me more.
Jacqueline [02:11] Yeah. So my understanding, I was not here, was that it was a huge amount of work to flip at the beginning. And maintaining the course is still quite a lot of work as well. So every time we have a Python language version change we decide to implement—we have a video based flipped class—so that makes it extra work to do those kinds of things.
So in terms of the format of what we have, we have our course split into… There’s kind of the overarching tests and assignments that happen along the term. But each week we have a cycle that we call, prepare, rehearse, and perform.
So the ‘prepare’ is the kind of more traditionally flipped part of the course. So it’s a series of short video lectures with accompanying multiple choice questions that students complete before they come to their first lecture. And then, the end of the week, ‘perform,’ is a bit more like, you know, they’ve had some practice experience and now they’re showing us what they know in terms of writing little bits of code on that week’s topics.
So those are both asynchronous components. They exist in an online system that we use. It’s kind of a in-house built tool. And students complete their work by the deadline in those and it’s for a small amount of course credit, but not very much. They get unlimited chances. So it’s a very, it’s intended to be very low stakes practice activity.
So then in between we have this ‘rehearse,’ and actually this part could have gone completely asynchronous this term and we decided not to do that. So we’ve actually offered our course fully asynchronous in the past, and we’ve never really loved it. We have online versions of what we do in lecture for students who’ve been enrolled in this asynchronous online course in the past and their engagement is lower. If they finish the course, they do as well, but they tend to drop at a higher rate. They’re just, you know, they, they tend to have more trouble because they’re not getting that support that we get in our classroom.
So the ‘in-person’—I’ll use that for now—the ‘in-person’ lecture component, which is how we teach the majority of the students in the course, that’s our class meeting time. It is optional. But we have pretty good attendance. And we do active learning exercises with instructors and TAs circulating.
And we talk with our TAs about identifying students who are sitting there looking at a blank worksheet, how to engage them in conversation to get them kind of unstuck and moving forward. And so for us, taking all of that talking—we still talk a bit too much—but taking most of the talking out of the together time really lets us focus on working with people and more of an individual or small group level. And I think that is extremely valuable.
And so when we were moving online this summer, we made the decision to actually try and keep that synchronous component for the majority of our students. So of our two thousand students, 90 percent of them are in a synchronous section of the course where we still have an online meeting each week.
Kristin [05:39] All right. So I already have a bunch of questions.
Jacqueline [05:42] Sure.
Kristin [05:42] So first question, that should be quick, is how often are you meeting during the week and for how long?
Jacqueline [05:49] We have three lecture hours a week. This term, it’s one hour on Mondays, two hours on Wednesdays.
Kristin [05:55] Interesting. And the hours are back to back.
Jacqueline [05:57] Yeah. We’ve also done three times one hour. One times three hours. It’s kind of just. A scheduling constraint satisfaction problem.
Kristin [06:08] And then the other question that I have is, do you have any sense as to why the prior attempts at asynchronous didn’t work? Was it like because it was a voluntary basis—a small portion of students did that—or did all the students do that for that semester? And then it kind of just didn’t work, like do you have a sense of that at all?
Jacqueline [06:28] I don’t have any sense that’s founded in evidence, but I’ve taught the asynchronous section several times and I’m teaching it now as well. And it’s just very, very hard to engage the students. So because it’s not blocked off in their schedules in the same way that a synchronous class is, there’s just… I think it just drops down their priority list each week. And so they get to the end of the week and maybe they haven’t done that rehearsed component and so they just skip it and try to perform, and that doesn’t go so well because they haven’t practiced.
I try to, you know, I’ve tried different things. Right now, my options are limited, but I send them kind of a weekly check-in announcement with a video going over something that students found challenging that week. We’ve tried going over past test questions every week for them. I tried having socials where I bought snacks. We’ve tried all kinds of things just to get those students more engaged. And for some reasons, they aren’t as engaged. We have a large commuter campus. So I think that’s, you know, some students choose it because it means they don’t have to commute to campus as often. But I think it’s just, you know, they don’t kind of get that external pressure of, “There’s a thing in my calendar, and I’m going to go, and that’s when everyone’s there, and I’ll kind of end up participating because I’m there.”
Kristin [07:56] The suspicion is something like that the students are missing more structure that kind of gets them to do what they’re supposed to be doing.
Jacqueline [08:06] Yeah, that’s my guess. And I believe it even more this term watching other students, hearing from my students about their other asynchronous courses and their trouble keeping up and just kind of having to constantly be building that structure for themselves rather than having it exist as part of their weekly routine.
Kristin [08:27] Yeah, that’s an interesting point that I hadn’t thought of but would make sense. So what about your transition to handling Covid? Like what changes did you make from pre-Covid to to now Covid to handle the situation?
Jacqueline [08:44] So I wasn’t teaching our CS1 in the winter, but it was offered, when we moved fully online at that point. Given the emergency situation, the instructors moved to just using our asynchronous online materials and, obviously, asynchronous has some benefits in terms of students being able to access it in different time zones and all that because, you know, students were suddenly moving all over the world, as you know, and like.
Kristin [09:12] Yeah.
Jacqueline [09:12] It’s just very complicated. So it was just kind of the easiest thing to do, which would let everyone focus on more pressing issues of what the heck do we do now.
But then over the summer… So we have a summer semester that most of our faculty don’t teach in at U of T, so we mostly don’t teach mid-August, we work on prep for September. And so we decided we really wanted to include the synchronous component. So that was really a priority for us. And so the way that we’ve done that, especially with like many places, we have students all over the world. About half of the students in my course are in the Toronto time zone. A quarter are 12 hours offset. And then the rest are everywhere. So we ended up offering these synchronous time slots throughout the day. So our first one starts at 9:00 a.m.. And our last one starts at 7:00 p.m.. So.
Kristin [10:11] Wow, you’re not teaching all those, I hope.
Jacqueline [10:14] I teach two of them.
Kristin [10:15] OK.
Jacqueline [10:16] So yeah, we have four time slots throughout the day in the hopes that we would have something that was at least doable, but maybe not necessarily ideal. But we had to obviously balance that with the instructor’s schedule. Yeah. So we have these times all day in the hopes of making the synchronous time slot available to everyone who wanted it.
Kristin [10:37] And do the students still have three hours a week of synchronous time?
Jacqueline [10:42] Yes, they do.
Kristin [10:44] OK. That’s like six hours out of your week.
Jacqueline [10:47] It is. It’s actually more than that. Then they have questions after.
Kristin [10:53] Ouch, OK.
Jacqueline [10:54] But it’s good. I think it’s, I think it’s really valuable for those who, you know, our attendance is down, but it’s still around two thirds of the class for each section. And the students who show up are engaged, asking good questions, you know, following along, doing the exercises. Some of them—I’m using breakout rooms in Zoom—some of them are engaged in that. Not all of them, but the ones who are really wanting to use that time well, I think, are getting a lot out of it.
Kristin [11:23] Oh good. So how are you organizing that? Because, like, two thousand students for a session… So like five hundred students, and, probably, it’s not actually five hundred…
Jacqueline [11:34] Yeah. So we had to make some decisions about that very early. And we, I think there’s some differences between the Canadian and American systems, we are quite limited in terms of tools we can use that have any access to our student information. So we had to get, we were waiting to get kind of institutional approval to be able to use Zoom. So it was not an approved tool. So we initially set our class sizes based on the maximum, the maximum size of room in Blackboard Collaborate, which is the one that is built into our LMS (Learning Management System).
Kristin [12:14] OK. I’m not familiar with that tool at all.
Jacqueline [12:16] It’s… a thing.
Jacqueline [12:25] We actually have Canvas as our LMS. But this is their, like, video conferencing tool that’s from Blackboard that… I also don’t really know how these pieces fit together. But that’s the one that we had. It was this specific tool that we had, kind of, authorized for use here at U of T. And so it has a maximum size of 250. So we set our caps at 240 because we needed to have some TAs present, and so we actually have those four time slots. They’re all doubled up so it’s actually two sections running simultaneously.
Kristin [13:02] OK.
Jacqueline [13:03] So we did get permission to use Zoom though, which makes breakout rooms much easier to do.
Kristin [13:08] So how do your breakout rooms work then? Because like, for example, I know that our CS2 has over 500 students and our version of Zoom only lets us have, like, 20 breakout rooms, which makes that, like, nonsensical to be able to use breakout rooms.
Jacqueline [13:25] Yeah, so because we have it split into sections of 240. The limit for that is 30 breakout rooms. So 30 breakout rooms for, and we’re getting an attendance more like around 150 ish now, like 150, 160. So that many people between 30 rooms works out much better.
Kristin [13:45] Yes, that’s much better. That makes sense.
Jacqueline [13:48] Yes, it’s much better. So that’s kind of another reason we stuck with these like two people teaching simultaneously. Even though it would be easier because we felt that, if we could do the breakout rooms in some decent way, that that would be valuable to students. I know not all of our students are loving it, but I know there are some who really are enjoying that and they’re meeting people. They’re making friends through that. And I think that’s pretty important. So we do preassigned breakout rooms.
Kristin [14:17] How did you figure that one out?
Jacqueline [14:18] We surveyed students at the beginning of the term and asked them for things like… So CS1, we asked about a bunch of things, including prior programming experience and the time zone they were in. And so we did a preliminary assignment to these breakout rooms based on putting people in the same or nearby time zones together. And also splitting up the people with no experience versus some experience. So that the, kind of more know-it-all sorts could have their thing together—this is a common challenge in CS1.
Kristin [14:59] Oh, yes. Those with prior experience and an advantage get to now talk to only those who also have an advantage. So no one has an advantage.
Jacqueline [15:07] Right. And, more importantly, I didn’t want the people without prior experience to kind of hear from one person who’s got a lot of terminology that they don’t necessarily deeply understand. But they, you know, the first year students can’t necessarily tell that. And so I want to separate those people—I didn’t do it perfectly—but to kind of have people who’d be having similar challenges be together, to kind of validate that with each other and be able to talk about, you know, to be kind of moving through the material at the same pace rather than to be stuck with someone who’s already learned this stuff before.
Kristin [15:47] Did you also consider other demographics like race and gender?
Jacqueline [15:51] So we have very little information about that here. But we did, one question we did ask students in our survey was preferred pronouns.
Kristin [15:59] OK.
Jacqueline [16:00] So I used that just to—I did like a skim after my assignments—to make sure that there was no group that had, like, just one person that used a particular pronoun.
Kristin [16:13] That’s good.
Jacqueline [16:13] And, actually, our course is probably 55 to 60 percent of people who use she/her pronouns this term. So I actually had more issues of having to pull a single he/him student out of a group of she/hers.
Kristin [16:30] Part of me is like let the ‘him’ be stuck with a bunch of ‘hers.’ Go ahead. Like, feel what we normally feel.
Jacqueline [16:36] It felt good to have that problem.
Kristin [16:38] Did you change the exams at all?
Jacqueline [16:40] Yes. We moved those online, obviously.
Kristin [16:45] OK. Makes sense.
Jacqueline [16:46] We’ve tried to change them as little as possible.
Kristin [16:48] Oh, how so or more like why?
Jacqueline [16:51] So my concern about, and a concern I heard from students speaking to some over the summer, was they were very worried that their instructors were going to compensate for the online format by, like, jacking up the difficulty. And we really did not want to do that. So we tried to find a balance of what we could ask. So we sometimes ask questions that require code tracing on our paper tests. And those are less interesting in an online test because, you know, you copy it into your IDE and hit run and there’s your answer, right? So we tried to avoid things like that. We tried to avoid things where students could find the answer just by copy pasting them into their IDE.
Kristin [17:29] Yeah.
Jacqueline [17:30] But beyond that, we kept our, you know, we had the same same kinds of questions. We just had a few that we had them submit like write code and submit the file instead of writing on paper. So the other thing we did is the only assessment we added this term was we did add one more test.
Kristin [17:51] OK.
Jacqueline [17:51] Just because our final exam is usually worth 50 percent. And we did not want an online exam worth 50 percent.
Kristin [18:03] Ripe for cheating.
Jacqueline [18:04] Exactly, exactly. So we brought the stakes down by adding another one and distributing the weight of it more across some other assessments so that I think the last one is worth 20 percent. And that’s the biggest individual thing in the course. So. Still stressful. But hopefully not quite as stressful as it would have been otherwise.
Kristin [18:23] How are you organizing office hours? I’ve heard multiple different solutions right now for online office hours.
Jacqueline [18:29] Yes. So we’re using this Blackboard Collaborate tool for it. We decided not to use Zoom because Zoom only lets you have one host that can assign people to breakout rooms. And since it’s a CS1 class and they’re working individually, it’s, you know, basically everyone needs one-on-one help. So the tool we’re using lets us have all of our TAs and instructors who are holding office hours, often many simultaneously, especially around a deadline. They’ll have the same role and they can move, basically, we have a queue—students use this button to join this queue—and we just take the top person into a breakout room whenever you’re done with the next one. So everyone’s in this private room for their office hours.
Kristin [19:17] So, when the student is in a queue, are they like just staring at a blank screen? Or are they in like a room where they can talk to each other while they’re waiting.
Jacqueline [19:26] They’re in a main room where they can talk to each other. Well, not too many do, although I have been doing some kind of global messages, like, “If you have this particular issue with this particular function, like the last 10 people I talked to, here’s your…” Those kinds of things to try to see if we can get some people on their way. So that’s kind of nice. And some of them chat in the main room and try to help each other out, which is nice to see.
Kristin [19:57] Yeah, I think that’s one of the more common solutions where they put all the students who are waiting in the same video chat and then pull them off one at a time into a separate video chat. So that at least they have a presence of like being with other people and not wondering, is this thing working?
Jacqueline [20:13] Exactly. I definitely get a lot of, “Is this thing working?” when office hours are quiet and there’s one person waiting while I help someone else. So…
Kristin [20:25] Yeah. Alright, so let’s see. We are about halfway through. So let’s say I want to take advantage of what you know, and then maybe eventually transition our CS1 into this dream of flipped. Assuming I have a summer-ish available to work on it, what should I try and work towards in a year?
Jacqueline [20:43] So I think that lots of people kind of think of the idea of flipping their course as doing like all or nothing. But for us, we’ve actually had quite a bit of luck with more blended courses, so flipping parts but not all of the course. So I think one option to try is to just kind of find some places, especially if you have something with a lot of terminology or some stuff that you just have to kind of have students have this basic understanding—terminology is really my favorite place to start because it’s kind of boring to lecture about, right? Why are you spending that time, your valuable human time on that when that could be something that students do more independently?
So the other thing to consider is, I think people go towards video for a flipped class. And think about if that’s really the best choice for you. Our students tend to actually quite like our text-based flipped class exercises. So not necessarily like just a textbook reading, but maybe some course notes, a bit of a write up, a little bit briefer, but much more targeted to what you’re going to be doing in class that week. And it’s much easier to maintain. So, you know, if you need to make a change to a text-based flipped course, right, you grep and do a find-and-replace of a particular word or that kind of thing. And maintenance is much easier.
Kristin [22:25] Huh, I never thought of that.
Jacqueline [22:26] Yeah. So we actually have, we have quite a few flipped or blended courses in our department. And we have a few that are video, but we have quite a few that are like the more recent ones tend to be text.
Kristin [22:40] And I guess the thing that I’m struggling with a little bit is like, what is the difference between a textbook and what you’re talking about?
Jacqueline [22:44] I mean, potentially, nothing.
Kristin [22:46] OK.
Jacqueline [22:47] It’s just that it needs to align really well with what you’re gonna do in lecture. By lecture, I mean, you’re like face-to-face time. And so if it really nicely lines up with what you’re doing then—and you find a textbook section that does that—that’s great. It’s maybe also length, right? Like, assigning a 20 page chapter versus a couple screens’ worth of prereading is probably much easier to get students to do some shorter reading. So but yeah, we’ve had—I haven’t done any of it myself, but our CS2 class has actually blended in that way with text based prep materials each week. The other thing that I think is an important part is some kind of low stakes assessment. At the end of that prep.
Kristin [23:39] OK.
Jacqueline [23:40] Something that students have to do before they come to class. “Read this,” with no follow up exercise is something that is easy for students to skip. And it’s, “What, why are they doing it? What are they supposed to get out of it?” If that’s not clear to them, then they don’t really have a sense of whether what they’re doing is valuable. So if you can give some kind of exercise they have to do based on what they learned. Low stakes, enough that, you know, they still need to have some more deeper practice with that content. But they have an opportunity to do something with it. It’s worth a small number of marks and it gives them kind of a push to actually do it before they come to class. And then also they know, right, they know they’re not prepared because they didn’t do the prep. And you have kind of this clear checkpoint to say, I expect you’ve done this before you come to class.
Kristin [24:39] Yeah. So, like, you have that pre-check kind of thing. And you said the practice and…
Jacqueline [24:42] We had in our CS1, we have ‘prepare,’ ‘rehearse,’ and ‘perform.’ But the ‘prepare’ is really the more, like, traditional flipped piece.
Kristin [24:52] Do the students feel that it’s, like, a lot of work to them?
Jacqueline [24:56] That is something you need to be mindful of. That you’re reducing the amount of time we’ll have to spend on something else in the course if you’re going to add this. Or to keep your preps very short.
Kristin [25:09] OK.
Jacqueline [25:10] But, yeah, certainly good student time is a consideration if everyone is just adding and nothing gets removed. But the hope is that you can take that time that you would have spent introducing these concepts and spend it in lecture working through trickier problems. So now that they—when they go off on their own—they have, they’re more prepared for the tricky problems.
Kristin [25:33] OK. Yeah, like, the timing thing is one of the things I keep wondering about. Like how do you gauge that? Because some students are more prepared than others, which means that some students are faster getting stuff done compared to others. And if you’re doing the flipped thing, the idea is that the time that you would spend doing your homework, you would spend instead watching videos to prepare. And then that time you would have done homework is spent in class. I originally translated that as meaning that means you finish your homework in class. But that’s, I’ve discovered, is much harder than I thought it would be because of this difference in prior programming experience.
Jacqueline [26:18] Yeah. So we have done it where the stuff in lecture is a not for credit kind of exercise. Actually, some people have some credit for what they do in class, but in our CS1 it’s not for credit. But it is practice for that end of week stuff. And so the time spent, right, rather than… I guess, the way I think about it is: rather than coming to class and me spending that time being like, “This is what an if-statement looks like.” And then you have to go off on your own and figure out how to use an if-statement. And then you have to do this end of week homework with an if-statement. You will hopefully be saving some time because we’ll learn how to use if-statements together.
Kristin [26:56] Yeah.
Jacqueline [26:57] So when you come to your end of week exercise, you’ve already practiced together in lecture. And so it hopefully will take you less time.
Kristin [27:06] OK. So I guess like the translation I’m doing in my head is that for our CS1 we have two lectures and a lab. And the lab I think it’s also seventy five minutes, where the students are practicing and actually applying things. And so in some ways for us, it’s almost like I’m potentially taking a little bit of their homework stuff away and allocating it during lecture time instead. So I’m kind of duplicating lab a little bit more and sending their lecture content to later. But I still like the point that you made before is that you don’t have to flip everything at once. Even within a year. So what about five years, though.
Jacqueline [27:44] Five years.
Kristin [27:44] Like, if five years from now, I want to actually achieve this.
Jacqueline [27:46] Yeah.
Kristin [27:47] Give me advice.
Jacqueline [27:48] So if you’d like a fully flipped class in five years, I still think you can do it a little at a time. But one other big consideration about kind of the long term feasibility of a flipped class is: Who teaches that class? Is it always you? And if not, is there buy-in from those other people?
Kristin [28:10] OK.
Jacqueline [28:11] So one thing that I think really helps make our flipped CS1 very successful. So I, you know, my colleagues who designed it initially. You know, they were very thoughtful, very intentional about everything they did. It was a very well-designed course. But it’s only gotten better because every term it’s taught by, there are now, should I even count? One, two, three, four, five, six? I think at least six faculty. Is that true? Yeah. At least, six faculty who teach it on a regular basis. And, you know, there’s the two who initially kind of did this design of it. But there’s this group of people who are all onboard with what we’re doing. And so rather than, you know, putting this huge amount of work, you teach it and then two years later, someone else is assigned and they don’t want to use your stuff and they throw it all away. Right, having, kind of, that sort of buy-in from everyone who teaches the course, I think is good for the course, right? Like so every, you know, I’ve been adding, it’s not my course initially, but there are a lot of components that I’ve added to it or things that we’ve decided could work better. And, you know, I and the other faculty who have been teaching it over the years have been iterating and constantly improving the course. And so I think that it really needs to be, like for us, it’s really a team effort. It’s this course and there’s a bunch of people who are associated with it, but it’s not any one person’s or any two people’s thing. And I think that that can be challenging, right? In a lot of departments, you know, the course can be wildly different depending on who teaches it term to term.
Kristin [29:59] Yeah.
Jacqueline [29:59] But for us, this is something that we recognize is good for students, right? Even if I disagreed with exactly where we teach functions in the course, which I don’t—I don’t really have a strong opinion about that, but some people have strong opinions about the ordering of content—I think that a well-organized, well-designed, carefully-maintained course where the expectations are clear, the resources are high quality is so much better for students than kind of flipping back and forth between like well I put this work in because I believe, you know, in teaching things this way. But next term, someone else is gonna teach it differently.
We have this really consistent course. And I think that takes a real intentional effort and buy-in from everyone who’s involved. And so I think that, if one person is the only one teaching that course, I think that, you know, if you kind of are flipping a little bit at a time every year within five years, you’ve got a course that you’re, you know, if you think about, “How am I going to maintain this?” Right? Maybe if it’s a course where things are going to change a lot, maybe videos are not the right choice for you because of the maintenance cost. That sort of thing. I think that, you know, it’s certainly doable with people who are putting in the effort. But the challenge comes in when someone else teaches your course.
Kristin [31:31] Yeah.
Jacqueline [31:32] And is your effort just gone because you’ve thrown things out?
Kristin [31:37] That I feel like. Basically, what you’ve pointed out is that you need to take into account the human element.
Jacqueline [31:42] Right.
Kristin [31:42] When it comes to teaching a class, the human element is always much trickier and more complicated in some ways.
Jacqueline [31:52] This is maybe a bigger thing of mine than just within flipped classes, but I do find we’re very good as computer scientists at discussing the technical details, right? Like, should we teach this language or that one? Should we teach objects first or objects later?
And I think that those issues are perhaps over-discussed. And so I, to compensate, under care about that—I’ll just put that out there. I under-care about those issues, because I think that an organized course where students feel safe to try things—because programming is about failing, right? And that’s hard for students to, like, take this course for something you’re going to just fail over and over again, right? Error, error, error, crash. This kind of error. That kind of error… Creating an environment where they feel comfortable with that and they feel safe with that is, in my opinion like, going to have a much bigger impact on their ability to learn to be successful in the course, to be successful in future courses, to feel like they belong in computer science than, you know, if they’re learning Python versus if they’re learning Java versus if they’re learning whatever.
So what you said about the human element. I think that that’s really the tricky part. Right. Like, how do you get buy-in from your colleagues who might also be teaching this course? How do you get buy-in from your students to use these materials? And those are hard. Those are much harder to do than, I feel, like the conversations we’ve been having when we talk about moving online. Over the summer, I felt they focused very heavily on “Which tools are you going to use?” or, “How are you going to edit your video lectures?” And that’s, in my opinion, not important, right?
Like even for our flipped video lectures, they’re organized and clear, but they’re not high production value. I made one last night in my spare bedroom. It only gets, edited myself. That’s not where your effort really pays off in terms of benefit to the students. It’s where you think about like, “How are the students gonna use this? How is this going to help them with their, you know, their understanding? With their ability to get to know their classmates? With their ability to approach you if they have questions?” As you brought up about time… How is this going to fit into their lives? Are we adding to their workload or are we just moving it around a little bit? So I think those are really the important questions. The questions of, you know, what software do I use to edit my videos or which language am I using are not the ones that really are going to affect student learning in any dramatic way.
Kristin [34:40] I think what you’re trying to get at are, or what you’re critiquing, is that we sometimes focus too much on the questions that in some ways are easy to answer—or it’s easy to measure. Rather than think about the harder, in some ways almost philosophical or very human questions, that are much harder to answer.
And I think it’s just a human failing that, you know, you want to focus on the easy to answer questions. Despite the fact you’re not necessarily answering the right questions. And at the same time, it’s probably also kind of like a coping mechanism. Like, this whole thing has been stressful, and if one way to help you cope is by just finding questions that are easy to answer—even though they might not be the right questions to ask—at least makes you feel a little bit more productive and less stressed out.
Jacqueline [35:26] Exactly. That sounds like students studying poorly is what you just said. I think, you know, shockingly, instructors and students are all just humans. So we do the same things, right? Just we’re doing it a bit further out from that particular from being a student. We’re taking those same same tendencies and applying them elsewhere.
Kristin [35:51] Yep. Which sounds about right.
Jacqueline [35:53] Yeah, it does.
Kristin [35:54] Nice to know that we’re human. Alright, well, with that, let’s close with TL;DL, too long didn’t listen. What would you say is the most important thing you’d want our listeners to get out of the conversation?
Jacqueline [36:09] I mean, I think the… What we just talked about, like, considering the human element and related to that thinking about where do you spend your time if you’re going to flip the course? And what’s the impact of that, right? So, I mean, I’ve revealed my bias about video editing, but flashy videos might not necessarily be the best use of your time in terms of what’s going to really be good for your students.
Kristin [36:33] I think another important point that had not occurred to me until you said it is that you can flip slowly.
Jacqueline [36:39] Yes, you can flip slowly.
Kristin [36:41] You don’t have to flip the entire thing. You can go incrementally.
Jacqueline [36:44] Right, and you could stop. You don’t need to flip the whole thing ever.
Kristin [36:54] Yeah, I hope that’s a useful point for our audience. And with that, thank you so much for joining us.
Jacqueline [36:55] Thank you.
Kristin [36:56] And this was the CS-Ed Podcast hosted by me, Kristin Stephens-Martinez at Duke University, and produced by Amarachi Anakaraonye. And, remember, teaching computer science is more than just knowing computer science. And I hope you found something useful for your teaching today.