Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Not Flipping Out (week 3)

We've just completed our third week of the semester and my flipping experiment continues. In honor of flipping the class, we will now refer to CS161 as CS191.

I'm still a fan.

There were no enormous disasters this week nor were there any sudden breakthroughs (I fully expect that simply due to this new course structure, one of my students will inadvertently do something to win him/herself a Turing award, but not quite this week.)

So, this week I will write about four happy and unintended consequences of this new arrangement.

1. Flipping as an Equalizer

Students enter courses with different levels of expertise and experience. This is always a challenge as some students constantly feel behind and others sometimes feel bored (although rarely do students feel bored while trying to get OS/161 to fork processes). With the flipped arrangement, I can break up the material into distinct topical areas with videos per topical area, and students can pick and choose which ones they need to watch. They can check out the web work and see which questions they know without viewing anything and which ones indicate they may need to view a video or do some more reading. My sense is that this acts as an equalizer. It's not perfect, but it's definitely better than a more traditional lecture where at least one student is lost and another is bored.

2. Maximizing Teaching Utility

I feel like an idiot for not having realized this before, but flipping lets instructors spend time with the students who can benefit most from that time. When I try to run an interactive lecture, I typically end up engaging with the students who are most comfortable and most expert. After all, they are the ones most willing to speak up in class. They are also usually the ones most willing to ask questions. Sure, I can look at the class and try to detect overall class confusion, but do I always catch the student who is really confused? I think not.

In contrast, when I and my teaching staff* wander around the room, we spend time with the students who are struggling or who have questions. We check on groups and cheer on those who not only have fork and exec working, but have implemented job control, backgrounding, programmatic scripting, and twelve other features in the past ten minutes. Yes, we're excited for the students who excel, but we can be more useful in making sure that all the students are succeeding. And by and large, at the end of the session, every student has experienced some form of success. I am pretty convinced that few students walk out of a normal class feeling successful. They may feel like they were in a good lecture; they may have enjoyed it; but I don't think they feel that they were personally successful. In contrast, getting your shell to fork and exec, proving a scheduler optimal, or deriving a good scheduling routine can let you feel like you've actually accomplished something.

3. And then I travel ...

As much as I hate it, I do sometimes have to travel during the semester and miss classes. While I have talented colleagues and wonderful teaching staff who fill in for me on those occassions, I don't like it. This February is the worst -- I have three trips I have to make. Under normal circumstances I should have missed four classes, but I couldn't do that so I jiggered the trips so I will only miss two (which means I missed NetApp University day for the first time, which made me sad).

All that said, being away is not nearly as disconcerting as it is under normal circumstances. First, I can check on the web work so I have first hand knowledge of how everyone is doing. Second, I have already prepared the material I wanted to present, so that isn't very different. Third, although I cannot wander around class, I have four or five teaching staff fully engaged in the class time activity and they are wandering around talking with students and getting firsthand feedback on how things are going.

Normally, when I've missed a class and I ask how things went, I get something like, "I think it went OK." This is a truly honest reply, because someone giving a guest lecture has very little feedback on how things actually went. This time, however, I got, "Very well. I guess main things I noted:

  1. People seemed good conceptually; questions I got were insightful.
  2. People had a lot of trouble with the proof, so I eventually told them to move on to the design problem and come back to the proof if they weren't done.
  3. I had time for one group to present their scheduler idea and it was essentially good (a min-heap with priority proportional to sleep time).
  4. I had time to show the bounded priority queue idea and explain that the distribution of jobs is usually thought of as multinomial. (The group that came up with the min-heap scheduler included a math student who was trying to show it was somehow optimal for a power law job distribution, which was pretty neat).
  5. I think some people may have been working on A1 in class, but I'm not sure that's bad."

I have a much better sense of what was covered, how students are doing, etc. Yes, it took more work before I left, but it was entirely worthwhile.

4. My Teaching Fellows seem more engaged and happier

* At Harvard, teaching assistants are called Teaching Fellows. This is a moniker that arose when most such people were graduate students and the stipends they received were part of their fellowship. Technically, when undergraduates assume these roles, they are teaching assistants and not teaching fellows, but drawing such distinctions would be silly, so the culture is that we call all such people Teaching Fellows, or more colloquially, TFs. Apologies for not clarifying that earlier.

In a conventional course, the TFs are pretty disengaged from lecture. I usually want them to attend (mostly to fix things I botch up), but since they've all taken the course before, they spend much of class tuned out and doing their own thing (defeating the purpose of my having them here in the first place). However, in the current setup, the TFs are fully engaged. They are wandering around talking to students, fixing things, and actually teaching. Since most of them take these jobs because they enjoy that sort of thing, they are spending more time doing the part they like (let's face it, none of us are that excited about the grading part). In general, they seem happier to me and more interested in what's going on in the course.

And, at least to me, they say that the class time is fun. This too strikes me as a good thing.

Next: Addicted to flipping (February 21, 2013)

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