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!

Monday, March 4, 2013


We've entered that time of the semester when the students are busily creating user level processes in their very own operating systems. It is both exhilarating and exhausting. Due to that exhausting part, this is the part of the course where I promised not to make them do pre-class work -- there would be no videos to view and no web work (other than quick surveys about how much time they are spending). That means that, for the most part, I have had to revert to a more traditional class structure -- I talk and call on people and we try to collectively learn stuff. It feels dull; it feels unsatisfying; it feels as though students are not engaged. I am looking forward to polling them about this class structure so we can decide how to move forward during the next several assignments.

Since we're not flipped, I have little novel pedagogy to talk about nor do I feel the exhilaration I've felt throughout most of the semester (and any of you who have run into me and dared ask about the course know that I can now babble incessantly about how fantastic flipping is). So, today's entry is about two things: how it feels to be lecturing again and thoughts on what I would do if I had 250 students instead of 50.

The Traditional Lecture

It sure does take less time to prepare for class! Once I finish class notes, I have finished class notes. I don't have to think up pre-class activities; I don't have to think up in-class activities; I do spend a bit more time working through the notes, deciding when I can engage the class and which activities can be converted into class exercises.

As has historically been the case, I find myself interacting with about 20% of the class, instead of all of them. This is rather disappointing. I coax, I tease, I cajole, but some people just don't want to speak up in class. I do find it effective to ask for a raise of hands to vote on whether answers are correct or not and I seem to get better participation than I have in the past, and my sense is that even when I'm trying to extract thoughtful answers from people, I have a slighly larger fraction of the class engaged, but it's nowhere near the 100% that are engaged when the students are completing in-class work.

I also have found it effective to try to convert some of the open-ended questions I typically ask into exercises that the students can complete in groups. Even if it only takes a minute or two, it means that more people are engaged. It is this last tidbit that got me thinking about our next topic ...

Flipping 250 Students

A few of my colleagues have indicated that they have been thinking of how to flip significantly larger courses and it poses an interesting question. What would I do if I were teaching CS51, which is a heavy-duty programming class and has roughly 250 students?

Classroom space is the first obstacle. I love teaching in our new state-of-the-art classroom that has reconfigurable, mobile tables, traveling whiteboards, screens on both ends of the classroom, etc. However, it holds only 54 students, and even if you could build a bigger one, I think it would rapidly become sufficiently cavernous that you'd lose any semblance of a class. So, I would constrain my thinking to what would work for a more traditional lecture hall.

Since the students won't be able to cluster around tables, I'd probably try to use some kind of online shared whiteboard-like tool. That way students could bring laptops and work together in groups of 2-4. I would also want some way to do real-time data collection. I don't think you need any special clickers -- I would see if Google Forms work well enough in real time that people could submit answers and I could see the overall statistical picture of how students are answering.

The physical layout is going to make it difficult for the teaching staff to circulate -- you can get to the edges of rows, but getting into the middle would be tricky. I'm not entire sure how to deal with that -- I suppose the staff could join the online discussion, but it's not the same as interacting with the students directly. This would seem to be one of the biggest obstacles -- I just can't see the teaching staff climbing over students to get into the rows; having the students get out of the rows to talk to the staff doesn't sound better. I'm also not completely sure how the noise level is going to play out in a room with that many students. You really want them to be able to talk to one another, but a room of 50 sounds pretty chatty; I'm not sure how loud a room of 250 will sound.

So, those are my thoughts, but I think that the best thing would be to run a experiment. Perhaps if one of my colleagues invited me to guest lecture in his class, we could prep a single class and give it a try!

Next: Half Flip (March 9, 2013)


  1. Margo, you are on! One problem: the 51 lecture hall has exactly 2 outlets in it.

  2. Well, I guess we'll have to make that exactly 2 more outlets than we need! (A laptop ought to be able to last through a lecture ...). Let's pick a topic towards the end of the semester and figure out what we want to accomplish.