Twitter and chat in class are signs of bigger problems

Last month I attended a “Technology in Education” panel in which one of the student panelists described a class she took while studying abroad. She praised the professor’s idea of creating a Twitter hashtag for the class. He would project the twitterstream containing the tag onto the screen during class, so the students could see what the others were tweeting, share links, and ask questions.

On Reddit two days ago, an education professor bemoaned his university’s chatroom system. His class is conducted in a computer lab, where all the students have access to a shared chatroom (which the professor cannot disable). The professor does not watch the chatroom while he lectures, but he can see afterward that a bunch of students use the chat to post about how bored they are.

Plenty of sites claim that Twitter and other chat services are great tools that improve in-class student engagement. I disagree; I think these tools are half measures that imply there are bigger problems in the class.

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Senior research project: campus map browser app

Last month I alluded to my research project for this semester: making a browser app to provide walking directions for my campus. While driving directions are readily available, our existing campus maps are a little hazy on the walking instructions between buildings. If I can finish the app and get it on the college’s website, not only will it keep prospies and freshmen from getting lost, but it will settle a lot of arguments about the quickest way between buildings.

So far it can find the shortest distance between two points on the quad. My data consists of lat/long coordinates pulled from Google that represent intersections of sidewalks. Javascript calls the Google Maps API to get the shortest distance between those two points and runs Dijkstra’s algorithm, short-circuiting when it finds the goal. Then it gives me an array of points from start to finish, which the API uses to draw a line on the map.

There’s still plenty to do. In the next couple weeks, I need to figure out how to pull the coordinate data for the rest of the campus. If I can’t find a way to automate that, I’ll have to do it by hand, which is daunting. Even then, I know I’ll have to manually collect the data on which graph nodes are connected, because while I can plot down points on a custom map, I can’t find a way to automate connecting them (for that to happen, Google would have to be able to see where the sidewalks are on the map).

My long term goal is to have a package I can give to other campuses so they can replicate my project, but first I have to get my version set up. More updates to come!

Perspective for less stress: make cookies!

Very often lately I have felt stuck with lots to do and no way to do it. In three days, the convention I’ve been helping to plan will begin, and even though the rest of the convention chairs and I have done a lot to prepare, it never feels like enough. Despite the fact that I have the same workload as the other convention chairs, I feel much more stress than they do, and it’s affecting my day-to-day life. There is something about my way of thinking then, rather than the actual amount of work that I have to do, that is causing my stress.

I’ve been looking for a new mindset for a little while, but a breakthrough came the other day when my housemate Jackie came home. She put a couple boxes on the counter and talked about her professor bringing cookies to class. Continue reading

I know I belong in CS, but sometimes I wonder

Sometimes my Compilers professor will introduce a topic saying, “Who knows what lexical analysis is? No one? What, don’t you guys do this constantly in your spare time? All right, I’ll show you …” I know he’s just joking, but every time he does this, it reminds me of one of the barriers to women in computer science that I am particularly sensitive about: wondering whether or not I really belong in programming because I don’t program all the time.

If my CS experience were limited to my college, I wouldn’t be very worried – I go to a liberal arts college where no one has only one interest. In the first few weeks of my freshman year when we’d ask what other people wanted to major in, it was always, “Classics and chemistry” or “Neurobiology and art history” or another pair of an art and a science. In my social sphere, everyone has broad interests, so it shouldn’t worry me that I like cognitive science, philosophy, Japanese, and knitting in addition to programming.

However, in the past few years, I’ve met more students who study CS in engineering schools. When they talk about how they live to program and never leave the lab, I feel like I’ve been wasting time by having other hobbies when I should have been keeping up with my competition. I worry that my skills aren’t up to snuff because I’ve been knitting or reading Japanese books instead of programming and reading compiler books. Continue reading

Should colleges ban laptops in class?

A debate has sprung up on my campus lately about whether it is acceptable to use a laptop in class, with a technology panel and two school paper articles on the subject. I wrote last January about my decision not to use a laptop in class based on my inability to keep up with typed notes, but rather than actual note taking, the current debate is largely over the way that students slack off with their laptops in class. While many students do use their laptops to take notes, it is my impression that even more use them to check their social networks instead of paying attention to the lecture. Continue reading

Raise my hand and risk being “that girl”?

One aspect of a class that is sure to frustrate me if it’s even a little off is its speed. When the pace of classroom instruction is slow, I start wondering why I took the class in the first place. I go to a pretty selective school, so I expect classes to progress at a good clip, because we’re pretty smart students and can keep up. It is the habit of one or two of my professors, however, to teach too slowly for my taste.

To be fair to my professors, the only reason their class goes slowly is because half the time they are waiting for a response to a question posed to the students when none of the students want to raise their hand to answer. Continue reading

The difference between college and professional projects

In my summer internship, one of my tasks was designing a customer survey form. My supervisor gave me about two dozen questions that needed to be answered in various ways. A few were fill-in-the-blank, but of the rest half needed to be ranked on a scale of 1 to 10, and the other half had to be ranked on a scale of 1 to 5. This would have been pretty simple if I were able to write the html myself, but I needed to use an existing form assembly tool so that we could import the responses directly into our database. The form tool was not very sophisticated: I had control over the CSS, but not the HTML, so any changes I made were applied to all questions. I tried to find styling that would look good on both scales, which was nearly impossible with the HTML I was stuck with.

So rather than pull back and say, “To design this form well, I need more consistency. All the ranking questions should be 1 to 5,” I kept editing the CSS, trying to find a way to make the two styles look the way I wanted. I was so stuck on how to make different ranking scales look nice that I couldn’t step back and see that using the same scale would be much simpler. It took a review from a coworker in marketing to point this out, and when he did, all I could think was, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Continue reading

Practical advice on shopping for freshman year

It’s really easy to overbuy for freshmen year. When I was a freshman, I made a lot of mistakes in my dorm shopping. There are obvious things you need, like clothes and laundry detergent, but I wish I’d known some of these subtleties before I went shopping.

Textbooks and chocolate are essential.

Obviously, before you start buying anything, consult with your roommate(s) and school website. Don’t bring anything that the school provides in the rooms already.

General tips:

  • I go to school on the opposite coast from where I live, so I had special concerns in terms of getting all my stuff there. Whenever I purchased something the summer before freshman year, I tried to buy it online and have it shipped directly to the school. I saved a lot on shipping costs that way. Consider whether shipping an item you already own will cost more than buying it near campus. It was cheaper to buy my fan on campus than to buy one at home at ship it there, even though the fan I bought was more expensive than one I would have bought at home.
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Summer is awesome!

I love my internship. I’m doing fun, challenging coding work, I’m absorbing office culture, and I get to sit in on seminars about business practices. It’s great because I feel like I’m learning what I need to know about the software industry that I can’t learn in a classroom.

But moreover, my internship is great because I don’t have signs like these on my door anymore. As much as I’m excited to go back this fall, I’m so glad classes are out for summer!

Course credit for varsity athletes?

I groaned yesterday when I saw the following tweet from my school newspaper:

Faculty must vote in favor of athletics proposal at next meeting

In short, my school is considering awarding course credit to students for participating in varsity sports during the school year. Presently, a typical class at my college is worth one unit of credit, and a typical P.E. class is worth one half of a credit. Under the new proposal, participating in varsity sports would earn the student one half credit per semester, with a cap of two credits total from both sports and P.E. classes. The argument is that if the athletes dedicate so much time to a faculty-supervised activity, they deserve credit for it. The paper explains,

As it stands, varsity sports remain the College’s only faculty-supervised activity that does not receive academic credit. Activities of comparable commitment—such as [School] Repertory Dance Theatre, [School] College Orchestra and the [School] College Choir—all award participating students with a limited amount of credit, and it is our belief that the same academic courtesy be extended to athletes.

I’m biased because I have no athletic inclination whatsoever, and I have never been a fan of organized athletics at educational institutions (I have always thought that too much money goes to sports that would be better spent on academics). However, I have to give in out of fairness to the argument that if students can receive half a credit for a physical education course, it is reasonable to give the same amount for participating in varsity athletics. I benefited from a similar system when I took a year of ballet here. If I can earn credits for awkwardly balancing on my toes, my friends should be able to earn credits for improving their fencing game in a structured, supervised environment.  I assume, of course, that the same conditions for passing a physical education class are met in sports practices: students must have an attendance requirement, and they must show effort and improvement over the course of the semester. That’s fine; I can live with that.

However, I cannot agree with the other arguments my school’s paper puts forward:

On top of everything, we must remember that varsity athletics present a considerable time commitment. It is rare to find another activity on campus—academic or extracurricular—that includes a comparable daily rigor and frequent overnight obligation.

Time commitment cannot be a factor in determining course credit. If it is, where do you draw the line? While the paper claims it is rare, other extracurricular organizations do demand comparable time commitments. If an activity demands as much or more time than a varsity sport, does that mean students should be able to earn credit for it? I do not think it does. There is little precedent at my college for awarding more units of credit based on time commitment; CMPU 101: Introduction to Java and CMPU 331: Compilers are both worth just one credit here, despite the disparity in difficulty and quantity of homework of each.

The article continues,

Given the extent of this demand, the faculty must consider what it can do to mitigate possible academic pressures on these students. While athletes will continue to be held to the College’s rigorous academic standards, the athletics credit could discourage a varsity athlete from unnecessarily taking on five academic credits while in their athletic season.

With the proposed varsity credit, the athlete seeking to assume five courses in his or her athletic season will be checked with an overload form, thus encouraging the student to think twice about assuming such a large academic and extracurricular load.

I do not think awarding credits for sports lends itself to holding students to high academic standards. On the contrary, athletes would be able to take two fewer academic courses over their college careers in order to meet graduation requirements. Moreover, I do not think the faculty has any obligation to give athletes a break with academic pressure. Participating in sports is optional, and should always take second place to academics.  Students also do not need a formal warning when they take a full schedule of classes in addition to participating in sports – they know what they are getting into. I do not think that awarding credit will be seen as a warning not to take more academic classes, but instead as an excuse not to.

While I agree that it is justifiable to award athletes credit for participating in varsity sports at my college, I do not think it is because sports are the equivalent of an academic class, or because doing so would force athletes to seek approval before taking extra classes, but rather because varsity sports are comparable to already-lax physical education classes. By awarding course credit for sports, the faculty will give athletes the same break that they give to students who take yoga instead of chemistry. It is not that I think there is anything wrong with that; I just think the faculty should admit it.