Saturday, March 05, 2011

The Class

I quite enjoy teaching during the second semester more than the first. Most of my students are in their senior year, you see, and with graduation looming, we have to wrap up classes by the first week of March. That means my workload lightens up almost a month before the official end of the term.

Are students happy to see classes end? Double that joy for teachers! No more lessons to prepare, no more lectures to deliver, no more papers to check, free if only briefly to pursue our research interests....

But truth be told, I'm going to miss this batch. I can't explain it but in the three years that I've been teaching at Ateneo de Davao, I've come to realize that classes are like wine. There are good years, there are middling years, and there are years of exceptional vintage. Like this year, for instance.

For this year, the Computer Studies Division has produced two BPI Science Awardees (one of whom made it to the front page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer) and three candidates for Most Outstanding Student. And really, that doesn't even count the other fine young people whose skills, while amazing, don't fit the acknowledged academic measures.

To be sure, I have still had students who chose to coast along, or even clown their way through, but they've been outshone by the diligence with which their classmates applied themselves.

* * *

Because of the sagacity of this batch, I decided to try something new with the Open Source elective they took under me. At the beginning of the semester, I told them they could choose what they wanted to learn. I don't think I came to the decision consciously. It just seemed the right step to take.

I had parameters, yes, but they were meant more to guide than to hem in. They had to work with open source software, preference given but not limited to web application frameworks. Oh, and also: I wouldn't be teaching them, they would have to map out their own program of learning. I'd act more as coach and troubleshooter than professor. And finally, towards the end of the class, they would be expected to teach what they learned.

Looking back, it was a risky move and I did end up with some disappointing results. Some loafers, sadly, never really got their act together and continued to muddle through without producing anything substantial. Some otherwise smart eggs chose unviable projects and painted themselves into a corner. Some opted to play it safe, and correspondingly got boring results.

But those who tried to fly? Ah, they soared! After I gave some brief explanation about how the frameworks worked, many groups took the tools and went wild with them. More than just learning the software, they started building their own mini-projects with them without any prompting from me. By the end of the semester, I had three teams working on their own variation of social networking and e-commerce web sites, built from scratch using CodeIgniter, CakePHP, and jQuery.

The results which pleased me most came from the students where I least expected them from. One pair I had pegged as loud and pesky coasters took on an open source point-of-sale system and customized it thoroughly. Another trio delved into the Eclipse IDE and came up with demonstrations of the most useful plugins.

Perhaps the best surprise came from two brothers whom I had taught the year before. In my classes then, I found them frequently distracted, not entirely following my lectures or only half-heartedly doing my labs. Instead, they'd be spending time looking over fantasy artwork on the web. For this class, I pointed them to the Blender 3D animation software and told them to just play with it. Throughout the semester, I saw them mold out a dragon and a knight -- not haphazard cartoons, mind you, but very intricate and very realistic models. At the end of the sem, they showed us fully rendered scenes that looked like they came out of a movie.

All throughout, I kept my lectures to a minimum (I think I only gave five presentations in all.) Instead, we'd have checkpoints where I would ask the groups to report briefly on where they were on their projects. No quizzes or exams, either; instead, I set up a blog where they were to write weekly on what they had learned. The blog would be the basis for their grades.

True to my original intent, the students did get to teach. We scheduled weeks when teams were to conduct lectures and lab exercises for their classmates (and me.) For the most part, these classes were quite lively, and it seems students paid more attention to their peers than they ever did to me.

* * *

The high point for this class, our major activity for the term, was an open source mini-conference that my students organized. ATMOSphere, we called it -- Advanced Technologies Meets Open Source -- a name we inherited from my class of the previous year when we ran a similar mini-conference. My students did all the promotion and the organization, as well as all the speaking duties, drawing from their experiences in class. Time to pass on what they had learned. Their audience comprised of the lower batches and our faculty.

It didn't end there, either. After ATMOSphere, a co-teacher asked me if my students could also run the same talks at another university. "You'll have to ask them yourself," I laughed. "They're their own folks now."

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