Step 77: Practice Practicum

The semester is wrapping up, and the first course to “conclude” is the Practicum course. There was no final presentation; instead, the last community partner meeting was on Saturday, where the students demo’ed their work… and that was that. There are some small changes we still have to do, and I will be back with some students next week to set up a production system, but the course is over.

Since this is the first time I’ve taught the course, I thought I would share some lessons learned. As a reminder, we were building a system that allowed volunteers with no tech experience (as in, may need help creating an email account) take pictures, then have it be OCR’ed and made searchable online.

  • Setting up expectations is (as expected) key. I knew this going in, and still failed to convey that we were not building a mobile app for the pictures. This mismatch was discovered three months into the four-month project. Lucky for us, this expectation mismatch did not require starting over, and I think the conversation we had in fixing this led to a better program at the end. Given that I was already watching for this problem and it still happened, I’m not sure what I should do next time to avoid it.
  • Students need help with organizing larger code bases. This lesson may be specific to me, because I was working with students who have only finished CS1. The insidiousness of this lesson is that the code works – it just repetitive, with multiple functions that do similar things, and the entire codebase difficult to extend for new functionality. I ended up re-writing a significant portion of the code about halfway through the semester, but in the future I will require code reviews and refactors. Similarly…
  • Force students to write documentation. By documentation here I don’t mean comments or APIs, but a narrative of the design process. I would like records of what ideas they have considered and why they ultimately decided on their current solution, but getting them to write this report was like pulling teeth. I assigned weekly reflections, which worked at the beginning of the semester when they were still understanding the problem, but were less useful as the coding took precedence. Even then, the reflections do not address the technical decisions. Both the previous point and this one lead to…
  • Breaking down grades is futile. I started the semester with a grade breakdown, with some percentage of student grades for peer evaluations, community partner evaluations, report, code, etc., but it’s unlikely I will grade based on anything but instinct. I talked to a colleague about their community-based learning class, one that is similarly product-focused, and they told me that they start with a baseline of A’s and subtract from there. I’m not opposed to this strategy, but also find it unsatisfactory. At the same time, it’s hard to devise any objective measure of goodness, even if the grade is broken down, so it seems like it comes down to gut judgments regardless.
  • Be prepared to provide ongoing support. This is tricky; students have no formal ties with the project after the semester, and even if they are willing to support the code, I feel bad putting them on the hook. As a trial run of the course, this current project is simple enough that I can support it, but I’m not sure how it would scale up when projects get more complicated or when there are more projects to be supported.

I deliberately imposed as little structure as possible on the students this semester, and it has helped me see where things break down. I was able to pick my students, and having their trust helped prevent the class from failing as I figured things out. If I teach this course again next year, it will be with more students and more projects. The library we worked with this semester agreed to work with us again (which is honestly very validating), but I will need to find new community partners as well. In the meantime, let’s see if I can put together a more coherent and structured course.

Step 77: Practice Practicum

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