Active learning - path to the future

I've recently attended a workshop on using GENI testbed in education, which could broadly be viewed as "active learning with testbeds". There was a bunch of interesting talks - I'll outline the two that have stuck in my mind but they were all outstanding. For more info see:

  • Armando Fox (UC Berkeley) talked about teaching software engineering by letting students code cloud apps on EC2! For non-profit organizations that actually end up using them! Talk about getting your (ahem, student's) feet wet and hands dirty! He mentioned a lot of tools for design and verification that one can use with Ruby on Rails (his language of choice for this course) and how students really benefit from this experience. They learn useful skills for their future jobs in their senior year of undergrad. I really liked the aspect that code runs on the cloud, and that someone ends up actually using it. I also liked that most of the grading could be done automatically by running test cases against the live code. Apparently EC2 will gladly donate the resources to teachers for their class use. How cool is that? Now I want to teach a class with EC2!
  • Justin Cappos (NYU Poly) presented Seattle testbed and how it is used in education. It's a little like Planetlab but better :) It has better resource isolation and it can run on a bunch of devices when they are not busy doing other stuff, a little like SETI@home. The sign up process is automated and you can do meaningful experiments right away using machines all over the world! I ended up installing Seattle on my laptop so it would become part of this global contributed set of resources and I urge you to consider this too. I like knowing that when I sleep someone across the world may be running networking measurements on my laptop, advancing the science. Doesn't get much better than that.

During the workshop I was struck by how much effort teachers invest into innovating. I know it from my experience in supporting teachers that use DeterLab but it was nice to see it reinforced with this different group. Teachers will spend many hours to set up practical exercises for their students, to show them the appeal of the field. They will not give up! They will push through poor UI or flaky hardware and software and they make it work in the end. And they do it all for free in a sense that they could just do plain old teaching with the textbooks and slides and get the same salary. I admire resilience and enthusiasm of teachers. They deserve much more support than they get both from funders and from testbed operations. 

I've also recently attended an Active Learning Retreat at USC for all engineering departments. There was a similar atmosphere of innovation and initiative among the teachers. I've learned some interesting techniques to engage students that I'm looking forward to try in my classes:

  • Record the lectures in small chunks, explaining just one concept and post on YouTube. Ask all students to view the lecture prior to the class meeting. In class just do discussion and design problems. This is true apprenticeship - students get to see how the basic knowledge is applied by the expert, i.e. teacher to real problems.
  • Co-teach with colleagues from other institutions around the world using WebEx or similar videocast technology. Form teams that have students from each institution and ask them to work together. This gives them a real-world experience of working in a team with remote members and teaches them about the culture. It bridges the distance!
  • Let students do homeworks and resubmit as much as they want. This lets them learn what are the right answers.
  • Reserve punchlines for the class. Have half-completed slides and write on the fly in class. This keeps everyone engaged.
  • Use Google Hangout for office hours
  • Use to poll students for answers and see if they converge to the right one. Discuss then repeat.

It seems like testbeds and Internet are truly revolutionizing education! And I didn't even mention MOOCs :) That is a topic for a whole another blog.