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C'est la Z

Organizing a topics course

I'm team teaching the CS Topics course this semester with my buddy JonAlf. It's the final course in our Advanced Certificate and Masters programs in CS Education.

It's a fun course. The theory is that a K12 CS teacher doesn't need to know everything but should know a little about a lot. It's a survey - think of it as an intro unit in ten to twelve different topics in CS.

It's also something of a catchall. After this cohort, students completing our program and in fact any NY state CS teacher certification program will have to sit for and pass a new Content Specialty Exam (CST) and while the exam hasn't been released, best bet is that it will cover draw from the NY State CS and digital fluency standards. Between all our other courses we cover most of the standards and far more in many areas but there are a few topics that just don't fit. Also, some items from the standards are already covered in courses like our Ethics course, but we can look at them from a more technical point of view in topics.

The way I set up the course last year was that I taught the first couple of topics - covering networks and networking and also pragmatically generating web sites/applications with Flask. After that, the students teach the topics and I support them in the background. I cover the first topics to give them all the time and support necessary to develop their lessons and I cover networking there because there are a number of nit picky standards items I want to make sure are covered.

When setting up and supporting the student groups the important thing is to make sure that:

  1. The topics collectively cover everything I feel is important to be covered.
  2. They deliver their topic at the right level as this is a CS class not an education class. It's got to be rigorous enough from the CS point of view but at the same time accessible.

With our first cohort, the class was integrated into the summer program but last year was also a standalone during the Spring. It worked pretty well but JonAlf and I decided to change a few things this year. Part of this was in the hope that things run more smoothly and the students learn and retain more and partly because I'm handing off the program when I leave Hunter after the Spring and I want to try these changes so we can give some specific recommendations for the next program leader.

Overall the plan is the same but the big change is how we're going to overlap the topcis. Last year each week was self contained, this year, we're overlapping things.

On any given week there will be a synchronous class delivered by a student team. The week prior, that team will give an async assignment - watch some videos, read some tutorials, work through some exercises, whatever, that will lead in to the synchronous class. At the end of the class, the group will give a homework assignment for the next week. Also at the end of the class, the next group will assign its prework async assignment.

This means that between the synchronous sessions, each week the students are working on two things. The prior week topic's homework and the forthcoming week topics prework. This should effectively stretch each topic out to two weeks rather than a more intense one week at a time. We're hoping this leads to better weekly discussion and better retention.

The other change we're making is that the student teams have to grade the homework they assign and also fill out a comment form about their teammates.

The peer evaluation form is needed because groups are much larger this time around. Having the groups grade the homeworks should serve two purposes. First, some teams missed the mark last time around. Many assignments were great but a few were either too onerous and a few too trivial. The other reason is selfish - some of last years assignments were a bear to grade and with 55 students, I don't need that. Of course, after they grade the homeworks, JonAlf and I also have to go over them.

These aren't radical changes but I'm hoping they make for a smoother class from a teachers point of view and a better experience from the students point of view. If so, it'll be all packaged for my replacement. If not, well, things still worked pretty well last year and shouldn't be worse so that's fine too.

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