Software Carpentry

Helping scientists make better software since 1997

Archive for the ‘Tooling’ Category

More on Instructional Design

Like many programmers, I’ve learned most of what I know by poking around and breaking things. Quite naturally, that has led me to believe that this is the best way to learn—after all, if it worked for me, it has to be pretty good, right? But research says otherwise. Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark’s paper, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching“, was published in Educational Psychologist in 2006, but the whole text is available online.

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Written by Greg Wilson

2010/04/12 at 17:44

Posted in Tooling, Version 4


After Thursday’s post-mortem on the latest offering of Software Carpentry at the Universitiy of Toronto, I had a chance to talk further with Jon Pipitone, who was one of the tutors (and who is just wrapping up an M.Sc. looking at code quality in climate models). We got onto the topic of infrastructure for Version 4, which needs to be settled quickly.

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Written by Greg Wilson

2010/04/08 at 02:27

Posted in Tooling, Version 4

Models To Imitate

My father once told me that a week of hard work can sometimes save you an hour of thought. In that spirit, I’ve been looking for asynchronous online courses to imitate. I previously mentioned MIT’s Open Courseware, CMU’s Open Learning Initiative, and (closer to my scale)  Saleem Khan’s Khan Academy. Google Code University‘s lessons on programming languages are also on my radar—I’ll blog more about them once I finish the Python material—but another model that I’m looking at closely is Teaching Open Source, a collaborative effort to get more open source into college and university courses. I first encountered them through POSSE (Professors’ Open Source Summer Experience), which they describe as:

…a weeklong bootcamp that will immerse professors in open source projects. Participants spend a week of intensive participation in selected open source projects, led by professors with experience in teaching open source development, in partnership with community members who have deep experience and insight. By the end of the session, participants should have a much better understanding of the workings of open source projects, and a strong network of contacts to lean on as they begin to bring students into the open source world.

I’ve also been watching in awe (with a small ‘a’, but awe nonetheless) as half a dozen contributors have pulled together a textbook called Practical Open Source Software Exploration: How to be Productively Lost, the Open Source Way. It’s by no means complete, but I have already bookmarked it in a dozen places, and expect to add more. I always hoped that Software Carpentry would become a community project of this kind; here’s hoping that Version 4 finally manages to.

Written by Greg Wilson

2010/04/01 at 01:52

Posted in Noticed, Tooling


As I said in last week’s announcement, and mentioned again in a later post, one of the main goals of this rewrite is to make it possible for students to do the course when and where they want to. That means recording audio and video, but much of the material will probably still be textual: code samples (obviously), lecture notes (for those who prefer skimming to viewing, or who want to teach the material locally), and exercises will still be words on a virtual page. And even the AV material will (probably) be accompanied by scripts or transcripts, depending on what turns out to work best.

Which brings up a question everyone working with computers eventually faces: what format(s) should material be stored in? For images, audio, and video, the choices are straightforward: SVG for line drawings, PNG for images, MP3 for audio, and MP4, MPEG, or FLV or video (I don’t know enough yet to choose). But there’s a bewildering variety of options for text, each with its pros and cons.

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Written by Greg Wilson

2010/03/30 at 19:32

Posted in Tooling, Version 4

Instructional Design

As well as deciding on the format of the course, I have to re-shape its content. In contrast to e-learning, there seems to be a lot of solid material available on instructional design. The most useful guide I’ve found so far is Wiggins & McTighe’s Understanding by Design. I was initially a bit put off by the micro-industry the authors have built around the book, but its step-by-step approach immediately felt right:

  1. What are students supposed to understand at the end of the lesson?
  2. How is that going to be determined, i.e., what questions will they be answer that they couldn’t answer before, or what will they be able to do that they couldn’t do before?
  3. What lessons and activities are going to help them acquire that knowledge and those skills?

The whole thing is a lot more detailed than that, but you get the gist. And note that the last point says “help them acquire”, not “teach them”: while the latter focuses on what the instructor says, the former focuses on helping students construct understanding, which is both more accurate and a better fit for the level of students this course targets.

I’ve already used their ideas in reshaping the course outline. If the right way to deliver the course turns out to be 200 vignettes rather than 25 lectures, I will need to do some chopping and rearranging, but I think that what I have is a good starting point. Once I know what format I’m going to choose, I will rework the outline in accordance with the three-step approach summarized above and ask for feedback.

Written by Greg Wilson

2010/03/26 at 20:37

Posted in Tooling, Version 4

Online Delivery

As the announcement of Version 4 said, Software Carpentry is being redesigned so that it can be delivered in several ways. I want to support:

  1. traditional classroom lectures, with someone at the front of the room talking over a series of slides and/or coding sessions to a captive audience;
  2. students reading/viewing material on their own time, at their own pace, when and as they need it; and
  3. hybrid models, in which students work through as much as they can on their own, then get help (face-to-face or over the web) when they hit roadblocks.

#1 isn’t easy to do well, but the challenges involved are well understood. #2 and #3 are going to be a lot harder: it’s new ground for me, and despite the fact that the Internet is older than many of my students, most of the educational establishment still thinks of it as “new” as well.

There are hundreds of books and web sites devoted to e-learning, but the majority just recycle the same handful of inactionable truisms. (“When designing online material, try to make it as engaging as possible.” Well, duh.) Most of the high-quality material focuses on research about e-learning, rather than instructional design itself. For example, Richard Mayer’s Multimedia Learning says a lot of interesting things about whether people learn more deeply when ideas are expressed in words and pictures rather than in words alone, and the principles he derives from his research are good general guidelines, but again, there’s little help offered in translating the general into the specific.

If there isn’t much explicit guidance available, what about prior art? MIT’s Open Courseware got a lot of attention when it was launched, but its “talking heads” approach reminds me of early automobiles that looked like horse-drawn carriages with motors bolted on. Carnegie-Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative (which advertises itself as “open courses backed by learning research”) is more interesting, but what has really caught my eye is Saleem Khan’s Khan Academy, which I first encountered through one of Jon Udell’s interviews. Khan has created hundreds of short videos on topics ranging from basic addition to mitosis and Laplace transforms by recording himself sketching on a tablet. The results are just as digestible as Hollywood-quality material I’ve viewed elsewhere, and with 25 lectures to do in less than 50 weeks, his low-ceremony approach appeals to me for practical reasons as well.

Of course, any believer in agile development would tell me that there’s only one right way to tackle this problem (and in fact, one did just an hour ago). By the end of May, I plan to put one lecture—probably the intro to relational databases and SQL—up on the web in two or three formats, and then ask for feedback. Is one 50-minute video better or worse than five 10-minute vignettes? Do people prefer PowerPoint slides with voiceover, live sketching/coding sessions (complete with erasures and typos), or some mix of the two? How important is it to close-caption the videos? If classroom-style slides are available as well as the video, how many people look at each? I know how to do these kinds of usability studies, and hopefully enough people will volunteer opinions to help me choose the right path.

Written by Greg Wilson

2010/03/26 at 20:30

Posted in Tooling, Version 4

Presentation, Presentation, Presentation

Right now, the Software Carpentry material is basically printed pages on the web. Each lecture is a linear HTML page: bullet point follows bullet point, interrupted only by code snippets, tables, and diagrams. If I’m going to update the content, I’d also like to update the presentation; the question is, “To what?” An audio recording of me talking over the slides would add some value, though I think that typing in what I would say would probably be more useful, since most people can read faster than I can speak, and audio still isn’t googleable.

I’ve also thought about recording screecasts (audio on top of a video recording of my computer desktop). That would allow me to show live coding sessions, which I think many students would find valuable. Flipping that around, I could embed small snippets of video in the HTML pages. Then there are tools like Crunchy that allow you to create tutorials by embedding snippets of Python in web pages. That could help the programming parts of the course, but not with version control, Make (if we stick to Make, which I hope we don’t), or many other parts.

So: what’s the best online tutorial you’ve ever seen? What made it the best? Do you know how much effort it took to build the first time? How much effort it would take to build once the authors were experts in [name of tutorial-building technology goes here]?  Pointers would be very welcome…

Written by Greg Wilson

2009/09/24 at 13:17

Posted in Tooling, Version 4