Interesting conversation on SIGCSE — education

At 23:45 -0400 9/7/03, Jeffrey Forbes wrote:

>Hello all,
>For students who do most of their programming assignments
>on their own computers, I am struggling to stumble upon
>an appropriate method for helping the students with their
>Instead of a "go to a computer lab for help" model, I would like to
>employ some sort of a "virtual helper hours" model where students
>could ask the course staff questions wherever the students
>or the staff happens to be.
>I'd like to hear any advice or comments about how you have used
>systems for this purpose. Some initial questions:
>- Instant messaging systems (e.g AIM, Jabber, ICQ, etc.): are they
>    effective and appropriate? How should they be tailored for
>    virtual helper hours.
>- Anyone had positive experiences using chat rooms for teaching
>    and consulting purposes?
>- How about using a software package particularly for this purpose?
>    Does one exist? Is it any good?
>Please send any comments to me and I will summarize the results
>for this list.

I've used a lot of these things with different kinds of success for each.

One of the most effective tools is a mailing list to which everyone
is subscribed. Everyone gets to ask questions. Everyone gets to see
the answers. Most important, everyone gets to answer. This way
questions can be answered 24 by 7 even if no instructor/lab assistant
is available. You need to correct errors quickly, of course.

I use the chat facility in AOL/IM to hold periodic chats in some
courses and occasional/emergency chats in others.  For example, I was
ill once and missed a lecture, but held a "virtual" lecture using
chat.  You have to get used to running simultaneous multiple threads
of discussion, though. Some find it hard to do. When I have a chat, I
capture the entire chat as html and then publish it for the benefit
of those who could not "attend."  They are also helpful in adding a
"personal" touch to an internet based course: where are you from --
what is that like...

Finally, you should investigate a wiki, which is an interactive web
site. Every visitor can edit any page. I spoke about this in a tips
session at ITiCSE in Denmark a year ago. It is more permanent than
either of the above and some things you do in one term can be easily
carried to the next. Two features of my wikis (I have one for each
course I teach) are AnonymousFeedback which is a page on which you
can rant if you like, and other students can reply if they like, and
a GrowYourOwnFAQ where you can ask questions that will be answered in
a growing list. There are different wikis. I use a simple one (source
code available from my front page) written in Java. There are others
in perl, smalltalk, ... The original is the virtual home of the
Patterns community If you want to have a
private wiki, however, keep it private and don't link to it.
Otherwise you will get spam. We had this problem only once. My wiki
has anti-crawler meta tags to help prevent this and it has been
effective. BTW, you can also run a wiki at localhost and just use it
as a personal multi-page note pad.

Finally, information from the mailing list and the chats can be
transferred to the wiki and really important stuff can be moved from
the wiki to less volatile web pages, though you can make wiki pages
read only as well.

Hope this helps.

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