Teaching (undergraduate) students is a time consuming activity when working at an university. The support of students during their projects requires typically between one and two meetings per week, and the scheduling of meetings is sometime difficult – even with prescheduled sessions once a week. Students work alone on their projects and projects last a whole semester, in some cases two.
As a matter of fact, this approach is limited to a certain number of students (in our experience around seven to ten) which can be handled in such a manner, before working days become too fragmented and inefficiently used. Another side-effect of mere student to teacher interactions is that hard-earned lessons were not shared effectively among students – because they simply did not know of other students that encountered similar or related problems when working on their projects. Simply put: most student work in isolation and deal with their problems alone, rather then sharing their problems and ideas and collaborate with other students.
To overcome this communication barrier, we started a blog in June 2010 and encouraged students to blog about their projects. Depending on the project complexity we asked for four to six blog entries that describe the progress of their projects. At first, students did not really know what to post and how to present their results. This is related to the fact that computer science students are not used to write about their work. Most appear to prefer to program; writing about their programs and documenting their progress was considered more as burden than as opportunity to try and learn how present their work in a “protected environment”.
The reason for this is that during the study, students simply do not need to write essays and thus have difficulties writing descriptions of their work for others to understand. However, when asked, they agreed that it is important to have such skills when working later for companies and that blogging can be a training ground for writing master thesis.
A typical blog posts contain technical descriptions (e.g., class diagrams), links to resources, workarounds, specific problem descriptions when using third party libraries or installation tutorials. The observed writing style is casual, often blog posts begin with a simple “Hello, my name is” and students (not being English native speakers) tend to make a number of grammar mistakes. We address this issue by a crowdsourced approach where we ask other students working on projects for comments on recent blog posts of their colleagues and to help them to find grammar mistakes. As of April 2011, our students did post 175 blog entries on 26 (ongoing) projects. As additional motivation, we invited students to create screen-casts of their work which we publish on youtube (nine videos online as of April 2011). This gives other students an overview on projects that were done by students.
In November 2010, after reading an article in the CACM, we adopted a modified version of scrum for research (SCORE) which we combined with our existing blog writing approach. We schedule regular meetings (two to three times a month) in which students give a short overview of their recent and future activities. During the first meetings, we observed a typical supervisor/student relationship: the supervisor sat in the middle of the group an asked each student clockwise to report the current project status. There was no discussion and students appeared reluctant to discuss their work in public. Some students also found it difficult to abstract from their work to explain other students their work. Some provided detailed descriptions of specific problems of their work. While low level discussions of technical details are valuable in supervisor/student discussions, they are obviously counter productive when discussing this in a bigger group. In such cases the supervisor had to intervene
and to give a short summary of the work from a more abstract level for the other students to understand.
To overcome fragmentation and to foster a discussion between students, we give our students related projects to work on. For example, one student builds a Tweetflow parser for Android, while another builds a graphical Tweetflow editor for Android. In some cases, we give students the same topic to work on, albeit on different platforms (e.g., browser plugin, iPhone).
As a final measure, we provide a Twitter user list, which we use to inform students about SCORE meetings and provide information like links to papers or ask them for reading and correcting blog entries of other students. The Twitter user list is considered as a virtual social center for students, which is used to inform students on 24/7 about work related and “other things”. Since the introduction of the Twitter list, the adoption of Twitter was a mixed success: almost all of our students did not use Twitter before (they had heard of it) and until now (April 2011) students show reluctance in using Twitter. A typical question was: “I do not know what to tweet”, which we had experienced with blogging before. We tried to overcome this barrier with the introduction of a dedicated syntax for Tweets based on Tweetflows. In a first step, we asked students to log their activities on Twitter with
LG didDo.Something date=dd.mm.yyyy&duration=hhmm #hashtag
This has been taken up by 9 students (out of 17 active students working on projects). We also introduced a syntax to ask for “help” of other students on Twitter which is inspired by Human Provided Services (HPS). In particular, students can ask for a “service” like proofreading a blog entry by tweeting
SR proofread.Blogentry https://www.infosys.tuwien.ac.at/staff/treiber/blog/ #Tweetflows #Android
Like the activity log, we use a Tweetflow syntax which can be parsed by dedicated Twitter clients. This structuring of Tweets also helped students to overcome a initial communication barrier and gave them a starting point. As said before, the initial adoption was even slower than blogging, but the shortness of Tweets began to motivate students to use Twitter more.
The upshot after ten months of blogging, five months of SCORE meetings and three months of Twitter is that students started to adopt a lightweight agile approach, after some initial reluctance. Due to the overlapping project topics, a weak sense of community has also emerged between students. We observed some discussions between students during SCORE meetings and some students helped each other with technical problems. It helped us to confine the otherwise fragmented student meetings to a single afternoon once a week which appears to us rather efficient.
We will continue with this system and will extend the limited tool support. In particular, we will develop a Tweetflow plugin for wordpress which works in a similar manner like SOYLENT and integrates the SCORE student community directly into wordpress for proofreading. Furthermore, we are going to develop Android clients that are able to parse and generate SCORE related Tweetflow requests, supporting the information flow between students.
your ikangai science team