5 Questions as I Design a First Year Seminar

Due to the high demand for computer science courses, my department rarely offers a first year seminar (or, as we call them at Carleton, Argument and Inquiry seminars, or A&Is for short). We last offered one in 2014: Human-Centered Computing, taught by me. So when the opportunity arose for us to propose an A&I seminar for 2021-22, I jumped at the chance. This fall, I’ll be teaching Ethics of Technology as an A&I seminar.

I adore teaching A&I seminars. I like having a class solely comprised of brand-new Carleton students, and watching as they adjust to college and to life at Carleton. I like having a hand in helping them navigate this strange new place. I appreciate the A&I as a gentle introduction and/or a “sampler platter” to a particular subject, rather than a comprehensive overview. The point of an A&I, after all, is to introduce students to how scholars ask and answer questions in a field — which means I can be creative in how I interweave the course topic with this goal. This venue gives me an opportunity to teach something we don’t currently offer in our CS curriculum — and perhaps a way to try out what this might look like as part of our regular curriculum. (Case in point: our Human-Computer Interaction elective grew out of that Human-Centered Computing A&I seminar.)

Designing an A&I seminar is challenging in the best of times, but even more so in I Thought We Were Post-Pandemic But Apparently Not times. As I plan out my course, I keep coming back to the same five questions.

What supports will my students need to adjust to full-time, face-to-face learning? Incoming first year students experienced all sorts of learning models over the past year and a half: fully online, fully in person, hybrid, hyflex, Hi-C (ok, maybe not that last one). Whether they graduated in 2020 and took a gap year, or graduated in 2021, their high school experience ended weirdly. What expectations will these students carry into the college classroom? How can I create an environment where we all feel physically safe to share the same air and the same small space? What can I do to help them learn in the presence of others, something we all took for granted as the norm pre-pandemic?

How can I best design my in-person course for flexibility? I remain skeptical that everything will be hunky-dory, back to normal for the entire term. Don’t get me wrong: I take a lot of comfort in the fact that the vast majority of our community will be fully vaccinated. But students will likely get sick or have to quarantine. Heck, I have an unvaccinated (because of age) kiddo at home who (as of now) will be back in school full time around (as of now) unmasked people. So I may get sick or have to quarantine. I feel like there’s less course design support for flexibility this summer, and while the lessons I learned last summer are definitely valuable, I still feel a bit lost here.

What trauma will we all carry into this year, and how will it manifest? Earlier this summer, I naively thought that we’d be heading into post-pandemic life more fully, and not back into the thick of the pandemic. Which, I think, means that some of the trauma we carry is the same old trauma of living through a global pandemic. But there’s also pandemic weariness, pandemic anger over how preventable this current wave was, pandemic grief over all those we’ve lost, pandemic uncertainty about the future, pandemic despair that we seem to be heading back to “business as usual” and not taking away any lessons about the precariousness of so many in our society….you get the picture. We’re grieving, we’re exhausted, we’re angry, we’re fed up. Our collective mental health is a dumpster fire. We don’t have the resources — at my institution, in our medical system, in society writ large — to deal with trauma on this scale. How do I help my students navigate this — particularly while I’m trying to navigate my own trauma?

What should my students read? This is more of an “embarrassment of riches” question. There is so much good writing on all sorts of aspects of ethics in technology. I flirted with the idea of a textbook for a bit, but abandoned that idea because there’s so much non-textbook reading I could assign instead. Should I have students read a few books and deep-dive into a few topics? Should I go broader and have students read more long-form journalism articles on a wider set of topics? I need to decide soon (technically, I needed to decide when textbook orders were due earlier this month), but I’ll admit to a bit of decision paralysis here.

What is the one thing I want my students to walk away from this course with? I haven’t settled on my central course question yet. And that’s certainly a big part of what I want students to take away from my class. But I also want my students to walk away with a sense of resilience. A sense of belonging. A sense of agency. And a strong support network. I want my students to leave my class thinking that it was a safe place to learn and to try out ideas, and feeling that Carleton is a home for them. To me, particularly this year, that’s at least as important — if not more so — than any of the course content or core ideas.

What questions are you asking yourself as we head into the later part of summer and the transition to a new school year?


What I’m reading: Black Boy Out of TIme: A Memoir, by Hari Ziyad.

What I’m listening to watching: The Olympics! Particularly swimming, and some of the taekwondo.

Extending the “central question” experiment to Software Design

In my Fall Term course, Computer Networks, I experimented with designing the course around a central question: should the Internet be considered a public utility or a private good? Students produced reflections at the start and end of the term around this question: the start of the term’s reflection focusing on how they understood the question at present, and the end of the term’s reflection utilizing evidence from the course to demonstrate how their answer did (or did not) evolve.*

The experiment proved so successful that I now plan to do this in as many courses as I can. I like how it focuses the students, succinctly, on the core of what we’re learning and reminds them that what they learn in this course has broader impacts beyond the content. At the same time, the central question helps me focus on what’s really important in the course, which helps me make decisions about what content to include or exclude, what to triage, and how to structure course activities.

This spring, I’m teaching Software Design — the same course I taught a year ago. Software Design is an interesting course in that we cover a lot of ground and a number of seemingly disparate topics loosely united by the theme of “these are things we think our majors should know about how to write effective software”. Things like: how to work effectively in teams. Best practices in function and class design. Code style and commenting. A bit of user interface design and accessibility. How to shepherd a project from idea to deployment. Iterative design. Ethics. Design patterns.

I’ve worked with my colleagues who also teach this course regularly over the past couple of years to streamline the story the course tells. I came up with a “layer cake” diagram to show the students how the topics unite and where various concepts fall in these layers. In my “week in review/weekly preview” videos last spring, I included this diagram to indicate what layer(s) we’d hit the previous week and in the coming week. I think this went a long way towards making the course feel less disjointed to the students.

Three layers of Software Design topics: Professionalism at the top, Design and Architecture in the middle, and tools at the bottom.
The “layer cake” model of Software Design topics. In retrospect, I missed an opportunity to make this look more like a cake.

And yet…this didn’t quite get us all the way to where I wanted to be. There’s still a lot going on in that model. Plus, I feel strongly that a huge part of “writing effective software” involves ethical and social reflection. How might this software cause harm, intentional or otherwise? Whom does this leave out? When, and why, might we choose not to bring a piece of software into the world? Do our teams embrace and interweave diverse perspectives and life experiences? In what ways can software development be an act or a practice of social justice?

So, back to the central question. Given all that’s going on in this course, what should that central question be?

The answer I settled on:

What are our responsibilities, as software developers, when putting software out into the world?

I’d like to use the same initial/final reflection assignment I used in the fall, which means I’ll need to shuffle around the first week’s deliverables (not a huge deal) and modify the current reflection I have students do at the end of this course (where they reflect on the process of software development they experienced over the term). And I think this question lends itself well to a first-day-of-the-course activity framing the course for students. (It’s more holistic than the exercise I’ve used forever, which has students reflect on examples of good and poor design in software and systems they use and work through the design outline of a mythical system.)

More importantly, I believe the question tightly ties in those ethical and social justice issues that I want students to grapple with. It reinforces the idea that software design and development is not a neutral activity. We don’t have the luxury of NOT critically examining ALL the things we bring to the process: our biases, life experiences, world views, identities, and beliefs. And this critical examination is as much a part of the software development process as using GitHub effectively, or writing solid unit tests, or constructing tightly cohesive functions, or gathering requirements.

I’m interested, and eager, to see how this experiment plays out — and I’m already looking forward to my students’ initial and final reflections on this central question.

*In a nod to universal design and flexibility, students chose the modality for this reflection. Many wrote a classic essay, some recorded videos, and others produced and narrated slide decks. My rubric accounted for these various modalities.

Planning for Fall (a story in pictures)

I’m overwhelmed.

Fall term classes don’t start for another week and a half, and I’m already at the stage where I’m semi-catatonic by the end of the work day. (Yesterday I gave up and took a nap. At 4:30pm.)

This time of year is usually full to the brim anyway — the mad rush to finalize the syllabi, helping advisees navigate changes in their schedules, setting priorities for the year for STEM at Carleton, meetings meetings meetings (and, hey, more meetings!), … the list goes on. This year, it’s that … times a thousand.

Yesterday as I navigated through various windows and apps on my laptop, I marveled at the juxtaposition between my “normal” workflow of preparing for the term and the additional preparations for a pandemic term. At the end of the day, I took some screenshots of some of the apps and sites I used throughout the day, to put together a mini photo-essay highlighting a “day in the life” of a professor preparing for the upcoming COVID-influenced term.

  • Checklist containing items to complete for preparing a course for the start of the term.
  • Mind map of a computer networks course.
  • Backward design worksheet with learning outcomes and evidence.
  • Class meeting times schedule.
  • Moodle landing page with course listings
  • Screen shot of part of the faculty COVID-19 FAQs
  • Teaching toolkit, pandemic edition: iPad, pencil, headset

(I did, however, spare you the screenshots of the multiple Zoom meetings I’ve participated in over the past few days. And of the firehose of emails. And of the various ways my family interrupted me mid-meetings. You’re welcome.)

Looking at these pictures, it strikes me that even though everything seems completely out of whack, the basic things I do to prepare for a term — wrangle with Moodle, finalize my learning outcomes, assemble my teaching toolkit — remain largely unchanged. The details may look different, but the broader strokes resemble what used to pass for normal. And that provides me with a teeny bit of comfort as I head into what promises to be a strange and stressful term.

How does preparing for the upcoming term/semester look for you? What new things are juxtaposed into your normal workflow?

Course design for resilience

Last week, I participated in two simultaneous online workshops around the same topic: resilient course design. One workshop was part of an ongoing series of online workshops around rethinking course design put on by the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM, of which Carleton is a member). The other was a Carleton-specific “design challenge” sponsored by our Perlman Learning and Teaching Center (LTC).

The ACM workshop followed the same format as the others in the series: a Monday webinar, with content presentation and a bit of small group discussion in breakout rooms; and Friday smaller group discussions around a more specific subtopic. For instance, the discussion groups last week focused on lecture courses, discussion courses, lab courses, research seminars, and arts/performance courses. (I participated in the lecture group since that seemed to be the closest fit. Turns out, most people in the group shared similar inclinations to lecture/activity split as I do, so it was indeed a good fit.) Sometimes, there is homework assigned Monday for the Friday discussions, as there was this week. Last week, we designed a typical week in our course as homework, paying attention to a set of guiding questions about student participation in various modes.

The LTC challenge included participation in the ACM workshop, or at least viewing the Monday webinar/recording, and asked us to do the same homework as in the ACM workshop. In addition, the challenge included discussion forum postings (some in the larger group, many in smaller assigned teams), a couple of synchronous discussions, an entire day of drop-in sessions with various staff and faculty on specific aspects of course design (Moodle, Panopto, thinking through learning goals and activities, etc.), and a final reflection. The challenge setup mimicked a mini-course setup, allowing us to experience aspects of an online course from a student’s perspective.

I took a LOT away from this experience, but I want to highlight a few areas in particular: rethinking engagement; weekly structure and flow; and the student experience.

(Note: The worksheets in the images in this post all come from the two challenges, and were used across both challenges.)

Rethinking engagement

One of our first activities had us remap our “typical”, in-person course activities to activities more amenable to multiple modes of participation — fully or partially online, across time zones, taking into account student illness/quarantine/family circumstances, etc. My matrix, for the elective I’m teaching this fall, is pictured below. Entries in purple indicate what I traditionally do in this course; green entries show changes for Fall Term. The entries with purple text in green boxes indicate things I did pre-Fall 2020 that I plan to continue in the fall.

CS 331 course matrix, mapping in-person activities to more online-friendly activities
My course resilience matrix. Which is not resilient from an accessibility standpoint, as it uses color to convey meaning. Ack!

The x-axis moves (left to right) from content delivery to content application/practice; the y-axis moves (top to bottom) from face-to-face engagement to online engagement. Thus, the matrix gives us the opportunity to think through where course activities fall on each of these continuums. The red box includes activities that must be completed in person, the yellow box indicates online synchronous activities, and the white space at the bottom indicates asynchronous online activities.

Since Carleton students don’t register until August, I literally don’t know where in the world my students will be this fall. In designing my matrix, I assumed that students occupied a wide range of time zones, thus the prevalence of activities in the asynchronous zone. For the team activities, I plan to group students roughly by time zone and preferred time of day to work, as I did in the spring. This should help a bit with the time zone issues.

I still have a couple of thorny problems to work through. I’m still not sure how to replace the in-class, physical simulations of network phenomenon (routing, protocol specifications, access control, etc) that I rely heavily on in this course, although I now have some ideas to pursue. And I’m still playing around with course projects, so I can’t decide on the development platform until I finalize the projects. Otherwise, I found it easier than I expected to map my activities to their online counterparts.

Structure and flow

Later in the week, we thought through “a week in the life” of our course, using two different formats: a week-at-a-glance, and a more detailed accounting of the work itself.

Here’s my week-at-a-glance:

Table showing the "flow" of a week, in terms of formal and informal course activities each day.
Overview of a week in the course, showing the modes of engagement and what’s happening each day.

To be honest, I was worried about how well I’d be able to complete this set of activities, since I’m still trying to revise the learning goals for the course. I found instead that these exercises really clarified my thinking about the course as a whole. Specifically, it helped me think through how to spend our scheduled class time — and figuring that out helped other pieces, like asynchronous work, fall into place. In particular, I’m thinking of Wednesdays as the main days for synchronous engagement, with Fridays reserved for drilling down a bit more on applications of the content and Mondays for open-ended Q&A, on either the previous week’s content or the current week’s content.

The second part of this assignment asked us to define the set of activities in a particular week. I picked a random week in the middle of the course and came up with this plan:

A week's worth of course activities for CS 331, including prep, assignments, and support.
Course activities for a week in the middle of the term, including time estimates. Which may not be accurate.

(Of course, after I completed this worksheet, we moved the scheduled course time, so now I have to revamp the due dates. Readings will now be due the night before class, instead of the day of class.)

This was perhaps the most eye-opening activity of the week. It’s one thing to say “yeah, I’ll have them watch some videos and take a reading quiz and maybe do a worksheet or two” and another to sit down and figure out how much time everything will take and why we want students to do these things in the first place. I settled on a rough pattern of preparing for class with targeted readings, reading quizzes to ensure comprehension, and mini-lecture videos. (Since the challenge, I’ve rethought this a bit — I may give students more flexibility in allowing them to read and watch content videos before attempting the reading quizzes.) Class and class-adjacent activities include engaging with the content formally (Wednesdays) and informally (Fridays), a team asynchronous activity (which might be the same one we tackle in class, expanding on the in-class work), and project work. I still need to figure out the appropriate mix, here.

In our small and larger group challenge discussions, we agreed that students may find these charts useful, too. I’m thinking of ways I can incorporate these views (a week in the life and the detailed accounting) into my course Moodle page. (This was a question I’d hoped to ask during the Moodle drop-in hours, but I had to leave before I could ask my question. More on this below.)

The student experience

Experiencing the design challenge as a student made me more sympathetic to the student experience, and I’m rethinking aspects of my course design as a result.

The first challenge: figuring out the challenge structure. What was happening each day? How do I submit my homework? What is the homework for today? How do I post/respond to just my small group? What is my small group? Why is this activity not marked complete if my teammate handed it in? Where’s the Zoom link for today’s discussion? If I, a seasoned educator and self-proclaimed Moodle power user, had trouble figuring some of these things out, then surely some subset of our students will, too! Lesson learned: I need to be even clearer than I think I need to be, when conveying the hows and whats to my students.

The second challenge: getting help! “Yay, drop-in hours!” I thought, as I skimmed the schedule at the start of the week. Come Thursday morning, I found myself in an internal dialog, which I tried to capture in this Twitter thread:

Today I found myself waffling over whether to attend virtual drop-in hours on fall term course design. Was my question “worthy” of stopping by to ask it? When should I show up — at the start, towards the middle, at the end? Am I wasting everyone’s time? 1/2

And I realized OH MY GOD my students were likely having the SAME conversations about attending virtual office hours this spring! Now, the low attendance makes complete sense — and I need to think how to make attending office hours less scary/fraught.

Originally tweeted by Dr. Amy Csizmar Dalal (@drcsiz) on July 16, 2020.

I finally got over myself and hopped onto my first drop-in session, and had a lovely conversation with our outgoing LTC director on in-class simulations in an online environment. And commiserated with the faculty member who jumped on as we were finishing up, who, it turns out, conducted a similar internal dialog before joining the call. I need to make seeking help, and participating in office hours, less scary and more natural this fall.

Emboldened by my new-found confidence, I jumped onto a second drop-in session, on Moodle. There were already several people on the call, asking questions about assessment. I listened in and learned a few things that I made a note to try. But I had to jump off of the call to head to another meeting before the facilitator could answer my question on reproducing the spirit of the weekly plan (discussed in the previous section) on my course Moodle page. And it was not clear how I could seek out help on my question after the drop-in hours and/or after the challenge. I need to think through how to accommodate multiple student questions during drop-in hours, and how to direct students to seek help outside of these hours too.

Concluding thoughts

The challenge might be over, but planning for resilience continues. I find myself thinking through the intersection of resilient design with things like anti-racist pedagogy, time management (my students’ and my own), assessment/grading, and maintaining boundaries while providing emotional support for students. I still need to do the hard work of translating my “week in the life of the course” for each week in my course, while I’m still wrestling with learning goals and the like. This challenge laid a strong foundation for this continued work.

Participating in this challenge, and in the other online ACM workshops this summer, brought an unexpected benefit, too: Confidence. I feel a lot more confident, and capable, of pulling off a strong and worthwhile online course this fall — and beyond, if it comes to that. Things I’ve learned directly translate into in-person offerings, too — the importance of clarity and structure, the value of providing choices to students to direct their own learning, the compassion of flexibility to accommodate student circumstances and acknowledge their struggles. The deep and prolonged reflection on my pedagogy is making me a more effective and more present educator.