What I learned from taking a MOOC: Live Object Programming in Pharo

March 23, 2020 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

I wrote this post a month ago, before COVID-19 changed how a great many of us teach in higher education. It feels so long ago now. I thought about writing a different post for this week, one about how I’m managing my large (260+) Senior-level User Interface Development class with projects. But I realize — I have a ton of those kinds of posts in my to-read queue now. We’re all being bombarded with advice on how to take our classes on-line. I can’t read it all. I’m sure that you can’t either.

So instead, I decided to move this post up in the queue. It’s about taking the students’ perspective. I worry about what’s going to happen to students as we all move into on-line modes. I wrote my Blog@CACM post this week about how the lowest-performing students are the ones who will be most hurt by the move to on-line — you can find that post here. This is a related story: What I learned about MOOCs by taking a MOOC.

I received in February my certificate of success for the MOOC I took on Pharo. I have not, in general, been a big fan of MOOCs (among many other posts, here’s one I wrote in 2018 about MOOCs and ethics). This MOOC was perfect for what I needed and wanted. But I’m still not generally a MOOC fan.

I’m a long-time Smalltalk programmer and have written or edited a couple of books about Squeak. I’m building software again at the University of Michigan (see the task-specific programming environments I’ve posted about). Pharo is a terrific, modern Smalltalk that I’d like to use.

A MOOC on Pharo matched what I needed. I fit the demographics of a student who succeeds at a MOOC — I already know a lot about the material, and I’m looking for specific pieces of information. Pharo has a test-driven development model that is remarkable. You define your classes, then start writing tests, and then you execute them. You can then build your system from the Debugger! You get prompts like, “You’re referencing the instance variable window here, but it doesn’t exist. Shall I create it for you?” I’ve never programmed like that before, and it was great to learn all the support Pharo has for that style of programming.

Yes, it was in French. They provide versions of the videos dubbed in English, and the French version can display English captions. I preferred the latter. I had French in undergraduate, which means that I didn’t understand everything, but I understood occasional words which was enough to be able to synchronize between the video and the captions to figure out what was going on.

My favorite part of the MOOC was just watching the videos of Stéphane Ducasse programming. He’s a very expert Smalltalk programmer. It’s great seeing how he works and hearing him think aloud while he’s programming. But he’s very, very expert — there were things he did that I had to re-watch in slow motion to figure out, “Okay, how did he do that?”

The MOOC was better than just a set of videos. The exercises made sure I actually tried to think about what the videos were saying. But it’s clear that the exercises were not developed by assessment experts. There were lots of fill in the blanks like “Name the class that does X.” Who cares? I can always look that up. It’s a problem that the exercises were developed by Smalltalk experts. Some of the problems were of a form that would be simple, if you knew the right tool or the right option (e.g., “Which of the below is not a message that instances of the class Y understand?”), but I often couldn’t remember or find the right tool. Tools can fall into the experts’ blind spot. Good assessments should scaffold me in figuring out the answer (e.g., worked examples or subgoal labels).

I ran into one of the problems that MOOCs suffer — they’re really expensive to make and update. The Pharo MOOC was written for Pharo 6.0. Pharo 8.0 was just released. Not all the packages in the MOOC still work in 8.0, or there are updated versions that aren’t exactly the same as in the videos. There were things in the MOOC that I couldn’t do in modern Pharo. It’s hard and costly to keep a MOOC updated over time.

My opinions about MOOCs haven’t changed. They’re a great way for experienced people to get a bit more knowledge. That’s where the Georgia Tech OMSCS works. But I still they that they are a terrible way to help people who need initial knowledge, and they don’t help to broaden participation in computing.

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How do we test the cultural assumptions of our assessments? So much to learn about emergency remote teaching, but so little to claim about online learning

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