The new normal: Teaching programming remotely

By Sue Sentance. Posted

Safety reminders in the classroom

School shutdowns and social distancing measures have required teachers to make quick adaptations to the way programming is taught

With many schools across the world currently shut due to the coronavirus pandemic, teachers are having to adapt rapidly the way they teach students to code. The disruption caused by intermittent school closures means it is difficult for students to maintain the continual practice they need in order to learn programming concepts. However, teachers’ sheer determination to provide their students with a quality education experience at home means that some benefits are emerging through the effective use of technology.

During school shutdowns, such as the current situation in the UK, secondary teachers have quickly adopted online programming environments such as Repl.it, Trinket, and .NET Fiddle. One teacher explained how the platforms allow teachers and students to share code online: “The first part [of code] at the top might have been an example, so they would then modify that … Then towards the bottom of the page, they’d have an opportunity to make their own and to do their own creation of code.”

However, access to devices and sufficient internet connection remain problems for many students, despite attempts from governments and charitable organisations to provide computers to students who need them. One teacher explained: “We started to use Repl.it, but what we found, with where the school is, the availability of devices that can handle doing two things at once, or even doing something using Repl.it at all on a mobile device — it just doesn’t work. So we ended up just doing theory online that can be done on a bit of paper.” 

Where programming online doesn’t work well, some teachers report that they focus on written exercises to support their programming teaching and formatively assess progress. Some students are using exercise books and worksheets at home. Alternatively, a number of teachers use environments such as Microsoft Teams or Google Classroom to get students to take screenshots of their code, annotate it, and share with their teacher. Other teachers are choosing to focus on theory that isn’t related to programming.

Programming in school also sees a change

When schools in the UK were open in the autumn, safety measures meant that teachers had to adapt the way they taught students to code. They divided students into bubbles, with changes made to timetabled rooms. In most schools, teachers could not be close to individual students in the classroom to have quiet conversations. The age-old practice that programming teachers use of looking over shoulders, to spot errors and support students who may be stuck and frustrated, was no longer possible. One teacher reported at the time: “We are restricted in our movements. I can have a conversation, but it tends to be quite loud. Everybody has to sit quite quietly if somebody needs help … Otherwise you’re shouting across the classroom because you can’t move to see them.” 

Another teacher reported that she was not allowed to let students talk to each other at all. So where she might previously have asked students to work through a program together, she instead encouraged them to use the rubber duck technique — where a student explicitly explains the purpose of each line of code — to debug their programs by themselves. Computer science education research has shown that working together to share code, and classroom talk about programming — a chance for students to verbalise the way code works and practise coding vocabulary — are invaluable approaches to learning the subject. Teachers and students have very limited access to these methods while following coronavirus safety guidelines in schools. 

Several teachers reported using software on a desktop computer at the front of the class to see all their students’ screens at once and monitor their programming progress. One teacher described being able to see one screen “go red” (with a Python syntax error) and knowing instantly which student needed help: “Rather than saying ‘Where are you stuck?’ and them trying to explain to you, I get it from [the software] and I can see how much they’ve understood.” 

This is a significant change in pedagogy, as teachers might previously have encouraged students to work through a programming problem to try to explain the cause and location of the error verbally. Dialogue such as this is important in a number of ways, from using correct programming terms, to being able to trace through a program orally. The restrictions may mean that teachers just need to tell the student where the error is, which is much less effective in the longer term. Where students need to be socially distant, some teachers reported that they used breakout rooms within video conferencing environments, rather than physically close groups, so that students could work on tasks and also confer with each other.

Becoming independent

Despite the many difficulties, some teachers said that their students had become more independent, particularly the older ones: “I would say they’re more independent, which is fantastic. Especially the Year 10s seem to be working harder, because they know I can see what they’re doing all the time as well.” 

When schools were open, there were many cases of teachers either having coronavirus or needing to self-isolate. Some teachers had success with teaching their classes from home while their students were in the classroom. One teacher explains: “I had to isolate for two weeks, and I taught from home into school … It was really successful. And we used the video conferencing chat as a ‘back channel’ to ask for help. So I wouldn’t let the children come on that for anything else apart from asking me for hints.”

This teacher explained that a surprising benefit was that the learners could see the explanations that were given to classmates, which they wouldn’t normally be privy to. Even so, another teacher who taught in this fashion said that her students were pleased when she returned in person: “One of the students turned around and said ‘Miss, I’m so pleased you’re back. This programming lark is too difficult when you’re not in the room.’ Even though I can’t physically go near her, it’s the reassurance of having me there and the instant questioning, I think.”

“you want to be able to walk over ...”

“The Atlanta Public Schools that I work with were shut down until the teachers went back this Monday [1 February]. They have not been in school since March of last year, and so teachers went back and students have the option of either coming back or staying virtual.

“When it first started, the major scramble was getting devices out to kids. So they had to get devices; get hotspots. Teachers pivoted online quickly. Now, as the kids come back, the teacher is doing Zoom classes, but she has anywhere from six to 15 kids sitting in the class,  on their computers as well as the teacher teaching.

“The lack of proximity to the kids — everyone I’ve talked to says that it’s one of the hardest things, because you want to be able to walk over... Most teachers that are in the business like kids. And so they want to go and be helpful. And I think that’s one of the hardest parts of this, that they can’t reach out and be like, ‘OK, let me show you this.’ 

“The one good thing about computer science is a lot of the curricula were already online ... they were doing a lot of [the interactive online learning platform] codeHS at the high-school level. Where we found we had issues is with physical computing. So, whereas we would go out, give kids drones, Raspberry Pis, and micro:bits, we don’t have enough to give every child one. Georgia Tech purchased some for our teachers, but I don’t know how other people are handling that, because the financial situations here vary; we have schools where you have kids that might have a lot of money, through to foster kids and homeless kids [who may have less or none]. So physical computing, I think, has kind of been harder.”

Yolanda Payne

Yolanda Payne, Georgia Tech Constellations Center for Equity in Computing

“teaching remotely has enabled me to teach them better”

“If you compare teaching live online now, to teaching in a classroom in September, where we couldn’t get near a child, we had to stand in a box in the front of the room, with a mask on, and with all the windows open — it got very cold ... it was hard to see students’ work. Now, we use OneNote, and I can see them typing, and I can give them feedback, which I could not do [when schools were open to students] in September. So in some ways teaching remotely has enabled me to teach them better. 

“From September to Christmas, we could stand at the front of the class, and with a mask on, I could go near a child for under a minute, but still two metres away. What I did find useful was software called Impero ... you can take over a child’s screen and look at what they’re doing. I know other schools have used it for behaviour management, but we’ve always shied away from that, because we felt like you should behave because you’re being told to behave, not because I can control your computer. But in the September to December bit, it was actually really useful. 

“Normally, when you’re trying to help a child to debug their code, you’d stand quite close to them, and look at their computer, and sometimes you take over and type, or say ‘Stand up and let me sit down and help you.’ We obviously could not do that, which was very frustrating, but we could use that technology to take the machine over, and get them to stand two metres away from us, and talk through their code, which was useful. But now, we can do that in real time with sharing screens and what have you. With [Microsoft] Teams meetings, if you make a child the presenter in the meeting, you can request control of their computer.”

Katie Vanderpere-Brown

Katie Vanderpere-Brown, Saffron Walden County High School in Essex


www.twitter.com/suesentance

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