How to Teach One Class in Three Places

Innovator of the Week: Jeff Offutt

It would probably be a better world if every university had a graduate level course in how to study and evaluate software engineering practices. At least the world would probably have more reliable software, which is pretty much the same thing from where I sit. Alas, there aren’t many people who can teach software engineering research methodologies at the highest level, so a lot of universities don’t offer it. Jeff Offutt, a professor of computer science at George Mason University, set out to change that by teaching one course in three places at the same time.

If you’ve studied software testing seriously, you probably know Jeff’s work. His research centers on the important area of how to make software more reliable. But when Jeff decided to teach his course in software engineering experimentation at three universities on two continents, he was venturing into an untested (*cough*) area.

Jeff Offutt

Jeff Offutt, pigeon professor

Jeff maintains a part-time affiliation at University of Skövde in Sweden (don’t ask us how to pronounce that). “They call me a pigeon professor,” he told us, “Because I fly in periodically and poop all over everything.” He apparently maintains a similar perch at Linköping University, also in Sweden.

When the faculty in Sweden wanted him to teach a course in software engineering experimentation there, he declined, reasoning that it wasn’t practical to travel to Sweden for an entire term to teach a handful of students.

But then he had an idea – why not teach the course concurrently at his home university along with two universities in Sweden? That way, there would be a critical mass of students with varying educational backgrounds and perspectives, which would improve the experience for everyone.

Developing the course took a great deal of time and effort, and there was no guarantee that once it was developed, Jeff could actually teach it. Even offering the course to students outside his school required the permission of his school’s provost, since GMU and the Commonwealth of Virginia don’t look too kindly on moonlighting or “double dipping.”

Fortunately, the provost thought it was a great idea. In fact, he immediately saw that a single course taught concurrently at multiple schools could expand GMU’s reach and provide reciprocal benefits to its students down the line.

If convincing the administration was easy, convincing the administrative software was more challenging. Jeff had decided to structure the bulk of the course around asynchronous collaboration, but it would have been difficult or even impossible to do using the school’s LMS, since the LMS requires that everyone be enrolled as a GMU student (“tuition-paying unit,” as we called ourselves in my college days) and the Swedish students were still enrolled in Sweden.

So Jeff was looking for a collaborative platform that could cross that technology barrier, and Piazza fell into his lap. (Or maybe we spammed him. That part is not entirely clear). Being an experimentalist, he tried Piazza in a GMU-only class last term and the results were “spectacular,” so he felt confident using it for his intercontinental software experimentation course.

The course succeeds or fails based on student collaboration. While the first three weeks consist of Jeff’s lectures (streamed), everything that follows is collaborative. Students pair off to review research papers each week, then lead online discussions about the research. Borrowing an old Swedish trick, Jeff designates one student to be a “dissenter” who is required to disagree with the conclusions of the two students who’ve prepared the summary. (Note to Jeff: please do not try this if you teach in Israel. It could damage our servers.). As a result, the discussions are lively.

“Students from different backgrounds are playing off of each other,” Jeff told us. “Student discussion is remarkably proactive, and the students appear to be having fun. And the bottom-up nature of Piazza gives the students more direction and ownership of the conversation than they have in old-school forums.”

“Students tell me that the course is actually a better learning experience than the last time they took such a course in a physical classroom,” he recounted, “Because they actually get to think before they respond to something, which is a contrast to a seminar in which you have just a second to formulate a complex thought.”

The course culminates in a research project, the results of which will be both published online and presented live to peers and to Jeff, as though at an academic conference (he’ll get on a plane for that).

The educational implications for Jeff’s experiment are vast. Many subjects, particularly advanced topics, will never attract hundreds of students from a single school, so they’re difficult to teach cost-effectively. But what if we could share these learning opportunities across geographies while simultaneously increasing the quality and quantity of the interactions that take place among the learners? And what if we could also increase the intellectual diversity of each class?

That would be a better world.

  1. This is a very interesting concept. With the new widespread use of technology in higher education, the latest craze with MOOCs, the debates about online / face-to-face / blended learning, and the talk about disruptive innovation in higher ed, it has occurred to me that universities will need to start collaborating tightly. Creating university consortia and offering courses jointly seems like an appealing way to keep scaling education and adapting to the “disruptions”.

  2. Scott Bishop said:

    This class has a lot of cleverness. I’m going to try this format in a class that focuses on reading and discussing literature. But how can I get students from other universities to join? Also, I really like the gentle irony in the writing.

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