#nohomework: equity and opportunity in the developing world

It’s almost axiomatic for an instructor to assign homework. In a world of MacBooks and coffee shops with free wifi, assigning a reading list, catchup work or extra credit is a gimme – your students are learning while you’ve got your feet up after class, what’s not to love?

Homework is only fair if everyone can do it

In the classroom we’ve got a high degree of control over the technical environment. At Global Code we give each student a Raspberry Pi 3B at the beginning of day #1. We spend class time holding the kit, poking around and plugging it in. We set wacky colour schemes and fun desktop backgrounds to build ownership. It’s yours.

Our technical rider includes the use of ethernet, HDMI screens, keyboards and mice – so everyone in the room has the same hardware baseline. We’re careful to design our applications process and curriculum around the enquiring mind rather than the academically successful one.

But things are different at home. Does the student have a quiet space where they can work? Do they have access to the internet? Do they have a keyboard, mouse, and monitor? Some do, for sure, but not all. Even in school, access to hardware is limited, with some teachers resorting to teaching computer skills with pebbles as mice.

Our host institution trusts us with lab keys, which is one reason we keep to a very strict 9-12, 1-4 timeline. It’s only fair to expect students to work during the time we can guarantee access to our environment.

Homework and housework

We’re aggressive about equal opportunity, although this year we fell far short – only two of our 18 students were female, despite an aggressive target of 50%. We’re focussing hard on this for next year, but one of our initial findings is that the girls who applied were often occupied with family-based housework in the evenings – cooking, cleaning, looking after younger brothers and sisters.

If we can be clearer about our strict working hours next year, this might go some way to redressing the gender balance in our classrooms.

Clocks and Curves So how do you pack in such a heavy teaching schedule into three short weeks? We have 90 hours of classroom time to cover Linux, Python, git and GitHub, Flask, Heroku, Electronics, Web APIs, the programmable web, Heroku, MQTT, and GPIO, and design, build and present a group project. How do you approach all that?

Carefully! It’s a question of clocks and curves. Here are my tips.

  1. Timekeeping. As in many countries, attitudes towards time pressure are quite elastic in Ghana, but if you make your best effort to keep to a schedule, you’ll find that most of your class will come along with you. Clearly you can’t teach an empty class, but starting as early in the day as you can will show your students that 9 means 9. We made a joke out of British Time and Ghana Time.
  2. Timekeeping. Really, honestly: finish on time. And when you’re finished, empty the room. It’s great that people want to hang around and finish off, or chat, or learn more, but not everyone can, and if you’re serious about equality you can respect the time your students give you without creating social pressure to stay late.
  3. Timekeeping!. Make the most of the time you have. We teach by example, and when a class full of people is writing code, there’s always something to learn. How do I look up documentation? Teaching opportunity. How do I read a stacktrace? Teaching opportunity. How do I debug this function? Teaching opportunity! You can double down by having the student stand up and explain to the class what they just learned, if you think it’s appropriate.
  4. Use the forgetting curve: With such an action-packed schedule you have to do more than teach new material – you have to be careful to timeline reviews – the next morning, after a couple of days, the next week. Our curriculum is cumulative, so we cover Linux on days #1 and #2, then use linux on the Pi for the next three weeks. We also make use of morning and ad-hoc q&a, and even rote learning where it’s appropriate (git!).
  5. Remember the bell curve: know where your students are at. Check their body language and watch how they work together to spot leaders and followers. Know when to expect questions. Expect the placement of students on the curve to be dynamic across topics. Set high but attainable standards, and challenge your students without calling them out.

Here at #glblcd we just finished our first Summer Programme. Find out more about it here, or get in touch and buy a Raspberry Pi as a gift to a student. We’re on twitter as @glblcd.