I’m just finishing teaching a class for the UMD iSchool focused on Object Oriented Programming. This is the third time I’ve taught the class so I’m starting to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. The catalog has this generic description:

An introduction to programming, emphasizing understanding and implementation of applications using object-oriented techniques. Topics to be covered include program design and testing as well as implementation of programs.

The instructors for this class have kindly developed a curriculum and course materials, which largely draw on (but don’t completely follow) Charles Severance’s Python for Everybody. I think it works pretty smoothly, and can be quite rewarding (and challenging) for undergraduate students looking to start a career in information technology. Having these materials at hand means I can spend more time developing exercises and assignments for the class (which is the topic of this post).

The course starts by reinforcing how to use Python’s built in types (strings, numbers, lists, tuples, dictionaries, sets, functions) and how to define new ones using classes and methods. I try to move the class towards using extensions like Pandas or Requests, not only to learn what these modules do, but to encourage students to apply what they know about object oriented programming to understand how these extensions are designed and used. To learn how to learn. Navigating the documentation for these complex libraries, and understanding how to install and use them, can be quite challenging. Reading code is a learned skill that’s just as important as writing it. I think reading is in fact more important, as most students will go out into the field needing to deal with legacy systems.

Because it’s an iSchool, and not a computer science department, one thing that instructors try to teach alongside the computer programming concepts is a sense of how computation is a technology and practice that gets deployed in particular settings, with real social and political outcomes. And on the flip side, that computational technology itself has been shaped by these social and political projects. In short that software is a sociotechnical thing.

I think it’s fair to say that this can be difficult to do, not only because the study of sociotechnical systems is an advanced topic, probably for a senior seminar or graduate school, but also because it’s a level problem. It’s difficult to learn the grammar and syntax of programming while also understanding that this grammar and syntax is coproduced by cultures of computing and society (Jasanoff, 2006). It is a struggle to just get the students thinking computationally, and so thinking critically about the application of computation falls by the wayside. (Isn’t it interesting to think about application in this difference sense, as a concept, technique or practice that is being applied rather than in the sense of an “app”?)

One technique that I tried this semester was to orient all the exercises around a particular sociotechnical theme. So rather than the exercises and assignments being about the usual object oriented topics like shapes, number patterns, pizza ingredients, books, music, etc I structured all the exercises around the topic of COVID-19. I’ve written in a few other posts that perhaps this wasn’t the best topic to choose given the situations that many students found themselves in. But despite that difficulty I did find having a theme to dig into over the course of the semester from different angles was useful for getting students to think about how computer programming is a social and political thing, and not some neutral tool.

This has me thinking a bit about what topics or themes could be useful in future classes in order to explore the sociotechnical aspects of code over the course of the semester while also learning programming. The idea is that the class would work like a programming course but also a special topics class. If you have ideas for potential topics please let me know. A couple obvious ones for me are social media, and blockchain technologies. The advantage to focusing on social media is that it is something that many students have direct experience with, and there is a lot to work with. Looking at blockchain from a sociotechnical perspective is of interest to me because this is something I personally want to gain some expertise in understanding at a technical level so I can interrogate it better. I’ll spend some time over the summer thinking about this in preparation for teaching the class again in the fall.

References

Jasanoff, S. (2006). States of knowledge: The co-production of science and the social order. Routledge.