A different kind of college course

by | Mar 4, 2013


Bluetooth is not an easy thing to deal with, my instructor tells me. I didn’t believe him, and spent several fruitless weeks trying to get the Morse code Bluetooth chat app to work correctly.

The nature of application development, especially when it’s for a platform other than the one you write code on, is that you constantly stumble over bugs, weirdness and strange errors that aren’t your fault at all. It’s discouraging.

Even so, the course I’m currently taking in Android application development is the most interesting one I’ve had in my two-year Computer Systems Tech diploma program.

It was supposed to be about computer graphics. But the guy meant to teach it dropped out for some reason, and another teacher, here referred to as Robocop to protect his privacy, stepped in.

Robocop had about 3 weeks to come up with a curriculum, so the normal method of curriculum development wasn’t going to work. Instead he used the considerable leeway that the college allowed, to construct an experiment.

6 projects – students proposed and voted on ideas. (Time savings for the teacher – no assignment development).

Anyone can work in any project they want. Download the source from git, decide what you want to do, and do it. Push the changes, then sit back and wait for everyone else to bawl at you for breaking the build. Marking is done by peer reviews. You get a mark out of 10 based on whatever you’ve done this week, so anyone who makes a reasonable effort and documents it can have a perfect score. (Theoretical time savings for teacher – no assignment marking.)

The great thing is, you get as much out of it as you put in. You could do the bare minimum of testing code and maybe tossing out a toString or a small refactor once in a while, or you could rally a team, spend night and day working on, talking about, living in it, and create a commercial grade application from scratch, in three months, with adult supervision the whole time. (Now that I’m an adult I freaking loooove having adult supervision. Takes so much pressure off.)

I wouldn’t say it’s a 100% success – Robocop originally thought that we’d be able to come up with 6 commercially viable, clean, usable Android apps by the end of quarter. I think we’ll be lucky if even one of them technically does what we originally set out to do. Some people wasted a lot of time being confused, asking “What am I supposed to do? Where are the instructions?”

But as an experiment, it’s a home run. As education, it’s exactly what I wanted out of college. Preparation for working with people you don’t necessarily like, who might make brilliant decisions sometimes and really odd ones other times. The hot shame of responsibility for ruining weeks of other people’s work. The freedom to make whatever you want, if you can get the others to play along. I don’t know if the course will work long term for the college, since all the time Robocop saved before class started, he has to pay back trying to keep up with 6 open projects. I hope they keep it.

For me, personally, it’s not a success yet. Not until I can get the stupid Bluetooth connection to work right.