The weekend before last I wrote my final exam for the term. It’s a really big load off my shoulders to be done. I desperately needed the break, just so my brain could rest and I could get caught up with other things in life. Now that I’m all rested up and ready for next term, I finally have a chance to post this review.
Similar to my last two reviews I’ll try to give both the good and the bad. There are many things I really love about this school, but there are some things that really frustrate me too. Not that going to any other school would change these feelings… But I do hope UoPeople continues to improve (as they have been), and so I think it’s important for our community to be open, and share our ideas about what could be improved.
Peer-to-Peer Learning (P2P)
So to start off with – and I bring this up in every review – is the peer assessment, referred to as the peer-to-peer learning model (We’ll just call it P2P for now). As I’ve said in reviews before, the P2P model works fairly well in most cases, and works very well in some cases, but quite poorly in others.
I’ve been lucky enough to get some quality feedback and excellent engagement from my peers since I’ve started, and last term was no exception. In the case of peer feedback in the discussion forums it’s been amazing, especially this term. My favourite part of the discussion assignments is that they force you to think more deeply about concepts you may already understand, and can also help clarify concepts that you don’t.
Actually it’s the discussion assignments where P2P works the best in my opinion. The quality of both posts and feedback can vary quite a bit, however there are often very engaging conversations that happen over the course of the term inside those discussion forums. The conversations are not only benefiting the students who are engaged, but also any students who have the chance to passively read them as well.
Sometimes the best way to learn is to listen (or in this case read) to others speak about the subject you’re learning. Personally, this is how I’ve made my most significant connections and understandings, is through conversation with others.
Written and Lab Assignments
The flip side of this would be in the written/lab assignments. A major issue when being peer-assessed on assignments is that you very rarely get any feedback – or at least I don’t. Maybe it’s because the majority of my assignments, I score 100%, but as I’ve said before you should still be giving feedback even if the student didn’t get anything wrong.
Seriously. I’m sure you guys have experienced a lot of this too. “Good job” is not significant feedback. Saying something along the lines of,
“Good job! Your code is beautifully written, and easy to read. I appreciate the extra effort you put into this assignment. Just as a suggestion, I think it would have been better to include a description at the top of your code – it wasn’t required, but it’s a good habit. Regards.” – That’s feedback.
This a big problem, because I’m not the only student at UoPeople earning high grades on assignments, which means there is a sizable number of us who are almost never receiving any meaningful feedback from peers. I think the cause for this has to do with the fact that it is completely anonymous (or at least should be).
One big difference between the feedback you see in the forums and the the feedback in assignments is that when assessing an assignment you, and the student you are assessing, are anonymous. Whereas in the discussion forums you are not.
I really think this has an incredible impact on how students give feedback to one another, because when you are anonymous you can’t be judged. I think in the discussions more students are probably afraid of standing out by giving poor responses. Of course this is just speculation, and based on my own anecdotal evidence, so there is no science to my claim… And it’s contrary to what researches have found which is that anonymity increases students’ ability to give more honest and constructive feedback.
I can see how this would be true in cases where the assessing student actually cared about giving quality feedback, but I think in the case that the student just doesn’t care, it goes the opposite direction. They instead just give no feedback.
Improving Feedback in Written and Lab Assignments
This has been talked about a lot among other students at school, and I think the most interesting solution would be to open up communication between an assessor and the student being assessed. This way we could still remain anonymous, but at least you can give feedback… on the feedback 🙂
Really, I mean what a difference it could make if you could message the assessor back and state what you disagree with about their assessment. Or even better what if you could thank them when they give you excellent feedback.
That’s another important piece missing from the P2P in regards to written assignments. In the discussion forum we can thank people for putting the effort in and giving us great responses and correcting us respectively. It’s a nice feeling to be thanked for your efforts, I think everyone can agree. And it’s difficult to put in a great deal of effort when you are never acknowledged for it – understandably so. Even if the “thank you” is anonymous it’s still meaningful.
Now another area I’ve complained about in the past is testing, specifically the graded quiz(zes), and the final exam. I mentioned how they had too many questions that were already in the practice tests, which made the exams feel too easy, and in one case it was so bad I felt like I had cheated somehow… However, this term was an exception to this, and I’m glad. Very glad 🙂
I actually had to study really hard for the tests, and I still didn’t score 100% on either. Honestly, I’d much rather get a lower grade on a challenging test than a perfect grade on an easy test. The course was CS1102 or Programming 1, if you prefer to call it that. The tests were exactly what I would hope them to be. The questions weren’t recycled from the practice tests, and the questions required that you had a strong understanding of the concepts being taught.
I hope moving forward into more challenging courses the level of difficulty stays up to par, or even increases. This last course was actually a little short for a final exam (not going to disclose the question count), but I’ve heard from other students there are much bigger exams in later courses – so that sounds cool.
My Course Review (CS1102)
Now as for the course, CS1102 specifically I have some things to say about that too. First off, this course overall was a positive experience for me, but it was also the most frustrating so far. I had a lot of moments this past term where I felt like the assignments were unfair, or not appropriate for the lessons learned in each unit, or respected the previous CS course. It also didn’t fully follow the syllabus, which uggghhh, I’m just not even…
Picking Up Where We Left Off
OK, so the first major problem I had, is that this course does not pick up from any of the design concepts taught in the Programming Fundamentals course (CS1101) which is a prerequisite for CS1102. The two courses teach different programming languages, Java for CS1102 and Python for CS1101. You see though, the Python course wasn’t really about learning Python – it was about more abstract concepts like designing interfaces, conceptual models, and understanding how to think like a computer scientist. We learned about Test First Development and other development life cycles.
I was really hoping that we would expand on these topics and continue to be required to show things like conceptual models, and learn how to write tests in Java, but none of that happened in CS1102 – even though the syllabus states that it does… The assignments didn’t seem to continue where we left off at all, and even worse, some of them didn’t seem to match up very well with what was taught in our text book.
Poor Assignment Descriptions
Really all of my issues with the course has to do with the assignments and nothing else. Another problem was the poor formatting in the assignment description. Seems like a silly thing to complain about but I actually lost marks on an assignment because I misread a decimal place in a number required for a program. Sure it’s definitely my fault and I’m not trying to rid the blame – I should have checked those details meticulously. Even so, the point is that it shouldn’t be so difficult to read an assignments description.
Look at any free course available online today whether it be EdX, Coursera, Udacity, or any other. They all have their assignment descriptions laid out and formatted very well. It really feels unfair when you make a mistake because a description was poorly published. It also looks unprofessional when the description doesn’t have things like headings, indented quotes, styled code blocks (that’s a big one!), or well structured paragraphs.
Now I know some of you are probably thinking that attention to detail and being meticulous is an important skill, especially for a programmer. Which is true, and I agree. But so is writing clear instructions.
If you were writing instructions for a coworker you wouldn’t jumble them all up into a non-formatted document and say “here ya go, good luck!”. You would (and should) spend a little extra time making sure your instructions are clear and coherent. It is a part of good communication skills. And if anyone is going to make the argument that having poorly formatted assignment instructions is developing our skills for being meticulous through practice, then I would counter-argue that well formatted instructions are teaching us good communication skills through example. Plus, we as students, get the benefit of not feeling cheated when we do an assignment wrong because of misreading said instructions.
It’s like playing a video game that’s “hard” but only because the controls suck, and everything is random and unpredictable making it impossible to even become “good”.
Now this is starting to sound more like a rant than a review, so I’m going to move on. I said earlier that my overall experience was good, even though it’s probably clear I had some frustrating feelings pent-up.
What I Felt Good About
Although I wasn’t happy with the programming assignments, I was very happy about the tests as I said earlier. I also felt that the discussion assignments did a good job at asking us to explain concepts that were being learned from the text book. The text book is well written and has a ton of great explanations, along with excellent exercises that can be done as an option.
Actually I highly recommend working through those exercises if you have the time to do so. Even more so if you’re new to programming. It’s not enough to simply read about programming, you actually have to practice too, and although the assignments are good experience, they don’t really qualify for “practice” in my opinion. Practice is when you deliberately do something with the intent of becoming better, like a short exercise. If you want to be a better programmer you need to practice, and do it every day, not just once a week, end of story.
So, after another term at UoPeople I have to say I’m still happy to continue my studies, and keep paying the exam fee. I have faith in the degree and I also believe that the school will continue to grow and the quality will only increase as time goes on. It’s amazing to look at what it’s become in such a short amount of time, and I can only imagine how much better it will be by the time I graduate.
Next term I’m only taking one course again, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. I’m in no rush to get my degree for a couple of reasons. First of all, computer science is a career that you can do very well in without a degree. It’s challenging to get your foot in the door without one, sure, but it’s not a requirement.
Another reason is that I actually want to learn the content of each course well. I don’t want to simply memorize enough to pass each course until I have a piece of paper that says I successfully regurgitated information for 4-6 years… no I want to be able to apply what I learn to real world uses. I want to connect what I learn in school to what I learn outside of it – in my job, my own projects and connect those experiences back to what I learn in school.
So if it ends up taking me 8 years to get a bachelors degree, so be it. I’d rather take my time and feel confident that I’m retaining what I learn, than wizz through and come out the other end feeling like I’ve done a lot of homework but haven’t really honed any skills.
If you are reading this and aren’t already a student, and are thinking of attending UoPeople, I’d say go for it. I expressed some dislikes in this review, but I don’t think they are concerns that wouldn’t occur at any other institution. What I can say, is that to do well at UoPeople, you have to be highly motivated. As long as you are a self motivated learner, and are passionate about what you want to do, then you will do well here.
It’s a great community to be a part of, it’s full of students who are working full-time jobs and already have a lot of experience in the worlds of business and computer science. Lots of people to learn from, and lots of people to learn with. Everyone is friendly, and we’re all willing to help each other out. It really feels like we’re all a team working together to help everyone get a quality education. We share experiences, stories, resources and answer each others questions. The instructors are pretty great too! Even though many of them are volunteering their time on top of working full-time jobs, they are very helpful, and dedicated. It’s truly a great school to be a part of!