Thursday, July 29, 2010

While I’m on the Topic of Teaching…

This week, the class that is taking the Black Box Software Testing: Foundations course through the Association for Software Testing is completing their run. That means I'm completing my first run as an assistant teacher. As many of you know, I was a participant in this course just two months ago, and was excited to have the chance to work on the other side of the process.

My reasons for volunteering to help teach Foundations are numerous, but the most specific reason is that I feel I learn much more than I do as a participant when I have the opportunity to teach something. For starters, I find out where my vocabulary is lacking. I also get to see discussions take place with a different group of participants, and this group, true to form, asked a number of questions that my group of participants did not. Because of this, I'm not just acting as an assistant instructor, I'm getting the chance to sit as a participant again as well and reinforce what I learned the last time (and in some cases, dispel and unlearn what I thought I learned, but didn't really understand as well as I could).

Foundations' is delivered entirely online, through an open source education platform called Moodle. There are many interesting aspects about Moodle that I was able to work with and participate in; the setting up of safeguarded areas so that students couldn't work ahead (or at least keep certain things hidden until the right time), the ability to have students take tests and see their results recorded (as well as a few choice words after the fact; believe me, I used a few myself when I was a participant in the class (LOL!) ). Seeing it from the other side gave me a better appreciation for how the students were doing, and what challenges they faced. I thought for sure I was messing up in the class early on, but looking from the other side and comparing the scores achieved by all of the participants, I saw similar trends emerge. Some did well across the board, some struggled early on, and others were in the middle ground with strengths and weaknesses in certain areas. It wasn't as though long time veterans all did well and new participants did poorly. It was striking to see that even long time testers (15 years plus in some cases) were finding the course material challenging.

To be fair, Moodle is not a perfect platform. We had some hiccups along the way, and the help forum in the class had a number of questions raised, most of which we were able to answer and resolve. Some items were just the nature of the tool (imagine, there are bugs in a program to teach testers regarding testing and bugs :)? ). Still, I do not mean to besmirch Moodle as a learning delivery platform, it's actually a very good piece of software. As a veteran earlier in the last decade of distance learning and having most of our work being done via email or newsgroups, the structure of the Moodle application to allow access to discussions, reviews, documents, videos, presentation slides, projects and a grading mechanism for the instructors allows those who use the system to get very good feedback on what they are doing. Far from just being a sit there and listen/read/mark time environment, Moodle allows the instructors and the students to interact in a legitimate manner, for all to see, so that all have the opportunity to participate, try things out, make mistakes, receive review and discuss where they went wrong/right, and generally have a good learning experience in the process.

Through the class, the instructors also had a chance to see what worked and what needed to be improved with regards to delivery, approach and methodology of the course material. Having a chance to work through certain issues and challenges with the other instructors gave me a good idea as to how the teaching process works through AST, and it also reinforces what I have read about Cem Kaner and his approach to tester education, as well as his dedication to it and the goal to improve it. I was expecting this class to be much like the one I participated in, and in many ways, it was. But it also had a number of ways in which it was completely different. That has to do with the fact that real people help to guide the course. Real people with strengths and challenges of their own, and this makes for a dynamic and interesting learning environment, one that has the participants mulling over, presenting and defending their answers, often with new and different understanding being offered, considered and incorporated, for students and teachers alike.

There's just a couple more days left, and this course will be history for those who participate in it. Thank you to all who took the time to get involved, as a participant and as a student. I enjoyed teaching you all, but in reality, I think I may have learned a lot more than I actually taught. I can't wait for the opportunity to teach it again (and it looks like an opportunity for another tour of duty may be coming soon, but more on that later :) ).

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