Computer science professor troubleshoots challenges of virtual learning with opportunities for student engagement.
A new series from GW Today shows how GW is preparing for the fall semester and a high-quality academic experience.
By Kristen Mitchell
Associate Professor Pablo Frank-Bolton usually relies on puzzled looks and quizzical stares to know when he needs to re-explain the nuances of computer science during class. In the virtual learning environment, he’s turning to emoticons.
“I ask a quick question on Blackboard Collaborate and say, just add an emoticon that represents your understanding of this. They usually put happy faces, or sometimes they say confused or scared or surprised,” he said. “Depending on the numbers that I see up there, I backtrack, and I say, this clearly was confusing, and I rephrase it or give another example.”
Dr. Frank, Ph.D. ‘18, is teaching Introduction to Software Development this fall—a foundational, applied skill-building course for first-year students who plan to major in computer science. With the assumption that students have never written code before, Dr. Frank will teach more than 60 students the basics of problem solving in the Java language. They will explore programming concepts by writing, debugging and running problems in an interactive computing environment.
The fall Introduction to Software Development (CS 1111) is only open to students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, however the course is open to all undergraduate students during the spring semester.
Dr. Frank readily admits moving the digital-oriented course to a virtual format presents fewer challenges compared to some of his colleagues around the university, but said talking with classmates and working through problems is a big part of learning a programming language. He aims to build on what he learned during the spring semester and foster a sense of community among his students. Students will participate in class discussions and small group work labs during the class period and view recorded lecture material on their own time, he said.
Students will use Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, along with Piazza, a virtual education platform for computer science, and Codio, where Dr. Frank and his teaching assistants can play back how a student wrote their code and make any appropriate suggestions. While virtual learning poses new challenges for faculty, it also “forces you to think about your class and how to make it better,” he said.
While Dr. Frank would prefer all his students to participate in the course synchronously, students have the opportunity to take the class asynchronously if needed. They can view the recorded lectures and labs, and they can submit any questions they have to be answered at the start of the next session.
Dr. Frank is also trying to recognize the various obstacles students may face this semester and find ways to accommodate students’ changing needs. He is retooling his course to provide opportunities for students to catch up if they miss an assignment or momentarily fall behind.
“We're building in some resilience and recovery opportunities for them,” he said. “If they missed one or two exercises, we want there to be a way for them to get those points back. We don’t want students to feel like they’ve fallen into a hole, and they can't get out.”
Because the fall semester section of Dr. Frank’s course is restricted to first-year students, the course operates partly in tandem with the school’s one-credit hour computer science orientation. While students explore the various computer science disciplines at an abstract level in the orientation class, they will take a more applied look at the same concepts with Dr. Frank. Students will also hear faculty and graduate student guest speakers talk about their research projects and areas of interest.
“Hopefully at the end of my course they know Java, but they also know what is going on in the department and who’s doing what,” he said.
He advises his students that much like in programming, they should not be afraid to make mistakes this fall—as long as they have a recovery plan. Students should work to stay organized and get help early if they have questions, he said.
When he wasn’t focused on preparing his fall courses, Dr. Frank spent his summer reading comic books and mystery novels, watching new shows on Netflix and exploring places like the Anacostia Riverwalk trail with his wife Mariana, who rears caterpillars as part of her work on climate change. Together they collect caterpillar food and enjoy the fresh air.
“Her, an ecologist, and me, a computer scientist, I often joke that we both work with bugs,” he said. “But while she rears them, I teach my students to avoid them.”