Worse things happen in C

The start of term has been hesitant. IT Students were supposed to report on Monday and, officially, term began on tuesday. A bit tough for those who have classes on mondays, you might think, as they miss one week of classes. But the truth is worse than that.

Much worse.

Sister Pauline told me that the jokers at JKUAT have told the students they have until 21st to report. Given that our students dont generally like to show up at all, and always come late, this means we will all get at most only 9 weeks of teaching. This week I am advised to make a token appearance in the classrooms and give the course outline and textbook recommendations to those students who show up. This is so that if the inspectors come to do QA on our college, someone in the class will answer ‘yes’ to “did the lecturer give you the course outline?” and ” did the lecturer give you the recommended texts?”. I have already told you about the crap course outlines we get from JKUAT, and how little relation that bears to the exams our students have to sit.

So, if I was smart I wouldn’t be writing this blog now, I’d be preparing my lessons for when students finally arrive. Its frustrating, I must admit. I wanted to try and negotiate a learning contract this time; something I have read a lot about in bookshops in Nairobi when I had time to browse expensive books on educational theory. But it doesn’t seem fair to negotiate a learning contract with 5% of the class.

One of the four classes I’ll be teaching this term is called Introduction To Structured Programming. Known to the staff at college as “C programming” because the course outline from JKUAT says: “using a high-level language, such as C” (C isn’t a high-level language. Its “structured assembler”. I’m stiffling a rant here, those of you who would understand it have certainly heard it before) and, of course, their exams are “C” speciffic despite recent thinking on the subject. I have spent most of my professional career avoiding C. I had an agreement with my first boss that I would not have to learn it. I have neer taught it. But I actually asked to teach this class.

This morning I made my token appearance in the class for Introduction To Structured Programming. Seven students showed up (out of 16). I made them bring their chairs to the front and made them sit in a circle. I asked them if they felt uncomfortale and they said they did. I said “good, it means I am challenging you”. I wrote the following on the board:

                    I want to learn to write        I want to pass
computer programs the exam

And told them each to stand up and read of of those statements aloud. They all picked the left one and knew that they needed that in order to pass the exam. An excelent start!

Here is our learnin contract.:

What the students want What mwalimu wants
Dictate notes
Explain the notes
Enough practise (work) in the lab
Fair CATs
Fair Assignments
Speak English*
Make it fun!
Speak clearly and loudly
Speak-up even when you don’t know the answer
Do the work (in the lab)
Do the work in assignments (don’t copy)
Never give up — Persevere
Include diagrams in your notes
Interrupt me if you don’t understand
Be Proud!

After that, and once an 8th studen ha turned up, I ordered a 10 minute break and then did the following exercise: Two teams of four discuss for 10 minutes how they will solve the problem that I am describing to you now. Then each group divides into two pairs. One pair goes to the next classroom, which happened to be empty. Each pair is given a short message such as “The time is 12.50” or “Maize: 20, Beans: 50”, they have to encode this onto a sheet of squared paper on which they are allowed to write only ‘1’s and ‘0’s. After this their squared message sheets are exchanged with their colleagues in the other class who have to decypher the message.

Both teams initially had mappings from the 26 letter alphabet onto ‘1’ and ‘0’: one had A=1, B=0, C=1, D=0, etc. The other had vowels = 1 and consonants = 0. I asked them if they could uniquely decode their sample messages; they confidently said “yes” until I asked them to demonstrate. This despite the fact that they had an introductary course in computer basics last term which covered binary arithmetic. Version two of the cyphers were better, though not perfect, and of course none of them had encodings for punctuation or numbers, as I had expected when I delibeartely included numbers in the messages they had to send.

We played out the rest of the exercise; it took much longer than I had expected but they said it was fun. They discussed the dofficulties with each other at the end in snowball fashon with each team of four explaining to the other what why they thought it was difficult. They wore expressions of horror when I told them that computer programming was at least as hard as that because computers would only understand “1”s and “0”s and that it was necessary to communicate precise instructions, not just the price of the ingredients for Githeri.

I’m hoping those horrified looks were because I’d made them miss their tea-break, not an indication that I have frightened them off in week one.

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