Instructor Hangouts Beta Test

The inaugural run of our Instructor Hangouts program went live yesterday; I hope all who participated found it as enlightening as I did! I wanted to round up a few points procedural and philosophical from the hangouts, for those who couldn’t make it:


A big part of the point of yesterday’s session was to figure out what worked and what would make these events most interesting for the community. As always, this question remains open indefinitely! Let me know suggestions and ideas as they come to you, but for now, a couple of key points:

We’re too big for Google Hangouts! We definitely need a medium that gives us a video connection to each other, particularly for the sake of teaching demos. For next time, we’re going to give Hangouts on Air a try – for those unfamiliar, this is a Google Hangout that is simultaneously recorded and broadcast to youtube, so an essentially unlimited number of silent observers can watch. I like this idea in principle, but I’m a bit concerned by the fact that some people who may wish to participate in the hangout might not be comfortable with being recorded and put on youtube; this is a serious concern, and I’m all ears for your thoughts on the matter in the comments below, or privately at: bill mozillafoundation org.

There was a huge positive response from both sessions to the idea of using Instructor Hangouts as a vehicle for getting feedback on instruction – so let’s do it! In addition to round-table style discussions, we will be scheduling time for instructors from any software workshop background to deliver a 5-15 minute lesson on a topic of their choice, followed by feedback and comments from the rest of the speaking participants. Instruction may be delivered live in the hangout, or via pre-recorded video. We already have a tentative demo lined up from one of our participants for next time (26 Sept), but the more the better! Get ahold of me and I’ll put you on the schedule.

Any other thoughts on what would make Instructor Hangouts more awesome? Let me know! This as all things we do at MSL are always up for iteration.


It wasn’t all nuts and bolts on our first run – I was blown away by all the fantastic ideas and ambitions people brought up in both sessions! We talked about pretty much everything, but a few of the more compelling ideas are as follows:

Beyond the Bootcamp

During the first session, we had the privilege of hearing from both Atul Varma teaching for ScriptEd, and Vincent Betro of XSEDE on their teaching strategies and experiences. And at some level, ScriptEd, XSEDE, and Software Carpentry (represented by many of the other participants) are very different workshop offerings; and yet, a common thread appeared between all three. Atul told us about the importance ScriptEd places on their instructors also being role models for the students they teach, encouraging them to be consistently available for contact with the students beyond a few lessons. Vincent told us of a very successful engagement program from XSEDE, where small groups of students are given a project, some means to communicate about it, and an instructor/mentor to guide them as needed; the really remarkable thing was, that the students in these groups were consistently very self motivated to keep learning and practicing their skills, with only occasional guidance from their instructor. And the thing that sticks in my mind from Software Carpentry, is the repeated request I have heard from students to help them understand how to really apply the skills they learn to their actual work, out of the bootcamp and in the wild.

It takes time to build software skills. All kinds of different groups have come to the somewhat unsurprising realization that consistent, repeated practice beyond the bootcamp is needed to make these ideas stick; in addition to those present yesterday, PyLadies has been running Study Groups for some time, to great success (I’m hoping to hear more from them in future hangouts). This is a big challenge, and there are plenty of ways to do it wrong. What was clear from the first round of Instructor Hangouts, is that it’s worth some effort to do it right, and it’s on the minds of many different workshop groups. I’ll be diving more into concrete strategy for this soon – but from yesterday’s discussions, the need is clear.

Regular Bootcamps

Another, totally different, thread was started in the evening session by my conversation with Damien Irving. Damien is currently operating out of the University of Melbourne, where they are gathering force to start offering regular SWC bootcamps at the University and around the Melbourne area, via the Research Bazaar program. The idea of regularized bootcamps presents some really interesting opportunities. A vital discussion around mentorship and feedback was touched off by Greg Wilson’s recent and much-discussed blog post (more thoughts on that conversation forthcoming here in tomorrow’s editorial), which immediately faces us with the challenge of how to actually deliver this mentorship in a useful way. Instructor Hangouts is one piece of the puzzle; but several people have pointed out that there is just no substitute for actually going to a workshop and watching someone teach. This is certainly true, but the cost would be astronomical in SWC’s current model; it can already be burdensome enough to get institutions to fly and house instructors to deliver bootcamps, much less helpers or observers. But by having regular bootcamps in a city every month(ish), many problems are solved. This creates a stable community, where it’s easy for new instructors to show up and observe or help at a bootcamp at the expense of only a few hours, rather than days of travel and potentially thousands of dollars. Similarly, experienced instructors can attend the workshops of new teachers to provide support and mentorship. Furthermore, bootcamps in places with stable instructor populations are much easier to staff, for all the same reasons (speaking of, SWC instructors, please sign up for some more bootcamps here!). What’s coming together in Melbourne isn’t just a bunch of bootcamps; with little more than the right framing, this could be an effective incubator for the mentorship and feedback models we’ve all got our sights on now, and it could be cut and pasted to any metropolitain center that can fill a bootcamp every 6 weeks.

The Melbourne project is definitely an experiment to watch; I think they’ll do great things, and may provide us with an actual, concrete path to building up the mentorship model we are aiming for. Anyway, these were just a couple of the things we discussed in the first pass at Instructor Hangouts – I hope you’ll join the conversation next time, on September 26!