org-mode + Python + git in a graduate engineering course

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The Fall 2014 semester is over! I thought I would summarize here what we did. I taught a Master's course in Chemical Reaction Engineering for the second time. This time we had 58 students from around the world. What is remarkable about this course is that this time it was taught completely from Emacs. Every lecture was given from Emacs, every assignment completed in Emacs, turned in from Emacs, graded in Emacs, returned in Emacs.

Students came to class, opened Emacs, and ran a command that downloaded the latest syllabus and opened it. They opened the day's lecture notes from a link in the syllabus. I lectured from the notes in Emacs, editing them on the screen live, running Python code to illustrate engineering concepts. Students did exercises in class in Emacs, and ran an Emacs command to "turn it in" which pushed their work to a git server. Later, I ran an Emacs command to collect and grade the work, then return it. Students could run a menu command in Emacs to see their grade report.

Techela provided a menu of commands to turn in assignments, check grade reports, send me feedback, open the syllabus, etc… The notes were written in org-mode, and we used org-latex-fragments to see the equations. We used code-blocks to show Python examples of problem solving, every day in class. It was awesome!

The way this worked is that most of my students got laptops as part of the MS program they enrolled in. I had my jmax repo installed on those computers, along with git, TexLive and Canopy Python. jmax provided a starter-kit for emacs that gave it the functionality I use on a regular basis. In jmax, I created a package of code I call techela, which interfaces Emacs with git, and which provides commands to download and turn in assignments, and to control permissions on each repo. This enabled me to change repos to read-only after they were due, and to grant read access when I wanted students to see them. About 15% of the class had their own computer, and we had to help them get this software installed. This got done in the first week of class, thanks to the help of my teaching assistants.

I ran a gitolite server that served the course materials, and a repo for each assignment for each student. When students first ran techela, it created a set of ssh keys which were used to authenticate each student in the gitolite server. Techela automates creation of the repos, and the permissions on each repo. Grading of assignments was done in Emacs. Every assignment turned in was an org-file, and we stored grades in the assignments as file tags. Techela constructed a dynamic gradebook on demand, among other things.

Org-mode played a central role in the success of this course! It enabled the distribution of the notes in a readable, functional form. The programmable aspects of org-mode made it possible to create custom links for machine-gradable multiple choice questions, assignments, and solutions. It made it possible to use the assignments as a data storage source for grades, and later to pull the grades out for analysis.

Overall, the experience was just awesome. Techela has a few edges that need smoothed out, but I look forward to using it again this spring, this time on a course on Molecular Simulation!

Copyright (C) 2014 by John Kitchin. See the License for information about copying.

org-mode source

Org-mode version = 8.2.10

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