Experiments in Class Participation – An Update on My Cryptography Course

Back in early August here on the blog, I described a few “experiments” in more public class participation I planned to implement in my fall cryptography course. Now that we’re a few weeks into the semester, I thought I’d share an update on how things are going.

First, a little context. The course is titled “Cryptography: The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code-Breaking.” It’s a first-year writing seminar, so the students have to write about 18 pages worth of papers during the semester. At my institution, every first-year undergraduate in the College of Arts & Science must take a first-year writing seminar, and every department must offer at least one a year. Some departments, like English and philosophy, offer lots of them. Others, like math and physics, don’t offer that many. I think mine may be the only math offering this academic year. Since the first-year writing seminars are intended not only to help students refine their writing skills but also to provide them with a seminar-style class early in their college career, the seminars are limited to 15 students each. My course has a nice mix of codes and code-breaking, pure mathematics, history, and the teaching of writing.

I’ve given my students three ways to contribute to their class participation grades in the course, and “contributing to in-class discussions” isn’t one of them. It’s not that I don’t value student contributions to in-class discussions, it’s just that I want that to be a given. Instead, I’m basing their class participation scores on out-of-class activities that are intended to enhance their own learning as well as that of their peers. All three activities involve making student thinking more public than it might be in more traditional activities.

Online Discussions – Most weeks the students have a reading or two from our textbook, Simon Singh’s The Code Book. Prior to the class session in which we discuss a reading, I post a few open-ended questions on the course blog about the reading, like these. The questions are intended to point students toward some of the big issues detailed in the reading, which should help them make more sense of the reading. They’re also fairly open-ended, since many of those issues permit multiple points of view. And since they’re open-ended, it’s not a problem that students can see each others’ responses to the questions. In fact, I see value in having students read each others’ responses before class. What could be a more private activity (sending responses to the questions to me via email) is made more public by having it occur on the blog.

How’s it going? Well, we’ve only had one set of reading questions, but the students’ responses were top notch. I was glad to see that my students had so many interesting ideas about the reading and that they expressed themselves so well. This bodes well for my first time teaching a writing-intensive course! Here’s one of the reading questions I wanted to discuss in class:

On page 15, Singh writes, “Cryptanalysis could not be invented until a civilization had reached a sufficiently sophisticated level of scholarship in several disciplines, including mathematics, statistics, and linguistics.”  If such a level of scholarship was required for the development of the frequency analysis approach to solving substitution ciphers, what do you make of the fact that amateur cryptanalysts today often use that approach “on their own,” so to speak, without being trained in it?

My plan was to select a few student responses that expressed different answers this question, share them with the students during class on a handout, and have the students react to those selected responses. (“Which response do you most agree with? What other evidence could you provide in support of that response? Which response did you most disagree with? Why?”) However, all the students pretty much took the same approach to the topic, so instead, I took a student response from last summer’s offering of the course (when it was not a first-year writing seminar but a course in our Master’s of Liberal Arts & Science program) that was quite different and included it on the handout along with a couple of responses from my current students. While this didn’t result in students changing their minds about the topic, it did give fuel the discussion in class in some useful ways as students critiqued the anomalous point of view!

Social Bookmarking – I’ve encouraged my students to create accounts on Delicious (which I use myself for saving and organizing resources) and tag websites relevant to the course using the tag “fywscrypto.” Since Delicious collects all bookmarks for a given tag (no matter who uses it) in one convenient place, you can see what my students and I have been bookmarking lately. I’ve even embedded the RSS feed for the tag in the course blog, so students can easily see our latest finds.

How’s it going? As of this writing, 10 of my 15 students have tagged something on Delicious, and they’ve made some pretty interesting finds. One student tagged a news item about recent successes in cracking quantum cryptography, another tagged a Wired article about a mysterious sculpture that I had planned on discussing later in the course (spoiler alert!), and one student apparently found a useful code-breaking site during class today!

My plan is to take a couple of minutes in each class period (Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9:35 to 10:50) to have a couple of students share recent Delicious bookmarks with the class. Otherwise, I’m afraid that the social bookmarking won’t feel integrated into the rest of the course. So far, I’m 2 for 4 in taking time during class for this, but one of the days I didn’t was the day the Writing Studio visited the course for a workshop on college writing.

I also noticed that after a flurry of bookmarking during the first full week of classes, the second week didn’t see as much action on the “fywscrypto” feed. I mentioned that in class earlier today, and three of my students responded with new bookmarks this afternoon!

So far, so good on the social bookmarking. I’ll be interested to see if the students draw on these bookmarks in their essay assignments later in the course.

Collaborative Timeline – This is probably the most unusual thing I’m doing this fall. Inspired by the collaborative timelines put together by the students of Brian Croxall and Jason B. Jones, like this one on the Victorian Age, I’m asking my students to contribute to a class timeline on cryptography. Students can enter events into a Google spreadsheet, adding dates, descriptions, images, and links for those events, and the back-end code will pipe those events into a nice online, interactive timeline I’m hosting here on derekbruff.com.

How’s it going? I seeded the timeline with four events, and as of this writing, five of my students have contributed one event each. I’m pleased with that, although the social bookmarking activity is more than double that. I suspect that’s because (a) it takes a little more thought to enter an event in the timeline properly than to tag a website on Delicious and (b) I haven’t had students share their timeline contributions during classtime. I might try taking some time in class next week to address (b) and see if that results in an uptick in contributions.

The good news is that it’s been pretty easy for students to obtain access to the spreadsheet that feeds the timeline. Sometimes sharing a Google Doc with multiple people can be challenging, particularly with people who don’t use Google services often. (Yes, such people exist.) However, the student email system here is powered by Gmail, so it’s gone fairly smoothly.

One hiccup: Apparently, when you request access to a Google Doc, if you’re not already logged in with your Gmail-powered .edu account, it doesn’t work. So my students have to login to their email, then request access. Not a big deal, but with regular Gmail accounts, you can request access, then login.

Check back later in the semester for more updates on these activities!

Image: “Bombe detail” by Flickr user Garrett Coakley, Creative Commons licensed

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