distributed computing teaching

Azure, Hackathons and PhD students: Feedback

This is the second year that I have organised a three-week course on Bioinformatics from PhD students in their first year of the Oxford Interdisciplinary Biosciences programme. As last year, I run the third week as a Hackathon and in preparation the students had to choose a scientific paper in the first week, form teams and then present back on the Monday of the Hackathon (third) week. Unlike last year, there was very little change in teams as the Hackathon started. Also unlike last year, we had the full capability of Microsoft Azure for them to play with (which should make e.g. running meaningful molecular dynamics simulations much easier).

At the end of the course, I asked the students to fill in some online feedback. I won’t go through of it here, but will instead focus on how they found using Microsoft Azure throughout the three weeks and what they thought of the hackathon. Let’s tackle Azure first.

  1. Azure

These are the average scores from the relevant questions:

On the whole, they were positive about using Azure, with most averages hovering around “Agree”. This does, of course, hide a range of opinions, so whilst, on average, they agreed with the statement “Azure made the computer practicals easier”, that hides an almost exactly even split between the number that disagreed to some extent (11) and those that agreed to some extent (10), the only difference being that more people Strongly agreed than Strongly disagreed, resulting in the final weighted score. We did encounter some serious difficulties, mainly as a result of our inexperience as teachers in using Azure, and so I am both not surprised in this split and also encouraged. For the other scores, I’ll give an indication of the number of people who disagreed to some extent (i.e. Disagree + Strongly disagree) and the number who agreed to some extent (i.e. Agree + Strongly agree).

There was more support for “creating and accessing my own Virtual Machine was straightforward” 15 agreeing and 5 not. This reflected, I hope, the effort I had put into creating an easy and comprehensive walkthrough about how to do this. One should also consider Azure in the context of the alternative (as that is never perfect either), which here is remotely deploying the right software to a homogenous set of Dell PCs running Ubuntu 16.04 LTS Desktop. On the first day we had a whole bunch of issues with logins etc which is reflected in the average score above, which breaks down into 8 agreeing and 10 disagreeing. The next question was a bit pessimistic: “In the future I would just stick to just using the DTC workstations for the computer practicals”, and 9 disagreed and only 6 agreed.

The questions looking to the future brought out more optimism. Eight students said that “I intend using the Bioinformatics Azure subscription after the course” and only 5 disagreed with 11 abstentions. This was no pure sentiment either as at least three of the hackathon groups continued using Azure after the course and burnt through the remaining resources that had been allocated to that subscription sometime over the Christmas vacation. Finally, all 24 students agreed (or strongly agreed) with the statement “I can see how cloud computing could be useful in my research” which I interpret as they could see past the niggles and appreciate the potential of cloud computing.

You can read about some of the problems that we bumped into in a separate post.

2. Hackathon.

I reported how last year the students much preferred a hackathon to a more traditional “project” and not much has changed. I asked the same questions:

Of the 24 students who answered my feedback questionnaire,  23 of them enjoyed the hackathon and 22 preferred it to doing a project by myself. Two found it hard to work in a team, whilst a bit over half the class sat on the fence when it came to GitHub leaving 9 to agree with the statement “GitHub is useful” and 1 to disagree. There was a full range of answers to “Prizes motivated me”, but I would always have some form of geeky-but-not-too-expensive prize at the end of a Hackathon whatever the answer to this question. Lastly, and most pleasingly, all 24 students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I learnt some skills during the hackathon that will be useful during my DPhil”.

So I think we’ll keep doing a hackathon in the third week! Here are photos of some of the teams just after they’ve delivered their presentation on the last Friday – at least one of them had been up most of the night coding.

By Philip Fowler

Philip W Fowler is a computational biophysicist studying antimicrobial resistance working at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

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