Teaching in Hong Kong, Day 9

Day 9, Thursday the 17th, we were back in the classroom again but with a 10am start to let the students get a bit of rest after the night out. We had a busy afternoon planned with a visit to the Hong Kong science park so we focused on issues in networking such as Software Defined Networking, network management and then did the tutorial in class as a group discussion activity. (I love having the flexibility to move things around in the classroom like this!) On completing that, I assigned the students some work to be done before the next day, which was going through 5 of the podcasts in the next section and doing the quiz before they showed up. However, as we will see, I adjusted that because of the afternoon activities!

The local Office of Academic Links has been a great help in setting up visits and they had also arranged a visit to the Science Park to look at what was being done by their amazing body and we also had an arranged visit to Huawei’s Noah’s Ark Lab. Our host from the OAL was Daniel Chan, who wrangled us with great expertise and also assisted us in correctly observing local customs for visits – thanks a million, Daniel!

Only mildly posed, we wait for the info session to start.

Only mildly posed, we wait for the info session to start.

At the Science Park we attended a briefing on the Science Park’s role, in conjunction with a number of universities including CUHK, to provide support to the R&D infrastructure in Hong Kong, led off by a great talk by local entrepreneur Kenneth Chau, a graduate of the Science Park’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship program. Hong Kong is hungry for innovation and it was never clearer than when the local manager outlined their program for innovation support, which included giving opportunities to foreign nationals as well as locals, as it would be of local benefit in driving industry and innovation. The idea of being able to apply for a program which gives you free space, access to investors and mentors, and it being this well supported was excellent (and a little surprising from our current climate) to see.

We then went for a tour of Green 18, the Science Park’s green building, where a lot of technologies have been developed and tested that will be used in the next phase of the Science Park’s development. We were able to get up on top of the building and get some great views of Hong Kong, as well as appreciating its energy efficiency!

How Green is it? Very green!

How Green is it? Very green!

It's a long way up to the thermal chimney!

It’s a long way up to the thermal chimney!

Here’s a panorama that shows you the view from the top.

The View from the Top

The View from the Top

There’s some amazing stuff on the campus. Here is one of the most distinctive lecture halls that I think I’ve ever seen.

Go long!

Go long!

We were then very lucky to be able to visit Huawei’s Noah’s Ark Lab. Huawei are a very serious player in the world of networking and they have a great deal of interest in how they can use software defined networking for a wide range of reasons, fortunately I had covered this in a lecture today! Their big data analytics are also very advanced and there’s a lot of cross over with what we’re doing in student analytics – but not at the same scale. Professor Qiang Yang hosted us and he and his team shared a lot of good project progress with us. From a teaching standpoint, this is great, because I can talk about things in the classroom but visits like this bring it to life!

Professor Yang in mid-discussion.

Professor Yang in mid-discussion.

Just to prove that we were there.

Just to prove that we were there.

At the end of the day, I reviewed things with the students and, after two social events and a really busy week (teaching wise), I adjusted the schedule. I dropped the amount of work required for the next day and moved the short answer exam from Friday to Monday. With assignments due, two very complex conceptual areas, and everything else, I was worried that the students would be plodding through rather than actually enjoying and getting the most out of the trip.

Work delayed, after all, is still work but rearranging it gave my students a little more time to make up for all of the other interesting things we were doing.

Overall, a great day, and thank you so much to everyone involved – we really got a lot out of it.

Teaching in Hong Kong, Day 8

Sorry about the delay in filing these but we got seriously busy with the whole “learning and teaching” thing so I’ve had to wait until today to catch up.

Wednesday the 17th was pretty much  day off for the students – I took the opportunity to catch up on some course preparation – but in the evening we were heading out to meet the Hong Kong Alumni association for the University of Adelaide. Hong Kong local David Wong, our Alumni Ambassador for Hong Kong and China, here had discussed a meet-up in a conversation with Luke van Trigt from our Alumni Relations and University Engagement section. We all met up at a German restaurant and beer house called Brotzeit, down in East Tsim Sha Tsui. Rather than shepherding the students, I decided to meet them down there and this worked out very well, with all of us getting there pretty much on time.

We had a great evening out, meeting Charles Ng, the President of the local Alumni Association, and Timothy Lok and Belinda Poon, both Directors of the association. It was great to be able to sit around and talk to people about working and living in Hong Kong, with people who were connected to our own institution.

Here are some pictures of the night, to show you that an intensive overseas course isn’t all work. (Although my students will tell you that there’s quite a bit of it in there!)

Thanks for the round, David! A great welcome from the Alumni.

Thanks for the round, David! A great welcome from the Alumni.

We then wandered out for a walk along the Avenue of Stars, which pays tribute to Hong Kong’s amazing film industry. Of course, Hong Kong itself is pretty amazing.

With a backdrop like this, we all look pretty good.

With a backdrop like this, we all look pretty good.

Of course, the Director’s Chair can prove too much of a temptation for some…

Lights! Action! Sahil!

Lights! Action! Sahil!

The whole point of a trip like that is to get out and about, adding to the classroom with some local flavour. Thanks again to the Alumni for setting this up and coming out!

Teaching in Hong Kong, Day 7

I write today’s post over a cup of chamomile tea, as I’m taking a break from preparing for the next stages of the course and also doing some work on an ongoing research project. Like many (most) research-active academics, the contribution to research and the requirement to keep on plugging away never quite stops, wherever I am in the world. What is great, however, is that working with an active small group for teaching is quite energising, although it is intensive teaching, so I’m usually in a very positive mood for the afternoon’s continuing work. (Hooray!)

We went through the introduction to the network layer today and finished up with a small lab on practical use of this knowledge. It’s quite a lot to go through in this short a time (this sequence of lectures would usually take a week and a half) so there are additional materials, including podcasts, that I provide to make this easier. I recorded these some time ago but they have proved very useful as this section of the course “sticks” at different rates for different people.

As it happened, I had a producer working with me, so I narrated the slides and they were fused together post recording. These days I’d just use Camtasia but it’s very interesting to think of the techniques that we are still using up to just a few years ago. Now, between Explain Everything and Camtasia, I basically have a one-man recording studio!

No pictures today but we’re going to meet up with the Hong Kong Alumni of our University tomorrow down in Kowloon, which will be a great opportunity for our students to meet people who, with an Adelaide degree, are making their way in Hong Kong. Lots of great opportunities on this trip for everyone!

(I’ll pop up a picture of the Alumni magazine, The Roar, as I can’t find any HK chapter pictures.)

Image from Adelaide onLion site. © The University of Adelaide, 2014.

Image from Adelaide onLion site. © The University of Adelaide, 2014.

Teaching in Hong Kong, Day 6

Well, this is the 6th day of teaching and the first day of the second week. (I’m not counting weekends.) Some of the students went to Shenzen over the weekend and discovered “an electronics mall the size of Adelaide” which was the big motivator for going. Sadly, I wasn’t able to join them at the World Cup this morning as my flight got in late and I still had marking and work to do, but here’s a picture that one of the students, Sarah, took of the crowd – and they were a very vocal crowd for 3 in the morning!

Let's not talk about the result. © Sarah Belet, 2014

Let’s not talk about the result. © Sarah Belet, 2014

Today we finished off talking about the way that programmers work with the network when they write applications. When someone sends information too fast for a receiver, we need to control the flow of the information, but when there’s just too much information on the network (from possibly many sources) we have to deal with the congestion. Both of these (and the solutions we use) are really important reasons why the Internet works today! We had a lot of discussion, group-based work and I spent a lot of whiteboard time motivating how we could get information out of the network without having to do anything beyond what we already wanted to do, just to use it.

We had started later so students could get some downtime and it certainly paid off because participation was as good as it had been on other days and brains were only slightly slower than usual. It’s the great thing about having the freedom we have here, teaching only one course and leaving time for work and thinking time. I certainly prefer it as a teaching approach!

Feedback on the quiz and short exam are also positive although there is work to do on making the questions slightly less ambiguous because the terminology of networking often coincides with other uses and there isn’t the same amount of time to get students used to a new reference frame.

After a steamy few days, it seems cooler today and we’re seeing a large amount of blue sky. Here’s what the campus looks like from outside the building I’m teaching in!

HillPic3 HillPic1


Teaching in Hong Kong, Day 5

Well, we had a normal session to start with, which consisted of discussion about the Transport layer (that bit of the network that makes it easier for the people who program your web browser to talk a web server) and some of it was good but some of it – ehhh, I think it got away from me. There are some really complicated diagrams and I’m still thinking about the best way to teach them. I suspect it’s something you go away and do, then discuss, then do again so that’s a note to self.

We broke for lunch and I (coincidentally) ended up at the same place as my students so I joined them. (There is no escaping the Nick.) They’re all doing the right thing and eating everywhere to see what’s good and basically getting into the whole experience. (They may all be addicted to duck’s web now. Sorry, that’s my fault.)

You can't see Tom because he's hiding off to the left, recovering from chilli overload.

You can’t see Tom because he’s hiding off to the left, recovering from chilli overload.

After lunch, it was short quiz and short exam time – the students have weekly quizzes, marked automatically and worth 5% each, and then a short answer exam, which I mark manually and these are worth 10% each. Because of the compressed timescale, I’m trying to scaffold the revision process by requiring the knowledge earlier. From what I’ve seen so far, it appears to be working, although I’m not sure how appreciative the students are. Once I’ve marked everything, I’ll discuss it with them to see what their impressions are. I’m a great believer in working with students to try and build better courses and this is one of the best opportunities I’ll ever have.

I have to head back to Australia for the weekend but I’ll be back Sunday afternoon. Until then I’ve asked my students to work hard, play hard and be safe. I’ve delayed the class on Monday morning from 9am to 1pm, not because I’ll be jet lagged, but because CUHK is putting on a giant screen showing of the world cup with local commentators, starting from 3am. This is exactly the kind of serendipitous cultural moment that we want to capture in these sorts of exchanges so, not only am I shifting the class, I’m planning to go along myself.

Goal! Goal! Goal! (Or possibly Penalty! Penalty! Penalty!)

Goal! Goal! Goal! (Or possibly Penalty! Penalty! Penalty!)

Sorry to my German readers but I have to support Argentina or my friend Guadalupe will kill me. Vamos Argentina! Have a great weekend and I’ll fill you in on Monday in a few days.



Teaching in Hong Kong, Day 4

We were back in the classroom today and the overall plan was to talk about some teaching materials that I’d put on-line already on programming network-based applications. (A lot of work has gone into making it easier for people to write programs that talk across the network and it’s really useful to write these programs for practice because it exposes students to all of the problems that occur when an application spans more than one machine.)

Rather than just walk the students through some slides, I made it pre-reading and then asked them to produce a very small example that sent communication from one machine to another. We had some really interesting results – everyone had been working on it and had something to show, although a couple of people had discovered that trying to add features just before a demo can make a the demo a little less ‘demonstrative’ than it might otherwise have been. The demo code showed a lot of humour and also a high level of the understanding of the problems.

This led into discussion of why certain protocols work the way that they do and, in many cases, it’s because people wrote things that would work for the network of the ’70s and ’80s. These days, with the Web, video streaming and on-line gaming, we have different requirements in many senses and now that the students have written some code and tried some things, they’re ready to start thinking about the “whys” and the “hows” and, most importantly, the “what nexts” of the network.

It wasn’t a long day as the amount of work that had gone into the programs reduced the amount of time I had to spend explaining concepts (funny, that). After a quick design workshop on what the next assignment should look like, where everyone took part in forming ideas as to how we would build it, we broke early to give people more time to work on what they wanted to do.

Goodness – work done early leads to extra time for tasks later? Who thought that would ever work!

I’ve been trying to get a good picture of the Run Run Shaw Science Building, which is far more striking than it ever is in my photos, so here’s one I found on Wikimedia. It gives you some idea of the striking nature of CUHK – buildings nestled among the trees on the hillside.

The glorious colours of the Run Run Shaw Science Building. It dominates the CUHK vista from the MTR station.

The glorious colours of the Run Run Shaw Science Building. It dominates the CUHK vista from the MTR station.

Road to Intensive Teaching: Post 1

I’m back on the road for intensive teaching mode again and, as always, the challenge lies in delivering 16 hours of content in a way that will stick and that will allow the students to develop and apply their understanding of the core knowledge. Make no mistake, these are keen students who have committed to being here, but it’s both warm and humid where I am and, after a long weekend of working, we’re all going to be a bit punch-drunk by Sunday.

That’s why there is going to be a heap of collaborative working, questioning, voting, discussion. That’s why there are going to be collaborative discussions of connecting machines and security. Computer Networking is a strange beast at the best of times because it’s often presented as a set of competing models and protocols, with very few actual axioms beyond “never early adopt anything because of a vendor promise” and “the only way to merge two standards is by developing another standard. Now you have three standards.”

There is a lot of serious Computer Science lurking in networking. Algorithmic efficiency is regularly considered in things like routing convergence and the nature of distributed routing protocols. Proofs of correctness abound (or at least are known about) in a variety of protocols that , every day, keep the Internet humming despite all of the dumb things that humans do. It’s good that it keeps going because the Internet is important. You, as a connected being, are probably smarter than you, disconnected. A great reach for your connectivity is almost always a good thing. (Nyancat and hate groups notwithstanding. Libraries have always contained strange and unpleasant things.)

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” (Newton, quoting Bernard of Chartres) – the Internet brings the giants to you at a speed and a range that dwarfs anything we have achieved previously in terms of knowledge sharing. It’s not just about the connections, of course, because we are also interested in how we connect, to whom we connect and who can read what we’re sharing.

There’s a vast amount of effort going into making the networks more secure and, before you think “Great, encrypted cat pictures”, let me reassure you that every single thing that comes out of your computer could, right now, be secretly and invisibly rerouted to a malicious third party and you would never, ever know unless you were keeping a really close eye (including historical records) on your connection latency. I have colleagues who are striving to make sure that we have security protocols that will make it harder for any country to accidentally divert all of the world’s traffic through itself. That will stop one typing error on a line somewhere from bringing down the US network.

“The network” is amazing. It’s empowering. It is changing the way that people think and live, mostly for the better in my opinion. It is harder to ignore the rest of the world or the people who are not like you, when you can see them, talk to them and hear their stories all day, every day. The Internet is a small but exploding universe of the products of people and, increasingly, the products of the products of people.

This is one of the representations of what the Internet looks like, graphically.

Computer Networking is really, really important for us in the 21st Century. Regrettably, the basics can be a bit dull, which is why I’m looking to restructure this course to look at interesting problems, which drives the need for comprehensive solutions. In the classroom, we talk about protocols and can experiment with them, but even when we have full labs to practise this, we don’t see the cosmos above, we see the reality below.

Maybe a green light will come on!

Nobody is interested in the compaction issues of mud until they need to build a bridge or a road. That’s actually very sensible because we can’t know everything – even Sherlock Holmes had his blind spots because he had to focus on what he considered to be important. If I give the students good reasons, a grand framing, a grand challenge if you will, then all of the clicking, prodding, thinking and protocol examination suddenly has a purpose. If I get it really right, then I’ll have difficulty getting them out of the classroom on Sunday afternoon.

Fingers crossed!

(Who am I kidding? My fingers have an in-built crossover!)