Teaching in Hong Kong, Reflections

I used to wait for a while before writing my reflections, to give myself time to sort the information and think about things. These days, one amazing thing finishes and then another starts. I’ve had a lot less free time than I thought I would on this course and I have about a day of downtime before starting work again on Monday (I fly back this afternoon) and then I’m off again on another project a week from then. So I’ll try and capture my thoughts now, although I always hope to come back and adjust them later as I think. (I actually have a maxim when I’m travelling to “do it while I’m there” because I’ve discovered that, too often, the way back takes you on a different path, so I may never revisit this but, knowing this, I’ll try to put in as much as I can.)

In talking to the students, and in seeing their marks, this has been a success but, like all pathfinders, the problem now is marking the trail so that other people can find it. How do we do this again? How do we it better? Well, we’re already talking about setting up the administration earlier to get some things going that we wanted the first time around and I’ve got a list of suggestions from the students as to what they think could be better.

But this was a strong validation of guided study groups, blended learning, flipping, collaborative work and giving students some freedom. This also justified putting the effort into industry visits and sharing what we do in our school with our students. This has been an excellent educational experience, with emphasis on both parts of that. The community has made it work, because the students commented that they’d never spent so much time digging into references to understand what was going on, and that discussion was an important part of that. However, their physical proximity allowed them to do it face-to-face, rather than on a forum.

That’s an interesting point – if you look at our electronic footprint, you’d think the course was a failure. Instead, because we spent at least 3-4 hours together every day, issues were resolved quickly and only broadcast when they had to be. You’d be right in assuming that that can be a little wearing on the instructor, because you’re always on, but that’s why I’m here.

The next trick is going to be getting this to work for less crazy instructors – in the last couple of days, I’ve been really tired, because the constant “on” (while doing my normal job back home in the cracks) is not what I’m used to and I don’t have my usual home comforts to settle back in to, in order to unwind. Not a big complaint, as I’ve been very comfortable, but a lot of people would find it hard to leave their families for three weeks, let alone act as mentor, guide and teacher to 10 people across that time. Having said that, the students have been great and I’ve worried more about them as a general principle than I’ve had to deal with as a reaction to problems. But it is still wearing.

Probably, the most important thing to do next time is to go ahead with the pan of integrating local students as well, to maximise the mix. Travel broadens the mind, because the longer you spend in other cultures, the more of your own you can start to see without your own biases. We’ve done very well in exposing students to different areas of HK and Macua, in seeing other communities and industries, and in meeting people – but this would be so much better if they worked side-by-side with students from CUHK. Apart from a learning experience, we could be building working and friendship relationships measured in decades rather than a trip measured in weeks.

In summary, it went well and we managed to combine engaging learning with effective learning – so I’m very happy to call this a successful start, already.

If you’ve been following the course, thanks for reading, and I’m always happy to answer questions in the comments! Ciao!

Take us out, Bruce!

EMBRACE YOUR AWESOMENESS! Don't make me come over and sing "Blinded by the Light!"

EMBRACE YOUR AWESOMENESS! Don’t make me come over and sing “Blinded by the Light!”

Teaching in Hong Kong, Day 15 (Final Day)

The final day started a little late as we didn’t have as much to do. At 10am we kicked off with a quick end-of-course note from me, thanking the students for their enthusiasm and their participation, and their willingness to go along with the whole scheme. They, in turn, presented me with a very large book about cats (a running theme in the course and my own family contains three cats – where, by contains, I of course mean exists for the service of) which they had all inscribed. It was a delightful way to start the day!

Shally and Louis from the OAL came along and we presented them with gifts to thank them for all of their help and support during the last three weeks: Australian wine and excellent chocolate, in case you’re wondering. They, in turn, presented us with lemon cake, a CUHK dessert speciality, which is a sort of lemony.. frozen.. corn flakey… iced? treat that is deliciously indescribable! Thank you again to everyone at CUHK: Shally, Louis, Phoebe, Daniel and Cora, for all of your help while we’ve been here!

Seconds (and thirds) are had.

Seconds (and thirds) are had.

After a very pleasant 30 minutes, we got back to the final on-campus business, the quiz and the short-answer exam. With that concluded, I was able to inform the students to check their marks to look at their progress and some students will notice that they already have enough raw marks to pass – although they won’t stop now!

That concluded the course, except for a vegetarian dinner at a Buddhist “mock meat” restaurant in Hung Hom, arranged by David, our Alumni Ambassador for Hong Kong and China. The meal was astounding and we got take a double decker bus ride through Hung Hom from the MTR to get there – adding another experience into the mix! Here are some of the photos and dishes from the meal:

All of this is vegetarian but you can't tell from the taste or the texture.

All of this is vegetarian but you can’t tell from the taste or the texture.

Here are two pictures with David serving from the (ample) banquet and the students enjoying themselves:

photo 2 photo 3

(The very small student is David’s daughter – Ashley.) Those of you with sharp eyes might recognise the fruit on the table as Durian – the King of Fruits and the fruit with one of the most amazing reputations. David went out specially to go and get two beautiful durians for the students to try something new (Kelvin and I needed no convincing as we are both strongly committed to the durian) and most people were very pleasantly surprised that the smell wasn’t as bad as they’d heard and that the taste was very much worth pursuing It is, however, amazingly rich, there’s a lot of the avocado richness concealed in the ultra-mango and (being honest) spring onion flavours of the durian.

Here’s the final picture of the course, standing proud in front of the defeated durian. We came to Hong Kong to learn, to experience and to have a lot of fun. And we did all three. Thank you, Hong Kong!

Thumbs up and mug for the camera!

Thumbs up and mug for the camera!


Teaching in Hong Kong, Day 14

Thursday the 24th was a very straightforward day as we were bringing most of the coursework to a close and moving into the evaluation phase – not just for the students but for the course itself. We started with a tutorial on security, where we went through a range of issues and looked into the most commonly occurring problems, as recorded by the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) webpage. A lot of the problems we get are caused by:

  • Programmers not checking what users type into their programs.
  • Programmers not properly limiting what programs send to each other.
  • “Back door” exploits where hard-coded usernames and passwords are left in.

We had a chance to discuss white hat and black hat hacking – patching a bug will get you a small cheque and a shout out, reporting an exploit to a criminal syndicate can make you rich. (And hunted or dead, for that matter.) It’s an interesting area – ethically and academically.

I’d asked the students, on Tuesday, to pick an area of security to talk about for 5-10 minutes and this proved to be a really interesting activity, taking longer than the hour I’d allotted for it. Topics included the Stuxnet Worm, and you can imagine we got a lot of interesting discussion out of this one, mobile device problems, the RTM Work from 1988, Botnets, Cross-site scripting issues, and the Heartbleed bug. (Compulsory XKCD comic here.)

XKCD 1354 – Heartbleed explained concisely and accurately.

I like asking the students to go out and find things because, by presenting it to each other, we get infectious enthusiasm and we have people applying their knowledge to reinforce what we’ve learned in class.

Then, for the final hour, we sat down and discussed the course itself. The students are still free to put in anonymous reports on things they don’t feel comfortable discussing with me, but I wanted to get a feel for what we should be improving. Overall, the course has been a great success and, teaching-wise, it’s gone pretty well. We have to smooth out some administration issues on our side but we already knew that and we’re starting the planning process for the next time in the next week.

It’s really great for me to get a sense that the students both enjoyed the course and learned from the course. As we always say, engaging isn’t always effective, but in this case it appears that it has been and, so far, the results I’ve seen reflect that we’ve achieved a great deal in a short time.

Only one day left, which is mostly a final talk from me, some “thank you”s and a dinner. Then we all start our flights home.

Only two more updates for this trip to come – the final Friday and my overall reflections. Hang in there, I’m nearly done!

Teaching in Hong Kong, Day 12

After another busy Monday, we had a discussion of all of the material that had featured in the podcasts and the podcasts themselves. It was quite obvious that the students had picked up the concepts involved and had a good working and application-level understanding of what was going on. (It turned out later that the students had in fact formed a study group for some of the podcast material, watching as a group for discussion. Nice to see that can happen without prompting!) This Tuesday was an important day because it was the last day of formal ‘coursework’ in the sense of new material being discussed in the course.

We covered network security, which is one of my many areas of interest, and went through all of the many ways that horrible things can happen to nice people. I had original wanted to extend this part of the course beyond the base course content but it had quickly become apparent that jamming more into this course wasn’t going to help anyone so I covered some of the material but not in as great a depth.

A vast amount of the stuff that we cover in security is actually really well summarised at XKCD, here’s an example:

XKCD 936 – It’s ok to stop using NVdisdf&Y3 as your password.

The end of the day was a briefing session, as we were off to Macau the next day for, well, getting a sense of the culture around here and seeing how another SAR functions in its new relationship with China. I also reminded the students that passports were required and, armed with excellent local knowledge from Louis Wong at the OAL, we prepared for a Macanese adventure.