Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Subversion in the classroom

Ok, not subversion, rather subversion, the version control system.

I've used subversion as a way for students to hand in their projects for years. I haven't used it with my intro classes as I think the learning curve is a little steep and the benefits few, but for A.P. and beyond (juniors and seniors) it's worked very well as a method of collection and I think it's good to get the kids in the habit of using versioning systems.

A versioning, or revision control system let's an individual frequently save versions of their files, in our case, on a central server.  One can easily go back to earlier versions as well as manage changes made by multiple developers. Once one's in the habit of using a revision control system, it can greatly improve  productivity.

For my classes, I would create a repository for a project, give the kids a little version control primer, and they would create projects in the repository.

There are usually a few bumps in the road.

At first the kids go kicking and screaming. They create the repository, and neglect it until the last minutes. I'd wake up on a project due date, check out the repository and seem maybe 4 out of 60 projects only to see them mystically appear as the closing time approached.

As we move through the year and work on more projects, things get better.

Students start to update their projects more frequently. Not as frequently as I like, partly because SVN gets really slow on our system, but it's still an improvement.  Invariably, it saves a student or two when they accidentally delete all their files. Also, when things become  a real mess, being able to go back a few versions is a godsend. A much better alternative than what they had to do in the past, which was restarting the entire project.

What I find really interesting is how wonderful a tool svn is from my point of view as an educator.

By looking at the log files, I can see who made changes and when. By looking at the diffs, I can look at the projects progress much as an english teacher might look at drafts.

 Version control for projects turns out to be a win across the board.

Recently, I've been using SVN for homeworks as well. Homework collection has always been difficult for me as I'm disorganized and forgetful. SVN has made things much easier. At the start of the semester, I made a homework repository for each student. They then check it out at home.

Whenever a student does a homework, he or she just names it according to our conventions (HW1-name, HW2-name, etc.), put it in their checked out repository, add the file(s) and commits. With tortoiseSVN under windows it's trivial.

This lets me easily see all of the homeworks for a student as well as all submissions for a specific assignment. Again it's an overall win.

Next semester I'm going to be experimenting with GIT as a replacement for SVN.

If you're looking for a way to collect and track assignments, I'd highly recommend using a revision control system.

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