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I'm teaching a programming course with ~20 students, guiding them through coding assignments and helping them understand what they are doing, and why it works or doesn't. Tasks expected of them range from trivial to medium-complexity in the range of a 40-hours curriculum.

Now, toward the end of the course, they know enough to solve moderate programming problems. In order to get them to work on a few things more "exciting" than what we offer them, I am considering asking them to join an online coding (or problem-solving-through-coding) competition, such as Project Euler. I wouldn't expect them to be able to solve all problems, of course, but I could select a list of problems for them to pick from. For example:

For this session, you are expected to solve between 5 and 10 problems from the following selection of Project Euler numbers: 1-10, 13, 15, 20-24, 26-29, 33, 35-38.

Sure, I could just copy these problems and make them "assignments" for them, but I think it could bring some fun for them to see it as part of a competition. Also, why I don't understand why, it seems that to their generation, doing anything online is vastly more exciting than doing the same thing otherwise. Finally, I have some hope that a few students might actually get into it, and continue doing it for fun after the course.

Now, comes the question: what downsides do you see to requiring them to participate in one of these online challenges? (I'm most interested in the specific case I detail above, but generic advice/answers for other types of online participation might be interesting too!)

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Possibly related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/5076/… in that the question mentions using challenges in teaching, but then asks about research –  StrongBad Jan 31 '13 at 10:11
    
You really want to answer my question about why "students would want to cheat themselves on Proj. Euler", don't you? :-) –  Willie Wong Jan 31 '13 at 16:25
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@WillieWong In fact, I wouldn't consider “looking for hints online” cheating. After all, it's pretty easy to recognize when I will interrogate them: “cool, you thought about using <unusual number theory theorem you have no reason to know>… I’m wondering how you would apply it if the question was changed thusly…” (watch student become livid) –  F'x Jan 31 '13 at 16:32
    
Why not set up your own on-line challenge? I do that all the time with my course in Thermodynamics (I understand it isn't coding). But I set up an online challenge through the use of modules in an LMS like canvas/instructure. Only after they get one module correct can they scale the ladder to the next. This also counts towards grades (10-15% of final grade). –  drN Feb 1 '13 at 12:27
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up vote 5 down vote accepted

This sounds like a great idea to me overall, but I can see a few potential issues:

  1. It's possible that one or more of your students might already be a participant, which could raise issues of fairness. (Other students may complain that he/she got a head start.)

  2. Similarly, the fact that these problems are widely distributed on the web may make it easier to find solutions online. I haven't looked at the Project Euler solutions online and don't know if they are any good, but it's not hard to find purported solutions. This could also be a pain for you: if you make it easy to cheat, then you're more likely to have to figure out how to deal with cheaters.

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I don't see that #1 is an actual problem; one can raise the same issue about any assignment. Some students had good high school calculus teachers; others didn't. Some students have read Martin Gardner; others haven't. Some students read StackExchange; others don't. Some students have been on job interviews; others haven't. It's a fact of life that some students do have a head start. –  JeffE Jan 31 '13 at 16:55
    
@JeffE: Sure, life is never fair, but it's awkward if one student has already completed an assignment before the other students were even notified of it. That could happen here if one of the students was already participating in Project Euler. I wouldn't cancel the whole thing because of that, but it's worth keeping in mind that students may be upset over it. –  Anonymous Mathematician Jan 31 '13 at 17:48
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One potential problem, if you're within the US, is running afoul of your University's interpretation of FERPA. My university forbids me from requiring students to participate in an publicly-accessible forum using their real name or university email address, because the fact that someone is a registered student is considered a protected educational record.

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Thanks for the advice… my country hasn't yet reached the standards of US craziness, but we might get there one day (certain people are certainly trying hard!). I think I would never have asked said students to use their real names and email address… but then, you may have already perceived hints that I like pseudonyms :) –  F'x Jan 31 '13 at 17:16
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I'm doing my entire Bachelor course by distance (online) from an interstate university in Australia, when I live in antother state. To check that we've done all the related online module readings, etc, for most subjects we have 10-20 marks of the total marks for the subject set out for forum participation. You could allocate a small percentage of marks for this which would hopefully give your students the incentive to do this online task.

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