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I'm teaching a course that introduces linguistic field methods. We have fewer lectures than a typical 3-credit course, but the students have ‘lab’ sessions eliciting data from speakers, and they're expected to work a lot on their own.

Analyzing the data requires the use of specific linguistics software. The software doesn't teach concepts; it's just helpful for analysis. In the past, some instructors have taken lecture time to introduce this software, but that has always rubbed me the wrong way:

  1. I found such demonstrations tedious to watch as a student, and tedious to teach as an instructor.
  2. Most students seem to be able to figure it out on their own; for the others, there are succinct instructional videos, and there are office hours.
  3. Teaching students how to use software just doesn't feel like university education to me. I would much prefer to talk about bigger picture issues—e.g., database technology or data portability in general, rather than how to use one particular piece of software.

Computer work has always been easy for me, and I recognize that I may underestimate how difficult it is to learn new software. I wonder if anyone has a sense of how much computer competence we can expect of the ‘average’ student.

I am also curious whether my intuition about the content of university education is appropriate. This is a practicum, after all.

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    If you think it's tedious for some students, then you can e.g. give the demo at the end of the lecture session and tell students they can leave early if they believe they can figure it out on their own. – ff524 Jun 27 '16 at 14:57
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    Yes, that's possible. I try to take the time budget seriously, so on the one hand I don't want to ‘waste’ my lecture time (so that I can't cover other topics). On the other hand, I don't want to schedule extra lecture sessions that then become implicitly obligatory. Maybe an optional session would be the way to go, though. – adam.baker Jun 27 '16 at 15:26
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    I have found that incoming undergraduates in the past 3 or so years have almost zero computing skills other than word processing and using simple GUI applications. They typically don't know how to reference a path to a file or even that files reside in a directory structure. Graduate students are a little better, but it varies wildly based on experience. @ff524's demo idea seems good. You may poll and see if there is interest to hold an optional, one-off using software demo class period in addition to the usual lecture. – Paul T. Jun 27 '16 at 15:35
  • Proto-answer: I don't think it's required that you teach the software in class. If in your professional opinion most students can pick it up outside, and you have better things to discuss (and I think you make a compelling case for big-picture concepts), then it's completely reasonable to not spend time in class on it. – Daniel R. Collins Jun 27 '16 at 15:56
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"Modern Approach": I would suggest creating a video demonstrating how to use the software. Free software like CamStudio makes this easy to do. There might even be a video already online.

The video would allow students that need the assistance to view the video outside of class or follow along in class. This puts the freedom in the students hands and would also free up your time to focus on the subject matter. This could save time for future classes as you integrate it into your class structure.

  • Additionally, the creators of the software in question may have prepared orientation/basic training material. One (commercial) example is MATLAB whose free "On Ramp" course is actually quite well designed. – Willie Wong Jun 27 '16 at 16:57
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    Learning things from videos is extremely inefficient and tedious. University students can read. – Ben Crowell Jun 27 '16 at 20:38
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    I would strongly disagree but there is a time and place for everything. It would be even nicer to have both video and text which students could choose from. Stating that videos are inefficient is simply not valid and is personal opinion. – ajputnam Jun 27 '16 at 20:43
  • Stating that the case against videos is "simply not valid" is itself personal opinion. – Daniel R. Collins Jun 28 '16 at 4:34
  • The statement itself may be but its at least factual. Read up on the subject. Like it or not its also the shift. Open course ware from places like MIT and Stanford has been greatly beneficial to students learning. jolt.merlot.org/vol5no3/rose_0909.htm onlinelearninginsights.wordpress.com/2012/07/13/… – ajputnam Jun 28 '16 at 15:24
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Software is a tool for academic practise and research. It implements algorithms and principles that are the foundation of what we do. Whilst the minutiae of any individual software package is usually not relevant for university education, the practical implementation of the underlying principles is.

In this context I'd strongly recommend this paper by Jacobs et al., with this associated blog post and this set of slides.

Done properly, teaching the software can be a very useful way of embedding core skills in a practical fashion. Done badly, it's very easy for students to disengage and copy each other.

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I think it depends on the software in question. Some software has ample resources to learn how to use it. OneNote, EG, can be easily researched and learned via video, text and online lessons and can be incorporated on any device. I simply presume that the notebooks and course information I distribute in OneNote will be consumed. In the 5 years I've used it as my primary distribution solution, I have had exactly 1 student that needed handholding on the use of the system. Telling a student to use Revolution R Open (now Microsoft R Open - statistical analysis software) and presuming they will just figure it out is an unreasonable demand. The idea that a student has infinite time to learn my selected tools strikes me as disrespectful of their investment in my field.

If I thought that the specialized software was something all students would have used in the past, I would still record a video or provide notes for how to use the software in my labs (in general) so that a neophyte would not have to take too much of their time to learn my selected tool. I would not at all rely on the supplied documentation, particularly in specialized or complex software. A rule of thumb is that the likelihood of documentation being useful to the average human is inversely proportional to the factors of the complexity of the software, multiplied by the specialization of said software, (and often multiplied by the price of the software). As an example review the Linux/Unix man page for awk.

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Teaching students how to use software just doesn't feel like university education to me.

Exactly. Point your students to the documentation and tell them to read it on their own time. Or if the documentation is not very good or covers too many things that they don't need to know, write up a brief how-to/FAQ and post it on the class's web page.

  • I could not disagree more. Very few software vendors and even less open source solutions have comprehensive and or easy to understand documentation – Jim B Jun 27 '16 at 20:58
  • Mate, I've used linguistics field work tools before and even fifteen minutes of instruction is more useful than "RTFM" – Azor Ahai Jul 1 '16 at 6:13

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