Using GitHub Education to Teach Web Development

This past Spring I once again taught an Into to Web Development class at the University of Notre Dame. While the class structure didn’t change too much other than updating for the various changes in web development that occured over the past 1.5 years, the way I had students turn in assignments changed quite a bit.

Last time I taught the class, each student uploaded projects to their university assigned webfile space (a web accessible directory where code can be stored and viewed). While this worked ok, I really wanted to get the students into source control much sooner than last time, which was near the end of the semester.

GitHub Education

GitHub Education is a collection of resources for both instructors and students. The basic requirements for software, book, and services for the class were as follows:

For the instructor

An instructor can apply for an account that can be used to host course material. I signed up for an organization account which allows for a few private repos, and started by setting up two repositories for the class, one was public and contained the basic materials for the course. The second is a private repository containing all of the assignments, code samples, and project files. Each student cloned these repositories to their machines, so whenever I assigned a new project, especially if the project had starter code, they simply had to sync the repo and they’d be up and running.

For the student

Students can apply for a Student Developer Pack which includes a number of useful tools, but most important in this case, five private repos. I contacted my class prior to the start of the semester and had them go through the sign-up process since it can take some time to get approved. Once each student had their GitHub account set up, I had each set up a private repository for the course with a README and a “projects” folder. I also had them add me as a collaborator on the repo. Inside the projects folder is where they would place each of the twenty-two coding projects and the final project they were required to complete over the course of the semester. This setup provided them a way to get used to the concept and workflow of using source control, a private place to store their code, and an easy way for me to download and test their projects.

Syncing student code

When you’re dealing with around twenty private student repositories, finding a way to pull the code quickly and easily was very important. To do this, I used the following Bash command (assigned to an alias) that would loop through each of my students repositories. I cloned all student repos to a single directory, so the script simply has to loop through them.

for dir in ~/capp30370/student-projects/*; do (cd "$dir" && echo $(basename $dir): && git pull); done

I have the script echo the directory name so if there happened to be a conflict of some sort, I would know which student and could address on a case-by-case basis.

I found this workflow to work quite well. Most of the students have since made their class repositories public, some because they want to use the projects as part of a portfolio. I’ve also noticed that several students have created additional repositories for projects in their other classes. I believe that getting the students into source control first thing proved to be quite an advantage for both the students and myself. And for the student who’s hard-drive died half-way through the course, being able to simply clone all of his projects down to his new computer served to highlight the value of distributed source control.