During the Fall of 2013 I enrolled in Communication Protocols and Internet Architectures (CSCI E-40) taught by Leonard Evenchik at the Harvard Extension School. I experienced numerous minor issues with the course, ran into the rigid bureaucracy of the Harvard Extension School and discovered several flaws with how the course was taught. Although these flaws heavily outweighed the positive qualities of the course, I believe a great deal can be learned about teaching from the experience.

By far the course’s greatest asset was Leonard Evenchik’s experience with the design of long-established networking protocols and his continued experience as a networking consultant. In class he explained that he participated in the design of a networking protocol in Cambridge. And as a consultant he faces networking problems on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, CSCI E-40 students are not directly presented with these networking problems, nor is his experience designing protocols used to engage the students. Instead his valuable experience is used primarily for anecdotes, which are sprinkled throughout the course. This loss of a great opportunity is only one of numerous flaws with the course.

Class overview

The approach taken in teaching the course was flawed because it failed to provide adequate reference material, contextualize and segment detailed resources, and engage students by providing them with numerous and diverse problems and then encouraging them to answer them individually before providing them with a solution.

The reference material developed for the class consisted of slides. There are numerous inherent issues caused by using slides.1 Those issues were personified by the fact that individual slides from previous lectures would be copied into the slides of later lectures, which ruined one of the few positive qualities of slides, their continuous narrative.

“I need someone well versed in the art of torture—do you know PowerPoint?”

The presentation of resources similarly failed to contextualize the information they contained. Rather than segment the detailed information provided by primary sources, the resources would be simply listed in a weekly reading list. Evenchick assigned students to read chapters of Computer Networks: A System Approach, 5th Edition by Larry L. Peterson and Bruce S. Davie. Although the text was comprehensive and well written, the book was not integrated into the course. As a result any other reference material could have been easily substituted. In fact, I often found myself reading the new edition of TCP/IP Illustrated by W. Richard Stevens and updated by Kevin R. Fall.

Instead of engaging students with numerous and diverse problems both inside and outside of the classroom, students were only presented with a total of 33 homework problems and rarely, if ever, engaged in the classroom.

Students were not challenged during class. Lengthy explanations of intuitive concepts were common. For example, the prioritization of VOIP packets in routers was explained using a highway express lane as an analogy. This is completely unnecessary since the simple phrase, “VOIP packets are prioritized by routers” is sufficiently clear when accompanied with a brief high-level explanation.

In addition to his poor use of analogies, Evenchik often made brief pauses and corrections when explaining material. This was caused by a lack of structure in the lectures. He was dependent on his memory to explain topics rather than a detailed reference. Trying to explain material from memory is a task more appropriate for students than instructors. This led to jerky or uneven explanations that were difficult to follow.

The lack of a challenging classroom environment was evidenced by one of my teaching pet peeves. When Evenchik would pause for questions none of the students (both in class and online) would respond. When this happens consistently it is likely an indication that the listeners are either so lost they cannot formulate a question or feel comfortable with what is being presented. In this case I believe it was the later and the frequency with which this happened indicated that lectures were neither engaging nor challenging.

Homework assignments were always prefixed with the precondition that the questions may require outside research. Problems should be diverse in that they require short specific solutions and broad solutions with numerous examples. Problems presented during exams should have already been presented to students in the context of homework. Asking a student to make a conceptual leap during an exam contradicts the goal of education.

Minor issues

I came across numerous issues during the class that were small enough not to warrant a detailed discussion, but significant enough to at least mention.