In the world of computer programming, “It’s more important to have a GitHub page than it is to have Facebook or Twitter,” says Adam Tindale, a professor at OCAD University.
GitHub is an online network that allows people to share code. Over five-million programmers, and aspiring ones, use the site to show their work and learn and borrow from one another to build the best tools possible. Before the San Francisco-based company launched in 2008, there wasn’t much of a network that fostered coding collaboration in an open environment, says Dr. Tindale.
The structure is two-fold: GitHub itself, which produces the social tools, and Git, the engine that handles the mechanics of borrowing and adapting, or in other words, “forking” code.
GitHub is free to use if you’re publishing code that everyone can see (called “public-facing”). It is is now being used in university programs that require students to learn code, including computer science, information technology and interactive design. A spokesperson for GitHub declined to share Canadian statistics, so it’s unclear how widespread the use of GitHub is at Canadian universities.
A student struggling with a problem used to send their professor a file by email, with exchanges going back and forth to identify the problem and help the student. Now a professor can look at the student’s work on GitHub and discover the problem in minutes.
Dr. Tindale, who teaches introductory computer science, uses GitHub at the beginning of term as a way to demystify coding and show it in a people-oriented environment. Then, as the weeks go by, it becomes more of a resource for students when completing coursework.
He also uses it to connect students with professional programmers. Students work with an existing tool on GitHub and then he invites the person who developed it to speak to the class.
The tool does require a certain level of expertise in coding before you get extensive value out of using it, Dr. Tindale says.
Colin Clark, a master’s candidate at OCAD, sees its value on a regular basis working as an architect on the Fluid Project, an open-source initiative at the university’s inclusive design research centre. A stranger from Germany once helped contribute to a project of Mr. Clark’s on GitHub. “It’s such an important part of applied research,” he says. “We create communities we want to sustain.”
Dzenan Ridjanovic, a professor at Université Laval, says many professors are still hesitant to use a public-facing platform, for fear of plagiarism. Dr. Ridjanovic says students have to show their work history on GitHub, which makes it easy to see if they understand what they’re doing but also makes it easy for others to copy their work. Both he and Dr. Tindale say they haven’t had many incidents.
For his part, Dr. Ridjanovic has stopped lecturing on theory, opting instead to explain the essentials and letting students learn through coding. When they run into a problem, he works with them in real-time on GitHub. “For me it’s a no brainer,” Dr. Ridjanovic says. “It’s such a great tool and I’m so happy it exists.”