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>> Tutorials at linux.conf.au

Tue, Feb 3rd 10:07am 2009: Linux

This is the second year I've had the opportunity to present a tutorial at linux.conf.au, and I must admit that I still don't really know how to do it properly. This year I had the great pleasure to be jointly presenting with Hugh Blemings and that certainly took a lot of pressure off me: I have a huge amount of respect for Hugh and knew that I could rely on him to go above and beyond, which of course he did. Doing the tag-team thing worked out fairly well I thought. But I still haven't figured out how to present a useful tutorial in the context of LCA. Other talks in the conference are typical presentations: one person standing up the front sharing their knowledge with the audience. They interact with the audience, of course, but it's still an audience, not participants. With a tutorial it's meant to be more hands-on: participants rather than an audience. In theory. In practice, there are always far more people in the room than expected and with extremely varying interests and levels of knowledge. My "Real World / Second Life Integration" tute at LCA2008 was meant to be participatory, but it ended up being standing-room-only and totally impractical to actually work through projects with participants, so it devolved into a 2.5 hour presentation full of live demonstrations. That was fun and I heard that a lot of people enjoyed it, but it still doesn't satisfy my criteria for a tutorial. People got to see but not try. That sucks. When Hugh and I were doing our initial planning for the Arduino tute this year we briefly commented in passing that we'd probably have 20-ish people in the room, and our expectation was that they'd all have hardware kits to play with. Then when we saw we'd been scheduled in the big auditorium I started worrying because I thought we could end up with the same situation as last year: a roomful of people that we can't possibly get around to individually. In the end we had a bit of a balance. It was a reasonably full room, but we took it at a slow pace and mixed in demonstrations and little hands-on experiments with prepared code. In the room we had people who had never even seen an Arduino before that day and came along expecting to just watch, and we had people who have designed their own Arduino variants and built custom hardware. Andy Gelme even brought more hardware to the tute than Hugh and I combined! Catering to both ends of the scale was, frankly, impossible. I heard one suggestion that what would have been useful is a session where everyone sits down with soldering irons and assembles their own Arduino (or Boarduino, or whatever) kit from scratch. For people with no soldering experience that would have taken the entire 1:50 tutorial timeslot though, and would have been a logistical nightmare (I don't have that many soldering irons to lend out!). A great idea for a different context though. So where does that leave tutorials at LCA? I don't know. My personal experience has been that it's very hard to deliver a traditional "tutorial" in the context of a conference (I've done tutes at OSCON and OSDC as well, and had similar difficulties) but the opportunity for conference attendees to get personal assistance is too good to pass up, so I definitely don't think they should be scrapped from the program. Perhaps they just need more oversight and control from the conference organisers such as putting hard number limits on tutes and requiring people to pre-register to attend them rather than throwing the doors open to everyone. Both Rusty and AfC are veteran LCA tute leaders (and they both make my "best conference presenters of all time" list) but I think even they struggle with the question of how to best run a tutorial within the structure of LCA. Their tutes are always very popular but I don't think the average attendee realises the difficult balancing act that they must perform in order to deliver something meaningful on the day. It really is a tough act to pull off, and I tip my hat to them. As for me, I'm still trying to figure it out.

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