The Collaborative Software Architecture Course

After four exciting years of Teaching Software Architecture Using GitHub, we decided to write a paper reflecting on the course and our experiences, and submit it to SIGCSE, the flagship conference of the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education, typically attended by more than a thousand educators from around the world.

We’re very happy that our paper was immediately accepted!

In the paper, we identify three challenges in teaching software architecture:

  • C1: The theory of software architecture (design principles, tradeoffs, architectural patterns, product lines, etc) is often very abstract and therefore hard for a student to master.
  • C2: The problems of software architecture are only visible at scale, and disappear once small example systems are used.
  • C3: A software architect needs a combination of technical and social skills: software architecture is about communication between stakeholders, and the architect needs to be able to achieve and explain consensus.

To address these challenges, the paper proposes a collaborative approach to teaching software architecture. In particular, we report how we organized our software architecture course according to the following principles:

  • Embrace open source: Students pick an open source system of choice and study its architecture. Students use it to learn how to apply architectural theories to realistic systems (C1, C2).
  • Embrace collaboration: Students work in teams of four to study one system in depth (C3).
  • Embrace open learning: Teams share all of their work with other students. Furthermore, students share their main result with the open source community: their architectural description is published as a chapter in an online book resulting from the course (C3).
  • Interact with the architects: Students are required to offer contributions (in the form of GitHub pull requests) to the open source projects, which will expose them to feedback from actual integrators and architects of the open source projects (C1, C2, C3).
  • Combine breadth and depth: Students dive deeply in the system they analyze themselves, and learn broadly from the analyses conducted and presented by other teams (C1, C3).

DESOSA 2016 book cover

In 2016 the resulting book (created in markdown and git using gitbook) described the architectures of 21 open source systems, including Ember.js, Karma, Neo4j, and SonicPi. The chapters are based both on existing architectural theories (such as architectural views, product lines, and technical debt), as well as the students’ first hand experiences in making actual contributions (merged pull requests) to the open source systems under study.

SIGCSE Abstract

Teaching software architecture is hard. The topic is abstract and is best understood by experiencing it, which requires proper scale to fully grasp its complexity. Furthermore, students need to practice both technical and social skills to become good software architects. To overcome these teaching challenges, we developed the Collaborative Software Architecture Course. In this course, participants work together to study and document a large, open source software system of their own choice. In the process, all communication is transparent in order to foster an open learning environment, and the end-result is published as an online book to benefit the larger open source community.

We have taught this course during the past four years to classes of 50-100 students each. Our experience suggests that: (1) open source systems can be successfully used to let students gain experience with key software architecture concepts, (2) students are capable of making code contributions to the open source projects, (3) integrators (architects) from open source systems are willing to interact with students about their contributions, (4) working together on a joint book helps teams to look beyond their own work, and study the architectural descriptions produced by the other teams.

Arie van Deursen, Maurício Aniche, Joop Aué, Rogier Slag, Michael de Jong, Alex Nederlof and Eric Bouwers. “A Collaborative Approach to Teaching Software Architecture.” Proceedings of the 48th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE), March 2017, Seattle, USA.

You can download the paper from the TU Delft institutional repository, or have a look at the slides we used at our SIGCSE 2017 presentation.

One thought on “The Collaborative Software Architecture Course

  1. Pingback: Managing Complex Spreadsheets — The Story of PerfectXL | Arie van Deursen

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