Today I gave a tutorial at PyCon 2014 entitled Search 101: An Introduction to Information Retrieval.

It was an experiment of sorts: the first workshop I've run primarily by myself, my first tutorial at PyCon, my first paid teaching gig. It was an opportunity to take some of the lessons I learned from teaching the Boston Python Workshop and apply them to a new situation.

The material itself is a distillation of many hours of frustration with the documentation for various open source search engine libraries, frustration that they didn't tell me where to start or about the big picture, they just jumped straight into the details.

Here's what worked:

  • IPython Notebook. Oh em gee. I started writing the class's handout using IPython Notebook because it was a simple way to easily embed syntax-highlighted code into a markdown document that was viewable in a browser. Not only was it a super quick and fun way to write the handout, but many students used the interactive execution features to play around with the example code.
  • Not having a paper handout. Saved trees, printing hassle, and no one seemed to mind.
  • Putting everything in a git repo... git is sufficiently ubiquitous these days that students didn't really have trouble getting a copy, and appreciated having everything in one place, with simple setup instructions. I brought a clone of the repo on a USB stick as a backup plan.

Here's what caused problems:

  • Mostly, the IPython dependency pyzmq, which requires compilation. I don't know what the current landscape is for Python distribution, but installing these libraries through pip is still a pain. I've heard rumour that more ubiquitous wheels may solve this in the future.
  • Some people aren't used to using virtualenv everywhere. Even seeing that, I still think it's worth the confusion to put it forth as the recommended setup method.

Intermediate students are a different crowd than beginners. There was less of an air of discovery in the room, though I organized the class around open-ended tasks. Since the material allowed for folks to take it in the direction of their interest, I found it a bit difficult to gauge whether people were following or not. Overall though, everyone was attentive and studious. I had fun.

Ruben and Stuart, the PyCon tutorial organizers, had logistics running super smoothly, AV, lunch, everything. Thanks for that you guys, you rock. :) And thanks as well to my helpers: Leo, the tutorial host, Eben, my TA, and Roberto, on AV. It's impossible to pay adequate attention to 20+ people as a single person, couldn't have done a decent job without y'all. ;)

If installation is an issue you might want to look at using Conda (or miniConda) to do your install. Helps a lot, IMHO
Comment by Steve Thu Apr 10 16:01:08 2014