IBM i > TRENDS > iTALK WITH TUOHY

Char Parker on RPG, PSAI and more

Char Parker
Paul Tuohy:Hi, everybody and welcome to another iTalk with Tuohy. So I think the best way to introduce this is―and my guest today―is that one of the things I hear a lot in my travels is people say "you know, the big problem is nobody is teaching RPG." Well on iTalk before, I know people remember I chatted with Jim―with Jim Buck―and now I am talking with a contemporary of Jim's I suppose I will put it that way, Char Parker. Hello, Char.
Char Parker:Hi, how are you, Paul?
Paul:I'm good thank you. So Char, you are on the faculty with Muskegon Community College in Grand Rapids in Michigan.
Char:It's actually Muskegon, Michigan.
Paul:Oh Muskegon, Michigan. Oh, I'm sorry.
Char:Yeah.
Paul:I thought you were in Grand Rapids.
Char:Yeah, we're on the―
Paul:I'm talking to the wrong Char Parker [laughs].
Char:We're on the coast and we―Grand Rapids is a 45-minute way from us.
Paul:Ah, okay. Okay.
Char:So we do work a lot with Grand Rapids area employers, but we are located in Muskegon.
Paul:Okay. Okay, so Char, before we start talking about the college and about what you do there, do you want to just give us maybe just a brief outline of your background and what you've done?
Char:Sure. I started teaching in 1983 at a local college that at the time was called Muskegon Business College. The first version of RPG that I taught was RPG II in fixed format, and it went forward from there. I worked at that college for 14 years. Along the way, it became what is now known as Baker College, which is actually a big college presence in Michigan. They have several locations. Then in 1998, I left education for a little while to go out into the big scary real world for about four years. That was a lot of fun, but I found myself really wanting to get back to teaching. I saw an opportunity come up at Muskegon Community College, and they were looking for someone specifically at that time with AS/400 skills and so I applied, and I've been teaching at Muskegon Community College since 2002 now.
Paul:Cool. Well Char, we've met in person a couple of times and both times at the Summit, at the RPG and Db2 Summit when you brought some of your students along―so well the first time was a couple of years ago and again just a few weeks ago in Chicago. So can you give us maybe a―well sorry? Before I ask you this, as we were chatting beforehand this really intrigued me, because I was under the impression that your course was sort of a―a and I'm putting this in quotes if you could see my fingers move, I'm doing the quote symbol―like a standard, you know, classroom lecturing in RPG, but it isn't. So you can you tell us a little bit about the course and how it works?
Char:Absolutely. What we have actually is we have four courses on the IBM i and they all are a―they live within a larger degree called software development. The students on the PC side of it, they take C, Java, C#, SQL, PHP, two semesters of HTML and CSS and some JavaScript, and then they take these IBM courses as well. We have a 1-credit primer course where they learn DDS for physical files and logical files, a little bit about the Query for i utility and an introduction to SQL using it as both Data Definition Language, and―just a very brief introduction because they then later take that other SQL course. Then we have another little primer course that's one credit hour and that's about just basically navigating the green screen with CL commands, prompting, learning about scheduling jobs and things of that nature. Then we have two 3-credit hour full-blown courses, two semesters of RPG. And all of the IBM courses that I just mentioned are taught in an online format, and this has allowed me to reach out further than just my traditional student base. I have traditional students who are degree-seeking, and then I have some corporate students that different companies have sought me out and have their students take the courses as a means of professional development and cross training. So the course is offered in an online format. They get all of their materials from a learning management system we used called Black Board. They have readings that they have to do, PowerPoints that they have to go through and a lot of screen casts that I've made to explain the material for the week. They typically have a written style homework and a project that they have to do. I'm using Jim Buck's RPG book, which is approved by the IBM i Academic Initiative. And so the courses are almost 100 percent online, but they do have to take two in-person tests along the way. They take a mid semester test and a final exam test in person. This is a traditional style test with just paper and pencil so that I can ensure that the person that has been showing me their work online is actually the person taking the course.
Paul:So tell me Char. I'm sorry. How would that work then if say I'm in―I don't know―in Texas? I mean do I have to―does that mean I have to come up to Muskegon twice a year to attend in person?
Char:Well you know we have Lake Michigan. It's really beautiful so it would be worth the trip. But no, actually, what they―yeah what we do is we reach out to a local community college in the student's area, and most community colleges these days have a testing center. They proctor tests on behalf of our college―and you know we would return the favor if something should come up for that community college, or sometimes they find just what you would call a testing center, and we work along with those people. We always find a way to make it happen, so that's never really become a big obstacle and I think it's a nice way to find―you know like I said that that's really the person that's been representing themselves online. You know we just want to make sure of that because I'm pretty proud when they do complete. At the end of the second semester of RPG for those that make it all the way through to that point, they are eligible to sit for the common ILE/RPG associate test. I do require my traditional students to take that test, and I invite my corporate students to take that test.
Paul:Cool. So one of the other things you mentioned just in passing there, you touched on it Char and I'd just like to ask is the Academic Initiative. So this is IBM's Academic Initiative? Can you give a little bit about maybe how that works?
Char:Yes, absolutely. When I first came to the college that was one of the first things that I did was get involved with the IBM Academic Initiative. When I first started at the college for several years they had something called the faculty summer school that was right there is Rochester, Minnesota. It was fabulous. We got to go there and IBM would give us a full week of training. You know, the bus would pick us up in the morning and they'd feed us nice food all day long. We would go to workshop after workshop after workshop and get to network with other people teaching the technologies. That was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, after a few years of that they did discontinue that, but right around then I started going to COMMON and that's where I met Darlene Rose from the IBM Academic Initiative in person and got to look more at their repositories of information that they have. We as an IBM i Academic Initiative institution can, for example, provide educational licensed copies to our students of RDI absolutely free of charge. They have to sign an agreement saying that they are going to use it only for educational purposes, but yes, I can get course materials, I can get things like activation kits for RDI, just―there's just a wealth of information out there available through the IBM i Academic Initiative. The books that I'm using for both of those courses―or for all those courses―are also approved by them for use in college settings. They're both Jim Buck's books―well the RPG is Bryan Meyers and Jim Buck―
Paul:Yeah.
Char:The other one was―used to be Jerry Fottral's book that Jim then took and updated along the way.
Paul:Yeah.
Char:That one is called "Mastering the IBM i," so those are the materials that I use.
Paul:Cool.
Char:Yeah so.
Paul:So―so―so if anybody wanted to sign up for this course, all they have to do is go to the Muskegon Community College website and follow the links.
Char:Yes, or they could just email me directly at char.parker@muskegoncc.edu. I have a little checklist that I send out to my corporate students that helps them get enrolled in a way that they don't get targeted for new student orientation―
Paul:Yeah.
Char:And different things that a traditional student would have to do like applying for financial aid and so forth―
Paul:Sure.
Char:Because usually the corporate students are being sponsored by their companies.
Paul:Yeah.
Char:So I have like a little checklist that I've made up to sort of make the red tape part of the process a little smoother and get them registered into the courses.
Paul:And would this be available to people outside the U.S. as well, Char?
Char:It would. In fact, at one point in time I did have someone from Brazil take my old COBOL class that was offered [laughs]. It was COBOL/400 and I actually have had that happen―only the one time. It was interesting, but we still managed to make the testing situation work and so forth―so yeah.
Paul:Yeah excellent. So the other thing then Char―really, I mean I suppose what the crunch of all of this is at the end of it. I mean you know it's great teaching but what is the success―success―well first of all, sorry: Before I ask the success rate, what are the numbers like? I mean if I remember correctly, we aren't exactly talking about, you know, 500 students going through the door every year.
Char:No, we're not. We're a small community college. We have somewhere around 4,500 students all together. About 30 of those are declared software development majors and it's only recently that we've started actually making the RPG courses a requirement of that degree. Previous to about 2013, it was an elective, and unfortunately it wasn't really an elective that students were choosing. So that's when I started to really work hard at getting it in place as a requirement. That took me a little bit longer but I did manage to get it―
Paul:Wow.
Char:Transformed from a 1-semester class to a 2-semester class. And so along the way, I said somewhere around 50-60 students take the first RPG course in whatever form it was at that time. A lot of those do not persist into the second course, although ever since we've had two courses, I've really only had let's see, one, two, three, four, five winter semesters of having that second course―
Paul:Yeah.
Char:Dating back to winter 2014―and I'm not counting my corporate students in this number because again, they're already gainfully employed.
Paul:Sure.
Char:So I've had seven students successfully finish the advanced RPG course since the winter of 2014, which was the first year we offered advanced RPG.
Paul:Yeah.
Char:All seven of them have been hired, many of them before they're even done with the course work―
Paul:Yup.
Char:As either an intern or getting job interviews for example Mitech. I take them to Mitech every summer, which is in Livonia, Michigan, so all seven of them that finished, my traditional students that finished the course are all employed on the IBM i platform. Some of them have then since gone off and branched off into let's say .net or something like that―
Paul:Sure.
Char:But it was the RPG that you know got their foot in the door at least.
Paul:Yeah. So yeah, I mean I remember at the Summit actually just twice hearing people chatting with your students about possible internships with their companies, you know.
Char:Yeah. It's―it's amazing taking these students to conferences. I've been to 16 conferences since I went to―I went to COMMON by myself in the year 2011. I met Laura Ubelhor and Michelle August. We started developing this idea of bringing students to conferences. I've taken them to Mitech and WMCCA and COMMON and of course the RPG and Db2 Summit, which is one of my absolute favorites [laughs]. It really is, because it's so targeted to RPG you know―
Paul:Yeah.
Char:The reception that my students get the professionals in the industry is just amazing. They come away from that conference just so enthused and so invigorated and ready to just really rock and roll with their projects because they see the reality of what is actually going on out in the world instead of just hearing it from me.
Paul:Yeah, well I mean it also works the other way, Char, as well. I mean the influence of having students at a conference, of having young people just wandering around. I don't know. It make old fogies like me feel a bit younger as well [laughs].
Char:Yeah, yeah. It's a very win-win for everybody I think.
Paul:Yeah, well listen continued success with that, Char. I think what you're doing is an excellent job―and by the way having it as part of the full software development curriculum, like a requirement, is some achievement.
Char:Thank you.
Paul:So listen before we go Char, one of the things I think a lot of people who listen to these iTalks regularly will know that a lot of the people I talk to, that―they always talk about cooking as being one of their, you know, the thing they like to do. But you have a neat twist on the cooking thing, I think.
Char:Yes, that's one of my favorite things to do is cook, but my very favorite thing to do is cook with my 4-year-old grandson and my 3-year-old granddaughter. I have a―I'm from the South and so they call me Maw Maw―because that's what we do in the south, it's maw maw and pawpaw. So they come and see Maw Maw and we get out the old southern recipes for things like corn pudding, brown rice, some of the good old southern favorites. We follow the recipe. We measure and learn math. They just love it, and then you know we sit at the table and get to tell everyone that they helped make the meal. They're just so proud and happy. It's just one of my absolute favorite things.
Paul:That's cool because as I was telling you earlier, my grandchildren are now like 2 1/2 and just a couple of months old. You know so maybe I go and learn how to cook so I can do something with my grandkids [laughs]. It's that or bring them to the pub. I mean one or the other, Char.
Char:Yeah, I think cooking might be the better option, Paul.
Paul:Yeah, I think so as well. I mean for many legal purposes.
Char:Right. Right.
Paul:So Char, listen: Thank you for taking the time talking to me and continued success with the courses and that that you are doing. I think it's great, and so keep up the good work.
Char:Thanks so much, Paul. Thanks for talking with me today.
Paul:Okay. Okay everyone, that's it for this iTalk. Tune in again for the next one in a couple of weeks. That's all for now. Bye.

Paul Tuohy has specialized in application development and training on IBM midrange systems for more than 20 years.



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