Creating Guided Code Explanations with chat.codes

CSCW 2018

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Effective communication is crucial for programmers of all skill levels. However, communicating about code can be difficult, particularly in asynchronous settings where one user writes an explanation for another user to read and understand later on. Communicating about code is uniquely difficult for two reasons. First, code-related explanations are dichotomous, containing fragments of code and associated natural language descriptions that are not necessarily sequential. Second, instructions’ explanations of code often involve multiple stages of modifying code in steps throughout their explanation, but these intermediate steps are difficult to capture. This paper introduces chat.codes, a new tool for creating guided explanations about code, meant to be consumed asynchronously. chat.codes introduces three features that make it easier to communicate about code. First,it introduces deictic code references, which allow users to reference specific region of code in parts of their explanations. Second, it tracks and summarizes code edits in-line with messages, allowing users to create explanations in stages. Third, it tracks every version of code, enabling future users to back-track to previous version of code to reconstruct the context for code references. An evaluation showed that these features were beneficial for both instructors and students in an introductory programming course.