Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

October, 2005

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Schools and Blogging


    The latest flap around schools and blogs is around a school in New Jersey that has ordered students to remove their blogs from the Internet. (Story here) My own experience with schools and newspapers suggests two things. One is that there is more to this story than is in the press. The other is that overreactions to things students do, and not just on the Internet, is fairly common in schools.

    For the media, their biggest interest is in making mountains out of mole hills. Mole hills do not sell newspapers but mountains do. Though the facts may be similar to what is being reported I would not judge any school by what is in the press. But mainly I want to talk about schools so I will move on.

    Schools in general are almost paranoid about protecting their students. Admittedly they have historically been more attuned to looking for external (to the school) threats than internal but they are very sensitive to all sorts of threats these days. It is a scary time to be charged with protecting children. There are a lot of bad people out there. Schools have to protect students from other students, from parents, for strangers, and even from themselves. Children make bad decisions on a daily basis.

    Schools also try to protect themselves; all organizations do. Schools, especially private schools, live by their reputations. So threats to those reputations are taken seriously. This leads to some over reactions. Just look at how defensive the news media get when they are criticized.

    The case in the news article suggests to me that the school in question was worried about students giving away too much personally identifying information. We all know that predators are out there on the Internet and that they use information they find to target kids. It’s a valid concern. But it also apprears that the school was worried about students making negative comments about the school. Kids will do that. One would like to think that the school would trust other adults to be smart enough about the nature of kids to not worry too much about that. But as I said, when your success depends on your reputation you can get very protective about it.

    A number of years ago one of my students posted a doctored picture of me, my face on another body, and people got very worked up over it. Yes it was insulting and no I wouldn’t want people to think it represented me. But at the same time I understand that kids will be kids. A bigger deal was made over this than I would have liked. This was a case of the school trying to protect me. And while I appreciate that I would have rather we used the "teachable moment" a little differently.

    The same is true with kids and blogging. I wish schools taught more about the Internet. Sometimes, if kids are lucky, there will be a librarian (usually) or other teacher who teaches about how to do a good Internet search and how to evaluate the worth of a site. But that’s usually about as far as we go. No one warns kids about releasing too much information. No one warns them about chat rooms, email scams, IM bullies, or talks to them about proper Internet etiquette.

    Of course this Internet thing is new to teachers. At many schools you are lucky if the teachers can use the Internet for more than email and web browsing. Schools of Education are not teaching this stuff. People have to learn it on their own. When you don’t have enough information overreaction is inevitable. So with kids on the Internet there is a sort of perfect storm: protecting kids, protecting the school, and ignorance. Is it any wonder that schools overreact?

    The answer, as with so many things, is education. Teachers and administrators need to be educated about the Internet. They need to learn what blogs (and other Internet tools) are and how they are used, they need to know how to use the Internet to search and evaluate web sites and they need to learn how to deal with what students are doing on the Internet.

    We only hold students accountable for what is taught. Shouldn’t the same be true for teachers? Now who do we hold accountable to teach the teachers?

    - Alfred Thompson

    Cross posted to my Social Computing blog - Cyberspace People Watcher.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Great Schools


    Last Friday Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, visited the O’Bryant School of Math and Science. I was fortunate enough to be there for the event. Also there was Mayor Menino of the city of Boston. The mayor is running for reelection BTW and I have not opinion on that race being from New Hampshire.

    The occasion was to talk about the donation of over 150 computers to the school from Microsoft as well as to talk about a city-wide program to get students involved in refurbishing computers for use in education.

    The O’Bryant School is one of three entrance exam high schools in the city of Boston. I spent a couple of days there making sure that the computers Microsoft donated were working properly. So I had a chance to observe the place. There are subtle things you can observe in a school if you have been involved in education for a while that tell you things about a school. Are the halls quiet during passing? How about during classes? Do kids flee the building at the end of the day or do you have to just about chase them away? What is the attitude of the teachers towards their students? Do teachers still have smiles on their faces at the end of the day?

    I’ll tell you I was very impressed with the O’Bryant school. From the Headmaster on down the faculty and staff seem to really care about and value the students. The students are quiet and respectful but by no means have their personalities been crushed. These kids are alive. It is always encouraging to visit schools like the O’Bryant school. I’m really glad that Microsoft is partnering with them.

    I should mention that I have also been to the Seacoast School of Technology in Exeter NH and the Greater Lowell Technical High School in Tyngsboro, MA lately. I am proud to serve on industry advisory boards for those two schools. They are also wonderful places that are helping great kids do great things for the future.


    -Alfred Thompson

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Five unsolved problems in computer science


    I've been hearing (reading in blogs and comments actually) that a lot of people think that all the big, important or interesting problems in computer science have been solved. Well the Bill Gates college tour visited Columbia yesterday and the computer science faculty there presented Bill wit h a list of the top five remaining computer science problems. You can read about the whole visit at Kevin Schofield's blog. I think that it is important for students to know that there are important and difficult problems left to solve.

    BTW Bill added a sixth problem - concurrency - to the list the faculty gave him. How do you break up problems so that multiple processors can work on them at the same time. This is a huge problem because we are running into limits on how fast one computer can run. That means that the way to get answers faster is going to mean getting computers to work together. This is something that students may find to be an interesting puzzle to work on.

    - Alfred Thompson


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