Additional profile information on Alfred Thompson at Google+
I spend a lot of my time thinking about high school (and younger) students who are doing software development of one sort or another. Being one of those people who tend to think in terms of groups I group those students several ways. One way is to differentiate between those students whose “development” experience is largely limited to what they learn in class. The other group is the real enthusiasts who are learning as much, and often more, outside the class as inside the class. In my role at Microsoft I look for ways to help both groups learn more about how to “do development” using Microsoft products. Microsoft does after all pay my salary. Honestly though I look to do that in ways that I think teach broader skills and hopefully give students a good base of knowledge that will serve them well thought their life time.
The students who just learn what they learn in class are fairly easy to help in some respects. Those are the students who are helped most by helping their teachers. Those are the students and their teachers that we create curriculum for, create and manage some contests for, and for whom we provide or support teacher training opportunities. We’re always looking for ways to do that better as well. The trick here is really to find ways to make the classroom more interesting, more relevant and above all more educational.
The student who is doing most of his learning (and it is unfortunately mostly boys) outside the class is a bit harder to reach. These are the self directed students who tend to go in all sorts of directions. These students fit into a class that we more generally refer to as hobbyists. The difference between the high school hobbyist and the older hobbyist is that they tend not to have the budget for books and hosting solutions to say nothing of the latest and greatest hardware. And yet they (students) often do some of the most interesting things. For them we have sites like Coding 4 Fun though. And I think that a lot of students are going to be interested in trying out the Microsoft Robotics Studio software – especially as more sample software becomes available with more hardware partners. But there is more we can do I think. I’m open to hearing (reading?) suggestions as to what we should be doing for these students. Is it more tutorials, special online forums, or is it perhaps contests to give students something specific to work towards? Or something else completely? I’m open to suggestions for parents, teachers, and of course from students. Please feel free to drop your ideas here as comments or use the connection form to email them to me. Thanks!
Oh and I hope it goes without saying that I’m particularly interested in hearing what sort of help we can provide to young women who are interested in computers. They are all too often overlooked when boys get pushy and start grabbing all the attention.
Nicholas Negroponte gave the opening keynote at NECC this morning and talked about his One Laptop Per Child project. You’ve probably read about this ambitious plan to develop a $100 laptop that will be sold by the 10s of millions in the developing world to put a laptop in the hands of every student. It’s a very exciting and appealing idea.
I was hoping to here my greatest concerns addressed but they were not. My greatest concern is about software (other than the operating system) and curriculum. Teacher training is also a concern. Those issues were pretty much addressed by suggesting “kids will figure it all out.” I am reminded of the old cartoon where a manager is showing of a project plan drawn on a white board. After a complex flow chart the diagram ends with a circle labeled “and here a miracle occurs.” How the computers will actually be used and how they will actually improve learning is my biggest concern and yet it an issue no one seems to be holding Mr. Negroponte’s feet to the fire on.
I do like some of the ideas that are going into the project. I like the low power requirements, the simplified keyboard, and the built in networking. It will be interesting to see if they can get the mesh networking working reliably because that is also a pretty cool idea. I like the idea of a slimmed down operating system. If I had the time and money and skills that would be something I would love to work on myself. Alas I lack all three. While I have been part of an OS development team my areas of expertise do not include the more important parts of an OS.
The simplified operating system is clearly a necessity for this project. I wish that they hadn’t chosen to go with Linux not because it is open source but because I think it has an amazingly poorly designed user interface that is unnecessarily complex. But I suppose they had little choice unless they wanted to build something from scratch. I think that Mr. Negroponte quite unfairly criticizes Windows for not fitting his needs out of the box. It is a bit like criticizing a sailboat because you can’t water ski behind it. Windows was designed for something other than what he wants to do with it. Frankly you don’t often hear people yelling “make Windows less user friendly and take away most of the features.” Well you hear some of that from competitors who think that it is ok for Apple to put features into their OS but not OK for Microsoft to put the same features (web browser, media player to name two) in their operating system. But I digress. I must confess that Mr. Negroponte’s attitude towards people who want to make sure the emperor really is wearing clothing turned me off quite a bit.
It will be interesting to see what does happen with this intuitive. The results of laptops for everyone in the US have been mixed. Some people find that they have worked well others poorly. The difference seems to be that the programs that work start with teacher training, a clear idea of what goals will be accomplished in what classes using what software, and a lot of curriculum thinking around the idea. The programs that doesn’t work involved handing every kid a laptop and expecting teachers and students to create miracles. The latter sounds a lot like this project.
The pessimist in me also worries that the virus programmers of the world will find 100 million identical networked laptops an irresistible target. There are people who believe that Linux is totally secure from viruses. I suspect those people may also believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
It’s not that I wish to see the project fail. The opposite is true. I just worry that they are working on the easy problems and forgetting about the hard ones.
BTW the k12Converge Blog has some questions about the $100 computer program as well. A few interesting ones I haven’t yet thought about. But then there is a whole lot to think about with this project including how it might impact the whole Internet and computer culture of the world. Projects that make people think are sometimes worth it for just that.
By the way, these are my personal opinions. I have no idea what the Microsoft official position on this project is and I certainly wouldn’t get to articulate it on behalf of the company even if I did.
Tags: NECC2006 necc necc06
I found this essay by Marie Klawe on her being an artist and a computer scientist thanks to the Wicked Teacher of the West (who is not very wicked in real life.) Maria Klawe is transitioning from being the Dean of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University to being the President of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. Harvey Mudd is a very serious computer science school and if you don’t know of it you may want to look into it.
The essay is a good one and it points out how someone can be a computer person and still have other interests. Too many kids seem to think that computer science people are only interested in computers. They think that either they will have to give up other interests or that they will not be working with other people with diverse interests. That doesn’t’ go over very well with most people. They want to have multiple interests.
The good news is that of course computer scientists have multiple interests. I know computer scientists who are into boating (including doing most of the wood work on a large sailboat), some who are interested in sports (I’m talking things like playing hockey BTW which seems to be very popular among some computer people), and others who are into food. I know CS people who not only like to eat but like to cook and even who write about cooking and food. I could of course go on.
I think that one thing teachers can do is to let students know that they have outside interests besides whatever it is that they teach. This goes beyond computer science of course. I think that students benefit from knowing that their teachers have lives outside of school and other interests.