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

October, 2006

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Thinking about the future of computer applications


    One of the great points of discussion these days is the movement of applications to the web. Some are suggesting that there will become a time when the web browser is the new operating system. Om Malik talks about this at CNN Money. The idea is that web browsers would be the platform that applications are built for. The underlying operating system between the web browser and the hardware would become irrelevant. Data would be stored somewhere on "the Internet cloud." This would allow all sorts of wonderful things like access to applications and data everywhere and on any device.

    It's an intriguing idea but I'm not sure I buy it as the future. Don Dodge comments on some of the issues.

    The problems with web based applications have been; reliable Internet connections, fast bandwidth, and off-line operation. How many demos have you seen fail because the Internet connection went down, or the bandwidth was so slow it was painful to watch? It is getting better, but off-line use remains a problem.

    He also talks about how he sees the future. The computer industry is moving towards web services. The problem of offline usage is still an open one but we're moving towards solving it. Other issues of particular interest to enterprise users ("data security, advertising distractions, and quality of service") are also being worked on. These are all very interesting topics for discussion.

    An other topic of discussion is the idea of what this new model does to companies that rely on proprietary formats. Om Malik says:

    If you're a developer or startup, you are suddenly free to write a browser-based application and quit worrying about which operating system, chip, or device your consumers are using.

    It's a scary thought for anyone who built a business around proprietary formats. But for the end user, this is the kind of future that Andreessen on his best days - and maybe Gates on his worst - had envisioned.

    This is an idea I have to think about. Off the top of my head I don't see web services and web applications as being incompatible with proprietary formats. Writing a web application that can be used by all web browsers would have to use some standard formats to be sure. But the Internet is not just one protocol.  For sure some people will choose to develop their applications so that only standard formats are used and a web browser is the only tool needed locally.

    This is the easy way in some ways but there are costs to it as well. It may be that not everyone is willing to pay those costs and that some developers will use custom protocols and applications that are not standard parts of web browsers or perhaps even independent of web browsers to get the performance that their customers demand.

    People tend to get focused on one tool or paradigm. For a lot of people it is desktop applications. Lately it seems that some see web browsers as the answer to everything.  Some people see a mix of applications and web applications with, perhaps, web services tying the two together. Ray Ozzie talks about the "Client/Server/Services" continuum. There is room, I think, for proprietary "stuff" in all of these solutions. And I for one don't think we're done seeing new Internet protocols and applications that use them.

    One piece that is missing in a lot of these discussions is "who is going to pay for all of this?" Somehow developers have to get the funds to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. Unless they are going to work some other, non-development job to earn a living and donate their free time to develop applications for enterprise users someone is going to be writing code for money. Who is going to pay for that development? IBM and other companies make money doing custom work to connect and enhance software that doesn't meet needs out of the box. Microsoft and many other companies make software that is designed to work out of the box and meet enough of a user's needs to be worth the money. Both models require people pay for software development. Some user always pays something. Perhaps some ride along for free but only if someone else is paying their way.

    So where are applications going? Is it a waste of time to teach students, especially high school students who are potentially 4 to 8 years away from professional development, how to create desktop applications? Is web development the only way to do? Should we be focusing more on web services? Does anyone in high school computer science even talk about client/server applications? I wonder how much of that is taught in college for that matter.

    We can't teach everything but we can talk about a lot more than we actually teach students to implement. Are you discussing the future of software development with your students? What are you saying? More importantly where do your students think software is going? Are they thinking outside the box or just parroting what they hear or read on the Internet? We're going to need some innovative ideas to progress into the real future.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Controversy in the Education Blogosphere


    Last week I wrote about a K12 Educational Conference that is taking place online this week. Little did I know that there was going to be some controversy involved. I should have expected it though because just about everything involving education seems to develop into controversy these days. So what is going on?

    Well it seems to have started with some comments by Stephen Downes which generated a lot of comments. Stephen expanded on his comments here. The short version is that Stephen sees the conference as largely self-promoting by the people involved with the TechLearning organization. He also sees the event as promoting the ideas of some people who are interested in making some money off those ideas via selling books, giving talks, consulting or otherwise involving themselves in for profit operations. Naturally supporters of the event have chimed in with strongly worded replies.

    I don't know how much of the K12 conference or how many of the people who got it started are out to make some money from selling their ideas. I don't think that is the important question though. The important question is does the conference have value to the people who are attending it. There is no cost (beyond Internet connectivity and time) associated with attending and it doesn't appear that anyone is being directly paid for their contributions either.  Is it possible that some of the participants might get a speaking or consulting engagement out of the conference? Sure. Is that really a problem? I'm not so sure it is.

    Someone makes money from every real life conference. If nothing else the people who rent the facility make money. Catering makes money. And the people who fund conferences - attendees, exhibitors and sponsors - all expect to get value for their money. Sponsors hope for good will. Exhibitors expect to get some additional sales. Attendees expect to get knowledge, connections and even a bit of entertainment among other things. Does it matter if there is profit to be made as long as everyone gets fair value and the benefits meet or exceed costs?

    Personally I don't have a problem with people making money. People who do good work deserve to be compensated for it.  Clearly I make some money from the books I've  written (not much) and I collect a paycheck from a company whose products I promote on my blog and elsewhere. I start with one overriding principle though - I will not promote products I don't believe in. If I say I think something is good or that I think it will be valuable to educators it is because and only because I believe that to be true. And I'm pretty clear about who pays the bills - this is a Microsoft branded web site after all. So if you are open about how you make a living and you don't sell your credibility to promote things you don't honestly believe in what's the problem?


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  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Visual Basic Textbook Review and Saving Class Time


    I'm enjoying following Chris Higgins' first year teaching computer science at his blog.  On Friday he posted a pair of interesting posts. One is a review of the textbook he is using. The other is a description of how he is using some web based tools to make things more efficient.

    I really appreciated the book review for a couple of reasons. The obvious first reason is that I am one of the co-authors. I really did appreciate his list of the positives in the book. It's nice to hear that someone is using there textbook and has some nice things to say about it. But the more important reason for liking the post is that it highlights some of the things that make writing a good textbook difficult. Writing review questions for the end of chapter and section is, for me at least, one of the more difficult parts of textbook writing. Actually I found writing test questions somewhat challenging as well. Evaluation is difficult and there is no getting around it. My co-authors helped with some of the review questions but I'm sure they could be better. It's something to keep working at.  The other concern with many textbooks and with teaching from code examples is the tendency of students to just copy code and not spend enough time writing their own.

    Professional programmers copy code frequently and it is a respected practice. But things are different for students. Students need practice creating their own code from scratch. Mr. Higgins has wisely supplemented the textbook with additional projects. I firmly believe that textbooks are valuable but should serve as starting points and not be considered as the end all and be all of teaching.

     Mr. Higgins is also using an online content management system with his classes. This makes it easier for students to turn in their work. Collecting computer science projects is not like other projects. That's because one generally wants to execute the code and review source code. It's a struggle at times to keep track of everything. Mr. Higgins' solution seems to be working for him. How are others of you solving these problems? Or are you?


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