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

January, 2007

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Create Robot from iRobot


    Looks like the people at iRobot have noticed the demand for computers by hobbyists and education. There were was supported to program the standard Roomba vacuum robot but that was actually pretty limited. Today at the Consumer Electronics Show they announced a new robot just for people who want to build their own robot. It is called the iRobot Create

    The space that would have been used for vacuum cleaning is now available for cargo. The robot is also available with an on-board computer (as opposed to being controlled remotely from a computer) for real autonomy. The robot details are impressive and flexible.

    10 built-in demos and 32 built-in sensors allow you to control the Create robot and experiment with robotics. An open cargo bay and 25-pin expansion port allows you to add your own sensors, grippers, wireless connections, computers, or other hardware. Fully documented serial protocol provides full access to sensors, actuators, and on-board scripting functionality. Supported under Windows XP via serial port

    Would you believe there is a 10 robot "classroom pack" offered?


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  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Programmers to Blame for Hard-to-Use Software


    Did you read the headline for this post and thing "well, duh!" I know that's what I thought. The headline comes from a Reuters article I read recently. In the old days programmers and users were pretty much one and the same. We didn't let ordinary people in the same air-conditioned, raised floor, fire system protected room as a computer. Only computer experts got to touch a computer. Since the user and the programmer were one and the same or at least the same type creating a program with the right user interface was easy. "If I like it than it's fine."

    Well it appears those days are gone for good. One of the first things I learned in my first programming job was that the end users didn't think the way I did. In fact they often didn't think the way their boss (who was paying the bills) thought or the way he thought they thought. Lose you yet?

    Getting the user interface right is difficult. Often programmers assume that what works for them works for everyone. They verify their ideas by asking other people who think the same way they do. Then they are surprised when people complain about software being hard to use. This is not an easy problem to solve. Sure it seems like it would be easy - just ask people what they want. The problem is that they don't always know what they want.

    Software companies learn a lot by watching users. Companies like Microsoft have usability labs where all they do is watch people use software to try to understand what works what makes things easier and what makes things harder. Progress gets made but seldom is it enough. The problem though is not just the users and the programmers speaking different languages. One problem that is growing is the problem of people who write malicious software (viruses, Trojans and the like). Lots of checks are being added to make sure that they user has control over what is going on so that things are not installed that should not be installed. But if the user doesn't understand the question, which is often the case, this just makes things worse. It becomes a vicious circle with programmers trying to make the user safer and the program easier to use and others trying to take advantage of ease of use in bad ways.

    Ultimately programmers have to learn to understand end users better. End users have to have a bit more of an education about what the computer and its software are trying to do. We can't, I don't think, put all the blame on the programmers. Most of it sure - just not all of it. People have to take some responsibility for their own education. We also need to involve more people in the middle. By that I mean people who understand people (psychologists, sociologists, others who study how people work, think and act) and understand software who can help the programmers create software that real people can use.

    There is a whole field of study that seems to be undeserved. Anyone know a good  multidisciplinary college program in software usability? I'm sure they are out there. I'm also sure we need more of them. What do you think?


  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Games in Education - Teaching with Games


    Walter Stiers linked to some interesting research on games in education last week. An organization called futurelab in the UK is researching the use of off the shelf games in education

    I really get excited about the idea of using games as teaching tools. I remember using some very simple games to teach very small children when I was an elementary school teacher (one very interesting year). These games ran on Apple II computers with very simple graphics, little in the way of color, and very little in the way of sophistication. They were in all honesty little more than "drill and kill" programs but at the time computers were still fairly new and rare in schools and rarer still in homes. The novelty helped. But I think that because it was active rather than passive the students felt more ownership of the process. They were invested in learning and it was fun.

    Kids want to be involved. They want to do something. They are not made to sit around listening to some adult drone on and on. I think that there is a huge potential for making education a more interactive and interesting process by using computer technology. This is an area I wish more work was being done on. Perhaps we can get some of today's students to think about building interactive teaching and learning in programming classes. I've had more than a few student over the years who wanted to "so something" related to their interests in other subjects. Having that enthusiasm is a powerful motivator. Kids are awfully creative and what's more they know what kids like. Something to think about.


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