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

May, 2008

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Schools As Communication Free Zones


    I have this general policy that when I don’t have anything to say I don’t say anything. OK I admit that I have trouble sticking to that policy sometimes. And at the same time I tend to be rather opinionated which means I often have a lot to say – which may or may not be a good thing. And while I do occasionally editorialize on this blog I have been trying to be more objective and resource sharing in my blogging here. But I find myself more and more frustrated with the state of online censorship within schools. So I’m going to rant a bit.

    Do we really  believe that students in school should be seen and not heard? Do we really believe that the only means of communication students should have with the world (or their friends) is voice communication in strictly supervised situations? Do we really believe that we are doing students favors by not letting them reach the social aspects of the Internet? Do we really believe that online chat and discussion sites are pure evil?

    A couple of events have brought this home lately. First was a couple of talks I gave as schools recently. One at a college had a couple of my demos not work because the web sites were blocked. The students were unsurprised and their response indicated that they thought it reflected poorly on the college than on me. A week later I gave a workshop at a high school and the tech person had done a good job of checking the sites I needed (even without me asking) to whitelist or otherwise unblock them. Of course the unplanned part of my demo that tried to use Facebook died at the firewall.

    Then last week a teacher reported that the RoboChamps web site was being blocked at his school as a “social networking site.” (details here on why I thought it good for schools) Seems weird to me but, well, what do I know? I wonder how many online help forums for technical and other educational discussions are being blocked as social networking sites? Speaking of social networking blockage, this morning teachers on Twitter were talking about ways to get to Twitter from school when Twitter is blocked and Netvibes is now blocked.

    I’m seeing a lot of interaction among teachers on Twitter these days BTW. (I’m at if anyone is interested) Students still seem to be oblivious to Twitter though. I’ve heard a lot of tails of blog sites being blocked at schools as well. Given how isolated many teachers, especially tech teachers, feel in their schools this interaction online seems like a great thing to me. Something to be facilitated and perhaps even taught rather than something to block at all costs.

    Why is social networking seen as automatically evil these days? Evil sexual predators? Come on – we know that students are more at risk at home than online. By about an order of magnitude. Is it the distraction? Sounds like a classroom management problem to me. Well they might put up something bad – what ever bad means. Are they really more likely to be “bad” at school then in the privacy of their bedrooms later that same day? I don’t think so. Aren’t we really missing some good educational opportunities?

    There are teachers doing creative and inspiring projects using blogs, wikis, Skype, and other web 2.0 tools. If kids are going to create videos for YouTube why not have them create and share educational videos? If they are going to write about their feelings why not use online journals (perhaps inside a school firewall) and other online publishing tools to let them create for the media they live in? Why can’t we take advantage of the teachable moments (and tools) of student activity rather than let them mess things up on their own?

    I blame administrators as much as anything. Followed closely behind by parents. People who don’t understand the web, don’t want to understand the web, and are just looking for the easy way out to make it look like they are doing something. Oh they are not all like that. There are many great innovative administrators and enlightened parents. But they are not the ones doing all the yelling and screaming. In the end it comes down to making life easy and appearing to do something.

    One last comment, the students are blowing through the filters as if they were not even there. Anyone who believes otherwise is only fooling themselves. Do you think students are not laughing themselves silly at getting to sites they know their teachers can’t get to? How much does that do for teaching respect for teachers, schools and authority in general?

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Links from my talk at Stevens Institute of Technology


    Yesterday I gave one of the keynote talks at Stevens Institute of Technology’s second annual high school computer science workshop. Ursula Wolz, The College of New Jersey, was a tough act to follow with her great presentation/demo on Scratch. Scratch is one of my favorite teaching tools and I learned several things about it that I didn’t know. And then it was my turn. I did have a wonderful time at this event. I had the chance to talk one to one with a number of teachers which was great. I especially enjoyed putting some faces to names of people I had exchanged email with recently. Also several people were nice enough to tell me that they read this blog which is always exciting to hear.

    A lot of people don't realize how much work (including paper work) is involved in field trips so something like this is always an effort for teachers. It is far from a "day off" but really means more work. So thanks to all of the teachers who put in the extra work to take their students on a field trip to Stevens.

    During my talk I mentioned several products/tools that I think are good ways, or at least fun ways which makes them good for me, to learn more about programming. I have to send the nice people at Stevens a list of links so I thought I would post the list here as well.

    Popfly - is one thing I have written about before. My hands on lab which I mentioned during my talk is posted here. (More of what I have written about Popfly here.)

    Popfly Wiki for tutorials and other helpful information

    RoboChamps – Online, Virtual Robot Competition – This competition is run using Microsoft Robotics Studio.

    XNA Game Studio Express – Creating games using C# and a powerful set of libraries and other resources. (See here for a bunch more that I have written about XNA. Or start here for a bunch of links I put in one post.)

    Speaking of robots, in the panel discussion IPRE came up. IPRE (Institute for Personal Robots in Education) is a joint research project with Georgia Tech and Bryn Mawr that uses simple inexpensive robots to teach programming.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    World Wide Telescope


    The other day Microsoft Research released their WorldWide Telescope application. This application uses imagery from a number of telescopes both on earth and in space to provide a way to look at the sky that is very easy and impressive. The navigation is very smooth and easy. You can also zoom in and out using a scroll wheel. I understand that there is a lot of imagery from the Mars rovers there so if you want to look around Mars in some detail you can.

    The New York Times had an article about this and I like this quote:

    There are many online astronomy sites, but astronomers say the Microsoft entry sets a new standard in three-dimensional representation of vast amounts data plucked from space telescopes, the ease of navigation, the visual experience and features like guided tours narrated by experts.

    “Exploring the virtual universe is incredibly smooth and seamless like a top-of-the-line computer game, but also the science is correct,” said Alexander Szalay, a professor of astronomy and physics at Johns Hopkins. “No sacrifices have been made. It just feels as if you are in it.”

    Getting the science right was important to the researchers who created this. The project leads are amateur astronomers with a serious interest in the topic. The WorldWide Telescope is sort of like having a planetarium on your computer screen. I’ve had a lot of fun using it this week and I expect to use it to help me find things in the night sky to view live as well.

    You can also view tours that others have created or even create your own. Also if you are one of those very serious people with a telescope that can be connected and controlled by a computer there is software to connect your telescope to this software see live what you are looking at recorded on the screen. If you have any interest in the night sky at all this is one application you’ll want to install. If you are teaching astronomy I can’t see how you’d want to live without it.

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