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

October, 2008

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Teachers, Trust, Teaching and Filters


    So long time readers know that I am not a fan of filtering of the Internet in schools. My wife is a librarian who enthusiastically marks Banned Books Week every year for the chance to discuss censorship with her students so its a family thing I guess. We’ve both long embraced using student visits to “bad sites” as teachable moments – as opportunities to educate students. Alas that is seldom an option at schools who accept e-rate money – like the one my wife currently teaches at.  But in my opinion the worst part about filters is not losing that teachable moment but that too often filters make it hard, if not impossible, for teachers to use Internet resources as the educational tools they are.

    Recently Will Richardson wrote about filters getting in the way of his educational consulting and training. One superintendent told Will that he (the superintendent) could not get the IT department to open sites for him. Even if you accept the notion of filters for students (and Will does a good job of addressing that canard in his post) shouldn’t we be able to trust the adults in the building? I mean seriously. If you have valid reasons to think that an adult is going to abuse Internet access shouldn’t you run them out of the classroom on a rail? These are people we trust with our kids after all. Teachers and administrators (btw since when do superintendents not have authority over school tech support?) should be able to get to valid educational resources.

    Of course there are teachers that do abuse the trust we place in them. The same is true in every profession. But honestly is a few people stepping out of line reason to treat school superintendents like children? We need educators to have reliable access to the Internet and we need to trust them to make good decisions. Filters do not make great decision makers. I’ll never forget the day my wife told me the school filter blocked her from getting to the American Library Association ethics page? We’re blocking pages that outline and promote ethical behavior now? Come on tell me that’s a good thing.

    There is a lot of good on YouTube. There is a lot of good on Google Docs. There are even valid educational uses for teachers to use email tools like Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail and others. And Skype! What a cool tool for virtual school visits. But many of these sites are blocked by many schools. Preparing students for the 21st century? Let them learn that from their peers the same ways they learn how to get drugs, porn and sex education? Wouldn’t it be better to learn good practices in school? But how are we going to do that if we can’t or will not trust teachers to act like adults.

    I have to also bring in a question of mission. What is the purpose of the IT team in a school district? Take a look at this blog post by Doug Johnson. Shouldn't everyone in the school and school district see education of students as their mission? It shouldn't always be about minimizing the amount of work they have to do.

    BTW What are schools going to do about the really clever teachers and students who find their way around filters and even completely around  the school network. Dave Briccetti wrote a post titled Goodbye Lame School Firewalls, I have a Wireless Modem Now. You can easily see what that means! Students are clever about getting around filters but teachers don’t always have the time or technical know how to do it even for valid educational uses. The increase of wireless modems is going to be a game changer though. Scary or exciting? Probably depends on which side of the “schools need to be censors” issue you stand on.

    Maybe a wireless modem is something for me to give my teacher wife and teacher son for Christmas? Yeah I’m bad. :-)

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Remembering Grace Hopper


    A good number of people I knew were at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing last week. By all reports it was a great event, some cases of altitude sickness not withstanding. Hilary Pike has been blogging about it over at Springboard. I especially enjoyed her experienced take on how to get the most out of GHC. Randy Guthrie wrote about what it was like to be one of the very few male attendees. Several other bloggers I follow have been blogging about the event as well. For example See Jane Compute! and Lynn Langit.

    This all makes me reminisce about Grace Hopper herself. I was fortunate enough to hear her talk several times over the years. The first time when I was a student in the early 1970s. I believe she had just made Captain about that time. She was on the CS department advisory of the school (Taylor University) I was attending. Several of us students were able to have a casual lunch and conversation during her visit to campus. It was an unforgettable time. I remember one of my classmates asked her why she had joined the Navy. Captain Hopper looked at her, blinked a couple of times and said “why there was a war on.” as if that explained everything. Clearly it was enough explanation for her. She was as proud of being a Naval officer as anything else in her storied career.

    Grace Hopper had a great way of explaining things to people. Most people are familiar with her use of pieces of wire that she called nano seconds. Later in life she talked about pico seconds and gave out samples of those. She acquired those samples in the cafeteria where they came in little paper envelopes helpfully labeled with the letter “P.” But I loved how she explained the need for attacking big computing problems with multiple computers.

    She explained that back in the horse and oxen drawn plow days there were limits to how big one could breed horses and oxen. Eventually the answer was to add a second horse or ox. So to would we reach the limits to the amount of processing computer we could put into one computer. We would increasingly have to add computers. This was back in the 1970s were parallel computers were mostly a research idea. Smaller computers were starting to be used as front ends to handle communication as well. But mostly we were still trying to build faster and faster super computers as single processors. Timing and future developments aside this remains a great analogy as to why we need to work on multi processor systems. And just as tack had to change and improve for multiple draft animals so does software have to change and improve to handle multiple processors.

    Most people remember Grace Hopper as this kindly grandmotherly person. And she was often that. He crew at the Navy called her grandma in an affectionate way. At the same time she could be as rough and as tough as they come. I talked to people are some of the companies that were trying to get their COBOL compilers passed through her office. They found her demanding and insistent. These people did not look forward to calls with Grace Hopper on the other end. She had a job to do for her country and she let no one and no thing stand in her way. It is quite fitting, and I’ve said this before, that the ship the Navy named after her is a real honest to goodness war ship.

    She was an inspiration to me and still probably the most impressive person I have ever met. I can think of no one better to honor with the Celebration of Women in Computing.

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  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Education is a Journey


    My Dad was and is a stickler for good table manners. he always insisted on them at home while we were growing up. One day I asked him if we couldn’t just be messing at home and do everything right when we were out in public. He explained that it was about creating good habits. If we did things right at home and got into the habit we wouldn’t have to try when we were out. It would just be natural and we would be less likely to get things wrong. It was a lesson I have never forgotten. It came to mind again while I was reading a blog post by Didith Rodrigo.

    Students often do not use the tools we are trying to teach them to use. They don’t see the necessity for them in the small projects that we assign in school. Part of my comment on Didith’s blog was “they take the quick and dirty solution because they do not realize that the journey is as important as the destination.” Sure we want students to solve the projects that they are assigned but the purpose behind assignments in not just to get the answer but to understand the tools that are used to get the answer.

    In math classes we were always exhorted to “show the work.” Many students assumed, not completely incorrectly, that this was a partial defense against cheating. But in reality teachers wanted to see how the answer was derived. It was also as much a protection of students from losing points for typos and simple arithmetic errors as it was against cheating. But the journey to the answer was important in and of itself. The same is true in programming assignments. The real problem is communicating that to our students.

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