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

July, 2009

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Figuring Out What Will Get Attention

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    I think a lot of us have trouble knowing what will be interesting to others. I think this is true in the classroom (“What do you mean kids don’t find learning binary interesting? I LOVED IT!”) and it is clearly true in blogging. I’ve been looking over the blog posts from the last month and the statistics around each one. I am surprised by the posts I thought would get a lot of attention and comments but didn’t. Others that I expected to be largely ignored – read and forget – have a bunch of comments. How do you know what is going to resonate and what will not? Honestly I don’t think you can. Not with any real certainty anyway. But I have examples. Anyone what to explain things to me?

    I’m going to give you some examples from this month both to show you want I mean and (more selfishly) try to highlight some posts that I think deserve more attention and give you a chance to see what did get attention that maybe you missed.

    On the more attention than I expected clearly Teacher Web Sites comes first. This one was one I hoped would be interesting for a few people but turned out differently. Largely this is because one of the companies I mentioned in passing put a link to the post with the suggestion that people “help” me out. I saw an amazing amount of traffic referred from Facebook. More than came from search engines even! That’s rare.

    What It Is Like to be A Student? received more traffic than most as well as four comments. Honestly that surprised me because I posted it primarily to link to someone else’s blog! I hope you will read those posts (Lost in syntax part 1, Lost in syntax part 2) as they are more interesting than that post of mine.

    I really expected comments on On The Value Of Testing but there are none and not much traffic either. Why is that? Was it too obvious and every says “oh yeah sure” and goes on about their business? No idea.

    I really had high hopes for Who’s Afraid of Smart Machines? but perhaps people are just discussing that too much in too many other places. Still I was hoping teachers would weigh in on this as suitable for classroom discussion. And that people  who give opinions as to how they felt about smart machines and what the potential meaning for humanity is. Oh well. I did try.

    Two posts inspired by NECC Sponges and Participants and Would You Wear A Ribbon That Labeled You a Trouble Maker? had a lot of readers. Only two comments though. Again I’m not sure why but I’d really hoped for more comments especially on the Sponges and Participants one. I really want to know if other people see conference participants the same way I do or hear some alternative views.

    Sometimes I do get it (somewhat) right though. Are We Doing It Right? had five comments. Not a huge number and not quite as many as I would have liked but at least there was conversation and that is what I was aiming for.

    SO there you have it – proof that I don’t really know what I am doing or what my audience wants. I’m trying though and I am always open to feedback. So any advice you have for me to make my blog better for you and for computer science teachers/education in general let me know. That’s why there is a comment section. :-)

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Teacher Web Sites

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    Years ago when few had web pages I started hosting a we page for the classes I taught. It was pretty basic and I had to manually edit HTML and FTP the new page up to my site when I wanted to change things. It was not the sort of thing every teacher could or would do. Honestly I found it hard to keep current. These days there are many more options for teachers who want to connect with teachers.

    Teachers are using wiki pages like those at wikispaces for example. Others are using Ning and creating their own little social networks. Some are opting for simpler things such as blogs on any number of blog hosting sites. You can set up blogs and wikis using Microsoft SharePoint assuming your district has it and is using it as a portal. (Semi-obligatory plug for a Microsoft product that I actually really do like a lot.) And then there are website products designed just for teachers.

    Today I received email from Artia Moghbel, Founder of SchoolRack.com which is a free teacher web site for teachers. I asked people about it on Twitter and heard from a couple of people who either use it or know people who do. Those who use it seem to like it a lot. In fact I was told that at one school parents remind teachers to update and are disappointed with teachers who don’t. That suggests that parents really do want to keep up with what is going on in school. I found that having web site that listed projects and topics allowed parents to stay on top of their children better. Usually a good thing.

    People also Twittered about a couple of other sites that are being used by teachers. The people at TeacherWeb Twittered to me “Free 30 Day trial at www.TeacherWeb.com -- Blog pages, NewsFlash (txt/email alerts), enhanced text pages, EASY TO USE!!!”  Looks pretty impressive although there is a cost to using it long term.

    A teacher, Patrick Hibbard (@patpack) Twittered “I use @webnode as a free teacher page. They provide storage, rss... the works. www.patrickhibbard.com” While not strictly for teachers WebNode seems to have a lot of good features.

    I’m sure there are other good products out there. Do you have a teacher web page? Or perhaps a blog? What sort of platform are you using and what do you see as the pros and cons of teachers websites? Are you a parent or a student? What do you want to see in a teacher web site?

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Who’s Afraid of Smart Machines?

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    On top of the discussion about robo-ethicists wanting to revisit Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics I saw several pointers to a New York Times article called Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man. Will we have thinking machines that are self-aware and smarter than humans? One of the famous papers on this is The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era by Vernor Vinge. Vinge postulates that by the year 2030 we will see “the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence.” OK now to me the term “post-human era is a little scary. But personally I don’t see it happening.

    Now the topic of creating machines that really think; that are creative and inventive; and that are self-aware has been around forever. In fact I’m sure it long pre-dates computers. But I do know that it was a topic of discussion when I was an undergraduate student over 35 years ago. People were predicting this “singularity” within 30 years even them. That prediction seems to have been wrong though. At first people thought we’d come up with machines that think the way people do. That turned out to be difficult at least in part because we still don’t understand how people think. I’m not sure we’ll figure that out in the next 20+ years either. As fast as technology moves we don’t seem to be figuring out people that quickly.

    And there is the question of what is thinking? What is creativity? What is self-awareness? Yes, friends, we are delving into the arena of philosophy! Ha, you thought you were done with that or that you’d never need it didn’t you? I think you are wrong there at least if you want to talk about smart machines. We have to have some way of knowing when we get there even if we don’t know how we are going to get there. Or if we are going to get there.

    Interestingly enough I have known several computer scientists who started in philosophy. Philosophy majors often make great programmers you know. Some claim it is because they are good logical thinkers. My theory is that it is because they have an easier time grasping abstractions. Dealing with abstraction is key to modern computer science. I wish I’d paid more attention in philosophy classes but the older I get and the more I get into computer science the more grateful I am for the courses I did have.

    Anyway. I am skeptical of the notion that people who can’t understand how they think can create computers that think better than humans. I do not believe in the “and here a miracle happens” school of science and engineering either. We have computers that do special purpose things, play chess for example, and beat humans. Are those programs thinking? Are they creative? I don’t think so. I think they are good at dealing with rules and calculating lots and lots of steps. Humans get good results with less work though. One can teach a child to play chess in a half hour. They will (or can) learn on their own how to get better and better. While we have been programming heuristics into software for decades we have not made the sort of progress that was talked about 30-40 years ago. I think it unlikely. I’m not sure if that makes me an optimist or a pessimist. Your call. 

    Perhaps there is something not easily reachable about what thinking and creativity are all about. Or perhaps it is something simple just out of view that will be discovered any day now. I think it may be the former. I also think that philosophy is going to be more helpful in getting us to true thinking machines or at least proving if they are possible or not.

    So what do you think? What do your students think? Is this a topic that comes up in computer science courses? Does it come up in faculty lounges or places where students congregate? I think perhaps it should.

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