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

July, 2009

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    When the power goes off in the computer lab

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    Charley Williams, from Villa Park, IL, sent me the following guest post today. It’s a real thinker or as Charley put it a “discussion-starter.” It puts me to mind of the CS Unplugged curriculum and some of the things taught in the CS4HS workshops created by Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science.

    I was working out at the YMCA this morning, when the lights suddenly went out.

    So how much were folks affected? ...Surprisingly, almost not at all! We on the weight machines just kept lifting, people on the bikes just kept peddling. There were treadmill people whose "roads" suddenly stopped moving; they organized their own group and went outside to the nearby running path.

    ...which got me to thinking --> If the lights suddenly went out in a CS classroom, how much would it impact us?

    Here's what I think --> If a teacher is focused "too much" (my opinion) on how to use specific tools, how to use particular features of certain software packages (i.e. how to apply clip-art in PowerPoint, how to use the debugger in Visual Studio), then when you lose your computers, you pretty much lose the purpose of your class. Not that the tools aren't important, but are they driving the learning goals of the class?

    In a "good CS class" (again, my opinion), your electricity can go out, your computers can be taken away, and you can still have a class that's every bit as valuable! This means you're studying problem-solving processes, algorithms, design methods, and evaluating the correctness and efficiency of what you've designed. Sure, computers can help us do this much faster, but what you're really learning isn't dependent on a computer at all, necessarily.

    Just a thought...

    What are your thoughts on this? Please join the conversation!

  • 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

    Are We Doing It Right?

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    I’ve spent the last week on vacation. A vacation from the Internet as much as from work. As I write this it is 6 days since I have checked email, opened a web browser, Twittered a message to Twitter or had any other sort of Internet activity*. It’s been a bit of a relief. Oh sure I am somewhat dreading the flow of email waiting for me but I think it is worth it this time. that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about things though. While not as much as I planned to do I have been thinking a bit about computer science education. Most of this thinking was brought on by a conversation that was going on in the SIGCSE mailing list before I went on vacation. The discussion was about programs leading to a PhD in Computer Science Education.

    This conversation was going in two threads. One was the value of a program like this to prepare PhDs to teach computer science which most people think is unnecessary. The other was the value of a PhD program to research computer science education. People didn’t seem strongly supportive of that idea as being necessary. Not that they were writing it off but few seem to see a problem with the way we teach computer science. I would disagree there. I think we’re doing it mostly wrong.

    I’m not saying I have the answer – I don’t. What I do think though is that we need some really smart people to do research on how to teach computer science better. I think these people need to understand computer science at a deep level and also understand teaching. Frankly most university professors in most fields are not all that interested in teaching. Being a great teacher is not as likely to get one tenure as good research. And research in  how to teach, from what I keep hearing, is not particularly valued by computer science departments. I see this as a huge problem.

    We do have a lot of people creating interesting tools for teaching computer science. Projects like Alice, Scratch, Kodu, Small Basic, BlueJ, Greenfoot, Teach Scheme and more are out there. There isn’t a lot of research going on about their efficacy though. I’m not saying there is none. The people are Carnegie Mellon have done some good work with Alice and are doing more. There are some articles and papers out on BlueJ I believe. Georgia Tech has done some studies with their various programs for teaching CS1. But there is not much that compares different tools to each other. There hasn’t been a lot of critical work – by that I mean papers that point out flaws in these tools – though I did hear on that had some concerns about Alice at SIGCSE a while back. There are a lot of people who want these programs to work who are discovering that they do – surprise!

    And they are working in places. No question. But one wonders (ok I wonder) is that the result of the teachers/professors who are using the tools or the result of the tools themselves? There are some great teachers who gravitate to new tools. How much is the tool and how much the instructor? Many teachers are not finding success with these tools? Who to blame there? Teacher or tool? Frankly we don’t have enough research on this stuff. The field is too young.

    Some years ago I learned about some software from Brown University called ChemPad. This software allows a student to draw a 2D representation of a molecule on a tablet PC. The software would then model that in 3 dimensions and allow the student to rotate and study the molecule in various ways. Why was this important? Well research had shown that one particular class was a gatekeeper to more advanced chemistry courses. It required students to visualize molecules in three dimensions. Some found this easy and some (many) found it hard. Students who found it hard seldom if ever got past this course. The professor who taught the class decided that is would be better to help students overcome this problem than to completely lose them to the field of chemistry. That lead directly to this program. From what I heard last I talked to people about it this program was succeeding.

    What are the visualization or thought processed in computer science that are difficult for beginners to grasp? Do we even know? Once we know can we develop tools and techniques to help them past these barriers? I hope so. I believe so. But we’ve got to have smart people doing the research to make that happen. From where are those people going to come?

    *Note: I did have some posts show up automatically while I was away and there were some automatic posts about those to Twitter but they don’t count as they were all queued up before I left.

    Note: Leigh Ann Sudol has  A message to the SIGCSE list serv at her blog that is worth reading.

    Note: A somewhat related post by Mark Guzdial at An undergraduate degree in Computer Science Education

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