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

April, 2010

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    The Intersection of Education and Entertainment


    How many times have you heard a teacher say something like “I’m here to educate them not to entertain them.” Sometimes it almost seems as though they regard education as bad tasting medicine that students need to take whether they like it or not. Other times is it is a reaction to students complaining about being bored and perhaps someone suggesting that the teacher “do something” to make it more interesting. Dealing with students who have grown up in a world where they expect constant amusement and entertainment can be frustrating. This is especially true for some “old school” teachers. But should there be a separation between entertainment and education?

    Marshall McLuhan famously said "If you think there is a difference between education and entertainment, you don't understand much about either." I think he was on to something. Let’s face it, we all learn best the things that are most interesting to is. Is everything interesting? Well, everything is interesting to some one. The trick is for people to make what they find interesting become interesting to others. That is where entertainment comes in to play (no pun intended).

    Anything can be presented in a boring fashion. I sometimes think that scholarly research papers have to be boring to be accepted into peer reviewed journals. If the bare facts and details are not interesting to you then you have no business reading the paper. This is sort of the opposite of attracting people to your ideas. It is making them work for them. This is not the way we want to teach young people though. Not by a long shot. They often don’t even know what sort of things they will find interesting. It is up to teachers to communicate that something is or should be interesting. And that is where we wander into entertainment.

    Have you ever had a really interesting teacher? Someone you enjoyed listening to or whose class you enjoyed attending? I think most of us have. When I look at the teachers who really got me interested in the subject they were teaching I find that they were entertaining. The did interesting things. Perhaps they told jokes or funny stories to make a point. Or they did demonstrations. I still remember my materials science teacher standing on a table as he help up a long polymer that he hard created in class. Funny? Sure! But it’s been 40 years since that demonstration and I still remember an awful lot of what that man taught in that class.

    Computer science lends itself to entertainment. No really. Think about visualizations. I ran across this sample sorting visualization written in Small Basic today.


    It creates these squares with boxes in a random order and then sorts them using three different sort algorithms. You can check the program out directly on your browser here:

    That is every bit as entertaining as it is educational. In fact I can see assigning students to add other sorting anlorythms to this program and then viewing them the same way. Many things we learn in computer science can be visualized with the right graphical display. Students can be entertained my this for hours as they experiment and treat the discovery process as a game.

    And then there are role plays which seem to be gaining traffic in computer science education. The Computer Science Unplugged activities are one of the better know set of kinesthetic learning exercises that can be used in computer science.

    Of course we can also help by allowing students to create their own entertainment – game projects are challenging and entertaining at the same time. And why not use them?

    Now I know that some teachers don’t see themselves as entertainers. They see entertainment as somehow frivolous or non-professional. But I think that perhaps that means they don’t understand entertainment. Or maybe not education. Or just maybe they don’t find the material they are teaching as being potentially entertaining! That is the scariest thought of all.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Interesting Links 19 April 2010


    Friday morning this week I head to Washington DC for the  2010 US Imagine Cup Finals. You can come by the US Imagine Cup Community Showcase on April 26, 2010 from (AM until 2Pm at the Newseum, Washington, DC. Register HERE: and use registration code GOV0426. If you are in the DC area I hope to see you there. Now for some links.

    From the Microsoft UK Schools blog I found this video - Kodu for PC – a teacher’s tutorial. It’s a nice getting started link.

    Prof. Richard Rasala (Northeastern) has been teaching web development for a while and has a great link page called Web Development Information on the Web. If you are teaching web development or just trying to learn more on your own this set of links is worth checking out.

    Looking to read about women in technology? There are role models out there. Last week in her Microsoft Women Worth Watching series Mary Jo Foley (@maryjofoley ) highlighted Holly Hirzel Lead Producer for “1 vs. 100″, Xbox Live. The Anita Borg Institute (@anitaborg_org) highlights their profile of Linda Apsley, Director of Program Management, Business Online Services Group, Microsoft Corporation.

    Some interesting CS game project ideas at the blog (12 Computer science game project ideas) No solutions handy but still and interesting set of ideas for students looking for project for after the AP CS exam which is coming up soon.

    If you are interested in interesting educational uses for table PCs you may want to check out Tablet PC's in the Field - The Vassar Experience Reaches the Barbados! It’s a blog post by Jim Vanides of HP.

    In the interesting links category clearly come the list of Best Computer Science graduate schools by U.S. News and World Reports. Say what you want about their methodology (and it is open to criticism) this makes for an interesting list that is probably pretty close in most cases.

    New on Channel 9 last week is this talk on Windows Phone 7 Application and Game Development by Rob Miles. If you are interested in game development, Phone development and where the two mix this is a good presentation to start with.



  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Credentials or Knowledge


    The ever interesting Will Richardson got me thinking again today. He talks about how to credentialize learning in a post titled An Open Mind (In Higher Ed at Least) from open course ware such as the MIT OpenCourseWare project. How do we validate the self-learning that does on? And I add anohter question, when does it matter?

    Years ago I was working on my master’s degree on my employer’s dime. Tuition reembersment is a wonderful benefit at many large companies but it seems like too few take advantage of it. One of my co-workers asked management if they would get a raise if/when they completed an advanced degree. The answer was no. The way management looked at it they paid  for performance. If the employee got real value and real learning from the coursework they were taking it should show up in their performance. Either they would be more efficient, able to take on new tasks or jobs but in someway the company’s normal pay for performance should take care of it so that the employee saw tangible benefit from their education. And that is how most companies look at learning. If you really learned something there will be tangible benefits in performance and the company will reward that. Heck of a theory. And honestly I think often it works well. It also means that employees are rewarded as a result of any learning they do and not just formal classroom learning.

    On the other hand if one is looking for a new job that credential – be it a degree or a certification or other tangible acknowledgement of completion of training – can be very helpful. It serves to show that you have jumped through some hoops and passed some educators bar of demonstration of knowledge. Again, great in theory. How then do you demonstrate your knowledge to potential employers without the credential? Portfolios of work can be helpful though hard to demonstrate before actually getting an interview. Awards can be helpful. I suggest to students that besides internships, portfolio projects they may want to try for awards in competitions to differentiate themselves. I like the Imagine Cup competitions for this but there are others as well.

    I keep coming back to one thing though. The real lasting value is in the knowledge one gains. The high GPA or the advanced degree might get you an extra interview or two but the real test of the interview will be how well you demonstrate that the degree or GPA actually translates into real knowledge. I’ve seen my share of students who really knew how to game the grade system and who graduated with honors but somehow didn’t seem to have much depth of knowledge. The more students focus on grades as a goal rather than as the natural outcome of knowledge gained the less useful certificates and diplomas become. I have no answer for this – no simple way to weed out the grades without knowledge or how to find the students whose knowledge is higher than their grades. But I do believe that companies who put too much emphasis on formal degrees and GPAs miss out on some good people. And hire some they may regret as well.

    My advice for students remains, get the degree but focus on learning so that the degree means something. Learn outside of school as well but document it and create artifacts that you can show to demonstrate that you learned something.

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