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

May, 2010

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Quiet Period for This Blog


    It’s going to be quiet here for a while. Over the next week, Microsoft is moving the thousands of blogs that run on the site over to a completely new web platform. This looks like it is going to be a big improvement on several levels. Trial runs have gone well so I am optimistic about the move.

    On the other hand, during the migration, there are a couple of things you need to know:

    • I have blogs posts scheduled for Monday and Tuesday and they should show up on schedule. I can’t add any new posts until next Sunday though. There is just so much data with all the posts and comments for literally thousands of blogs that it will take long enough without people adding data to a moving target.
        • Also in the week ahead,  you won’t be able to add any new comments even to existing posts – from Sunday 16th May through to Sunday 23rd May. If you have something to say, the contact link should still work or you can twitter me at @AlfredTwo.

        In the mean time besides the two posts in the queue there are probably dozens, well, maybe one or two, of my previous posts that you may find interesting. I hope so anyway.

        If you are interested in more about what is going on and how it is going, Sean Jenkin is blogging about it at

      • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

        Failure to Upgrade


        There was a funny movie out a few years ago called Failure To Launch. It tells the story of a man in his mid thirties who still lives at home. He doesn’t want to take the next step and move out, get into a serious relationship and “launch” into the greater world. He is safe and comfortable. He doesn’t want to step out and move forward. I see some parallels to educational technologists.

        Many people are happily using older versions of software. They are using Windows XP or Windows 2000 for example. Or they are using Office 97 or maybe Office 2003. They are using Visual Basic 6.0 to teach programming rather than move to the latest versions of Visual Basic that use the .NET Framework. Why? Several reasons.

        One is of course that they are comfortable. Like the character in Failure to Launch they are comfortable with what they know. Moving forward involved change and change can be scary. In the case of new software there is a learning curve – new ways to do things and new tools. Occasionally there are features that go away as well. Almost always there are replacements for those features but, well, it is still a change.

        In some cases, there is a perception that the change is for the worse as well. Windows Vista got a bad reputation early on and that scared a lot of people away from it. Despite better security, ease of use improvements and many other good features the perception was that the benefits did not outweigh the costs.

        And in many cases money for new versions of software is an issue as well.

        But - and you knew there was a but coming – are we often short sighted in these decisions? What about the students and preparing them for the future?

        Students and their parents are not slow on the uptake of new software. Windows Vista came out in November 2006 and most computers sold since then have had it installed. Windows XP is not only not generally available but regular support is all but terminated. Windows 7 which much improved over Windows Vista has been out in retail since October of 2009. Given how different XP is from Vista and Windows 7 I would imagine a lot of students get a bit confused moving back and forth between their newer computers at home and the old OS on the computers at school. Ease of use (if it is really there) for tech support and teachers is likely to be adding unnecessary confusion for students. And honestly with the new features for system administrators, tighter security and general ease of use one would think administrators would be pushing hard to upgrade from XP. Especially as the hardware requirements for Windows 7 are very close to those for XP and less than Vista.

        With Office the confusion is often much worse. Office 2003 is seven years old and the user interface has been greatly changed starting with Office 2007 and continuing with Office 2010 (announced as available this week). Now yes, to some extent a spreadsheet is a spreadsheet and a word processor is a word processor. Concepts matter more than specific implementations of those concepts. But at the same time students are going to be using newer software at work and in higher education and on computers they buy themselves. Do we really want them to start behind on these tools?

        But the one that really gets to me is people still using Visual Basic 6.0 or older. Now sure I understand some of the attraction. If you are used to it then it is easier. But it is no longer supported and you can’t easily get copies for students to use at home. With the current version of Visual Basic there are free express versions, Dreamspark for students (professional software for free) and for schools MSDN AA which is licenses for the whole lab for very little money. Or stick with the VB Express edition. Visual Basic 2010 is a real honest to goodness object oriented language. The IDE is powerful and opens the whole world of the .NET Framework.

        Of if that is too much (and I imagine for some it is) take a look at Small Basic. Simple IDE, Simple language and smooth upgrade path to Visual Basic when students are ready. And its free!

        Yes I’m biased and yes the company wants you to upgrade. But there are some good practical reasons for school to want to upgrade as well. Thinks about it ok? Thanks!

      • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

        Assessment And Computer Science


        I was reading the CSTA blog the other day and there is an article called Assessment by Joanna Goode that got me thinking. Good blog posts are like that – they get you thinking. It’s hard to determine how much computer science students know. Oh sure you can give tests and quizzes but they seem even more artificial to me than they do in many other subjects.

        You ask students to wrote code – on paper – with no error checking – no reference materials – how real is that? Not very. You can give students some code and ask them what it does. Humm, shouldn’t code be obvious? If you give them code that is obvious (i.e. good code) you’ll only baffle the students who are really behind. If you give them tricky hard to read code aren’t you really demonstrating poor practices? Yep. One of my students once told me that the AP computer science exam was one poor example after another. Hard to disagree. And it is not because the people who write the exam are not good at writing code – they’re among the best of the best – but because you have to be artificial to make examples that fit into time and resource constraints.

        Multiple choice questions? Ah, does anyone like them for anything other than ease of grading?

        Most computer science (or in high school really we do mostly programming) teachers use a lot of small projects during the course. A lot of people use semester projects at the end of the semester and ask students to demonstrate as much as they know that way. Personally I like this idea. Projects are much more helpful in assessment than most tests or quizzes. They can be difficult to grade of course. And some students struggle with them. On the other hand many students find that learning by doing is the best way to learn. Many isn’t all though. It’s a struggle.

        At the end of it all I like the portfolio idea that Joanna Goode talks about. I think that this shows a broad range of what a student knows. Of course there is the cheating problem which seems to be talked about a lot lately. That is why I think the portfolio or any code sample should be the start of a conversation not the answer. I used to have students walk me through their end of term projects and explain what is going on. I would ask a lot of questions. It was/is important to understand not just what a student did but how they understand what they have done.

        None of this scales to sections of 300 students though. It’s one of the reasons that huge sections like that don’t make sense to me. Programming is still very much a craft. Crafts are best taught through student/mentor relationships and conversation. Hard to do in school but when it happens it is magic.

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