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

June, 2011

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    More Than Just The Box


    Today has been a busy day at ISTE 2011 for me. I did some time at the booth and then went to a couple of sessions. Pat Yongpradit talked about what he is doing with XNA in his school. He’s seeing some great involvement from and retention of young women in his schools because of an after school computer club for girls. These girls are making games that are relevant to them. Bryan Baker (with a small assist from me) talked about programming for Kinect for Windows. The SDK came out late but already Bryan is developing curriculum and projects for the Kinect for next school year. He is planning on some integration across the curriculum by having his students create simulations that relate to other subject topics. Very exciting stuff especially as he demonstrated some of his sample projects with a volunteer from the audience. Later I attended an event from Dell offsite where Mike Rodrigues, global VP for education, gave a short talk about what Dell is doing.

    Much of his talk was about specific partnerships Dell is involved in with different school districts. He seems a lot more interested in fitting solutions to district needs rather than asking districts to fit what they do into a pre-packaged solution. But one of the things he said that really resonated with me is that “it is not all about the box. It is about all the things around the box.” Surprising to hear from a company that is best known for selling that box in some ways but it really makes sense. All too often in the history of computers in schools the “answer” is to toss some boxes into classrooms and expect magic to happen. Generally the magic doesn’t happen and the box – the computer – gets the blame.

    It doesn’t matter if you are talking teaching computer science, computer applications or planning the infrastructure for a school or a district buying the hardware is only a small piece of the process. So it is nice that Dell recognizes that.

    Later in the day I attended a birds of a feather around the subject of certifications, in computer science and information technology, for high schools. Of course the Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) certifications was part of the discussion. I really od believe that there entry level certifications are a good start for a lot of students. And not just students in career/technical schools (though these are an obvious place for them) but for all sorts of students who want to demonstrate what they know in a standard way.

    In between things (not that there was a lot of in between) I has some good hallway discussions. Tomorrow I hope to hang around the Blogger Café a little bit. But honestly there is more to be done at ISTE than anyone could possibly do.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Do We Really Want Digital Textbooks?


    I’m in Philadelphia for the annual ISTE Conference. Yesterday was the EduBloggerCon – a very cool education unconference that is always a good chance for me to learn something. One of the sessions I attended was about Digital textbooks and it involved a very interesting discussion. You see some people don’t need textbooks at all. They are fine with gathering different resources and putting them together as part of a course. My experience tells me that other really need a textbook. And a test bank with an answer key, and a selection of PowerPoint decks, and still more. In all fairness, many of these teachers have far too many preps to go it alone. There is also the fact that there are a lot of wonderful lectures on the Internet today. Think Khan Academy and the MIT Open Courseware project. Can we just use all that stuff in place of textbooks? Oh and someone brought up the notion that “text book” was an outdated term because we are not just talking text and we are not just talking books. Is taking a book from paper and putting it interact into digital form really a step forward educationally? Maybe not. There was a lot of discussion and a lot of great points being made by people. I was thinking I would use this forum to post some of my thoughts. Some of which were stirred up a little by this discussion.

    What I want in a digital book, lets leave out the word text as too limiting, is media, interaction, and responsiveness. I want pictures that “come alive” and become video like in a book at Hogwarts. Smile I want formulas that a student can add values to and see the results graphed before their eyes and then save, share or even (gasp) print out. I want maps that are not static but have borders that move as some idea of time moves on. I want quizzes and problems that not only grade themselves in real time but suggest places in the resource where a student may want to review based on results. I want a resource that feels alive.

    I think we have a lot of the pieces. There is the Microsoft Physics Illustrator for Tablet PC that has been available for a while. It lets one draw a series of objects of different types and then animates the results with things like gravity “turned on.” And there are more tools like that available. We haven’t seen them incorporated into something like a digital book yet though. There is also Project Tuva from Microsoft Research that explores a new way of organizing and learning through annotated video lectures by Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman. IT provides the video, transcripts, supplemental resources and more. What we don’t have is a unified platform to create these resources easily.

    I have a vision of an easy to use tool, call it a product if you want, that people who write textbooks now can use but also that teachers alone or in teams could use. If you got the best presenters to record talks, the best project creators to create tests, and the best assessment people to work on assessments, and put it all together in a multi-media, multi-strategy platform with some smarts to help teachers identify problems so that they could supplement with one on one modifications or accommodations for struggling students the results might just be amazing. I don’t want to see this platform just become a better (or just more machine-like) “sage on the stage.” I don’t see that as an answer to anything, well, perhaps for boring presentations. But in the long run saying “watch this video” is not much different from saying “read this book.” The value from a real flesh and blood teachers is far more than lecture. It is dealing with the student as a person, an individual, and finding ways to help them understand. But the right resources can make that easier and more effective.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Adventures in NUI Part 1


    Yesterday I was giving a career talk to a group from Year Up in Microsoft’s Technology Center. (Picture below) A great bunch of people and we had a good time. Well I did and they laughed at all the right places and ate a lot of pizza so I am assuming they did as well.


    I have been playing with some Kinect Sensor for Windows code lately and one of the samples I picked up allows one to send keyboard signals to applications based on you’re their movements. Ah, ha, I decided “I can make my talk more cool by using hand signals to advance the PowerPoint slides.” Sounds great right? So with almost no understanding of the program I brought my Kinect Sensor and this sample code with me. The practice went great. I waved my hand and the slide advanced. I felt all Jedi Knight – “This is not the slide you want to look at.”

    Then the students came in and I started my presentation. Now it turns out that I am not very good at standing still when I present. Nor do my hands stay quietly at my side. You know where this is going right? Yep, the PowerPoint did all sorts of interesting things from advancing to retreating to jumping completely out of the presentation. I finally gave up and used a hand held clicker. What went wrong was that the software, a simple demo after all, didn’t have the “smarts” to know what was a “please move to the next slide” motion and an “I’m just fidgety and can’t stand still while I talk” motion. Could that sort of smarts be programmed in? Yes, I think so. But it would take some work. Someone is going to do this work. I may even give it a try myself. But the point is that the computer, even with highly sophisticated sensors like those on the Kinect, is not really all that smart on its own.

    A co-worker and I were talking about what else, besides programming concepts, could we teach with the Kinect SDK. I’m thinking, based on this experience, that some basic artificial intelligence is one such extra topic. Of course we can teach about the math involved in depth perception, the techniques that are used with the RGB camera to pick out different objects, and many more such obvious things. But along the way I suspect we are going to find some unexpected lessons that need to be taught as well. I find this exciting. It’s a new world in user interfaces!

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