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

June, 2012

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    There Is More To Computing Than Computer Science


    Last week Doug Peterson pointed me to an article called “Let’s not call it computer science if we really mean computer programming.” My initial reaction was “Let’s not call it computer programming if we really mean software engineering.”  Really the author was talking more about the difference between CS and SE than much else.The ACM has a great Computing Careers web site which lists a number of computing fields and degrees. I recommend this series to teachers and guidance councilors all the time. They list five different degree paths:

    • Computer Engineering
      Typically involves software and hardware and the development of systems that involve software, hardware, and communications.
    • Computer Science
      Currently the most popular of the computing disciplines; tends to be relatively broad and with an emphasis on the underlying science aspects.
    • Information Systems
      Essentially, this is computing in an organizational context, typically in businesses.
    • Information Technology
      Focuses on computing infrastructure and needs of individual users; tends to involve a study of systems (perhaps just software systems, but perhaps also systems in support of learning, of information dissemination, etc.).
    • Software Engineering
      Focuses on large-scale software systems; employs certain ideas from the world of engineering in building reliable software systems.

    For many of us we tend to focus on computer science as if it were the single area. It is the area that most research institutions focus on of course but it’s not everything. I do like the analogy for the article I lead off with that “Computer programming is like writing and performing music, and computer science is like music theory.” Like many analogies you have to be very careful about taking it too far. I think that you’ll find a great many musicians who find that a solid knowledge of theory helps them write and perform music. While there are for sure talented musicians who have not studied theory and there are talented programmers who have not studied computer science I don’t think you can take that as evidence that theory is unnecessary.

    I hear things like this “I meet thousands of software developers every year, and the majority are self-taught. I cannot tell the difference by watching them develop software.” taken from the article I referenced all the time. Well I’m sorry the author can’t tell the difference but generally speaking I can. I’m not saying the self-taught are worse, though often they are, or that the CS degreed are always better, sometimes they are not, but they are different. They look at problems differently and they tend to use tools differently. There is value in both but it takes a special sort of person to derive on their own what they could have learned in school. And if you want to be a programmer than study software engineering. Real software engineering is where the self-taught really show up – and not in a good way either!

    I think that in high school we are fine talking about computer science and squeezing a tiny bit of software engineering in with our programming, some computer engineering into our discussions, and at least reference IT and IS. The goal in high school is to build interest and expose students to their options. Sure computer science is more theoretical than software engineering and SE is more “practical” by some definitions of practical than CS. That doesn’t make one better than the other though. Sheldon Cooper on TV’s The Big Bang Theory may deride experimental physicists as less serious/important than theoretical physicists but in the real world of education we should avoid such petty comparisons.

    As long as we make it clear to students that things open up a bit when they get to college let’s talk about and teach real computer science concepts. They’re going to need these basics no matter which division of computing they eventually wind up in. In fact they will benefit from them even if they go into a completely different field.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    My IT Department Will Not Let Me


    Today on Facebook Gary Stager posted a rant of a status update:

    Here's a novel idea. Don't send teachers to computing PD with laptops on which they are banned from installing software.
    Teachers are neither imbeciles or felons and they do not work for the IT staff. The IT staff works for the teachers.

    This is a sentiment I can relate to very well. And yes I have blogged about it before but I see so little progress on this. I talk to teachers pretty regularly. I’m also on a number of industry advisory boards for programming and web development programs at career/technical high schools. It amazes me how often the answer to the question “Why don’t you use/do …” is “IT will not let me.” It is as if someone said “students are only allowed to read books that the librarian selects and the English department doesn’t have any input.” Can you see that happening? Of course not! A good librarian gets the books that teachers ask for and makes them available.

    I highlighted “The IT staff works for the teachers.” up above for a reason. That is the way is should be but all to often that is not the way it works in reality. I’ve even heard superintendents of schools say “The IT department will not let me.” Can you imagine the CEO of a publicly operated company saying that? Not likely! Oh the IT department may recommend alternative paths but in the end their job will be to find a way for the CEO to get the results that he wants. Why doesn’t this happen in schools? One word – fear.

    Schools are afraid of so many technology related things. They are afraid that their students will go places on the Internet that are inappropriate and the school will be blamed. And they are not all wrong! Schools are afraid that students will mess up the computers so that the IT department (chronically understaffed usually) will have to do extra unnecessary work. And this does happen. Schools are afraid that students will hack into the school’s databases and change grades. Just ask the IT department and they will tell you that students are evil malicious hackers. Let’s ignore the fact that a well-trained IT department could easily prevent that without the sorts of lock downs that most resort to because, well for what schools pay, it’s hard to get really top notch IT people in the first place. They do exist in some schools and some are truly outstanding. They, like teachers, make a lifestyle decision and have a commitment to education.

    Why IT departments don’t trust computer science teachers I don’t really understand. Seriously many of the CS teachers I run into know more than their IT departments about system and network management. Even the ones who don’t know more at least know more than enough about how to select and install software safely. They are also past masters at managing a room full of kids using technology. SIGH It’s just so frustrating sometimes.

    I think we need to find a way to make a sort of meeting of the minds between school IT people, teachers in general and especially computer science teachers. Perhaps if the IT departments had a bit more time and resources to train more teachers they’d have more faith in them. Perhaps if more school IT people spent more time talking to CS teachers and really trying to understand what they were trying to accomplish in their classrooms and how much the CS teachers actually knew there would be more of a partnership.

    But failing all of that I just wish more school administrators (especially superintendents) would make sure that school IT people know that their job in the school was to empower teachers to teach and not just to make system management as easy as possible.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Thinking About Next School Year


    As the rolling schedule of school year openings and closings continues it looks like school is just about done everywhere in the US this week. Today is the last day with students at the school my wife teaches at. It seems like most of the local schools finished this week already. Of course in parts of the country schools have been finished for weeks. There will be the same sort of rolling start in the fall. Or actually the late summer as some schools start in early to middle August.  Still that is some time away and most teachers really need some time to clear their heads once school finishes for the year. But as a recent blog post over at the CSTA blog (Traditions of New Year) reminds us this is a good time for looking back AND forward.

    The summer is a great time to reflect on what worked well, what worked poorly and for computer science educators “what new technology should I be teaching next year?” Sure it is easy to teach the same old technology and tools. One can rationalize that quite easily with the reassuring statement “it’s the concepts that matter and we can teach that with the same technology.” There is truth in that statement as well. You can teach a lot of the same concepts with Qbasic as you can with Visual Basic and Visual Studio. You can teach concepts while ignoring phones and Xbox games. You can still do a lot with systems running Windows XP even though support has expired. But you also have to ask yourself if you’re doing the students any favors or just making your own life easier?

    More than ever students are looking forward for relevance to themselves and to career development. They are using new technology and they want to use it better and more completely. Sometime this year your students who get new computers will find them running Windows 8. This is two big steps beyond Windows XP. Windows Vista is past and while Windows 7 will be on a lot of computers for some time to come Windows 8 is going to be different. Will you be ready for it? There is a Windows 8 Consumer Preview available. It’s free! Summer is a great time to try this new operating system out and see how it works. You can also get the Visual Studio Express Beta for Windows 8  and start learning who to develop the new Metro style apps for Windows 8. You can be leading edge by the fall and ready to fly wit Windows 8 once it is released. Assuming you can get your IT department to install it.

    BTW I try to tag things I post about Windows 8 with the windows8 tag. You can use that to search for more resources on my blog. Trust me when I tell you there is a lot more of that sort of thing coming!

    Which reminds me – if you are part of a school IT department this summer is a great time for you to also install a copy of Windows 8 Consumer Preview and start testing your school applications software against it. Wouldn’t your superintendent be a lot more impressed by you telling them what works and what doesn’t yet work than you telling them “I have no idea what Windows 8 mean to us?”)

    Students are demanding more Phone development options in school. Today students have a hand portable device that they are using and what to create their own apps for. Are you ready to help them learn how? Have you looked at the free Windows Phone Development Resources that are available? Have you visited the Microsoft Faculty Connection to see all the free curriculum resources that are there? Oh and some cool Kinect resources as well.  Summer is a great time (OK after you’ve napped for a week Smile) to download some of these and teach yourself what you know your students will be excited to learn. Take a look at the list of Latest Curriculum Resources at the Faculty Connection that I posted recently. Great stuff there!

    Lastly think about the Imagine Cup for your students. Yes that means Big Projects! But big projects are change the world or at least change a student’s life projects. While a lot of schools have students enter the various game design competitions give some thought to a Software Design Challenge team and take some something really big. Will there be a Windows 8 specific challenge? Honestly I don’t know but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were. Wouldn’t it be great for a high school team to do well or even win if there is?

    Summer is a great time to recharge your batteries if you are a teacher. It’s also a great time for professional development. Will I see you next month at the CSTA CS & IT Conference? Self study is a great way to learn as well. Don’t let your brain atrophy. There is a lot of new technology out there and the resources to learn/teach it. Go for it!

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