Monday, November 19, 2018

The Learner Gets A Vote

One of the cool things about Twitter is that some interesting discussions take place among really smart people and the rest of us get to watch and, if we’re smart, learn. One such conversation took place over the past weekend with a number of really smart, very well informed (with, you know, actual research behind them) educators talking about CS pedagogy. 

The discussion was between a number of high powered university professors. As a lowly high school teacher I was hesitant to inject my thoughts. But I seem to be genetically incapable on keeping my thoughts to myself so ..

My comment was “A lot of times we forget the student and the environment they live in. The best thought out pedagogy in the world doesn't work if students reject it.”

It may be surprising but many students have strong ideas about what they should be learning. Their ideas of what is relevant are often different from that of their teachers. It’s easy for us as educators to say “we know what’s best” but students do get a vote.

If students think the tool is too hard, too easy, or just wrong it will be a struggle for them. Sure we as teachers can do a lot to make things go smoother. We can explain why it is good to use that particular tool for example. And we can make sure that projects and exercises are interesting to students and not just to us. What we can’t do is just assume that because we know the pedagogy is right that students will take that for granted and wholly embrace our methods. In fact, we have an obligation to do so. “Because I said so” almost never works as a motivation.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Testing Computer Science Knowledge Is Hard

How to evaluate computer science students is always a tough question. It’s everywhere that computer science is taught. There is something of an issue with a course offered in the United Kingdom f or example. Exams ‘useless’ for computer science, say experts  Among the experts they quote are two educators. Miles Berry is someone I know and he definitely qualifies as an expert.

The software developer the article quotes develops educational software, which is interesting. It seems like articles on software education always seem to include a quote from a software developer. Why?

In any case, evaluating CS knowledge is a tricky thing. I prefer projects to tests and quizzes but they have limitations as well. Mostly that it is easy to cheat. Students have time to figure things out, which is great, but that means one has trouble knowing what they know against how good they are at looking things up.

Calling this cheating might not be the right word because real programmers share and copy code all the time. And being able to look things up is an important skill.

Paper tests are harder to cheat on but limit creativity. And they're no fun. I use the occasional quiz in my classes. It sort of keeps kids honest to a point and lets me get a better handle on where students are struggling with concepts.

Having one on one conversations might help some. But that doesn’t scale well. Some students have trouble communicating what they know and some teachers have trouble asking the right questions. So much depends on the teacher student relationship.

I wish we didn't have to grade at all. That would require students who learn because they want to know things and not just want to get good grades. As teachers we would still have to understand where students were having a hard time because that would help us to teach better and students to learn better. Most evaluative instruments feel like blunt objects to me.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

16,000 BBC Sound Effects

I don’t know about you but I regularly go on the lookout for sound effects for projects. Today, I have to share this new source for sound files that may be used for educational purposes. 16,000 BBC Sound Effects

I found this database to be fairly easily searchable. Clips are various lengths and sizes so be aware of that. I imagine you could convert the WAV files to other formats if you really needed to. I’m still experimenting with them.


These 16,000 BBC Sound Effects are made available by the BBC in WAV format to download for use under the terms of the RemArc Licence. The Sound Effects are BBC copyright, but they may be used for personal, educational or research purposes, as detailed in the license.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Post-secondary Cybersecurity Curricular Recommendations

There is more computer science than we could ever cover in grades K-12. So much of it is important and exciting. Every parent open house I get suggestions for what we  should teach in high school. There is no way we can teach it all. There is no way we can do everything in universities either. One other thing is clear, cyber security is growing in importance. While I try to cover a little of it in my courses (easily fits a few classes in several courses) I can’t cover as much as I’d like. My hope is that universities cover a lot more. I think most do.

The ACM and IEEE have just reported out a document to help post-secondary schools design their cybersecurity programs. I haven’t read the whole document yet but I know some of the people involved in writing it  and in the process that goes into creating documents like this. so I am confident in recommending it.

Do you cover cybersecurity in your curriculum? How much do you have time for?

First-Ever Global Curriculum Guidelines Reflect Worldwide Demand for Qualified Professionals and Urgent Industry Needs

After an extensive two-year process, a joint task force led by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the IEEE Computer Society (IEEE-CS) has released a first-ever set of global curricular recommendations in cybersecurity education. This new set of guidelines, Cybersecurity Education Curriculum (CSEC2017), is designed to be the leading resource for comprehensive cybersecurity curricular content at the post-secondary level. More than 320 advisors drawn from 35 different countries contributed to CSEC2017.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Toys or Tools

Are we using toys or tools to teach computers science? The cute little robots for example. Or Micro:bit? or any number of other fun little gadgets that we use to make learning more fun and interesting? Toys or tools? Calling them toys makes them seem frivolous and unimportant. See Merriam-Webster definition of toy which includes “something (such as a preoccupation) that is paltry or trifling” “Tools” implies work or perhaps even not fun. Too serious for some though.

The definition of “toy” also includes “something for a child to play with” Ok, “play” seems a little better than “trifling” but still not so serious. Isn’t school serious business? Yet educators know that play is the way children, especially little children learn. And we’ve know this for a long time.

“The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things.” ~ Plato

I had a related conversation with my programming students the other day. I asked who needed more time to finish a project. A student replied “Everyone but the students who actually write programs for fun.” I do have a couple of those. I tend to see one or two and sometimes three in a course.

The students who find the fun in the course are the ones who do the best. They learn the most. They learn the fastest. And they create the most interesting projects. There may not be a coding gene (as Mark Guzdial insists and backs up with research) but some students sure do seem to find coding more fun than others. As a teacher I do try to make it fun for as many as possible.

My experience tells me (not research so doesn’t count for much perhaps) that students who enjoy their projects learn more and do better at coding. Calling the tools we use to make things more interesting “toys” or “tools” doesn’t change that they make things more fun and interesting. Words may bias people so we should be careful how we use them. Perhaps we tell the funding people they are tools. And maybe we say the same to parents. Calling them “toys” will lower stress for some students and cause others to take things less seriously. It can be a tough call.

Among ourselves (educators) we can call them toys because we understand that toys and play are the tools of learning.  For the most part I think we should avoid categorizing them as either tools or toys. There is too much emotional baggage about both of those words. Let’s try to avoid broad characterizations completely and just call them what they are: computers, robots, sensors, or what ever.

Remember fun is good even when it looks like work to someone else.

FWIW I found that Plato quote at Child’s Play Magazines Quotes about play Lots of great ones to choose from.

Some of the web most things on the Internet are blogs. This post is inspired by a post from Doug Peterson (as many are) that quotes and links to another blog. Specifically Doug’s Toys or Tools post that links to Tim King’s ECOO BIT18: Reductionism and Ignorance in Educational Technology post. Both posts are worth a read.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Guest Hosting a TweetMeet on CS and Hour of Code #MSFTEduChat

Computer Science Education week is fast approaching. It's a big week and one of the big activities for a lot of teachers, students, and schools is the Hour of Code. Microsoft Education is running a Twitter chat or Tweet Meet on the topic and I was asked to be one of the guest hosts. It should be very interesting with a lot of international flavor.

Save the date - Nov 20
Quite an interesting line up of international teachers co-hosting across time zones, national borders, and languages. I hope you’ll join us.

Combined headshot

More information at 

Friday, November 09, 2018

How Do We Define a Successful High School Computer Science Program?

Mark Guzdial has an interesting post asking When do we know that a programming course is not working for non-CS majors? The focus of the post is undergraduate level computer science courses. Can universities create CS courses that work for CS majors and non-CS Majors at the same time. It’s an important question for universities who are faced with more and more CS students and having trouble hiring enough faculty. We face some similar questions in secondary school computer science.

In secondary schools we don’t really have majors and we don’t have a way to identify CS majors. So all of our courses have students who may or may not major in computer science when they get to university. We not only have to ask if our courses are working for future CS majors and for students moving into other majors. Do we even know what “working” means in the secondary school environment?

Is a first course working if enrollment is up in more advanced courses? If enrollment does not go up does that mean the first course is not working or are their systemic reasons like guidance pushing students to more world language or other sciences? Or perhaps scheduling problems with too many interesting electives and to few open slots in the schedule?

Are our courses working or failing based on the number of students who do go on to major in CS? Or is that not a good measure because a lot of people in other majors are likely to need CS. More and more math and science courses make use of programming for example.

Generally it is very hard to collect data about our students once they graduate. I need to think on this some more but I am hoping some of you, my readers, have some thoughts on the matter. We probably need some answers as we work to convince more schools to offer CS. Administrators will likely want to know how we know we are teaching the right things the right way.