Friday, December 07, 2018

Teaching Phone Programming Should be Easier

Garth Flint and I have been independently looking at resources for teaching mobile phone application development. (Garth’s posts are linked below) I’m currently teaching a course using AppInventor which is going ok but not as well as I’d like. Most of my students own iPhones which AppInventor doesn’t currently support. Their iOS support is currently under review by Apple but my course is almost over. Even with Android phones I still have some trouble with connectivity. And the emulator is a mess. Some days I can’t get it working at all. So I’m thinking about what to use to teach next year.

There are other options. I have been testing Thunkable with some of my students. The good is that it supports both Android and iOS. The bad is that this support doesn’t support many sensors and really that is a huge part of what I want students to do. Without sensors its just another desktop app with a tiny screen.

I still need to take a closer look at LiveCode which seems to come up in this discussion so I don’t know much about it yet. Input welcome!

I haven’t tried the platform specific (ie professional) tools yet and I am reluctant to do so. The ones designed for iOS or Android only work on those platforms and I’d like to use both. Since most of my students have iOS devices than going Apple might be a way to go except that that requires developing on Macs. We have a Mac lab but its already used a lot. And they are all Macs which comes with its own complications. I am not a fan. That’s a last resort.

Microsoft Xamarin with Visual Studio is a cross-platform professional option. I’ve looked very briefly at it in the past. Setting it up is non trivial and I do have to have some connection to Macs for the iOS loading. Networking to a Mac or three might be an easy option.  Well, easier than taking over a whole lab. I need more time to work on that option though. I don’t know many teachers using it which is a concern.

I really wish Windows Phones had not died out. I have a Windows Phone and writing apps for it with Visual Studio (2015 or earlier only) is a piece of cake.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Where Does Computer Science Fit–Revisited

David Renton is teaching his students at Porter-Gaud how to program virtual reality projects. He posted a video of some of these projects a few days ago.

These are pretty cool, Virtual Reality apps created by [David’s] Porter-Gaud High School senior CS students using Unity for SteamVR. They tested them using HP & Lenovo Windows Mixed Reality Headsets. They each created at least 2 3D models themselves using Maya and imported the other models from the Unity Store and/or They also created at least one sound effect themselves using Audacity. They coded the interactions using C# in Visual Studio.

One project was highlighted on the Microsoft Education blog with a post by the young lady who created it. How a VR trip through the solar system honed my down-to-earth skills – go read it. I’ll wait.

That is a project that involved math, physics, and art into a computer science project. I suspect that the math teacher she approached for help was pretty pleased to get involved. I’ve sent students to math teachers myself over the years. 

We don’t ask where reading fits in the curriculum after some magic line in elementary schools. We teach students to read in large part so they can use it as a tool to learn more about more subjects than just reading. I’ve long believed that computer science can, and should, become a tool that students learn to help them learn other subjects.

Yes, we need students to have a base of CS knowledge first. David’s students have had several years of CS, starting in elementary school, before they get to him. Using that base they can learn more about CS for sure but they can also create projects that interest them and motivate them to learn more, not just about computer science, about a wide range of other subjects.

Like reading, we need to teach enough CS that it can be used across the curriculum. It can’t stay a silo subject if we’re really going to see students use it to their potential.

Edit: See also the Luminous Science curriculum being developed by  Ben Shapiro’s student. Brings together science, art and #computing. Also awesome! Ben is on twitter @bennytheshap

Monday, December 03, 2018

Happy Computer Science Education Week


It’s CS ED week again. Yeah! This is the week that thousands of teachers around the work introduce millions of students to computer science. Many of them for the first time. Some through the Hour of Code, some though special speakers, some though creative ideas of their own, and on and on. Teachers are by nature creative people which it comes to sharing ideas. It’s an awesome week.

Earlier today I joked that there were no Hallmark cards for CS education week. The obvious suggestion, print your own, came very quickly. It’s not a bad idea. It got me thinking though. Wouldn’t it be nice is one aspect of cs ed week was an appreciation of those teachers who work to bring computer science education to students on a regular basis?

Last year, CSTA and started the Champions for CS awards. You can read about the 2018 Champions for Computer Science Awards. Those awardees will be presented with their awards at a special 2018 CSEdWeek kickoff event today. That is great. I hope we can safely assume that part of their role is to serve as a sort of proxy to honor other hard working CS educators as well as highlighting exceptional teachers, students, and programs. At least that is how I choose to see it.

Personally, I’d like to thank the many CS teachers who have shared ideas with me, taught me, and supported me over the years. There are so many of them and I can never list them all. There have been blog posts, comments on blog posts (mine and others), teacher presenters at conferences and PD days, hallway conversations, and formal training events. So much to learn and so many teachers who are willing to share what they know. We in CS education have a wonderful, caring, and helpful community. Thank you all who are part of it. You’ve made my career and my life richer.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Ready, Fire, Aim–Why Is Design First So Hard To Learn?

“Hours of coding can save you minutes of planning”

We’re talking about top-down design in my APCS Principles class this week. I gave the students a worksheet (part of the curriculum which is really well done) that asks students to pair up and design the functions they would write for a given problem. The first question from a student? “Do we have to do the design before we write the code?”

Now you may be asking yourself – what sort of question is that? Of course you design first. That is not how students think some times. They want to jump right in and write code. It’s not that they know how to do it or that they have a design in their minds though. They want to try things and see what works. They are more into trial and error. They have high tolerance for error as long as they are moving forward and the development environment is not giving them error messages.

Now not all students are resistant to planning. Over time most students come around to the idea of design first. It can be a tough sale though. Design doesn’t have the same instant gratification that writing and trying a line of code does.

Back in the day (yeah, old guy reminiscing) we had long turn around between writing code and seeing results. We handed in our deck of punch cards and waited (hours or even days) to find out what worked and what didn’t. We really could not afford to skip the planning phase. We thought deeply about how things should work.  We closely desk checked code before submitting it and after getting early results.

Now I am not saying I want to go back to those days. (even though in weak moments I might think it would be good for students.) I do wish it were easier to keep students from writing code first though. I’ve tired having one student write a design and than having another student write code from it. The second student tends to mostly ignore the written design and do it their own way which may or may not look like the design at the end. Often it is easier to blame poor design than a failure toe follow the design. Students do want their programs to work and they don’t want to make peers look bad.

What I am trying to do more and more is to model design thinking myself. We create programs as a class and I work though the design before showing code. For example, we are working on a program to give and score quizzes. We worked though a discussion of what a question class would look like. What data would it store, what functions would it need to support, and how would it be used?

I can force students to write out designs. And they’ll try. Over the years though what seems to influence students most is what they see me do.  If I get lazy they’ll get lazy. If I take shortcuts they’ll take short cuts. If I use good practices though so will they. If I model design, planning for expansion, and show that I am thinking beyond the near term so will they. I keep reminding myself of this.

Leading by example is the best tool of all.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Problem With CS Education Research

There is some research in who t teach computer science (OK, mostly its about teaching programming but that’s important too) but not a lot of teachers or professors are adopting it. One has to wonder why? Eugene Wallingford takes a look at this question on his blog Why Don't More CS Professors Use the Results of CS Education Research?  He has so reasonable answer having to do with peer pressure and pressure from students and parents to do things “the way we’ve always done it.”

The path of least resistance is tempting of course. And change is hard. But I think there is more to it than that. I mentioned Parsons Problems to a professor at a university and he knew nothing about it. And why would he? For many professors at R1 schools research is a higher priority than teachings. And teaching high level courses has a higher priority than lower level courses.  But higher education is not my area so I look closer to home – secondary school teachers.

I should start with myself though be fore I look at others. Problem number one for me is lack of understanding. I’ve read some papers on worked examples and Parsons Problems. I think I understand them. Sort of. But the language of research papers is not one I am totally comfortable with. No, that’s not quite right. I read it comfortably but figuring out how to put the conclusions into practice is often still a little opaque to me. These papers are written for other researchers and not for people to implement in their own classrooms. So that is problem one.

Then there are the tools that are used in the research. I have played around with a couple of Parsons Problems tools. Eh. Clearly they were developed by people who were developing for a specific audience that is possibly more forgiving or willing to work harder than the average high school student.   Lots of them look like the old school (i.e.. before windows) applications adopted for the web. Hardly the thing to grab the attention of a modern HS student. To be honest I tend to worry about using tools developed for research projects. One never knows when the researcher will move on to a new interest.

I want to use Parsons Problems but I struggle to find the right tool to use. I want to use worked examples but I need to spend sometime with someone (or some paper) that knows how to help a HS teacher learn best practices. I’m sure there are other things I can and should learn from CS Ed researchers but I don’t know what they are.

That brings up the next problem. I spend money out of pocket to be a member of ACM and SIGCSE. That gets me a lot of great papers to read. Money well spent IMHO. But it’s been a while since I have been to the SIGCDE conference (maybe this winter) and that would let me get more out of these papers. I could ask more questions and hear the questions of others. I think a lot of HS CS teachers don’t really even know much about SIGCSE or attend the conference. Yes, there are a bunch of HS CS teachers at SIGCSE. They’re a small subset of the total community though.

There are more HS CS teachers at the CSTA Conference but that’s not a venue high on the radar of university CS Ed researchers. There are other conferences more likely to help a professor get tenure or impress possible funding agencies. That is not to suggest that CS Ed researchers don't care about HS CS. They absolutely do. Several have been very generous in their support of CSTA and of spending time helping HS CS teachers. I owe them a debt.

Many HS CS educators don’t have the time, energy, or motivation to go digging for new ways to teach. It’s hard to blame them. Their students do well on examples, pass the AP tests, do well in university, and generally seem happy with the statues quo. How are they ever going to learn how to do things better or even decide if there are better ways?

In short, yes, some are unwilling to try new things but more would if a) they had a better understanding of the techniques and b) they had tools more suited to younger learners. The biggest factor though is they just don’t know about the research and what it suggests. Someone needs to take that on. Calling NSF, Code.ORG, CSforAll, SIGCSE, and CSTA!

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.