Thursday, October 18, 2018

Professional Development Is Expensive–Who Should Pay For It?

I first started to appreciate the cost of professional development when I was working with and for Microsoft. Microsoft at the time was working hard to promote the use of Visual Studio as a programming teaching tool. Part of that effort was through professional development for teachers. I took part in some of these as a student and some of them as presenter. I could go into details but I think is is safe to say that when says they spend thousands of dollars per teacher for professional development events (Moving towards sustainability of computer science in schools) I don’t doubt it for a second.

Still over the last bunch of years a lot of CS education professional development has been paid for by a combination of universities and industry (lots of that industry money was direct from Google to universities and a lot by a number of companies though This is not really a sustainable/scalable model. Well, it’s not sustainable if we are going to have enough CS teachers for every school to offer (and present) CS education to all students.

As Mark Guzdial points out in his recent post at CACM (Changing who pays for CS professional development in the US and who controls it: It has to be local ) it is not how other subjects do it either.
I have been hearing teachers say for years that industry should pay more to support CS education. And I have tended to agree. On the other side of the issue, many complain about an undue influence industry have on CS curriculum. Too many strings attached to the money. How much you worry about that often depends on how you feel about the company donating the money of course. Either way, is it fair to demand that the tech industry fund CS PD? Do other industries fund PD in their areas of interest?

Actually, yes they do. There is a reason that most math classes are taught with Texas Instruments calculators!  But, mostly you find industry funding for  career/tech programs in career/tech schools which tends not to get the public attention it deserves.
Is CS education a career training course or a core academic course? The answer is, of course, yes. If we want to really prepare students for either an academic or an industry future we have to focus on concepts and not on specific tools or platforms. This can be harder at times with industry funded training.

In the long run we really need two things. One is more pre-service training for teachers who will teach computer science. That has to be folded into existing teacher training programs. While that seems to be happening some it is slow progress. The other thing we need is professional development for in service teachers. That training has to be paid for and prioritized locally.

These days the PD for CS teachers I hear about most strongly supported in Advanced Placement Summer Institutes. That’s great and a lot of teachers benefit from it. My school paid my way to one a couple of years ago and I got a lot out of it. Training for teachers in K-8 and for courses that come prior to AP courses do not appear to have the same number of local options for teachers.

That is changing especially with the work that is doing with their local affiliates. Many of those programs will, I hope, grow and expand to reach more teachers. That will only happen as schools and school districts start encouraging (by funding) teachers to attend these courses.

There is a less tangible, measurable reason we need local funding of CS PD.  Organizations, and individuals, send a strong message by what they are willing to spend money on. Spending money of CS ED PD shows that CS education is important, that it is valued, and that the people teaching it are valued. Making it clear that CS education is important enough to spend money on training for teachers is an important message. I tend to believe spending money of PD will help retaining teachers and that is going to be really important.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

ACM to Host Twitter Chat on Ethics in Computing October 18

On Thursday, October 18, ACM will host a Twitter chat on ethics in computing beginning at 11:00 a.m. EDT (15:00 UTC). During the chat, ACM will post discussion questions from the Twitter handle, @TheOfficialACM. We are inviting the computing community on Twitter to join the discussion using the hashtag #ACMCodeOfEthics.

Catherine Flick, Michael Kirpatrick, and Marty Wolf (members of the ACM Committee on Professional Ethics, which spearheaded the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct update) will take part in the discussion.

Join the #CSK8 Twitter Chat 17 October 2018

These are great chats with a lot of wonderful people sharing ideas about computer science in grades K through 8.

Join us for #csk8 chat on Wed, 10/17, at 5pm PT/6pm MT/7pm CT/8pm ET for the 3rd in our series of chats about the cross curricular integration of CS for 5-14 year olds. We will be talking about The Integration of Computer Science & Math in K-8. #CSforAll

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Lossy Text Compression Project

My motto has long been "steal from the best" at least when it comes to teaching resources. Today I found a good project from I'm using their Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles curriculum and we are currently learning about data compression. image

Code has created a Lossy Text Compression app (See image or visit link). that students can try out. The code is also available which is very nice.

The algorithm is to keep the first letter of every word and then remove all the vowels to create a new, compressed message.

Now the app is really nice and because  the code is available several students modified it to try different things out. One of them just changed the message to report 100% compression. No surprise there of course.

I am thinking that I may have some of my coding students (in my classes that are not AP CS P) write their own versions. It is a fairly easy string manipulation exercise which makes it good for beginners. Parsing of text is a good thing to learn anyway. It also lets me bring data compression into the class discussion and I see that as a big plus.

Besides, I just really like string manipulation projects.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Origin–Dan Brown Takes on Artificial Intelligence

I avoided buying Origin by Dan Brown for about a year.While I really liked The Davinci Code, I have been disappointed with his other books. Recently I saw that it was available for Kindle and in a moment of weakness I bought it. I’m glad I did. It was a better book than others of his that I have read but the big interest for me was one particular character. Winston is an artificial intelligence executing on a quantum super computer. He (it?) has a key role in the plot.

Now both the computer and the AI software involved are far beyond what we have today. Of course part of the plot is that the eccentric, brilliant atheist who created Winston has achieved a huge advance beyond the rest of the computer science world. Naturally.

Winston, our AI with a British accent, helps our hero, Robert Langdon, and the beautiful (naturally) Ambra Vidal as they navigate the dangers involved in solving the mystery.

The questions I have been thinking about though come at the very end of the book. There are some surprises and some interesting and important questions. Now many will focus on the obvious science vs religion question that threads through the whole book but for me the interesting questions are the future of AI.

A lot of us grew up with science fiction AI governed by Asimov’s Three Laws of robotics. You may have noticed that people building artificial intelligence today in real life don’t seem to be programming Asimov’s laws in to their software. Brown’s Winston doesn’t appear to have those laws incorporated either.

I don’t want to give any spoilers but I will say that comparing Winston’s actions to how one of Asimov’s robots would have acted might be an interesting exercise. And topic for debate.

Where is AI going? What rules of ethics or behavior will be programmed in to it? Or will we let it develop its own laws and ideals of ethics? And what will it all mean for the future of mankind? These are the questions this story brought to my mind. Have you read the book? What questions did it bring to your mind?

Friday, October 12, 2018

What Does My Phone Number Spell?

Project ideas are everywhere. Today a friend apparently spent some time figuring out what words his phone number spelled. It turns out that there are several web sites that will do this for you.

The one I tried was and it works pretty well. My area code has a zero in it so that is a problem. My number also has some 1s in it and there are no letters for that either. Still it can be a fun thing to try.

I was thinking this might make a good programming task for beginners though. Some fun with loops and arrays perhaps. How many combinations are there? Can we verify actual words with a dictionary look up?

How about going the other way, translating seven or ten letter words/phrases into phone numbers?

Anyone tried something like this? I think I may take advantage of my sick day today to play around with the idea some more. Any suggestions?

Sunday, October 07, 2018

What Qualifies You to Teach Computer Science?

Several years ago a parent at an open house asked me the question in the title of this post. He seemed happy with the response. My resume is pretty good I think and better now than it was then. These days we are getting a lot of people teaching computer science who are new to the subject. Sometimes they are very new. That’s a concern.

I suspect it will be a special concern for parents. They are after all used to looking to see evidence that a teacher is “highly qualified” in other subjects. Computer Science has been exempt from this requirement for most states as it was not defined as a core course. That is starting to change in perception even more than in fact.

So will parents ask the question? And will they be happy with the answers? Personally, while I’d like CS teachers to all have a solid CS background and a major in the field that’s not happening soon for enough teachers. Most are going to get thrust into the role of CS teacher with a couple of workshops (a week or three maybe) and some on going learning as they go.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Earlier tonight I came across and old blog post on the Channel 9 website that I wrote about 11 years ago called Why passion is important for teachers
I think passion for the subject is what I want most in a teacher of any subject. Passion is what spurs interest and learning in students. Students almost never care about a subject as much let alone more than their teachers. And passion fuels a drive in a teacher to learn, to experiment, to continue to grow as a teacher and as a subject expert.  Forcing the unwilling to take a workshop and then teach a CS course is likely to be a complete failure not matter how good the teacher is.

But take a person and help them find a passion for the subject and the long term outlook is strong. In fact I suspect that passion shown by a teacher is the single best predictor of  success. I’m not a researcher and I don’t have objective proof but my observations tells me I’m right. Hopefully the people recruiting teachers are looking for and growing that passion. It’s our best hope is CS for All becoming a reality.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

If you are using global variables you are doing it wrong

One of the hard things for students to learn is simplicity. Beginners tend to over complicate things. In part this is because they lack the full toolbox early in their learning. Another part though is that they tend to see new tools as the answer to problems they are not intended to handle. They really want to show that they can use the tool.

My students are learning about methods and I assigned a project that requires two specific methods be written. I recently had the following conversation.

Student: I may have 5 too many variables for this project.

Teacher: Yes, if you have 5 variables you have too many variables.

Student: I have many more than 5 variables. I have these up here for example [Student shows global variables]

Teacher: If you're using global variables you are doing it wrong.

[time passes]

Student: you are right. It is a lot simpler without global variables.

As part of our discussion of methods we talked about scope of variables. This introduced global variables for the first time. I suspect I did not discuss them enough so that is something I have to fix before I do this again next semester. But that aside, the worst thing is that the student missed one of the reasons we use methods – data hiding.

Students see things differently than experienced programmers see things. They also get excited about using new ideas which can get in the way of them using them appropriately.  “But it works” they say ignoring the fact that other solutions are better and that there are flaws in the way they are using the new tool.

This is one of the reasons I am skeptical of automatic grading programs that only compare inputs and outputs.  It’s not always whether or not your program generates the right answer but that you got there the right way. Helping students find the right path, or at least different paths, means reading their code.