Monday, September 30, 2019

The Problem Of Cheating on Programming Projects

This seems to be the year a lot of people are really getting concerned about cheating on computer science programming projects. There has been some discussion of the issue on one of the mailing lists I am on. Garth Flint blogged about it at Finding cool projects for programming classes. And I caught a student searching for exercise solutions for Code.Org’s AP CS Principles course work.

Of course cheating on programming projects is nothing new. I know that people shared punch cards back in the early days. Yeah, I’ve been around a while. I have also caught students sharing code via Google Docs. With the tools we have today, cheating has never been easier. Solutions to popular coding projects are easily available on the Internet and found using search engines.

It’s amazing that students don’t think teachers can recognize and then find solutions that a student copied from the network. We can and we do.

One common refrain I hear is that professionals get code off the Internet. And they do. GitHub is all about sharing and reusing code. StackOverflow and sites like it are were professional and amateurs find solutions to their problems and use them. It is considered good practice to use these tools. But school is different.

School is about learning and projects are assigned both to provide practice and to evaluate what students have learned. Students have a tendency to grab code they don’t understand and try to shoehorn it into a project. Or to copy a while project and turn it in as their own. Interviews can usually determine is a student understands what they used or not.

Ideally though, students would only hand in their own individual work. That is better than catching them and docking them points. Today’s students have more pressure to get good grades and (apparently) less understanding of the correlation between knowledge of the material and those good grades.

Garth wrote in his blog about trying to come up with unique projects that don’t have solutions on the Internet already. That’s hard. It seems like a lot of us teachers think of the same projects. Or we get them from third party curriculum and textbooks. Once a project is in wide use solutions will appear on the Internet pretty quickly.  Even if a teacher does come up with a project that can’t be found on the Internet, if you have one really bright student who is willing to share their solution you can have cheating.

The only thing I can think of is making the issue part of a discussion of ethics and the meaning of school. Using code from the Internet correctly requires that students actually understand what they are using.  Students who cheat their way through are going to find themselves in a bind eventually. If not in post secondary school than in their careers.  Somehow we need to make them understand that.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

If Statement Programming Projects

Over the years I have used a number of projects to give students practice using if statements – especially those that involved nesting or checking lots of values. Currently I am using:

  • Hurricanes – user enters a wind speed and the program reports the storm category
  • Voting – User enters an age, and checks boxes to indicate citizenship and registration
  • Pizza pricing – Base pizza prices plus add-ons for veggies, meats, or different cheeses.
  • Movie theatre pricing – a bit easy as there is only ages to check but ranges require some thought.
  • Ski tickets – prizes based on age and whether or not they are staying at the resort. I could add holiday/weekend of midweek as well.
  • Jumanji – If the random number generator “rolls” two dice whose totals are a 5 or and 8 let the player out of the jungle.

These all work fairly well. Students relate to most of those. Voting gets kids thinking about their future so that is a plus. Obviously decision structures show up in other projects all semester long but these have that as a special focus.

I’m trying to think of some new ones. Projects that are relatable and that are complicated enough to make students think but not so hard that they get frustrated easily. What are you using? What works well with your students?

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Book Review: "Tools and Weapons"

"Tools and Weapons" by Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne is a look at some important computing issues through a Microsoft lens. It is a pretty revealing look as the authors write seriously about the thinking behind Microsoft’s dealing with issues like the Snowden leaks, suits against the government about over reaching subpoenas, protection of users data, transparency, cyber security, and more.

I really like this line from the introduction "When your technology changes the world, you have a responsibility to help address the world you helped create."

There were several threads moving through the book. One was the need for building guiding principles for looking at technology and its uses. An other was the need for diversity among people developing technology and the guiding principles. There is frank talk about embedded bias in algorithms and how diversity is essential to fixing that problem. Responsibility for what technology does is another key thread. Without using these words, the book suggests that “should we” is as important if not more so than “can we.”

The chapters on Artificial Intelligence and facial recognition are the best look at the pros and cons I have read so far. Many people seem to have a doomsday view of AI but Smith and Browne have a more nuanced look; one that is not apocalyptic but more practical and near term. There is a lot to think about in these chapters but the picture painted is more about how we need to think about issues going forward than that we should either panic or be unconcerned.

I found the chapter on China very interesting. It was clearly written carefully to outline cultural and political differences without appearing to attack anyone. I might have preferred a stronger stance but I’m not the president of a global company.

One clear takeaway for me is that today’s Microsoft is not the same Microsoft as it was under Ballmer or Gates. Satya Nadella is a different sort of leader altogether and ethics and principles of a company are set at the top. Where Gates was naïve in some ways and Ballmer was focused on the bottom line Nadella, while not losing sight of the bottom line and still naïve in some ways (remember his gaffs about women getting ahead) looks at things differently, listens better, and is interested in the better good.

His decision to release Windows XP patches for the WannaCry virus for free is one I have to wonder if Ballmer would have made the same way. Maybe he would have but that I have to wonder is telling.

The book is not a difficult read. The language is non technical and technology is explained in layman’s terms. That is not to say that the book is only for non-technical people. I think technical people should read it. So should policy makers in both government and the private sector. It would make a great supplemental reading for an ethics course, especially for an ethics course for technical people.

One last interesting thought from the book. No one graduates from a US military academy without taking an ethics course but many people graduate with technical degrees without taking an ethics course. Maybe that should change.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Password Checking Tools

Neil Plotnick shared some Password Checking Tools on Facebook recently. I’ve used some of these in the past and find them useful and instructive.

The more security aware of my students always ask me how safe it is to use these websites. I tell them to use things they think are good passwords but not ones they actually use. Some of the sites make the same recommendation.

The first two sites above give an estimate for how long it would take a computer to brute force crack the password. The estimates don’t always agree. This is not surprising as they are probably based on some slightly different assumptions. The time scale is more important than the actual number though.

The third site explains why a password it strong or weak which is very useful. One thing that is interesting is the impact of special characters. I have run into a number of sites that don’t allow special characters in passwords. I find that surprising and wonder why that is. I’d rather require their inclusion.

Having students in a programming class write their own password checker is a great exercise by the way. It helps reinforce string manipulation, general parsing concepts, and password safety all at the same time.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing

This is a great program for high school girls interested in technology. I have had several students get awards at the state level and they all say it has been a good thing for them.

Hello Educators! Applications for the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing are now open! The deadline is November 5th, 2019. As an educator, you play a pivotal role in supporting the next generation of technologists. When 2018 AiC Award recipients were surveyed about their motivation to apply for the award, 65% of respondents named outside encouragement to apply. When asked about who most influenced the award recipient to apply, 62% of respondents named Teachers/Educators. Encourage your students to apply and spread the word!

When you endorse a student’s application, you are eligible and encouraged to apply for the NCWIT Educator Award. Applications are due December 2nd, 2019!

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

The Scratch Course For Teachers

This looks like a valuable free professional development course for teachers interested in incorporating Scratch into their curriculum.

"The Scratch Course" is a free, six week, online workshop style course for teachers interested in learning more about programming with Scratch. Originally created through funds from Google's CS4HS program, this course has served over 1000 teachers from around the world in the last five years. We are preparing to offer our fall 2019 section of the course starting on Monday, September 16. For more information about the course and to pre-register, visit: