Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Book Review: Computer Science in K-12

Full disclosure: I haven’t read all of “Computer Science for K-12” edited and compiled by Shuchi Grover yet but a couple of chapters was enough to convince me I should recommend it to other computer science teachers. The books has chapters written by a veritable who’s who of computer science educators. (See the table of contents listed below) I’ve heard many of them speak, read much of their published works, and met more than a few of them. I knew from the author list that it would be worth having.

I have been jumping around a bit but for me the chapter on Naïve Conceptions of Novice Programmers alone was worth the price of the book.  I have no doubt that I am going to learn a bunch reading the rest of it. The chapter or chapters you read that makes the book worth the price may vary but I suspect you’ll find several such. If you are looking to improve HOW you teach CS you should get this book.

It is available with black and white illustrations and diagrams and color versions. I bought the black and white version but wish I had spent a few extra dollars for the color. It's available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble

The table of contents is below from the Amazon page.

  1. Foreword (Inventing Computing Education in Schools) by Mark Guzdial
  2. Algorithms (Shuchi Grover)
  3. Before You Program, Plan! (Phil Bagge, Shuchi Grover)
  4. Creative Coding (Miles Berry)
  5. Data Structures (Baker Franke, Richard Kick)
  6. Events (Jennifer Rosato, David Wolber)
  7. Feedback Through Formative Check-Ins (Shuchi Grover, Vicky Sedgwick, Kelly Powers)
  8. Guided Exploration Through Unplugged Activities (Paul Curzon, Shuchi Grover)
  9. Hard Fun With Hands-on Constructionist Project-Based Learning (Deborah Fields, Yasmin Kafai)
  10. Integrating Programming Into Other Subjects (Shuchi Grover, Aman Yadav)
  11. JavaScript, Python, Scratch, or Something Else? Navigating the Bustling World of Introductory Programming Languages (David Weintrop, Shuchi Grover)
  12. Knowledge, Skills, Attitudes, and Beliefs | Learning Goals for IntroductoryProgramming (Rebecca Vivian, Shuchi Grover, Katrina Falkner)
  13. Learner-Centered and Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (Tia C. Madkins, Jakita O. Thomas,Jessica Solyom, Joanna Goode, Frieda McAlear)
  14. Modularity With Methods and Functions (Mike Zamansky, Jens Monig, Jonalf Dyrland-Weaver)
  15. Naïve Conceptions of Novice Programmers (Juha Sorva)
  16. Operators and Expressions (Matthias Hauswirth, Shuchi Grover)
  17. Pair Collaboration and Pair Programming (Shannon Campe, Jill Denner)
  18. Questioning and Inquiry (Shuchi Grover, Steven Floyd)
  19. Repetition and Recursion (Dan Garcia, Joshua Paley)
  20. Selecting Pathways With Conditionals (Shuchi Grover)
  21. Testing and Debugging (Kathryn Rich, Carla Strickland)
  22. Universal Design for Learning: Reaching All Students (Maya Israel, Todd Lash)
  23. Variables (Shuchi Grover)
  24. Worked Examples and Other Scaffolding Strategies (Jane Waite, Shuchi Grover)
  25. X-ing boundaries With Physical Computing (Sue Sentance, Katharine Childs)
  26. Yay, My Program Works! Beyond Working Code ... Good Habits of Programming (Shuchi Grover)
  27. Zestful Learning (Bryan Twarek)

Friday, June 19, 2020

How Do We Know Who Is Struggling In Learning CS

One of the interesting points Amy Ko makes in her presentation to Microsoft (CS education in higher education) is that “Most faculty have little insight into who is struggling most into their class, because the ones that struggle are most silent.” She goes on to suggest that took could help make struggle visible at scale.

In the high school classroom most teaches try to be aware of what students are doing and notice who is struggling but it’s hard. Students are very good at hiding the fact that they are struggling. Many just don’t want to admit, especially in front of their peers, that they are having trouble in a class. Teaching online makes noticing struggle even harder!

So what sort of tools would be helpful? That’s what I have been thinking about for a bit.

What are the indications of struggle? Idleness in the IDE? Maybe but sometimes students are very active but not making progress. They add stuff, try it, delete it, and try something else. The “lest throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks method.” So to much activity or to little activity? These are both things an educational IDE could track.

What about syntax errors? This is a tough one because sometimes a single character off will generate a great many errors. I have managed to see error lists move from over 100 to 2 or three after changing one line of code. So maybe look at specific errors? We probably need some research on this.

Number of builds? Some people write a lot of code before doing a build while others run a build after every little change. Seems like an unreliable metric.

Total time spent in the IDE? Maybe although how does the automated system know if the amount of time is due to struggle or to an advanced student adding far more than what is required?

As a teacher, one thing I would like to know is that errors are the most common in a class. That would help me adjust how I teach certain things.

If only students would talk to us!

All in all I love the idea of tools to help teachers see who is struggling and what they are struggling with. I just don’t feel like I have a good handle on what metrics would be really helpful.  Commercial IDEs are never going to care about these things though. Might make a good PhD project for some CS education researcher though.

Dr. Ko suggests that one way industry could help is by “should be supporting the hiring of CS education faculty and the creation of CS education classes to prepare effective CS teachers for K-12 and higher education classrooms.” We still have a lot more questions than answers in terms of teaching computer science.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Thoughts on an IDE for Teaching CS

Amy Ko posted a slide deck about CS education in higher education from a presentation she made to a group at Microsoft. There is a ton of stuff in there. I need to read it a couple more times actually. I’ll probably blog some more based on other things she brings up. Issues of equity for example. That one I need to think over a bit more as I process the reality of the world today. But for this post I want to focus on some of the ideas she shared for teaching beginners.

Under the heading “Classes move too fast” she writes “Many introductory programming courses now include a 1) professional-grade programming language, 2) a professional-grade IDE, 3) a professional-grade version control system, and 4) a professional-grade test framework.”

This is too much for many students. In my end of year survey most of my students felt that Visual Studio (a professional-grade IDE using a professional-grade programming language) was fine for them. Not to hard. And a lot of teachers are using GitHub – a professional grade version control system. That is still a lot to learn just to get going though. My students may think they are doing just fine but honestly I spend a lot of time fixing projects because it is far to easy to mess them up. I’m finally beginning to face that truth.

Later in the presentation Dr. Ko talks about making tools that make collaboration and working together easier. How do students work together? How do they do it when they are separated by time and space? That is something we have to think about even more these days.

What is the answer? Well, I’d like to see an IDE and language that creates projects that are harder to screw up for one thing. Don’t ever let beginners use Save As in a Visual Studio project. Doing so is almost a guarantee that a beginner will mess up their project in serious ways. Save As as an option for experts? Yep. We don’t want that for beginners. That’s just the start. Students are always closing windows they think they don’t need but later realize that they need them after all.

And collaboration? GitHub works for some. As I said I know a number of teachers use it with their students. I have had students who used it on their own as well. Awfully smart girls those two. But its got some rough edges. It’s really a powerful professional tool that offers more than most students or teachers really need.  And there are so many options and steps! We need something more simple! It needs to be tied in to the IDE fairly transparently as well.

Pair programming remotely? I’ve tried Visual Studio Live Share a bit.and it has some real potential. Not many seem to know about it yet. It does require  that people have a reliable want to share links for sessions. I’m not sure how it would work if a teacher wanted to look at a lot of student sessions are once. And we are still dealing with Visual Studio or VS Code and their projects.

This last semester I used Microsoft Server Manager to work with students online/remotely. Worked great as long as we were on the same virtual machine. It’s not something I want to give students access to though. I would like that functionality in a different tool. Especially if making the connection was as easy as this one was. It was easier than Live Share. So the tool I would want would probably involve some sort of “server” that was attached to a class that let students find their partners and connect with permission from the other student. Wouldn’t that be cool?

So what I want is an IDE that doesn’t let students mess up their projects easily, does easy version control with minimal set up or steps to make happen, and easy sharing of coding sessions. All built in with an easy set up.

A test framework? That’s a topic for another post.

Monday, June 08, 2020

Setting Up To Teach From Home

This past spring semester was my first time teaching remotely but not my first time working remotely. I worked from home while working in industry for jsut over 9 years. The latter probably helped me set up to teach remotely. Still, I learned a few things about being a remote teacher. I thought I should write it up and see what other ideas people might have to share.

First, you need to work somewhere outside the main events of the household. An office is ideal of course but not many of us have that option.  Still you want to find a place that is not busy when others are home, where they are a minimum of distractions, and where you don’t have to set up and break down your work equipment every day.

If you are presenting with video you want to be aware of your background. To much light behind or from the side can be a problem for the video. You want to know what is behind you. Will it distract others? Will it show things that are to personal to share with the whole world? I know teachers who have hung sheets behind them. That is probably not necessary but you want to be deliberate about what other see in the video.

Speaking of video, you want a good camera. I’ve seen some debate over webcam or built-in camera and I don’t have a firm opinion. If you have a good camera in your laptop or desktop you will probably be fine. In either case, make sure you are centered in the image it takes.

I find that a headset works better than the microphone and speaker built into at computer. A headset keeps out extraneous noise from both your ears and the conversation. It helps avoid distracting noises in the house as well. I know that a few teachers I know have purchased “gamer headsets” and found they work very well. They’re not that expensive either.

Speaking of gamer equipment, a comfortable chair is a must as you will be in it longer than you would be if teaching in person. Several teachers I know have been buying chairs made for computer gamers. What ever chair you get should be comfortable and sturdy.

Screens? You really want, I almost say need, two or more windows. Professional developers argue over which is better – two (or three) monitors or one very large monitor with multiple windows. I suspect that for most teachers a second monitor is less expensive than a very large monitor. Cost aside, personal preference rules in the hardware decision. I used two laptops side by side this spring but I would use one with a second screen if I were doing it again. I might have a second laptop as well since I have several anyway but that would be more of a backup than a principle workstation. Being able to copy things from one window to another is invaluable.

I used to keep one window showing that online meeting with student faces and the second with what ever I was demonstrating or presenting. I also liked to have my student information system, for attendance, in one window and the Zoom or Meet window in another to make taking attendance easier. That was much easier than switching windows on one screen. I did the same thing when grading. Work I was grading in one window and gradebook software in the other window. Since work was all being submitted online this was the easiest way to work for me. Your mileage may vary of course.

I can’t forget the network. Wi-fi works when it works. Wired connections are almost always faster and more reliable (I sometimes lose WIFI when the microwave runs),  It’s not always easy to set up but if you can use a wired connection I do recommend that you do..

Will teachers be teaching remotely in the fall? I don’t know that anyone knows for sure. It doesn’t hurt to prepare for multiple eventualities though.

Monday, May 25, 2020

ACM Digital Library is Open for Free

Like most K-12 teachers, a membership in a professional society like ACM or IEEE is not funded by my school. So I pay out of pocket for an ACM membership and have for years. The extra money for access to the ACM Digital Library is a bridge to far. Normally, during a conference members can download papers from that conference and I take advantage of that. Right now, the ACM Digital Library is open to everyone for free. I am downloading papers like crazy. OK, maybe not like crazy, but I have been downloading a lot of papers that I find interesting.

I start by browsing conference proceedings and moving from there. Today I have been looking for papers at the Koli Calling conference.  I’m not sure where to go next but with just over a month to go of free access I hope to download papers referenced by the ones I have already.

Teachers of computer science now is the time to download your summer reading!

From the ACM Digital Library website:

We believe that ACM can help support research, discovery and learning during this time of crisis by opening the ACM Digital Library to all. For the next three months, there will be no fees assessed for accessing or downloading work published by ACM. We hope this will help researchers, practitioners and students maintain access to our publications as well as increasing visibility and awareness of ACM’s journals, proceedings and magazines. Please be sure to inform your colleagues that the ACM DL is now open, and will continue that way through June 30, 2020

Sunday, May 24, 2020

What About the Students Who Thrive Learning Online

In my end of course evaluations I asked my students if they learned better online or in the classroom. Not surprisingly, most of them said they learned better in the classroom. Maybe the experience will help motivate them to come to class. But I have been thinking about the students who said they learned better online. My son who is an elementary school principal has been seeing similar things. Students who struggle in the physical classroom are thriving online. What can we learn from this to help us reach these students better?.

The last few months have been anything but a careful study so it is hard if not impossible to come to firm conclusions. Antidotally, it looks like some students are more comfortable asking questions privately. Hardly a surprise but we don’t generally make allowances for that. Maye we should.

Other students are doing well because they are more In Control of their schedule. I don’t just mean the time of day, though I suspect that is a factor for some. I mean they can work on a subject in smaller or larger chunks of time. If they are really progressing and feeling food they can keep going. I have had students stay after class in the physical and well as the online classroom but teaching online the last class of the day has resulted in a lot more students staying late and getting extra help

Often we know that there are times when frustration means one should walk away from a problem and come back with fresh eyes later. The asynchronous learning that many schools have been using really opens the door for more of that. Its not like homework which in theory would allow for that because the whole day has been unstructured or at least less structured.

Home school parents have been talking about these things for years.If educators can look beyond our own biases perhaps we can learn from them.

Over the summer, hopefully, we can catch our breath and take a close look at what we learned, what worked, and what didn’t work. We’ll know more about how to teach online for sure. It wouldn’t hurt to look at this experience for things that may help the students who don’t learn as well in the physical classroom.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Am I Retired Now?

My last class of the school year just ended. My grades and report card comments are in the system. I am not going back to school in the fall. Am I retired now? I guess so. It feels weird as if there is no real closure. It doesn’t feel real. I actually updated a PowerPoint today that I have no immediate plans to use. Just seemed like the right thing to do.

People are asking me what’s next and to be honest that is unclear. I will be presenting at CSTA 2020 this summer. That will be online which is also weird. I will really miss the the hallway thread. I am on the conference committee for CSTA 2021 so CSTA and I are clearly not done with each other.  I hope to actually make more CSTA New Hampshire meetings. If I can swing it I hope to make some other conferences as well. There is one in Canada I have always wanted to attend and SIGCSE may be doable as well. I will not have to miss school for it at least.

Anyone want to pay my way somewhere, anywhere once the world is open again and have me  speak?

A lot of people have suggested teaching online and I  am considering it. I have mixed feelings about it and it would have to be the right situation.

Once the lockdown is over I plan to spend more time with my grandson. I am really looking forward to that.

I have a book idea or two that I want to work on. So that may keep me busy a bit.

As for this blog, I intend to keep going with it. I keep running into ideas to share and doing so seems like a good thing to do.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Teaching is About Relationships

Today I was online with my students for about 90 minutes of a planned 55 minute class. One of my students joined the Google Meet session early and we chatted for a while. We talked mostly about how things were different learning online. I also had students stay after the scheduled end of class for extra help and we also talked about online learning for a while.

For me, as for I suspect most teachers, the best part of the job is building relationships with students. That is harder when teaching online. There are few chats between classes, before and after school, or during lunch room supervision. Many teachers I have heard from talk about how they are glad they got to establish relationships with the students they teach before we went to emergency remote teaching.

One of my students this morning said that she was worried about incoming freshmen if school starts online. They will not have the relationships that help adjust to a new school. They will also not have the technology experience that current students had even before we moved online.

Students tell me these out of class chats are important to them. From my observations, students who establish a good relationship with even one teacher are happier and more successful in school. I wonder how we can develop those relationships if school stays online.

My students tell me that they would rather be in the physical building. They miss their friends but they also recognize that they learn better in a physical classroom than online. Sure it is nice to be able to eat in class, have a restroom close at hand, and be able to do things at home without the travel to and from school but that’s not enough.

One student told me today that she misses the atmosphere of school. There is a feeling in the building that helps her feel comfortable and ready to learn. That is the sort of intangible that often gets overlooked during discussions of moving education online. Yes, it is less expensive. No doubt about it. But we lose so much. Students know this. They may not all have known this before but they are seeing things through a different lens today. So are teachers. I hope parents see it as well.

I’ve had almost prefect attendance in my online classes. The reasons for that are many, varied, and complicated but I believe that relationships have had a huge influence. Relationships between students and teachers and relationships with the culture of the school have all played a part. Plus I have really amazing people for students. I’m a lucky guy.

Friday, May 15, 2020

What is your School IT Department’s Mission?

My school ran a pair of online awards events yesterday. We had almost 850 people on the day time Zoom meeting and around 500 on the evening one. These are both on a par with our events in the building in previous years. But that is not what I really want o focus on. I want to focus on how this is possible

As part of the day, the highest award the school presents to a member of the faculty or staff was awarded to our director of technology. It is largely because of his leadership that we were able as a school to move online as quickly and as effectively as we did.

Largely because of his work, our students were used to going online for assignments, to taking quizzes and tests online, and to turning in assignments online. Teachers are used to taking attendance online, giving assignments online, and many other things essential for the running of the classroom. In preparation for moving online faculty were given their first training and preparation weeks before we actually had to move to teaching from home. We got more training once the decision was made.

This happened because our IT department, from the top down and with the support of the school’s administration, has the same mission as the school. The IT people see their role as helping everyone use technology to teach and learn. Our It director has taught several classes the last two years and learned first hand how technology can be used and has used that experience to help prepare teachers to use it.

My school is fortunate to have an experienced and dedicated Director of IT who fully embraces the mission of the school. I suspect that him being a graduate of the school as are his three children doesn’t hurt.

Over the years I have visited many schools were IT departments and teachers, especially computer science teachers, have had an almost adversarial relationship. Teachers may want to teach things that the IT department is afraid of students learning. Or IT departments have made decisions about policy, hardware, and software without considering the needs of teachers.

Among the many lessons we are learning during these unusual time is that teachers and IT have to be partners working together for a common goal and with a common mission.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

More Fun With Live Coding

Live coding or as I like to call it coding without a net is a wonderful way to teach.There was a time when I thought that having prewritten code that was pasted in during a demo was a good thing. You see it a lot in demos at events for coding professionals. It turns out that in a marketing presentation that is fine and dandy but for teaching it just doesn’t work.For one thing, it moves to fast. Students can’t follow it all. And secondly, it avoids making mistakes.

It turns out that making mistakes is useful. When teachers make mistakes students feel less bad about making their own mistakes. Programmers make lots of mistake. Getting very upset or feeling inadequate when one makes a mistake is a sure fire way to get burned out very quickly. So seeing a teacher make a mistake can be comforting.

Of course, what is really important is how the teacher reacts to making a mistake. The obvious advantage to making a mistake is that the teacher gets to model how to fix the mistake. A teacher will, I hope, read the error message and then explain it to their students. For some  reason students have to be taught that reading the error message is helpful. That is strangely not intuitive.

I find that I make several kinds of errors regularly. The most common error is the typo. It’s amazing how poorly my keyboard it as typing what I mean. A great opportunity to point out that they computer is not as good at handling ambiguous spelling as people are. Typos are often a good reminder to slow down as well. Sometimes taking your time is the fast way of doing things.

I also get bit by the logic error. Now you would think that would not happen for a long time professional writing simple code for beginners. What tends to happen in real life is that the good idea fairy strikes in the middle of a demo and I decide to make the demo more interesting by adding something I have never added before.This turns into a great example of why planning BEFORE writing code is such a good idea. It is yet again a wonderful opportunity to model problem solving and debugging. Always take advantage of opportunities to model how to solve problems.

I teach several courses using several different programming languages so the other sort of problem I run into is using code for the wrong language. Visual Basic and C# (and JavaScript) declare variables differently and that seems to be a problem for me some days. As does remembering which languages use semi colons and which ones don’t. I haven;t figured out how to really take advantage of those errors. Any ideas? At least they don’t happen to often.

For me, I have decided to embrace the chances for mistakes. I’m not going to be afraid to make a mistake in front of my students. Life is to short and there is a legitimate upside to it. Now I have to make sure I can explain the error I made at the end of last class.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Can Online Teaching Really Work?

There is already a lot of discussion about schools and the fall semester. Will we be in physical spaces again? Will we be online again? Will there be some mix?

[Dallas Texas] District preparing for three possible scenarios to start the 2020-2021 school year

It’s far to soon to know but there are a lot of questions to be answered before decisions are made. I link to some articles below that may be of interest. But for now, I want to ask the question “Can online teaching really work?”

People talk a lot about equity and the digital divide. The current situation sure has highlighted that with access to computers and the Internet being a huge factor in many areas of the country. One would like to think that if we fix  that, give kids computers and an Internet connection that will be enough. As if!

I think there is more to it than the digital divide. I think there is a cultural question of the value of education. In some schools, students who could participate are not. Why? I don't think we know all of the reasons.

I teach to a populations for whom education is critically important. Parents are paying real money for education and kids know that how adults spend money shows what they value. I think that is huge. Talking to my students over the years, they know their parents are making sacrifices for their education. They want to make sure their parents are getting value for that money.

Sure there are the spoiled self-entitled students out there but in a school like  mine the culture values learning. Peer pressure helps motivate students to do school work.

That is not a universal culture. There are schools where the culture says "get out of school as soon as you can" and "you don't really need school but you do need to work." There are schools where students feel they have to go to work to help support their families. There are kids who parents will actually make them leave home at 18 and go on their own. (This is not a myth. I have seen it.)

School culture is very important. Peer pressure can work to help students value school or not value it. So my concern about online teaching is two fold. How will students who are not living in a culture, at home or at school, where it is cool to be smart, where it is important to go to school. or where they don’t feel like they belong motivate themselves to attend online classes?

And how will schools with a supportive culture be able to maintain and grow that culture online? It’s not going to be easy.

And that is just secondary school. I don’t even want to think about grades k-8. No, really, I don’t.  I can’t imagine online school working well at those age levels.

BTW are plans for the fall thinking about teachers? Especially older and otherwise vulnerable teachers?

Friday, April 24, 2020

Planning for the End of the Year

My school will be on our regularly scheduled April break next week. It’s a nice breather for me and probably for the students as well. It’s been a long time since I have had a school aged child in the house so I don’t know what it will be like for parents. One of the things I will be doing is planning. How am I going to finish up this school year?

We’re not doing our normal end of semester/year major assessments. You might think that simplifies things but it really doesn’t. I have final exams and finial project plans already made up. They are no no use to me now.

My Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles students will be finishing up their Explore Task, the last part of the work they are required to complete for the AP Exam, early the week we restart.  I’m looking at various topics to go deeper into as we finish the year. I might as well take advantage of the time that way.

My Honors Programming class has covered the regularly planned material. This is partially a result of the weird schedule, an exceptional group of students, and the fact that normally we would be starting semester projects soon after April break. I don’t really want to add the stress of sneaking in a major project. Two major benefits of the semester project are that they help students see what they have learned in a larger context and that it lets them explore some new ideas on their own. What I am thinking now is that I will introduce some fun stuff that we don’t always get to and let them work on a couple of smaller, but hopefully interesting and challenging, projects. This may achieve what the major semester project usually does.

My freshmen still have new material to learn. They also normally get a semester project to work on but we’ll actually not have as much time for that as I would like One of the other teachers teaching that course is talking about modeling the design and creation of a more complicated project for the students. Not requiring them to write it themselves but seeing him model the design process.. That’s an interesting idea. I haven’t decided what I want to do though. What ever it is has to include most of the major concepts we have learned so far and help students see it in context though. That is my task to develop over the break.

Also, over the break I will spend some time working on some little educational and, hopefully fun, games for my 5 year old grandson. I wrote him a memory game using pictures of him and his family this week and he seems to enjoy it. I’m playing with some sight reading game ideas now.

SO how are you wrapping up your school year? Something different from normal?

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

School Buildings Without Students are Sad

For the first time in 5 weeks I visited school today. My purpose was to clear out my personal stuff. I am retiring and I needed to get everything at some point and since today was a non-teaching day I decided to do it today. We still have a month of school of course but there will not be any return for classes in the building.

The building should be full of students. It’s just not right for a building that was made for students to be without them.  I’m glad I didn’t wander far from my computer lab.

I was fine packing up the boxes. I found a few items I had forgotten about – so that is where the document camera I bought was being kept safe!  I also tossed out a lot of old papers and what not. A student handbook from 2014? Why was that still in the desk drawer? I think the desk is cleaner now than it was when I took it over 7.5 years ago.

Putting things in the car made it seem more final though. I got a touch emotional. I think it was easier to do in an empty building without students and peers around. I’m really going to miss saying a proper good bye to my students and to the other faculty though. At some point the building will be open and I’ll stop by.

I didn’t wander around the building. Judging by cars in the parking lot there were a few people in the building. I saw and talked, at a safe distance,to two of the maintenance people. I’ll miss them. They really embrace the mission of the school and are just awesome people.

No more visits until there are students in the building again.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Ending School With a Whimper not a Bang

The other shoe dropped today. New Hampshire’s governor ordered public schools to continue emergency remote teaching for the rest of the school year. This was not unexpected as many other states have already come to the same conclusion. At least I can plan better.

Having a bit of certainty, an official last day of classes, no final exams, and a few other details makes planning a lot easier.

We’re still having April break. Our last day of classes will be May 22nd.  We’re skipping final exams which means we can use all the time remaining to cover new material. It also means end of the year grading is a little easier for me. I normally have my freshmen class and Programming Honors courses write semester ending projects.. Without those I have enough time to cover everything I want to cover even though we are meeting fewer sessions than we are used to holding.

I’ve been thinking about all of the personal items I left at school. Normally I would pack up during final exams week and bring every thing home after the end of year teacher meeting. That’s obviously not going to work. I can still get into the building if I need to and because of where my computer lab is I can do so with very little chance of meeting other people.It will be sad packing up in an empty building.

We’re going to try to have a number of the big end of year events, awards, Baccalaureate, and even Commencement virtually.  I wonder if I will be asked to wear my academic gown for Commencement? I really do get a kick out of wearing that but wearing it where no one can see it seems pointless.

I really feel badly for the students, especially the seniors. They are missing some once in a life time activities. Sure many of them will have graduation from university or even graduate school but there is something special about high school graduation.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Planning For School in the Fall of 2020

This time of year I always start thinking about the next school year. Even though I don’t expect to be teaching (announced my retirement already) I can’t stop thinking about the fall. Will schools be in their buildings or will the start the year teaching remotely. Universities are thinking about a possible school year without students on campus. I don’t think anyone wants that. It’s a worst case situation.

There are some learnings we can use which ever way we go though. As I have written earlier, my school is using virtual machines that students can connect to from home. I really hope this is in place in the fall. It opens the door for so many options, especially but not exclusively, for computer science programs. If I were at VMware or Microsoft I would be working on cookbook solutions for school IT people to work with over the summer.

Other options like servers hosted on Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web Services (AWS) may also be good options. They would have to work on good pricing and easy to follow instructions for IT people, teachers, and students though to make it work.

I know schools using GitHub very effectively as well. That has an advantage of teaching an important industry skill. It has the disadvantage in that students may not have the right software of powerful enough computers at home. Maybe a hybrid solution with GitHub and some virtual machines would help here. Again, none of this scales with training resources for teachers. Not every It person is as good as the one at my school. And even he is constantly learning new things.

Learning Management Systems may have to adapt as well. Can your schools LMS distribute and collect assignments? many can but some cannot. Schools are likely to be looking closely at how well their LMS handles remote teaching.

Our current computer conferencing solutions seem much better suited for industry than for education. Other issues are showing up just because so many more people are using these tools. Poor Zoom has been playing catchup with concerns for the last month. Google Meet has also be changing and improving because of feedback from educators. Microsoft Teams is used by a few (and they mostly like it) but not many seem to know about it. I do expect a lot more online training for Teams aimed at schools to come. There is already a lot. Perhaps all of these companies, if they get a chance to catch their breath, will start looking closely at the needs of educators.

I have already seen surveys from companies asking teachers what problems they have and how they are trying to solve them. Teacher needs have never gotten so much attention from companies large and small. Maybe we’ll see a big jump in functionality for schools and teachers. A man can hope.

Right now we don’t know what will happen in the fall. Will there be enough testing and treatment for families to feel comfortable sending there children into schools which are germ factories in the best of times. Or will we be starting the year teaching and learning remotely? No one really knows. So we plan for the first and hope for the best.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Revisiting Old Coding Problem Friends

John Conway died the other day. He created the famous "Conway's Game of Life" that is familiar to so many programmers and computer scientists.

I've recently decided I want to write some fun programs and since I can't find the last version of this program that I did I decided to write a new one. Very satisfying.

I did all the things I tell my students to do. I broke it down into small modular methods and tested each individual method as it was finished. Interestingly enough the hardest part, relatively speaking, what getting the generations right. The Wikipedia page, linked to above, had some of the common and interesting patterns and I used them to validate my algorithm.

I came close to making the common mistake my students make of “testing” without knowing what good results are. The patterns in Wikipedia helped with that.

The Game of Life is a cool project. I should really assign it to my students this year.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

A Look at Technology For Remotely Teaching Computer Science

While I do believe that people are the most important part of emergency remote teaching,  technology does have a serious role to play. One key piece of technology that my school is using is virtual machines that students connect to from home over the Internet. This gives them full access to the resources they would have if they were in our physical computer labs. I had our wonderful Director of Technology describe what he set up.

“Essentially what I've done is set up a Windows Server 2019 Remote Desktop Server. I then used VMWare Horizon and created a RDS Server Farm with VMWare and use VMWare security server for the connection broker. This can also be done with Windows Server creating a connection broker, but for me it was easier to use VMware.
No VPN required which was the goal. I configured the server to behave like the students desktops on the computers in our labs. Basically students can log in from any basic device, Windows, Mac, Chromebook and get a Windows 10ish interface that they can work on.”

The extra goodie that I learned to use the other day is the Microsoft Server Manager It looks to be a very powerful tool.  I am pretty sure I don’t want to mess around with it too much. I don’t want t o break what is already working.

The one feature I will be using with students starting on Monday is one that lets me look at and even control student sessions. This should make debugging student issues much easier.  It is still not the same as being there but it’s as good as I’m going to get anytime soon.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Emergency Remote Teaching is About People Not Technology

Attendance at my emergency remote teaching classes has been very close to 100%. Frankly, this didn’t surprise me at all. Apparently I should have been surprised. According to a poll reported by NPR, 4 In 10 U.S. Teens Say They Haven't Done Online Learning Since Schools Closed The difference between public and private shows a huge difference though. According to the article  “47% of public school students saying they have not attended a class, compared with just 18% of private school students.”

I don’t think that it is enough to say public or private though. I attended a public magnet high school as a student myself and even today that school bucks the trend. According to a New York  Times article “At Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the city’s most competitive, Serge Avery, a social studies teacher, said 98 percent of his students have been participating in daily online activities,”

There is a lot at play here of course  Privilege is a major factor but there is more to that. Somewhere around 61% of Brooklyn Tech’s students qualify for free or reduced cost lunch.

I was asked specifically about why my school has such a high participation rate.

There is no one thing at play. I think the school culture has a lot to do with it. I think this is true of any school. Education is important to our students. They give up something to attend our school. There is a parallels here with Brooklyn Teck. Both school require leaving one’s local high school and travelling. Both schools make it hard to git in but provide a lot of support to students who do attend.

My school started planning and preparing students and teachers for this weeks before we went online. It was no big surprise when it happened. Students were mentally ready to move online. Many of the tools we use online are tools they have been using for a long time. They were already used to receiving and turning in assignments online for example. Many of them have used video chat of one form or another for years.

I think relationships between students and teachers (perhaps part of the culture) also plays a part. Part of our school’s whole belief system is that students are known, valued, and treasured. Students joke about it some but they know it is a core value and respond well to it.

At its core this is a people issue not a technology issue. Students participate if they see the value in participating. We are still grading - progress reports come out today and we have been online for four weeks. Parents want their kids to learn. That is what they are paying for and they do so because they value education. Students do tend to value what their parents value.

If school matters, students attend.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

When Are We Going Back To (bricks and mortar) School?

That’s the question my students asked the most yesterday. We’re in our fourth week of remote emergency teaching and I think it is starting to wear on most of us. It especially hard on the young people though. One thing I am more and more convinced of is that school is a great deal more than sitting in a classroom and doing school work. My students, consciously or not, are realizing the same thing.

Those casual interactions between classes are important to our students. Students interact with their peers and their teachers in ways that are often overlooked but which make up the total school experience.

Going to school online is not going to be a replacement for going to school in a physical place.

Dr. Fauci has been saying that he expects that schools will reopen in the fall. I didn’t hear any indication in his most recent remarks that suggest they will open again this spring. Summer camps are still at risk according to Dr. Fauci. I wonder what summer break is going to be like.

When we return in the fall, things are going to be different. I hope they will be better. Testing is getting better and the prospects for better medical treatment and even a vaccine are looking up. Most experts expect COVID-19 to be back in the fall again. We all hope not as bad but I think we’ll all be thinking about sick students differently than in the past.

Any teacher will tell you that students come to school sick. Some because there is no one to take care of them at home. Some because they don’t want to miss any more school. At my school we see a lot of the latter. One think I hope we learn about and prepare for is letting students stay home and attend classes remotely. We’re all learning about the tools we have now and perhaps the tools will get even better. If more students can stay home when sick and not miss as much of their education schools will become healthier places.

There are many other things that will happen in well-run schools to make them healthier places. Better cleaning and more attention to covering ones mouth when coughing just to name two.. We’re all becoming more sensitive to what spreads germs.

We’re really seeing how much more there is to school than most people ever realized. Perhaps it will lead to less penny pinching of education in the future. I can only hope.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Living in Interesting Times and Sharing Thinking

You may have noticed I didn’t post anything in this blog yesterday. Part of that is because I had to make an unexpected trip to my family’s vacation home. A neighbor reported an open window and we can’t have that. It was weird driving though what is normally a booming tourist and vacation area and not seeing much traffic and most all of the businesses closed. People are staying home.

While I didn’t post here yesterday that doesn’t mean I kept my metaphoric mouth shut. Doug Peterson interviewed me over the weekend and posted the result on his blog.I think it is some of my best thinking. Doug knows how to ask questions that get me thinking. You can read that interview at 10 Questions for Alfred Thompson

My good friend, Jane Prey  also had questions for me. She wanted to know what I wished I had known before I started remote emergency teaching. My thoughts may be read as the CSTA web site at Software, Hardware, and People

Last week I asked people to blog more about their experiences and how they are teaching. A number of people have been doing that. Mark Guzdial wrote two posts over the last couple of days. While he is teaching at the university level I think there is good advice for all educators in them. I recommend them to you.

Dan Anderson has his own COVID19 Update on his blog. In it he shares the questions he is asking to check in with his students. I think we all know that teaching is about more than just covering the subject matter.  I hope to see more from Dan. 

IF you are looking for how the move looks at my school from the administration point of view this article is a good read Private School Profiles: How Bishop Guertin High School is Responding to COVID-19

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Coding For Fun and Mental Exercise

Recently, I started reading a book about the mathematics of cryptography. (Mathematics of Secrets) Fascinating. A lot of the math is hard (to put it lightly) for me but the stories that go along with the development of it all are fascinating.

So far I have learned a few things and made my Caesar Cipher program much more efficient. I really need to revisit my Vigenère cipher program and make it more efficient and more interesting. The other night I coded up a quick transposition cipher. It was fun and once I got the algorithm down in code it was easier to get to sleep. Writing the code does help me understand what I am reading and that is a real benefit.

We’ll see how I am feeling when I get to the chapter on public key encryption. So far, I am sticking with the easy math and playing with ciphers that are far from modern cryptography. I'll leave that to the professionals.

Caesar and Vigenere are common enough programming assignments but I may write up the transposition cipher as a project for future use. If not for my own classroom for a project book I have in mind. Miles Berry pointed out that teaching ciphers by having students write a little code and experiment with different variations is much more fun and engaging for students than exercises away from the computer. Doing this stuff by hand can be a bit tedious.

For now though I am finding some pleasure is writing some not very complicated code as a way of exploring ideas that I am learning. I’ve had a chance to play with some libraries and methods that I haven’t really gotten to use before. That’s been fun. So much of my coding the last couple of years as been limited to the stuff I teach in a first programming course. I’m using this time to stretch myself a bit. Perhaps get my coding “muscles” back in shape.

In any case, for me,  coding == fun

Friday, April 03, 2020

Three Weeks of Teaching From Home

two of my international students have returned home to China. I spent some time talking to one of them after class today.It was interesting to talk to someone in quarantine. I’ve never done that personally with someone I know. He told me the first couple of days were fine. Eat, Sleep, go to class, and play games. After about three days it got pretty old. He is not allowed to leave his hotel room. Meals are brought to him. They take his temperature three times a day. Not an easy schedule for a teen aged boy.

I think that attending classes virtually are probably pretty helpful for him. They keep him connected with people and some sense of normal in a very abnormal situation. I know it is helping me.

A lot of schools seem to be having a lot less teacher student interaction. Often it seems like assignments are distributed on Monday, collected on Friday, and teachers hold virtual office hours once or twice a week.Sounds like a nightmare to me. Trying to create assignments that students can do and that make educational sense to do without a teacher in the room or presenting some information first is a scary thought for me. How does one even do that? At least my students are getting new material and things are progressing even though slower than normal.

One school district near me went though all sorts of hoops just to get to the point where teachers can record themselves and share videos. Online meetings are still optional for teachers and students. I feel bad for all concerned.

At my school, we’re still planning only in short periods of time. We’re still going to have our scheduled vacation week the last week in April. Its too early to plan beyond that. Next week is Easter week and as a Catholic school we will not be having classes on Good Friday. We may go to four day weeks after that as well but I don’t know if that has been decided yet. Baby steps.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Please Blog About Your Emergency Remote Teaching

It seems like there are a large number of long Twitter treads where educators are reporting their experiences and how their school is handling this period of emergency online teaching.  I love reading them but they are hard to follow, hard to find, and hard to share. They are also fleeting. I wish more people would use this time to start a blog.

Personally, I have found blogging about what is going on in my teaching practice and what I am learning to be a great  stress reliever. It is also creating a resource I can look back on later to see what happened and how things appeared at the time.

Blogger, GitHub, WordPress, Medium, and Tumblr are some sites you can use and have free offerings. I found this line that may help you choose one. How to Choose the Best Blogging Platform in 2020 (Compared)

Think about it. We’re teaching in a new time and in a new way. No one is an expert yet and we all have things to share. Let me know if you decide to start a blog and I will link to it for here. And read it. I want to know what you are up to.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Teaching From Home–What about Cheating?

The College Board has been making some moves to make it harder to cheat on Advanced Placement exams. Given that their business plan relies a lot of the integrity of the exams that makes a lot of sense for them. A lot of teachers seem really worried about cheating when students are learning from home with no one watching them closely to prevent cheating.

The Washington Post reports that Mass school closures in the wake of the coronavirus are driving a new wave of student surveillance Apparently one can hire a company to have a person watch a test taker through their webcam while they take the test. It’s as if taking the test itself were not enough stress.

In some ways I get it. Cheating defeats the whole purpose of a test. Well, depending on what you see as the purpose of the test. If you are a student who values the test only for what it does to your grade than cheating seems like it is fully in support of the goal. If you are a teacher trying to fairly access what students are learning it defeats the purpose.

Now I work pretty hard to catch cheating normally. I look for students handing in identical work, code that comes from the Internet and not a student’s own mind, and all sorts of other things. Its something we do as part of teaching I guess. We do need to make students aware that tests and other evaluations are for their good more than for ours.

We’re living in a crazy time though. I have always believed that the cheater will pay a price for their cheating one way or another one day. I’ve never been a fan of grades for the sake of having a grade either. Even as a student, school was first and foremost about learning and not grades.

So am I concerned that students may cheat? Sure. Am I going to lay awake at night trying to figure out how to stop them? Not really. I have much to much else to worry about than student grades. I hope they don’t cheat. I will not be blind to cheating I do catch. But it is not top of mind right now. Top of mind is doing the best job I can of teaching and having some trust that students are working at learning.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Changing How We Think About School

What my school is doing is trying to replicate the brick-and-mortar model in the online world. Other schools are doing something more like “correspondence school” We fall back on old models at times like this when the world is turned sideways.I’m getting all sorts of ideas about what I would like in a remote lecture tool as well as what I would like for other interactions. But as someone pointed out to me, we are trying to replicate the brick-and-mortar model in the online world and that may not be the best way to teach online.

Peli de Halleux, creator of MakeCode at Microsoft, asked me “Why replicate the brick-and-mortar model in the online world? Isn’t there opportunities to improve things are taught (and not just make it worse)?”

It’s a really great question. The problem right now is that we are scrambling. Doing things right, I mean really right, takes time and planning and knowledge that most educators don’t have. in a real way we are making it up as we go along. Are we learning? We sure are. Is there enough sharing of what we are learning? I think not.

There is some for sure. Educational Twitter and Facebook are humming. There is some blogging for sure. I suspect that most teachers who read blogs (not enough read and far too few write blog) are siloed in their reading. I know I mostly follow CS educators. I hope someone is studying all this though.

We don’t know enough about online teaching. What we are doing is not a MOOC which is good because MOOCs have a poor record. It is something very different.

Mark Guzdial wrote So much to learn about emergency remote teaching, but so little to claim about online learning which addresses some of the issues around using the present time for research. This is far from a well-thought out scientific experiment as you can get.

That doesn’t mean it is a bad time to try things though. In fact, out of necessity we have to try things. Chris Lehmann, founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, has been blogging about his and his schools experiences and wrote today about Teaching Without Compulsory School. In many school districts school has more or less become voluntary. How do you manage in that environment were as one spoof I saw on Facebook said “welcome to my online classroom where the due dates are made up and the grades don’t matter?”

Most teachers are not all that entertaining. There is no way I can make a video that will keep a student’s attention for more than 10 minutes. I can hope for 5 minutes but 10 is optimistic. Sure students will watch a movie for 90 minutes but who has $100,000,000 dollars to make a couple of 60 minute classes?

Most of us need some degree of compulsion. Students don’t always, often?, see the value of what school is trying to teach them. oh well. Maybe I should take a nap. I stayed awake most of the night worrying about this stuff.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Teaching From Home–Day 11–Is this our new normal?

Well. we’re definitely going to stay online until May. Our last week in April is a vacation week. I am hoping it still is. What will May bring? I have no idea. What about June? My school usually runs into June for a week to ten days. Most of the public school around me go even further into June.

Things are going fairly well so far I guess. Things take longer though. Its harder and takes longer to help individual students. I can’t just jump from student to student and desk to desk as easily. I don’t mind that much but it is going to get old. My one hope is that I will model my debugging enough times and clear enough that students will be able to learn from other people’s mistakes.

The school I teach at was highlighted in a newspaper article in the New Hampshire Union Leader. That is the state’s largest newspaper and has wide reach. So that was cool. There are a number of pictures of teachers at work at home and at school. Check it out at Teachers and students adjust to remote learning using online tools

For the first two weeks a few teachers taught from school in empty classrooms. They have been asked to teach from home now. Even though schools are allowed to teach from school our administration feels that the spirit of the guidelines suggest we set a better example from home. Or something like that. Personally I like not having that drive every day.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Teaching From Home–Day 10B–Plan? What Plan?

When administration announced we were moving to remote teaching I started adjusting my plans. Now understand that when the semester started I had a plan for every singe school day for every one of my classes. They were great plans. Several of them have been used as recently as this past fall semester. Now I had to adjust for a schedule that had classes meeting 5 out of 10 school days rather than 7 out of 10. Oh boy!

So one sets priorities. In the case of AP CS Principles, what do I need to get covered for the exam and how do I get the last performance task in by the due date from the College Board. For my other classes, what are the key concepts that I need students to lean to feel like the course was a succes. I planned accordingly. Then of course the schedule changed again.

We’re not going to have school this Wednesday. Everyone needs a little time away from screens. Don’t tell anyone but I am likely to use some of the day figuring out how to teach some things. So I adjusted again.

The College Board announced changes for my AP course. No exam. AP grades will be based on the Performance Tasks and we have a later deadline for those. Great! Now what am I going to do with the time I scheduled for test review in May? At lease I have some room for the performance task. I’m still going to try and get that in before April break because who knows what comes next.

I have plans for my other two courses. I think they’re ok. For now at least. Will we even have a full school year? I don’t know? Will we have finals? I don’t know. I figure that my plans are solid for no more than a week at a time.

This uncertainty is the biggest stressor for me tight now. I suspect I am not alone.

Teaching From Home–Day 10A –I'm One of the Lucky Ones

There has been a lot in the news about schools being closed and how schools are dealing with it. There seems to be everything for regular online synchronous teaching like my school is doing to no school at all. A range in between. The school district I live in is posting assignments on Monday to be completed by Friday. That's it. No interaction with teachers.

I don’t know who that is harder on – students who are doing boring work without teachers to help, teachers who struggle to find meaningful work that students can do without a teacher, or parents who are having to make sure their kids do the work.

Teachers are not trained for this sort of teaching. Not any of it. It’s not like a MOOC where someone spends months planning things, recording videos, developing special tests and exercises. This is new.
Teachers have been asked to do more with less as long as there have been schools though. Teachers are resilient and innovative. Its a necessity even in good times. And so teachers are doing amazing things and trying to maintain learning and some sort of connection to students.

I’ve got great internet. My students have great internet. I’m hearing stories of teachers having very poor internet though. Rural areas in the US, like in many other countries, don’t have the same quality and speed that more heavily developed areas do. So I’m lucky.

Training and preparation are another area where I feel lucky. We had a short introduction to teaching from home and some tools to do so at least two weeks before we actually moved to remote teaching. We were told to think about how we would be teaching remotely and we did. Then there was a full day of training before we started. Training seems to run the range for several days (yeah!) to none at all.

Even still there is a lot of figuring things out as we go. It’s amazing how helpful Facebook has been though. Teachers are sharing ideas and tools like crazy. In spite of physical separation it feels like teachers are building community rather than losing it. This may turn out to be a good side effect.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Teaching From Home–Day 10–When Remote is Really Remote

For the last several years I have had international students in some of my classes. Most from China but also South Korea, Viet Nam, and Cambodia. This year I have had two from China who have gone home already because of COVID-19. Both of them joined today’s class from hotel rooms in China where they are in quarantine. It has been interesting to talk to them about their returns to China.

They haven't seen their families yet for one thing. One student told me that a bus meet him at the airplane and took him directly to the hotel. He was the only passenger on the bus.

Because of the 12 hour time difference they are sleeping late and going to bed late. Effectively its like they are living on Eastern US time. It will be interesting to see how long that keeps up when they get out of quarantine.

Having them is class is not really any different for me than it is having my US students in class. It speaks to the wonders of technology for sure. I still miss seeing them in persona and talking to them outside of class.

We had a brief class conversation after students finished today’s quiz. It started about the quiz itself. They say it was too easy and seeing the grades they are either right or they cheated. I choose to believe it was too easy. Though I do worry a lot about cheating. See yesterday’s post about back channels.

The most interesting thing said though was that students were finding fewer distractions taking class at home.That seems counterintuitive to me as their rooms, from what I see in the cameras, appear to be full of distractions. I think the real distractions are the other students in the class though. The poking and joking and chit chat that students seem unable to stop when they are together. I suspect that when the crisis is over young people are going to be gathering in record numbers to actually be together in real life.

Well, one more class and week two of remote teaching is in the record books. Stay safe everyone.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Teaching From Home–Day 9–Students Backchanneling

My good friend and peer teacher, Tom Indelicato and I share a morning homeroom. It’s online now of course but we join early and stay late to touch base with each other. We’re both teaching sections of our school’s freshmen computer science class and we often start a topic a day before the other because of the schedule. This morning chat is a good time to learn from each other about how things work in this new way of learning.

This morning we talked a bit about student backchanneling. Tom noticed that all of his students had muted his class meeting but many were still talking. One student explained that they were helping each other. Today’s students are communicators. Many of us older people see them on their phones and assume they don’t like to talk; that they play games or watch videos. They sure do do those things but they really do communicate.

Students are big users of all sorts of online chats from Facetime to Google Meet to text messages to who knows what. It probably helps them these days with self imposed physical isolation. During a normal class we might encourage peer tutoring and students working together but demand that they put away their phones but these are not normal times. I’m glad that they have alternate ways to communicate these days.

On the down side, one student admitted that in some classes that he doesn’t care a lot about he “can just play games.”  It’s pretty hard to police that without using some sort of tool that is probably much more invasive of privacy than I, for one, what to implement. That’s some pressure on teachers to hold student attention and to find ways to motivate students to care.

Someone once said, “if people are going to stay away there is nothing you can do to stop them.” The same is true of students who sign into a meeting but are not mentally present.  But as Father Andre Coindre, founder of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart who run the school where I teach, said “When you have done all that you can, you have done all that you must.” And so it goes.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Teaching From Home–Day 8–Online Teaching Stations

We sure are learning a lot about online classes these days. Teachers at my school are using Google Meet and Zoom in about equal numbers. This means that students are seeing a lot of both tools. At some point there will be a lot of good data about what does and doesn’t work. What is clear is that tools designed for companies and their conference calls is not automatically a good fit for schools.

There has been some chatter about privacy and data security for both but I am seeing more concern about Zoom so far. Privacy is a big deal for everyone of course but schools have some different concerns because the data we are talking about involved children. This needs to be addressed.

Students I have talked to see some of what I do when comparing Zoom and Meet and that is power verses complexity. If we could limit the complexity side to the teacher/meeting creator role that would be a good thing. We need things to be intuitive and easy for students so that they can participate fully.

I’m using both tools – Google Meet for two courses and Zoom for a third. I really like the simplicity of Google Meet but it lacks the controls I like from Zoom. Zoom also lets me see more faces than Meet. That’s a big deal for me.

Another lesson I am learning is that one screen is not enough. It’s not enough for me and it is not really ideal for students. It is hard for students to switch between what I am asking them to do and to what they are actually doing. For me I’d like to see their faces, what they are seeing from me, and my work screen all at the same time. I also like a window open for things like attendance taking and showing my notes. This would probably work with one large screen but it would have to be a lot larger than what most teachers currently have.

A lot of teachers are sharing pictures of their home teaching stations. Like me, many are showing two computers or a computer with a second monitor. I can’t see getting by with less.I have two laptops side by side but I am considering adding a second monitor to one of them. At least I have the option. Many teachers do not.

It’s probably to early to understand everything we need to do this right. Hopefully, once things calm down and some sort of normal settles in we can all compare notes and make some solid recommendations. Smart companies will take note.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Teaching From Home–Day 7

Well this is the new normal I guess. We had snow last night and several students missed homeroom this morning. I am assuming it is because of power outages in the area. No calling a snow day or even a two hour delay.

My big effort today was getting all of my freshmen connected to our virtual machines so we could start with Visual Studio. I’ve though about trying some other online programming environment but there really isn’t time to plan everything all over again on a new platform and in a new programming language

The good news from today is that all of my freshmen were able to connect to the virtual machines and run Visual Studio.  The less good news is that getting a first program to make sure it all works took the whole hour..

I think part of the problem is that students usually have to switch windows from the presentation to their own projects. Wouldn’t it be great is students had two monitors on their computers at home? Not happening of course. Still most of the students were able to create a working program. I still have to check if all of the projects were saved in the right place. I know that one was not. That one was also created in C# and not Visual Basic. That always happens. Both saving in the wrong place and starting with the wrong programming language.

Next on my agenda today is making a recording of what I wanted students to do today so that a few students who fell behind can watch it and catch up. I have a hunch someone may have walked away from his computer thinking he wouldn’t miss anything important. I wonder if I am going to wind up recording a lot of things. Recording the whole class doesn’t seem like it would work. There is too much extra stuff going on. Recording a special tutorial may be faster and easier than editing the meeting file.

So the learning goes on.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Teaching From Home–Day 6

Boring post title I know. But I am not really concerned about attracting eyes in these crazy time. Over the weekend I found out that my international students (two from China and one from South Korea) are heading home. I sure can’t blame them for wanting to be home or their parents for wanting them home. I will miss them though.

In theory the students going to their home countries will be working from there. There is a 12 hour time difference and they will probably be facing a 14 day quarantine with no guarantee that they will have internet during that time. So who knows what they will be able to do. They are all in my APCS Principles course so should have access to everything they need.

A lot of my student turn off their cameras during class. Maybe bad hair day, maybe they are wandering away, who knows what else. I can’t see any good way to require that the camera stay on. At least one student doesn't have a camera on his desktop computer. Zoom shows me that.I keep mine on all the time though. I think it is important that students see my face and know that I am there and engaged. I’ve had some private chats with my international students who have not yet left.

For my Programming Honors course, I have recorded a number of my presentations and most materials are already online.  I am regretting that I didn’t put more effort into learning GitHub though. Just one more example of how teaching from home is changing how I think about sharing resources with students and others.

BTW, Mike Zamansky had a guest post by JonAlf Dyrland-Weaver at Guest Post - Missing out on a great opportunity in education It’s about how important is it for educators to share resources and information about what they are learning at this time. Think about starting a blog of your own. Or even offering a guest post for this one. But really think about sharing what you are doing.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Teaching From Home–Day 5

As one of my co-workers put it it's been a long year this week. I might ease up on that easier say a long month this week. It sure has been a learning experience.

Today’s big learning was that setting up a virtual machine for students you have to be careful about not just setting up the apps but file permissions and extra folders. I’m still not sure what happened with one of the apps we use. It’s a home grown app that was written by one of the other CS teachers. I don’t have the source for it so right now I am thinking there is some little thing I don’t know about it that is causing me problems. These things are always harder to solve when you are doing so much asynchronously and are not in the same location.

We’re going to move on from that unit early anyway because we are having fewer class meetings and something has to give.

My freshmen will be starting programming next week. Visual Studio on this virtual machine has been working quite well for my Programming honors course so I feel ok about that. Having students share a screen with me has also been working well for trouble shooting.

For now, it is the end of a long week and I am looking forward to relaxing a bit. The differentness of teaching online is a bit more stressful than I am used to. It is like starting the school year all over in a new school. But the kids are being great so I have that going for me.

Oh and I have started playing with Microsoft Teams. It looks really powerful and has a ton of options I am only starting to explore. I wish I had tried it out sooner. I’m not ready to switch in mid stream though. At least now so far.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Teaching From Home–Day 4

I have no idea how long or how consistently I will be writing these posts. I guess when I have something to say. In some ways I think of this as a sort of record of what I am doing for myself and maybe for people who will be going through this themselves.

My students are already wondering how long we will be continuing online. They miss their friends and the face to face contact. I don’t blame them. I doubt we’ll be back before May and even that seems iffy at best. So we continue on.

Today went as smoothly as I could have hoped for. My Programming Honors students have been great. The virtual machine they connect to has handled 21 Visual Studio uses at once brilliantly.  I was worried about that but our IT person has done an outstanding job of support us in this area. I don’t know what I would do without these virtual machines.

I used Zoom for the first time with my APCS Principles class. It worked pretty well. I was using technology to try to solve a people problem and that always has its challenges. Being able to mute students and not let them unmute themselves or mute me has, I’m sorry to say, been a necessary feature..

 Mike Zamansky has a great review of Zoom in his first day of teaching online blog post. It has a lot of good features that Google Meet does not. I feel like after a few more sessions I will have a wish list of what I want in an online classroom. Some of it Google Meet and Zoom already have. Some they don’t. Or I haven’t discovered. I’m doing a lot of just in time learning.

Basically for me Google Meet feels more light weight and easier to use than Zoom. Zoom has more features but is a little more complicated to use. I’ll probably spend some more time experimenting with both. Some schools are using Microsoft Teams and I really should try that out just to see if it has some features or ease of use that I don’t know I need.

This while experience has me thinking about teaching paradigms. I prefer desktop apps to cloud apps for the most part. Maybe because I am set in my ways. I think though that teachers have to give a lot more thought to teaching CS using cloud based development tools. Not strictly web based but hosted in the cloud.

Microsoft and Amazon have options. that look good to me. They are still mostly set up for professional developer organizations and, for education, university CS departments with good professional support. The first one to create an inexpensive (ideally free) cookbook solution that secondary school teachers or part-time IT support in schools can use is going to be a hero.

A cloud hosted solution will solve the problems of student having different kinds of computers at home, installation of software (license issues made easy), and open up learning and projects to expand beyond the computer lab. In my opinion as lot of the web based development/teaching tools are good but that we need to go to a next level of power and flexibility.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Teaching From Home–Day 3

I miss my students. It’s hard talking and not seeing or hearing any reactions. Are they getting my jokes? Even polite laughter and pretending I am funny would be a help. My schedule is weird as well. A lot of extra time. I’m part-time this year and have three regular classes and a study hall. Obviously the study hall is not meeting. With the blocks we are using I have advisory (home room) and then one class at noon on A days. On B days I have the advisory (at 8), a class at 9:25 and a class at noon. Lots of time in-between.  That is far more than I am used to since I usually meet with students two to four times a day plus advisory.

Of course I am not driving to school either so there is more time I get back. As you might expect a lot of that time is useful for planning. I have to figure out what I can get in with fewer meeting times. What are the priorities? For my AP CS P class I have to figure out how to handle the Explore Performance task. That has to be handed in before the end of April (unless the College Board changes deadlines). How do I demonstrate the required in-class time? Lots of other adaptions as well.

I’m also getting some long delayed home projects done as well. I guess that is a plus.Maybe this will help me work into retirement.

Things didn’t quite go as smoothly as yesterday.  Adapting things so that they work on PCs, Macs, and Chromebooks can get a little tricky. We’re working on solutions but this is just one example of why making a big change mid-semester is not as easy as flipping a switch. Well, we’re learning.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Teaching From Home–Day 2

My advisory (homeroom) was interesting. For one thing I realized that there isn’t the chatter between students in the room. I’m pretty sure they are texting and what not but even these “digital natives” like to talk in real life. I did get to talk to them a bit. These students are juniors and this is the third year they have advisory with me so I’ve gotten to know them. That personal relationship would be hard, if not impossible, to have if we’d been meeting online this whole time.

Students are finding it a bit hard to go to school online. Someone else will have to figure out what about it is hard. But I do think it is too much screen time. Time of a different sort than playing games or watching TV. I wonder if it is a bit easier because there has been time to build a face to face relationship with teachers though. It has been my experience that even a little “in real life” time interaction makes online interactions run better and with less friction.

We’re going to stick with four classes a day rather than go to six a day as we had originally planned. I think that is wise. It will be more consistent compared to a rotating schedule that we are used to. We’re also going to be starting classes later than we did in person. I can see advantages to that already as kids are getting more sleep just not having to travel to school.

So far I have discovered one disadvantage of Google Meet. Anyone can mute anyone else, take over presenting from anyone else, and drop anyone else from the meet. Only a problem if you have jokesters in the class. You can guess how I learned this. Zoom has a free option and I may try that. It comes highly recommended.

In a cooperative class things went very well in deed though. I found that having students share their screen when they had issues with code let me model some debugging for the whole class. I did a bit of one to one this way after the class was finished. It’s almost easier than running around the room, tripping over bookbags, and looking at a screen from a bad angle.

Presenting online has a whole different feel to it. One can’t see the faces of the students. I really miss that. I feel very disconnected. That may be the biggest downside for me. I actually like being with my students.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Teaching From Home–Day 1

Well, we’ve started. Today we only had half the classes in the rotation meet. Tomorrow we will have the second half. It’s all about getting adjusted to the new way of school. I started with my advisory period (home room to many people).

All of my students showed up. Some of them were actually awake. It was nice to chat with some of the early arrivals. They’re adjusting and seem ready to give it a go. We’re trying to keep things as normal as possible so we started the day with a prayer and the pledge of allegiance as we do in a normal day. Note: Catholic school so pray is an important part of our day.

One plus of having advisory this morning was that it gave all of the students a chance to try out Google Meeting in a way that is less stressful than a regular class. Students are fairly used to video chats as they use Facetime, Skype, and other video tools for their own communication. Some of the teachers seem a bit less comfortable. I’m now almost glad I had all those conference calls and video calls while I was working in industry.

Mixed results with the first real class. On the plus side, everyone showed up. Almost everyone was able to connect to the virtual machines at school. The person who had trouble was using Chrome and a Mac. I need to look into that. We had some issues with some files not being available where we expected them to be which is not uncommon when some files are on a local drive and some are in the cloud somewhere. The good news is that this class doesn’t meet again until Thursday so I have some time to work out the kinks.

The students were all awesome though. Not afraid to try things and not upset when things didn’t work perfectly the first time. Hopefully that positive outlook holds up.

Tomorrow’s classes will be very different. Mostly upperclassmen while today was freshmen. That may be easier in some ways. May be harder in other ways. In any case, the adventure continues.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Teaching From Home–Day 0

Well it happened. Like so many schools and school districts, Bishop Guertin has decided to close the building because of COVID-19. I say closing the building because we are going to attempt to continue teaching online. Today only teachers reported to school where we worked on learning more about he tools we will be using to replace face to face teaching in real life.

Let me answer the big question first. What about students without computers or Internet at home? Well, to be honest we don’t have many in that category. We may not have any at all in fact. We’re a private Catholic school with a tuition that means that if you can afford to come here you probably have the money for a computer and Internet at home. If families do have an issue our administration will work with them to help out.

Likewise, none of our students are going to miss out on meals as far as I know.

SO what we are trying is clearly not going to work everywhere. I hear that New York City schools have something like 100,000 students who are homeless. Can you imagine? And in America? That needs fixed but that is a topic for a different post.

I will be largely dependent on two pieces of technology. We’re using Google Meet for meeting virtually with our students. Why? well, that is what IT came up with. It’s free and easy to use. Is it Zoom which a lot of schools use? No. But we’ll see how it goes.

The second big tool is a bunch of virtual machines we self-host that students can connect to using VMware Horizons. This will allow students with Macs, PCs, Chromebooks, and Linux boxes to use a setup that looks as if they are logging into a computer in our labs. That means they can using Visual Studio, access our network drives, and any other software we have at school. This should make my life a bit easier.

I’ve been recording presentations for my Programming Honors course for a couple of weeks now. Originally I was doing so so that students who missed school could view them and so that who ever teaches the course next year would have a reference. Now I think that it will be good for students to have access to them for review. I just have to get them into the learning management system and record a couple more. I’m screen recording some of my demos as well. Not quite live coding but at least it will be a resource.

My Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles course (APCS P) uses the code dot org curriculum so we’re largely online already.  I’ll have Google Meet to introduce topics, answer questions, and basically mentor students.

My freshmen explorations course needs some work. I only teach one of those sections and other teachers teach the other five. I’m letting them take the lead on that planning for now. We’ll be doing some programming in Visual Basic in a couple of weeks so the virtual machines will get some use then if we are still closed.

I looked at several options on my own but time was not on my side. I looked at Small Basic Online for my freshmen class but decided I really did not have time to rewrite my curriculum around it. I looked at a bunch of Microsoft Azure related options and honestly they looked really promising. But they are complicated and their student package is designed for university students and a minimum age of 18. Azure Labs looks great but it was also complicated  to set up. The credit card was scary as well. I don’t have experience on how much it would cost to use over an extended period of time. There is Visual Studio and VS Code Online but they also require Azure accounts. Complicated and I didn’t have time to work it all out.

Speaking of VS Code, it has a lot of potential since it runs on PCs, Macs, and Linux boxes. If I could have found a simple tutorial on creating a new C# project using it I might suggest that in the future. Maybe I am old or something but I could not figure it out in the time I wanted to spend.

Lots of Microsoft people on Facebook and Twitter sent me links and suggestions. I do appreciate that but I could have used a nicely packages set of how tos aimed at HS CS teachers. Most of us are not pro developers. Nor do we have a lot of time when we get 24-48 hours to move to something new.

I know that Microsoft is really committed to helping educators at this time of difficulty. The special needs of CS teachers who want to use Microsoft tools and languages are not a priority though. I miss the days when Microsoft had a person dedicated to helping HS CS teachers teach using Microsoft products. Oh well. That’s life.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

One Compile a Day

There is a lot of talk about teaching debugging going on there days. Amy Ko of the University of Washington did a podcast a short time ago on the subject. Amy Ko on teaching debugging. and that started some conversation on social media. Mike Zamansky gave a review and additional thoughts at CS Ed Podcast 3 – Debugging. I left a comment on Mike’s post about the “good old days” when CS students were lucky to get more than one compile a day.

I can hear people thinking “OK boomer” and expecting me to ask people to remove themselves from my lawn.

Seriously though, there was a time when we had to read our code very closely and we had to really try to understand the error messages we were getting.  That wasn’t such a bad thing. Today I see a lot of students throwing code in almost randomly in hopes that it will fix a problem they have not really taken the time to understand.

If you are teaching beginners to program you have almost certainly had a conversation like this:

Student: I am getting an error.
Teacher: What is the error message?
Student: I don’t know. I didn’t read it.

You can ask them to read it but they tend to do so as if for your benefit and not out of an attempt to understand it themselves. Now this is not all students of course but it is fairly frequent. They are somewhat spoiled in a way by having a teacher who can explain what an error means to them. This is unlike when I was learning and there was no one around the computer lab (One computer room one computer) to explain error messages.

How do we get students to understand error messages? How do we get them to look closely at their code. So they find the 1 that should be an I or l themselves? It’s a struggle we all face.

SO we try to model good debugging practice. We demo debuggers. We help students understand the error message and ask them to figure out how it relates to their code. And we let them struggle a bit before coming to the rescue before they get to frustrated and give up completely.

Sure there are lots of benefits to being able to compile dozens of times an hour. It lets students experiment and get creative. But sometimes I do miss those one compile a day days.

Monday, March 09, 2020

What is The Best Way to Provide #CSforAll?

Getting more computer science education to more people is something I think about a lot. Mark Guzdial, I want to be him if I ever grow up, has me thinking in new directions lately. Take his recent blog post for example - Defining CS Ed out of existence: Have we made CS too hard to learn and teach? You really should read it and the comments as well. I started to write a comment but WordPress “ate” it so I’m writing some more thoughts here.

The primary way we have been trying to get CS for everyone in the US is through stand alone computer science courses. It seems great in theory but we have a couple of thorny problems. One is fitting it into the curriculum. Another is finding enough teachers. Mark lays out some other problems or potential problems in his blog post. the tl;dr of it is that doing it this way is really hard and may not be the best way anyway.

One thing Mark has been talking about lately (I try not to miss his posts on Twitter or Facebook) is how Norway is moving in CS education. Basically, Norway is moving to teach CS in context with a bunch of other subjects rather than as a stand alone course. I really want to learn more about his but in general I like the idea.

For many years I have been talking about the value of using CS to help students learn other subjects. In y early teaching days, 20+ years ago, when I thought programming might be out of reach I was suggesting using spreadsheets in math and social studies. How better to process and analyze data than a spreadsheet? And graphs? A computer spreadsheet can let a student look at the same data with different graph types in a short period of time.

These days with have block languages like Scratch, Alice, Snap!, and more that can be used to program by young students. Telling stories to build up language skills. Analyzing data and showing it in interesting ways. Well, you get the idea.

Maybe if we did this in the early (primary grades and middle school grades) students would see computer science as something they can handle in secondary school. Maybe we could even go deeper into CS concepts if we didn’t have to teach secondary school students what a loop is all about. And much more.

We know that students make decisions in middle school that greatly impact their trajectory in later education steps. If CS is part of their environment, and is a learning tool they are comfortable we’ll get more students in deep pure CS courses. Even better, they’ll have CS as a powerful tool in secondary school as well.

This can’t happen over night of course. There is a lot of work. Teachers have to be taught. Curriculum has to be written. And that curriculum has to be interesting, relevant, and shown to promote learning of more than just CS tools., Maybe teaching CS as incremental steps and in context will help teachers and students alike to be less intimidated by it.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Moving CS Education Online

Covid-19 is motivating schools all over the world to close. Many other schools are looking at options in case they have to close their facilities. My own school has been looking at options to try to continue teaching in the event the government askes us to close. This is far from a trivial decision. Sure there is a lot of online education going on. There are MOOCs and virtual schools and other on line options already. Moving an existing  program online in the middle of a semester is not the same as starting off online.

Doug Peterson took a good look at a lot of the issues on a blog post at It's not that simple. And there are plenty of things to consider. For one thing do all your students have broadband internet and a computer that can support the needs? And can the school’s networking infrastructure support all of the people accessing the system.

Beyond the problems common to all teaching there are problems particular to specific subjects. I don’t know how teachers will run art classes or physical education classes for example. Personally,, I’ve been thinking about how to teach computer science.

Lectures appear to be easy. Even demos are not bad. My school is looking at using Google Meet and that seems like it should work. Others have been suggesting Zoom which has both free and paid options. Paid looks like it would be required for most schools.  Microsoft is making Teams available to schools who need to close for free. I’ve recorded many of my presentations (PowerPoint is great for that) so I can use them as well. But lecture is a small part of my teaching.

My AP CS Principals course used curriculum which is all online already. So that is fairly easy though a lot of the pair work will be harder without students being in the same room. I suspect that they can do some coordination via texts messages and other apps that teens are already using for peer to peer communication. Lynn Langit has written a fairly detailed blog post (Remote Pair Programming) on how she works with interns she is mentoring online. Looks interesting.

One option that I have played with a bit is  Live Share which is available with VSCode and Visual Studio. This would allow pair programming of a sort. It would allow me to look at student code and make suggestions. It’s not going to be as seamless as moving from student to student in the classroom though.

While the software is free making sure students have appropriate computers. VS Code runs on Mac and Linux as well as Windows so that’s good. I’ve been using Visual Studio though so getting students up to speed on VS Code will take some work. I can see some support issues coming up if the switch is made without serious preparation.

Everything is possible but a switch mid semester looks to be rough.  I hope it doesn’t come to that.