Friday, January 24, 2020

The System Knows Who You Are

True confession – give me an app that plays with interesting and personal data and I’ll play for a while. The amount of data available to us today is astounding and computer programming lets us do some really amazing things. Big data is all the rage. The US Social Security Administration has lots of data and it’s all more or less personal. So I guess is it not surprising that people do interesting things with it. For example, Guessing Names Based on What They Start With

It had some trouble with my name because even in the decade I was born in my name was not that common. As I added letters it was able to get it – not that surprising. Although for the decade my grandson was born it never did get it – Alfredo is a lot more common than Alfred. A sign of changing demographics which makes for an interesting topic of its own.

I’ve toyed with the idea of making this into a project for my students but I’m not sure I have the time. Basically because I would probably want to aggregate the raw data myself first and while I could write some code to do that I am not sure I want to. It still makes an interesting demo and I will probably use it that way when we talk about big data in my AP CS It’s a good example of how a system can make some assumptions based on limited information.

We like to think that we are pretty unique and in fact we really are. The fact that this name app can identify us is not really contrary to that. Yes, we have similarities with many people but we also have differences. This app made me think of an app I had students program a couple of times that uses demographic information from the school’s student information system (anonymized). I wrote about that a couple of years ago at Programming Projects Should Be Personal

That project took sex, birthday and zip code information to report on how many individuals in the school had that birthday and lived in that zip code? Could we combine the age guess and the name guess code to identify which student we were looking at? Maybe. Is that good or bad? Maybe. I can see this being a good discussion topic.

Increasingly companies collect more and more personal data about us. And they share this data with other companies. These app give a clue as to how identifiable we are even when we think we are not identifiable. It’s only going to get – is it getting better or worse? A lot depends on how it is used. Students need to understand the possibilities if they are going to understand the world around them. Let’s talk about it with them.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Should We Use the Technology in the Classroom?

I confess that I would love some augmented reality device that showed me the name of the student I was looking at. I am horrible with names. I like to think that something like this would help me a) learn student names faster and b) establish better connections earlier. On the other hand there is some technology that I worry would hurt relationships more than help them.

For example, an AI and cameras that would tell a teacher who was and was not paying attention. Are Your Students Bored? This AI Could Tell You I can see where having an indication of where you start losing student attention could be helpful. On the other hand, maybe as a teacher I should be paying attention to the people in front of me. That is not impossible in a small classroom like a normal high school room. Maybe it is a lot in a large lecture room but that is an example of not building connections in the first place.

Or tracking students using their phones? Colleges are turning students’ phones into surveillance machines, tracking the locations of hundreds of thousands Sure I hate taking attendance and having the computer do it is tempting. Is that really the sort of intrusion that we want to get students used to though? I’m not so sure it is.

As with so much of technology, the question is one of balance. Do the down sides overshadow the up sides or not? This is not an easy question and I think wide open to debate. As technology grows our students are going to have to decide more of them as time goes along. The question is not “can we do it” but “should we do it?” Making those decisions requires understanding of the technology for sure. It also requires a solid ethical foundation and a willingness to question and discuss. Are these “soft skills?” Perhaps but they are becoming more essential rather than less.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Thinking and Teaching about Technology Policy Issues

What are the top technology issues for the 2020s? Brad Smith, Microsoft President, wrote an interesting post about a month ago called Dawn of a Decade: The Top Ten Tech Policy Issues for the 2020s

His list is:

  1. Sustainability - Tech’s role in the race to address climate change

  2. Defending Democracy - International threats and internal challenges

  3. Journalism - Technology needs to give the news business a boost

  4. Privacy in an AI Era - From the second wave to the third

  5. Data and National Sovereignty - Economics meet geopolitics

  6. Digital Safety - The need to constantly battle evolving threats

  7. Internet Inequality - A world of haves and have-nots

  8. A Tech Cold War - Will we see a digital iron curtain down the Pacific?

  9. Ethics for Artificial Intelligence - Humanity needs to govern machines

  10. Jobs and Income Inequality in an AI Economy - How will the world manage a disruptive decade?

I see a lot to agree with and a lot that requires some serious and deep thought. I wonder, for example,  how to square the concerns in 2, 4,8, and 9 with Microsoft’s businesses in China. It’s a topic well worth discussing.

OF course any of these issues, alone or in conjunction with others, are great topics for discussion in a class. Artificial Intelligence factors in with many, maybe most, of these issues. Are we preparing students for thinking about the reality of a world with AI is a major force in technology and eventually our daily lives?

Any way, I recommend the post.  It is long but worth the read. Maybe read it more than once. I plan to.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Having Fun With Computer Science

There is no question that there are a lot of ways to have fun with computer science. Some of them are inexpensive. Some of them cost a lot of money. You can do a lot for a little bit of money. But some interesting things cost more money for computer hardware (especially graphics cards and CPUs), for special software (not everyone offers free versions for schools) or special hardware (A Micro:Bit is pretty inexpensive but an Oculus Quest is serious money).

So what is a teacher to do? Well, there are grants out these. Often very competitive though. There is Donors Choose which is not an option if you are at a private school with a budget that makes public schools look rich. There is teacher spending their own money. Or there is just offering what your school can afford even is that is old hardware and free software.

Now you can do a lot on the cheap. No question. But what I wonder about, as with many things CS education related, is access. Who gets access to the state of the art, bleeding edge stuff and who gets to see “where we were 10 years ago?”

Who gets to program virtual reality stuff and who gets to program the next Pong? When we look at costs for computer science we tend to think mostly about teacher costs or finding room in the building or the schedule. Computers come next but someone who spends their who life on their phone or a web browser may not appreciate why students need a computer with a lot of memory, a fast CPU, and a late model graphics card. Maybe when today’s students become school administrators or school board members that will change but right now getting more money for hardware can be a tough sell.

We’re used to vocational students needing state of the art resources. Computers for reading diagnostics for the automotive students. The latest silkscreen equipment for the graphic artists. The latest medical learning tools (have you see the CPR training dummies lately?) for the medical prep students. But somehow we don’t always see the need for the latest for computer science students. Especially in comprehensive high schools. Some serious CS students might be better off in a career/technical high school for CS. Seriously, some of them are really good at getting the latest stuff for learning CS.

Which brings me back to access. CS is more than vocational. A lot more. How do we show students the real potential if they only have access to what is cheap?

Note: This post inspired in part by Garth Flint’s blog post (Computer Science on the Cheap does not always work), a comment on that post, and things David Renton is doing with his students and Virtual Reality.

Friday, January 10, 2020

How Do Teachers Without CS Experience Debug Student Code

My Programming Honors students are wrapping up their semester projects today. Actually they should all have been handed in by now but I’ll give them until the end of the day. In any case, my students have come up with some interesting and difficult to solve bugs. One involved a png file that had an unexpected transparent  section. The other was more confusing and I’m not sure I could have solved it without a good bit of CS knowledge. Even then it was not obvious. (Long story short – passing addresses can be tricky )

I wonder how less experienced teachers handle the really hard debugging tasks. I’ve been writing code since 1972 and teaching beginners for about 15 years. I have seem a lot of errors. A LOT! Often I can debug code without even looking at it. Some errors are that common. And of course I have developed a lot of ideas about debugging. The debugger in Visual Studio is very familiar to me as is how to use it to narrow things down. Students are very good at finding new ways to mess things up though.

I saw a Facebook post from a teacher who has been assigned to teach AP CS A but who has no coding or CS experience. No, really, I’m not making this up. How in the world will they be able to help debug code? And forget about teaching/modeling debugging practices.

Over the years I have had a number of teachers ask me to help with debugging student code. I saw a very interesting recursion problem once. Doing a stack trace was key to that one.

Debugging may be the single biggest reason to say that one week crash courses are not enough for professional development of new CS teachers. A full semester course would be a good start but without experience a new teacher is going to be just barely staying ahead of their students.

But how to you teach debugging? Have you ever had a course or even just a class on debugging? I haven’t.  How would such a course run? Anyone know of a syllabus for a course like that?  I’ll have to think about that one. In the long run though they is no substitute for experience.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

What does “doesn’t work” mean?

Every computer science teacher has heard it “My program doesn’t work. What is wrong with it?” Sometimes they will show you the code without any more explanation than “it doesn’t work.”  One generally replies with something like “define ‘doesn’t work.’” Or you are told the program is giving an error. When you ask “what error?” you get a blank stare. The student has shut the error message away without reading it. Somehow you, the teacher, are supposed to know the answer without really knowing the question.

Debugging seems to be the hardest thing to teach students. To be fair, debugging is hard. One quote on my bulletin board is:

“Debugging is twice as hard as writing the code in the first place. Therefore, if you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it.”

- Brian Kernighan

There are a few good, and easy, places to start though. One of them is actually reading the error message. For some reason that doesn’t seem to occur to many students. Of course they often don’t read the directions either so I probably shouldn’t be surprised.

Giving some serious thought to the error message is often enough. To be fair, I like to be fair, some error messages are less than helpful. Helping students to understand the error message is better in the long term than just telling the student what they did wrong. Why do you think the computer doesn’t think that variable exists? Did you spell it right? Did you declare it in the wrong place? Remember when we talked about scope?

Another helpful technique is to explain what the program is supposed to do, how it is going wrong, and how you think the code is executing. Many teachers use the rubber duck scheme and ask students to explain all of this to the duck. This works for some people and some errors. I don’t have a classroom set of ducks but do have students explain that to peers. Sometimes that is enough. Sometimes it is not.

When they explain things to me I often prompt with questions. Often students are wrong in their explanations. I remember one student telling me that of course the code did something because here it was in the comments. There was no code to execute what the comment described but the student thought the compiler actually read the comments. Sigh.

In all cases it starts with knowing what should be happening and what is or is not happening. The more detailed one can explain that the easier debugging becomes.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

A Brief Career Memoir

Blame Mike Zamansky for this one. In my last post I mentioned that I am planning on retiring from the classroom this spring. Mike wondered how my perspectives have changed over the years and through different aspects of my career. Now my career (so far) has four main parts. I worked in the computer industry, mostly developing software, for about 18 years. After a big layoff I went into teaching for about 9 years. Microsoft hired me away to work with educators. My job was to promote Microsoft products for teaching computer science. I spent 9 years there. Seven of them awesome. Management and priorities changed and I found myself leaving Microsoft and after a brief hiatus returning to the classroom seven years ago. It’s been a ride for sure.

During my first 18 years I didn’t see computer science as something for everyone. Education was important and I was involved. I was on the board of a private Catholic K-8 school for 6 years. I was twice elected to 3 year terms on the local public school system’s budget committee. I mostly saw computers and something students needed to be literate in. That meant applications. I believed, and still do, that computer applications can be powerful learning and teaching tools. I saw computer science mostly as vocational. It was, after all, my vocation.

After a layoff, the school I had been on the school board for hired me “while I thought about what I wanted to do” as a part time computer teacher. For the most part, in K-8, that meant typing and computer literacy. I picked up another part time role at a K-6 school and worked at those two schools for a year. My son was in a private Catholic high school and one night at parent teacher conferences I had a long talk with their computer science teacher. I started teaching there the next school year. I stayed for eight really goods year.

I was hired to teach HS CS in 1995 and it was rare for a high school to have one computer science teacher let alone two. But the administration believed that computers and computing was important. It was important to parents as well and we developed a good program. We still taught a lot of computer literacy and applications use but we were having some fun teaching real computer science as well. I still saw it mostly as an elective though.

We moved from a mini-computer (PDP-11 running RSTS/e) to PCs during my first few years there. I posted about many of the changes were were making to curriculum and tools to social media (mostly email lists of course) and caught the eye of someone at Microsoft. We were using Visual Basic for programming and Office for applications. This lead to some side gigs with Microsoft as I helped other teachers learn about teaching CS with Microsoft tools. I got a lot of training and previews of software during that time. Microsoft was developing the .NET Platform and the C# language both of which I adopted for my own use. In my eyes, C# fixed the things I didn’t like about Java.

Microsoft was forming a new group of what they called Academic Developer Evangelists whos job was to promote Microsoft platforms and tools to university professors.  Eventually they hired me on. Note that I joined Microsoft because I believed that Microsoft tools were good teaching tools.  My combination of technical knowledge and education experience was a natural fit for one of these rolls. Over time I expanded my portfolio from New England Universities (I joked that my territory was from Dartmouth to Yale) into high schools.

Computer science was growing in high schools and I really wanted to help make that happen. In my role at Microsoft I was able to give away a lot of software and help create free curriculum resources. I also met with teachers all over the country. The big lesson that I tried to bring back to corporate was that teachers wanted to teach concepts not tools. Curriculum had to be content and concept based not product based.  Sure you need to know the tools and I did a lot of workshops on using them. Using the tools to teach concepts was more important to me, and still is, than the tools themselves. I like to think that the resources we created and gave away were help in teaching more than the tools themselves.

During this time people were starting to talk about computer science as being more than vocational. Not so much at companies but by educators. Microsoft saw computer science as the environment that they lived and did business in. They saw promoting computer science education as not to provide them with more workers, they could get all they wanted, but to help their customers and prospective customers get trained people for their businesses. Still pretty vocational of course.

Others, ACM and the fledgling CSTA were starting to promote CS education as being more about understanding the world around them. I really wanted to be involved in CSTA and I was. I was lucky enough to serve on the conference committee for a couple of years. I have no doubt that my being at Microsoft was at least responsible for that but I didn’t care. I was involved. The conference was and is important.

When I left Microsoft I ran for and was elected to the CSTA Board. That was awesome!

Microsoft moved on in priorities but happily  they gave a lot of support to Kevin Wang and the TEALS program he created. My perception is that Microsoft’s support for K12 CS has moved from product based to supporting CS education more broadly. MS Philanthropies made a huge contribution to CSTA not long ago. I still wish they had someone in my old role but that’s life.

But I digress. 

Leaving Microsoft  and returning to the classroom was interesting. Over the previous years I had met, talked to, learned from, and made friends with CS educators all over the US. I was anxious to bring what I had learned from them into my own classroom.  I was also starting to see the need to computer science to move from the vocational to the core of a good liberal arts education. My years at Microsoft had let me see how teachers were doing more cross curricula learning. Bootstrap, perhaps being the best example – learning math and programming/computer science as mutually supportive. Emmanuel Schanzer is one of my heroes for his work at Bootstrap. So how do we make computer science relevant for everyone? And how do we get schools to make the learning happen?

Over the last decade I have been privileged to work on a couple of curriculum initiatives. The ACM/IEEE CS 2013 Task force which gave me great insights into higher education curriculum and the broad field that Computer Science has become. The  K12 Computer Science Framework which really opened my eyes to the possibilities of computer science before high school. I was also a part of committees who put together CS Teacher certification and K-12 standards for the state of New Hampshire.

It’s been a journey but I see computer science as a lot more than a vocational track in schools. With things like artificial intelligence, Machine Learning , virtual and augmented realty, big data, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things growing in importance in our daily lives I see understanding CS as being as important as understanding some basic physics, chemistry, biology, and yes, even math.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

A 2020 Vision

Sorry. You may be as tired of the 2020 jokes and puns about the new year as I am. I’ll try to avoid them in the future. This is the time of year I look at the last year and think about what I should try to do in the new year. This year is a bit different. I am planning on retiring from the classroom in the spring. I’m not sure exactly how I will be filling my time after that. Part of me wants to find some other type of job. At the least I want to stay current with computer science education and help teachers and student where, when, and how I can. So this blog will continue.

I’m also presenting at this summer’s CSTA Annual Conference. I’m looking forward to that. The conference itself as well as my presentation. Looking at the program, I think I will be looking at different sessions than in the past though. Usually I would focus on sessions that have the most applicability to the courses I would be teaching in the next school year. This time it will be all about my personal interests without concern about specific courses. I have to keep learning.

Monday I go back to school. One more semester of teaching. I’m going to do my best to make it the best year yet. After that? Well, a lot of possibilities. Should be fun.