It is summer: Lots of bike, a little IT.

July 19, 2016

I have spent the spring and summer on my mountain bike training for the Butte 50 on July 30.  This is a 50-mile mountain bike race in the mountains above Butte, Montana.  It has been categorized as one of the toughest 50 mile races in the US.  I did it two years ago.  Took me 10 hours on the bike.  It is a loop but I swear there is a lot more up than there is down.  Time-wise there is definitely a lot more up.  I am feeling pretty good about it this year.  I cut way back on beer in an attempt to lose ten pounds.  Ten pounds is a lot of weight on a three-mile climb.  So far I have managed to lose five pounds.  About what I expected.

The Butte 50 entry is a lottery.  I keep winning the lottery.  I won last year but could not ride due to a health issue.  Why can’t I win a lottery involving money?

I did a 46-mile mountain bike race a couple of weeks ago.  My goal was that nobody older than me would finish in front of me.  I reached my goal.  Of course I was the oldest rider but if I over look that little detail I am good.  Oh, and I was not last.  Close, but not last.  And I did not know I was the oldest until after the race.

If I had a higher IQ I would not sign up for this kind of thing.  There is just something in me that requires a physical challenge in front of me.  I get plenty of intellectual challenges being the IT department for the school.  This is about the only physical challenge I get other than riding with friends.  I used to run a lot and do marathons but the Achilles tendons are toast from too many miles with a pack and from running.

I did 21 miles of the course in 4 hours Sunday.  This week is a taper down week and next week is a maintenance week.

IT-wise today is a replace the school’s main firewall/router day.  The present router is old and makes me nervous.  I bought a nifty new Barracuda router.  I am not installing it.  I have a local guru and tech support.  Yippee.

 

An example of an IT failure.

June 29, 2016

At one of the blogs I visit regularly (https://codinginmathclass.wordpress.com/) I read this:

“At the beginning of this school year, I purchased licenses for MinecraftEDU and I love it. Unfortunately, as you can tell if you follow the link above, the old MinecraftEDU is now in transition. Microsoft is re-writing and re-releasing the educational version as Minecraft: Education Edition. I would love to use it, but it’s only going to be available on Windows 10 and my district’s IT department has been very clear that we are not moving to Windows 10 this year. … It is extremely frustrating – I believe in this tool and think our kids will really benefit from using it in classrooms, and our progress as a district has been completely shut down.”

This is where I start to rant and wave my hands.  A school IT department has only one major priority, supporting teachers so they have the tools to teach.  An IT department that makes a decision like not upgrading to Windows 10, and thereby affecting curriculum, needs to be evaluated.  I can understand not upgrading a whole district to Win10 in one summer.  A big district can take a while and they may not have the staff or expertise to do the upgrade in bulk.  But to not do a limited upgrade for a teacher that needs it to teach has no excuse.

I am the IT guy at a small private school.  I operate on a very limited budget.  (Not all private schools are rich.)  I have had a scattering of Win10 computers through my school for a year just to test if there were any issues with group policy or the domain.  I have managed to upgrade to Win10 this summer with no problems.  The upgrade from Win 7 or 8 is idiotically simple.  I just do not understand how an IT department has not been preparing for this upgrade for at least a year.   (More hand waving here.)

One of the major tasks of an IT department, be it a one-man-band or a large district department, is to look down the road to the future.  It has to make plans to implement changes to keep up with the changes.  It looks like this department has failed.

Perhaps I am being harsh.  Perhaps there is some extenuating circumstance in this district I do not understand.  There are a lot of things I do not understand here.  What I do understand is it is the IT department’s job to support the teachers and to find solutions for teachers, not to put limitations on teachers.

I could rant on here for quite a bit more but it is late and I have to go to work in the morning.  I have IT work to do so my teachers will have no limitations caused by IT.

Powerschool and I: Angst issues

June 27, 2016

I am sitting here staring at my Powerschool screen.  I have made a booboo and do not know how to fix it.  I am waiting for PS tech support to give me a call.  Ever have one of those jobs where you do not have a clue what you are doing and have to do it anyway?  That is me and PS.  I have been the PS guy for 10 years and the thing is still a pain in my rear.  I have never been to training in PS, everything is learned by trial and error and then calling tech support.  (Luckily PS tech support is pretty good.  They speak American.  Sometimes with a Southern accent but we manage.)  PS does upgrades a couple of times a year.  They tweak the interface just enough to make something different.  They do not tweak the documentation to keep up.  Bad Powerschool.  Bad.  Bad.

Every year I have to go through the End-Of-Year process.  The EOY process is this semi-convoluted thing that promotes all the kids to the next year.  Sounds simple.  It is not.  There are all sorts of preliminary things that have to be done first and those upgrades seem to change things just enough to screw me up.  One of the prelims is to check student registration dates by running a little built-in process.  The directions then say fix all the errors.  OK, how do I do that?  That is assumed knowledge and therefore cannot be explained in the document that tells you to run the check in the first place.  There is also no way to import information, like the next year’s school dates for semesters and quarters, between schools.  Having to do it three times can lead to typos.  I have made a typo and there is no Delete option so I can go back and fix my typo.  Now if I had an eidetic memory and good documentation I would be in good shape.  My memory and the documentation are both in rough shape so this once a year process is pretty sketchy.  If not done right all sorts of bad things happen.

I am sure PS will call and tell me I can fix that by accessing the Oracle database.  Uhh, yah, sure, right.  Like I go there regularly.

So right now I am suffering a little angst.  I am contemplating my retirement options.

PS called and he fixed the problem remotely.  Goody.  I ran the next error checking report.  Seventy some-odd errors.  I am back to contemplating my retirement options.

Of course having these little issues does help me to understand what a student feels like when they have something in front of them they have very little comfort with knowledge-wise.  Like a new programming assignment when they really did not understand the last programming assignment.  Angst.

Sneakers rule!

June 17, 2016

The sneaker install of Windows 10 is going.  Notice I did not say “going well”.  It is absolutely amazing the number of computers in the school that have issues that no one had bothered to tell me about.  Computers with “trust issues”, dead monitors, no internet, hard drives that sound like a blender full of rocks, ten-minute boot times and so on.  I teach half time so I do not run around the school regularly checking computers and I do not have any nifty software to monitor the status of computers on the network.  If someone does not tell me they have a computer with issues I do not know about it.  So along with the install I am fixing all sorts of weird things.  I am also finding that although Win10 will install on a computer with only 1 gig of RAM, it is not happy about it.  I have a few computers where it just will not go.  The processor is to old.  Time to contact the Montana State recycle warehouse to see what they have.

This sneaker install is the only way to go.  I get to look at every computer in the school.  Slow but needed.  Some of the schools use a server to image their computers.  I do not have enough computers of the same brand to make that worthwhile.  Another reason for the walk-about install method.  Most schools have a computer rotation schedule.  I rotate a computer when it catches on fire or the processor is older than my students.  (Yes, I did have one catch on fire.  Short in the power supply.  Sparks out the back and smoke.  Kind of cool and lots of excitement for a couple of minutes.)

Right now I am really promoting the BYOD (bring your own device) approach to the kids.  The more BYOD laptops, the fewer school computers I have to keep alive.  Since there are Windows laptops out there for $200 I do not consider getting a laptop a difficulty for a kid.

My programming classes are required to have a laptop.  I have loaners if there is a money issue but I do not set up the loaners for a class.  The kids install the software, they deal with saving to the cloud, they deal with video card issues, they deal with wireless issues and so on.  In other words, they learn the hardware aspects of CS.  I figure if I have to know all this random hardware stuff to do my job I might as well teach them what I have learned.

Right now I am learning about SSL certificates.  I had to get one for a third party application in Powerschool.  Yesterday I could spell SSL.  Today I sort of understand what SSL is all about.  The trouble is installing the SSL certificate seems to have killed my Powerschool.  What joy.  This IT job is just chuck full of exciting and educational events.

The Search for the Holy Grail

June 1, 2016

Next fall I am going to teach a course with Unity 5.  The fact I know nothing about Unity 5 does not bother me too much.  I do not know a lot about programming and have been teaching it for 30 years.  Find a good book and stay ahead of the kids.  (Unless there is a really smart kid, then just get out of the way.)  So I have been looking for a good book.  Now comes the bother.  There are many books on Unity 5.  Which one to buy with my limited purchasing funds?  Those funds that are in my back pocket so I am not buying a bunch to try.  Most people are suggesting the video tutorials produced by Unity.  I have done a couple of those and they are pretty good but they are videos.  Just not the same as a book.  A book I can tab.  A book I can thumb through quickly to find what I forgot from yesterday.  A book has a table of contents and an index so I do not have to scan back and forth looking for the right moment in time.  So I am looking for a book.  And a cheap book at that.  When I decided to teach Python a few years ago I had the same problem.  Lots of books.  In my internet search for a Python book I stumbled on to “How to Think Like a Computer Scientist: Learning with Python 3”.  A free downloadable book.  Best kind.  Usually you get what you pay for.  Not in this case.  It is a great book for Python.  Especially since it is available in Word.  I can edit it!  I can put notes in it.  Jackpot.

I continue the great book search of Unity 5.  I have found a few book-ish resources but nothing that avails itself to being printed and stuck in a binder so I can scribble in it.  It has been a while since I have taught myself new software and I am finding that it takes a bit more work to stay on task than it used to.  Sitting in front of a computer in the summer is just not as much fun as mountain biking in the summer.  The book has got to somehow manage to keep me focused and interested.  Good luck with that.

Politics and CS: Whatever

May 24, 2016

The Republican candidate for Montana governor, Greg Gianforte, is a tech businessman.  He sold the tech company he built for 1.8 billion so he is doing pretty good.  As a tech guy he has included in his platform the intent of revising the present non-existent CS education structure in Montana.  Things like teacher training, CS requirement in high school and changes in core curriculum.  In this newspaper article http://www.dailyinterlake.com/members/candidates-push-computer-science-training/article_f11af798-1c91-11e6-a8a2-dffa72e7594d.html he points out that Montana has not offered an AP CS class since 2014.  Is this a bad thing?

It is interesting when people, especially politicians, start talking about topics they do not know a lot about.  They find what they consider an important datum and throw it around a little.  Now AP CS is kind of the gold standard for CS in high schools so I cannot criticize the candidate too much for using that statistic.  (Mike Zamansky points out some interesting arguments against AP in a couple of his blogs.)  I have not been a fan of AP CS ever.  When I originally started teaching CS I took a look at the AP CS syllabus with the intent of jumping on the band wagon but was not impressed on its absolute focus on programming.  It was also very elitist.  Only geeks may apply.  Not my cup of tea.  AP has since come out with AP CS Principles but I teach that now without having to jump through the AP hoops.

What Greg must not know is that Montana has a better alternative to AP CS, dual-credit.  Our juniors and seniors can sign up for two different CS courses through the University of Montana and receive college credit directly.  No exam-of-death at the end of the semester.  The grade you get in the course is the grade you get on a U of M transcript.  Cheaper than AP.  More transferable than AP.  More widely accepted than AP.

I do not think Greg knows a lot about what is taking place in Montana CS education but that is not really his fault.  Nobody seems to know.  Two weeks ago one of his staffers called me to ask about CS teacher certification in Montana.  One of the people in the Office of Public Instruction gave my name as someone in the know.  Now you would think OPI would be the people in the know.  My experience has shown me that the problem with CS education in Montana is the fact we have a rather hands off OPI.  Montana schools are sort of on their own for many things.  We like our independence and freedom but there reaches a point where the people that are supposed to be helping schools provide a balanced education need to get to work.  Or at least get some help.

Presently all of Montana’s advancement of CS in the schools has come from individual teachers and administrators deciding to do something.  Very grassrootsy.  I have a feeling it is going to be that way no matter who gets elected.  OPI is small.  Schools are very independent minded.  Schools are very poorly funded (but as Greg points out in the article CS is actually very cheap to offer).  Curriculum is cast in concrete and any change is going to take a very large stick.  Talking softly is not going to do the trick.

In one of my earlier blogs I discussed the teacher certification boon dongle in Montana.  To get teachers certification programs in to the Montana universities someone is going to have to do a big re-write of the certification course requirements for OPI.  That will be quite the war.  The university types will want to generate mini CS majors.  Teachers are going to want just enough so they can get the certification.  The State will probably not make a decision.  (Bureaucrats are good at that.)  Greg is going to have his hands full there.  I hope he actually talks some K – 12 CS teachers.

I am neither a proponent or opponent of Greg.  I do not know him.  But CS in Montana, and the US in general, needs more than grassroots.  Presidential verbiage or political platforms are all fine and dandy for newspapers and arguments but they do not get the horse shod.  Somebody has to grab the bull by the horns (I am getting all sorts of cowboy language going here) and say “Here is what we are going to try”.  Maybe it will be like the New Math in the ‘60s and flop on its face but at least we will be trying to do something.

Project Spark was the coolest..

May 16, 2016

Microsoft’s Project Spark is going away.  I am royally bummed.  If you are not familiar with PS you have missed out.  It is the coolest 3-D game authoring software you can imagine.  It is definitely written for kids and hobbyists but it is still really cool.  I can see why Microsoft is ending it.  It looks support intensive and it is free.  No money involved and MS already has a lot of no money involved products out there.  I was planning to center a game course around PS but maybe it is for the best.  I now have to learn Unity well enough to more than dabble in it.  It is just that PS allowed the user to make such cool terrain and had interesting characters.  A kid could whip a half way decent simple game in an hour and then share it with others.  The programming language really was not a language and was a bit restricted but it was still good enough to get a kid started with some fundamental thinking with programming.

The loss of PS is going to leave a pretty big gap between Kodu and whatever else someone want to use after Kodu.  I do not see Kodu or PS as great programming environments, but more as entry level drugs.  Play with them for a while then get the kids interested in big kid languages where they can do more.  PS was just such a great combination of building and programming.  I can hope that MS comes out with something new and cool in this direction again.

Thinking about summer fun

May 13, 2016

The school year is winding down for the seniors so things are winding up for me.  Finals to write, stuff to grade that should have been graded last week, and of course all the odds and ends of the IT job sort of happening all at once.  We finally got around to getting a Microsoft software subscription so we can upgrade to Office 2016 and Windows 10 so I have that to do.  Now I could wait until school is out to do this but that would make way too much sense.  At my school we install software by tennis shoe.  None of this fancy remote bulk install business.  I leg around to every computer and install by hand.  Extremely inefficient you say?  Yes, but it is the only way I can guarantee to look at ever computer in the school and see what is screwed up on it.  Old software, bad keyboards, processors caked with dust, paper stuffed into floppy drives, CD players used as cup holders, pencils in fans, you know, the usual school computer issues.  I think I still have some computers with production dates from the last century.  I probably ought to retire those to the museum.  The library server is running Windows 95.  I need to burn some incense over it and maybe have a priest come bless it again.  The software is so old I do not want to try to move it to something new.  We cannot afford new library software.  Hence the need for a blessing.  I probably need to find a better solution to holding the video card into the library presentation computer.  The piece of chewing gum I presently have holding it in is probably getting really hard.  (No s#$%, it is held in by chewing gum.  The kids gave me an odd look when I asked for the gum a girl was chewing and stuck it in the computer.  Kids just do not know how to improvise.)

I just received 10 new wireless access points for the elementary school.  $85 each instead of the present $600 APs.  One for every classroom that uses tech and a couple to spare.  The building was built in the early ‘60s of cinder block.  Wireless signal does not go well through cinder block.  The present system of APs in the halls almost works.  “Almost” being the key word here.  These new APs are web managed.  Something new to learn.  I would like to get a couple of these working before the year is up.  I want to see what happens when 20 odd computers hit them.  By the end of next week I will be done with my two classes of seniors so I will have time to start on projects.

With 1.5 techs for the district summers can be quite busy.  I do get one work-study kid for the summer.  I am in luck this year because she is a major computer geek and a worker.  She is a freshman right now so I will hopefully have her for three summers.

I also have to start prepping for the games course I want to offer next fall.  I want to dabble in Unity which means I have to learn Unity.  Which means I have to refresh on C#.  Luckily there is a lot of Unity learning stuff out there.

Summer fun.

CS certification In Montana: ain’t going to happen soon

April 30, 2016

Due to an insatiable desire to cause myself pain and discomfort I have gotten on the “let’s try and get a CS Ed program started at my local university” horse again.  I am simply trying to get a way that Montana teachers can get a CS certification without getting a BA in CS.  At the moment the only way to get qualified in Montana to teach CS is to get the CS degree and then get a degree in education or get a Business Ed degree which includes no CS, just business apps.  The Business degree does not come with the CS certification.  Since none of our colleges offered a CS Ed program I asked the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) for what is required for a CS certification program.  They do have such a document.  The document was interesting to say the least.  There were some requirements that just seemed a little out of place for a K-12 certification.

(vi) demonstrating knowledge of and the ability to construct multi-threaded client-server applications

Uh, right.  I am not even sure what that is.  Here are some others.

(vii) demonstrating knowledge of and the ability to construct web sites that utilize complex data bases;

(viii) demonstrating knowledge of and the ability to construct artificial intelligence and robotic applications; and

(ix) demonstrating knowledge of the principles of usability and human computer interaction and be able to apply these principles to the design and implementation of human-computer interfaces;

I passed this on to my friend that teaches CS at the university.  He spends a semester teaching (vii) with his CS majors.  His comment on (viii) was “Wow”.  I kind of have an idea what (ix) is talking about but I am not sure I would want to do it at the high school level.  Some of the other requirements were to be knowledgeable with at least one of the following languages; C++, Java, C# or Ada.  Ada?  Who in the heck uses Ada as a teaching language?  How many people use Ada period?  You would think that somewhere in that list would be something appropriate for middle school kids.  A teacher knowledgeable in Scratch or Alice or Small Basic or half a dozen other possibilities would be so much more useful to a K-12 system than any of those in this list. The document goes on with needing be able to demonstrate familiarity with four high-level programming languages.  Seriously?  Four?  Somebody needs a reality check.  This is supposed to be for teaching CS K-12, not 13-16 and also not full time.  After reading these standards I really understand why the Montana colleges are so reluctant to offer the program.  There are just not enough CS teaching jobs to make building such a program worthwhile.  No pre-service teacher in their right mind would do the program and no teacher wanting to get a CS certification would have the time to commit to the number of courses this would require.

I looked through the requirement for a mathematics program.  It actually makes sense.  The math requirements list is shorter.  We are doomed by bureaucracy.  I will continue to fight the good fight but it is not looking good.  Must be a philosophical thing I have.  I want to teach kids CS, not make CS professionals.

 

Cell phones in school seem to be a bad idea

April 27, 2016

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-freed/why-phones-dont-belong-in-school_b_9666730.html

Articles like this get me wondering; is the problem the cell phone in the classroom or is it that the classroom has not caught up with the cell phone?  Being an old fart and used to the traditional pre-cell phone classroom I am going with the first option but I am just not sure if that is correct.  Education does not seem to handle changes in technology well.  Those of us that have been in the business a while can remember the big stink over the calculator.  There were all sorts of dire predictions if they were allowed into the classroom and I have to say many of them were and still are true.  Kids do not want to do mental math, they look for every answer in the calculator instead of looking at the problem first, and the list goes on and on.  On the other side of the fence more time can be spent on problem solving than on “trivial” arithmetic and computation.  Then TI came out with the TI-92 and we were all going to Hell.  Kids will never learn to think if they have one of those devices of Satan.  Now it is WolframAlpha.  I love WolframAlpha.  I can convert gallons to acre-feet in a second.  Admittedly I do not seem to need to do that too often but I can if I want to.  WolframAlpha can do anything I can mathematically dream up.  But it still cannot problem solve.

So back to the cell phone thing.  Ban them from the classroom, use them as needed or accept that the new generation lives on the thing?  I have been taking the middle road lately just to see what happens.  My own little study.  Through diligent observation I have concluded that a student with a cell phone in math class with the intent of using it as a calculator is using it as a calculator about 20% of the time.  Maybe less.  Not very scientific but very realistic.  The gist of it is that cell phones in the classroom are a major distraction and, as the calculator issue proved, users are going to turn into uneducated idiots.  Well, maybe not that bad but the things are going to have a detrimental effect on student focus.  No great revelation there.

I do like then for some uses.  I give my students things like find the length of the major and minor axis of an American football and find its volume.  I do not teach the formula for the volume of an ovoid, they have to find it.  On the way they learn what a major and minor axis is, they have to read a little algebra and they have to find a website that is readable.  It allows me a broader set of problems than the text offers.  Years ago I would have given the same assignment with a CRC manual.  The thing with the CRC manual is when they were done they were not going to continue reading it for entertainment value.  With the phone when they are done they are off to who knows where.

Next year I am going to bail on the cell phone use.  It has great possibilities but the management is just too much to deal with.  Use it once and the kids expect to use it all the time.  With the cell phone they have a strong tendency to not get things done in class.  Or out of class for that matter.


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