Archive for October, 2014

Montana continues to be a CS desert

October 20, 2014

Last Thursday and Friday were the Montana Educators Association conference days.  It is supposed to be the time to meet and greet all the people in your teaching field and attend inspiring sectionals.  It was a big no-go.  There were no sectionals in CS, programming or IT.  The closest thing was stuff like “How Google Can Change Your Classroom”.  Considering the number of high school CS programs in Montana I guess it was to be expected.  Next year I plan to solve the problem (unless the MEA conference is in a Galaxy Far, Far Away, like Billings or Glasgow).  I would have presented some sectionals this time but missed the submission deadline.  I figure I can do a sectional on offering high school dual-credit Python and another on dual-credit Java.  Maybe something on why we should teach programming in the high school.  Maybe “Three years of English, one year of programming: the curriculum of the future”.  That ought to start some dialog.  Or a riot.  Either would be fun.  I also need to poke some university types with a sharp stick to get them involved.  The local universities want to expand and improve their CS programs but for some reason have not figured out those students they want have to come from high schools that offer some form of CS.  They need to promote their programs by stimulating the high school teachers to do some kind of show-and-tell at these events.  Both Montana State University and Rocky Mountain College have robotics programs that would be very nice recruiting carrots to attract new students.  MSU offers summer courses for teachers so they can teach some of the preliminaries for the MSU courses.  MSU’s advertising for this course is word-of-mouth.  Not the best way to get the word out.

I need to be a bit more proactive if I actually care about CS in Montana.

Mathematics – Technology or by hand?

October 14, 2014

Yesterday I was teaching some linear programming to my seniors.  I had to graph the constraints and all I had was a whiteboard and a marker.  I have to draw the coordinate axis, make tick marks and sort of wing the constraint graph.  This is my usual technique and as usual the resulting graph was less than optimal. Lots of room for artistic interpretation of the resulting picture.  I have a laptop and a projector in the room so with all this nifty technology I should be able to find a better solution for this task.  I know there is software out there that will solve LP problems; enter the objective function, the constraints and stand back.  Magic will occur.  I do not want to go quite that far, I just want pretty graphs.  The first option was Geometer’s Sketch Pad.  It did not like x = 32.  It would draw it, it just would not do anything useful with it like finding intersections.  I then tried Geogebra, a free app I have very little experience with.  Our Sketch Pad teachers gave me poor reviews for it but I figured for the price it deserves a try.  It took a few minutes to figure out the people who wrote the tutorials were geniuses (or idiots) who live in a cave and never deal with people who do not know the software. So I decide to just tinker.  Five minutes later I am drawing functions (and x = 32), and finding intersections.  It will even do inequalities and the appropriate shading of the half-plane.  Just what I wanted.  But now comes the big question, do I want to show this to the kids.

What it boils down to is this – is finding the intersection of two lines, which they supposedly know how to do, a critical skill that needs to be constantly reinforced or can I just get on with solving LP problems?  These are very simple LPs with only two unknowns so doing them by hand is not complicated but it does take time.  The flip side is do I want to teach math and software?  In the real world (whatever that is) the math and software is the obvious route.  In the very contrived world of the math classroom being beat over the head with hand-based mathematics is the traditional winner.  Years ago it would have been a no-brainer, beat them over the head until they cry for mercy.  Maybe I am getting soft in my old age but the software just seems to just make more sense.  Learning software is a 21st century skill, finding the intersection of two lines by hand seems not so much.  If the software was not free or multi-platformed I would not be so tempted.

Nuts on it.  My drawings are confusing even to me.  I am going with the software.  I want to teach senior level math, not 8th grade algebra.

There is sort of a weird evolution going on with math and technology.  It started with the introduction of the affordable graphing calculator (I still remember the great graphing calculator wars of the 1980s), was further confused with the TI-89 symbolic manipulator and now there is WolframAlpha for free in the internet.  How much of the hand stuff do we hang on to?   When I was in high school if I wanted a square root I whipped out a slide rule.  If I wanted more accuracy I had an algorithm that worked sort of like long division on steroids.  Now I suspect there is not a math teacher in the US that expects square roots be found with either method.  Is there a point in this evolution where we throw out the baby with the bath water?  In the workplace almost nothing mathematical is done by hand, there is not time.  In the classroom all sorts of archaic methods are used to solve problems.  As a math teacher I sort of pick and choose but I know that my picking and choosing is different for one of the other math teachers in the building.  She loves old school math, I like solving problems with anything I can get my hands on.  If I want the roots of a polynomial I grab a laptop while she starts looking at factors and alternating signs.  Interpreting Shakespeare is a piece of cake compared to the math and technology evolution debate.  Too bad I am in the middle of the hard one.

How good is school IT?

October 8, 2014

I called in a pro to fix my Hyper-V issue.  Two hours later we have success.  Powerschool is alive.  We lost 2 weeks of data but we can live with that.  I may actually be able to get that back.  What have I learned?  BACK UP EVERYTHING TO AN EXTERNAL DRIVE!  I should know this but I have had no catastrophic failures before this that a backup would have cured.  This is what happens when you operate on used equipment, untrained IT and a zero dollar budget.  About the only thing I have an influence over is the quality of IT service.  With my time and training level I simply have to be more neurotic.  Back to backups.

I can honestly say this is the second most un-boring job I have ever had.  The first was a bit too fatal at times so I love second.  If I am bored it is by choice.

This little incident does kind of highlight a point.  How well trained are high school IT personnel?  I know a pretty good number of the IT people in Montana.  Montana is a bit of a small sample but it is what I know and I suspect it is not that different from other small population states.  Most are former teachers that sort of wandered into the IT job.  None I know came from the commercial IT world.  All training is on-the-job, usually when trying to figure out a disaster.  Some of the school IT people I know are very good at the job.  They could easily go to the commercial side and perhaps double their income.  But they came into education originally because of something other than money and they seem to still have the desire to stay with it.  I just wonder if this patch-work school IT scheme is going to continue to work in the future.  I know my limited skills make me nervous when I have to deal with servers and Microsoft backup systems.

School IT is getting more complex and more expensive.  Budgets are not changing.  The incentive to be the school IT is somewhat lacking if viewed by a non-educator and there is absolutely no formal training program.  The stress levels are sometimes a bit uncomfortable, especially when trying to accomplish tasks that might result in major issues for the teaching staff.  I know of one tech that quit this fall because of his school board was convinced pencil and paper were all the kids really needed to succeed in school and therefore he did not need a budget.  (It took him two days to get hired by a bigger school district for more money.  There is a major shortage of school IT people in Montana.)  I know of another that has threatened his school board with walking out if he does not get help.  School IT is reaching the knowledge requirements of the corporate world.  School SIS software, internet filters, iPad management on a rather massive scale, multiple servers, wireless systems, BYOD, IP telephone system and really bad bell ringing software (long story), all on a voter controlled tax budget.  I predict bad things will happen.

This is one of those situations where I really do not see any solutions.  If schools cannot acknowledge the need to educate students in the digital realm, then they sure as heck are not going to admit that they need a trained IT department to sustain that non-existent digital realm.  Large school districts do hire trained IT personnel, but most schools, particularly in rural states, are not part of large school districts.  Most small schools in Montana, which is by far the majority, have part-time IT with no training.  I have not the slightest doubt that this situation is not going to change.


October 5, 2014

Then there are those of use that think we are digitally educated who get digitally wasted every now and then.  My student information system, Powerschool (PS), is on a virtualized server.  It was running out of hard drive space. Microsoft Hyper-V, the virtualization system I use, has a simple way to expand the hard drive space.  There is this little warning about expanding a server that is using something called Snapshot.  I turned Snapshot off, and happily ran the expanded function.  Bad things happened.  The Snapshot was not off.  The server will not run.  I am in full panic mode.  I have found a script that is supposed to fix this error.  I do have hope.  Tomorrow I will give it a try.

There are a lot of things I should have done before trying this expand thing.  Running a backup on my PS to an external hard drive just in case, trying the expand on a less critical server, backing up the virtualization file and most of all, paying more attention to little yellow warning symbols.  All of these things were doable but are only obvious after the fact.

Being a school IT guy means being able to do things you have absolutely no training in.  Everything from school bell software to messing with Hyper-V virtualization.  Budget constraints are such that calling in an expert is not something to be considered.  Learning something new every day keeps my brain on the top or its game, at least as top as it ever was, but there is always a gamble that what I do not know will come back and bite me in the posterior.

Laptop education for all should be Common Core

October 3, 2014

“I do not want laptops/iPads/technology in my classroom.  It interferes with my teaching.”  As an IT guy and a technophile I hate to hear that argument but as a classroom teacher I can identify with it.  When I am at the front of the room and the kids have their laptops open I have absolutely no idea what they are looking it.  It bothers me.  Student technology also seems to always have some issue when I start to depend on it.  Many teachers just want a board and a marker.  That way the students’ attention cannot be divided, it is always ready, and it takes very little training.  There is one minor problem with this approach; except for teaching there are almost no jobs that require skill with board and marker, or that require someone be skilled at watching someone use a board and marker.  Everything our students do, except for those that live in the deep woods off the grid (I live in western Montana, we have those), requires they has some proficiency with a computer.

I see laptops in the classroom as a learning duality.  The kids can use the laptop for the course material, the obvious and most talked about use.  But hidden in the background is that the kids learn how to use the laptop.  I am not talking about using a word processor or playing a CD or watching a funny YouTube video during the brilliant lecture.  I am talking about learning to save their term paper in the cloud so when the laptop gets orange juice spilled on it and dies they are not going to think of suicide.  Preventing data loss, anti-virus protection, network printing, troubleshooting wireless issues and other need-to-know-in-the-present-computer-world type tasks are lessons 21st century students should learn.

It is this second, usually hidden learning that I see in my school causing the largest problem in the classroom.  Teachers seem to be able to adjust their curriculum and lessons to having kids do internet research, build presentations, type papers, turn them in electronically and other direct laptop tasks.  It is when things do not work the way they are supposed to that drives the teachers up the wall.  Things like the internet being slow (usually caused by that teacher streaming music), the wireless not cooperating, the laptop not charged, the needed software not installed, the projector not working correctly and, most entertaining of all, the amazing missing file.  It is this infrastructure hassle that interferes with teaching the most.  Heck, just handing out the laptops and getting them turned on can take time out of a period.  If a school is operating on 40 or 50 minute periods this added 5 or 10 minutes is significant.  One minor glitch can destroy a lesson plan and burn in the idea “It interferes with my teaching.”  I hear teaching technophiles stating to always have a backup plan in case the technology does not work.  So to use technology in the classroom teachers should be making two lessons when they plan to use technology?  It is much easier to not use the technology.

This is not to say teachers should or should not use laptops in the classroom.  It means to say that teachers should look at the dual nature of using laptops in the classroom and consider possible approaches or advantages.  Schools and teachers will never have technology reach its potential until the students are educated on how to use their own devices.

Assuming students know how to use their laptop because they are members of the technology literate generation is a big mistake.  Today I noticed one of my smartest kids doing her on-line physics on one of the lab computers instead of her own laptop that was on the desk next to her.  On asking why she simply said it did not work on her laptop.  The site stated it required Adobe Shockwave and she did not have the slightest idea what that meant or how to get Shockwave.  Downloading required software like this should be trivial but it is not something that is instinctive or is imparted by the morning vitamins.  Of course the little detail that most teachers are even less tech literate than the kids is a problem.

Our “digital natives” are pretty much digital idiots because there are no teachers to teach them digital skills.  Most teachers are either not digitally comfortable or do not want to have the digital world interfere with their primary goal of teaching the subject they spent years of college and experience getting proficient at.

So what is the solution to getting teachers and kids up to digital speed?  Waiting for the new generation of teachers to come out of the universities is not going to do it.  I see a pretty good collection of student teachers through my school and they are as bad as the kids when it comes to digital knowledge.  “Hope and pray” has been a traditional approach to many education problems for years but since prayer is frowned upon in public schools they cannot use that one.  (Luckily I am in a Catholic school so the approach is still good.  I am just not too sure about the viability of the approach.)  As much as I hate the idea I think this has to be a top down affair.  Someone way up there has to come down and say all schools will educate their students and staff on the intricacies of the digital world.  If No Child Left Behind and Common Core can be mandated then surely something that is actually needed and makes sense can be also.  The present strategy of low level advocates (tech teachers) trying to promote the need to an ambivalent administration is simply going to take too long to break through a rather solid wall based on tradition and apathy.