Archive for June, 2015

Death of a Switch.

June 19, 2015

Hard day at the office today.  What would make a switch go bad?  It was allowing traffic, only at about .5 Mbps.  It was a cheap Linksys switch but still there is not much to a switch to go haywire.  It took me a while to chase it down because it was not a likely suspect.

My network is sort of a duct tape and chewing gum affair.  I have never bought a managed switch, they are all donated.  Not that I do not get some excellent quality donations from companies but they are still not new and are well used.  I have some cheap 8 port switches in critical locations so I really cannot monitor a lot of things.  Of course I do not have the software to monitor anything so it is a moot point.

My techie friends at the public schools casually talk about upgrading their five year old switches to the latest and greatest at $1100 each.  I wish I had a five year old switch and my annual budget is less than $1100.  It is interesting that my network seems to work (or not work) just as well as theirs.

Keeping a small school network alive is not rocket science, after all I do it and I have absolutely no education in the field.  (Google is my friend.)  Running a large monitored network does require a level of expertise I do not have.  And considering the number of schools that have expert consultants not many other techs do either.

In my programming courses I do diverge into a couple hours of networking.  They build patch cables, set up a mini network and we discuss domain controllers, IP address, MAC addresses and so on.  Enough for them to do some basic troubleshooting.  Most network issues are simple; something got unplugged, a piece of hardware died, someone saw a loose cable and plugged it in (My favorite.  Good for hours of entertainment.) and so on.  I have had kids actually make money from what I have been able to teach them.  For some reason university computer help desks love my kids.  They know how to plug things in, what the idiot lights mean and know how to troubleshoot network basics.  Teaching kids networking basics has to be part of a CS curriculum.  There is so much little stuff they can learn that result in big dividends.

Summer Fun Begins

June 15, 2015

The summer fun has begun.  I did the Lolo 12 Hour mountain bike race yesterday.  With a team of 4 we each did 2 ten mile laps with each doing one lap in sequence.  I was number four in the order.  My teammates averaged about 1:15 a lap.  Mine were a bit slower, 1:30 and 1:45.  That second lap was at 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon.  A bit toasty.  It is weird the way some people have fun.  Raising a garden would be so much less work.  I need to work on that training just a bit more.

In the end of July I am doing the Butte 50 race.  Rated as the hardest mountain bike endurance race in the US I will be dead meat in my present condition.  I did it 2 years ago.  Took me 10 hours.  I was not in good shape at the end.

There is a computer lesson involved with the Lolo 12.  The race was chip timed.  The number plates had chips and when the bike ran over the sensor pad the time would be recorded.  The software died.  I am not sure why; computer glitch, software bug or whatever but luckily the company doing the scoring knew how to score manually.  It seems odd that a professional company would not have multiple computer backups, hardware and software.  Of the 8 people in the two teams I sat with, three of us were computer programmers or hardware engineers.  It was just so tempting to wander over and investigate but I figured they had enough issues to deal with.  A lesson in making systems fool proof.

I have always been interested in small level commercial software like this.  Years ago I worked in bicycle shops.  Computers and point of sale software was just starting to be available.  Oh boy, was it bad.  It was designed and written but computer programmers, not sales people.  As a result it worked and was very organized but was totally useless to a sales person at the till.  The evolution of this POS software has been interesting to watch.

I really need to have the kids look at examples of “simple” software like POS and that race software.

CS has to be for the “regular” kids

June 3, 2015

As I mentioned previously I have signed up for an APCS Principles MOOC from the University of Alabama.  The instructor throws out discussion questions every now and then for the class to discuss.  One of the discussion questions had to do with recruiting kids into CS classes.  It made for some very interesting reading.

As I read these recruitment suggestions I noticed a trend.  Many teachers seem to be looking for “high achievers”, “AP potential”, “hard workers”, “good prospects”, and so on.  I have to say I am absolutely opposed to this type of approach.  We live in a CS world.  Everybody lives in this world therefore everybody should get a CS education, not just the upper level students.  If the school only offers AP level CS then it is doing 90% of the students a disservice.  CS has to come down to the lowest level.  The argument is that not every kid is capable of doing CS, where CS is often thought of as programming.  Maybe every kid cannot do Java (heck, I can barely do Java) but I think they can all learn to program a little robot or get something working in a language like Scratch.

CS teachers need to be recruiting all kids into the classes.  If the school only has upper level CS classes then it is time to reconsider the curriculum and consider the fact it is the 21st century.  I am of the opinion if it is a choice between APCSA for a very few or a low level CS survey class for the many then the APCSA is toast.  “Principles” is directed to the broader spectrum of students so we as teachers need to get the word out that it is not just for the high achieving students.  CS has an elitist reputation, we need to change that.

CS needs to be a K-12 curriculum.  Maybe not as a stand-alone CS class but at least as an integrated thread in all classes.  Somewhere in there every kid should get an opportunity to program a robot, write a simple program, and build an algorithm that actually results in something visual happening (as opposed to memorizing someone else’s algorithm as in a math class).  The people who point out that they use a word processor or spreadsheet in their class and claim it is CS might as well give a kid a 10 key calculator, teach them to add on it, and claim that is math.  Apps are part of the picture, but only a part.  Teaching apps teaches kids to be users, which is very necessary to survive.  Teaching CS teaches kids to be builders, which is necessary to do more than just survive.  Every kid should have the chance to be a builder.

(You should see me discuss this live.  I wave my hands a lot and get very excited.)

Summer fun

June 2, 2015

This is the last week of school.  Kids have finals Tuesday through Thursday and Friday is staff meetings.  Saturday I take off on a 4 – 5 day motorcycle ride to Oregon.  Two friends and I are heading over to Blue River which is just east of Eugene.  In August some different friends and I are heading over to this area to go mountain biking for 3 days.  We are going to ride the McKenzie River Trail which is supposed to be one of the premier mountain biking trails in the nation.  It will have to be pretty dang good to beat what I ride in western Montana.  The motorcycle ride is to get the lay of the land, see the cabin I have reserved and get out of town for a few days.

These road trips are always a bit of a thrill simply because motorcycles are extremely dangerous.  As you get older the hand and eye coordination just is not what it used to be.  At my age riding a motorcycle that will easily do 150 mph (been there, done that and really like it) is not really smart.  One of my friends is on a Harley which keeps me a bit restrained.  His max comfort speed is about 80, mine is in the triple digits so riding with him keeps me out of jail.  My wife has told me many times I am not really smart to ride that thing.  She might know something.  But boy is it a rush.

Two of us have done a lot of road trips together:  San Francisco, Vancouver, Banff, and most of Oregon, Washington and western Canada.  We usually figure a maximum distance away for the given time and a back road route to that point, then figure a way home from there.  We also search out all the little paved back roads.  (That is one reason for Oregon.  They pave everything in that state and some of them are just oh so curvy.  In Montana even the pavement that is there can be a bit iffy.) The far point is usually closely related to a brewery within walking distance to a motel.  Two of us are micro-brew snobs so we are always looking for a new brewery to taste the wares of.  We both have a very low tolerance for drinking and riding hence walking distance or one beer and lots of food and time.  I need to be stone cold sober when on the motorcycle.    I am tempted to head up to Portland on the third day.  60 breweries and a trolley.  Cannot go wrong.

Our road trips have made the category of “male bonding experience” numerous times.  Two of us, 10:00 at night, storm coming, one small motel in a very small town, one room available, and one twin bed.  Very bonding.  Then there was the time the three of us tried camping.  I have the right gear, they did not.  One of them brought one of those big air mattresses.  It leaked.  I slept like a rock.  They slept on the rock.  Last time for camping.

Now these trips have nothing to do with computers other than as a stress management clinic after having to deal with computers for the last nine months.  There is something cathartic about excessive speed and dragging foot pegs through corners.  Of course I do have to stop for scenery a lot to wait for the Harley.  I do bring a laptop so I can do some emergency work if needed but the trip is usually computer free.  I also feel “wrong” if I do not have a laptop available.  The smart phone would do the trick but it just is not the same.

Now if the weather will just cooperate.  Last year we rode in the same neighborhood and ended up in 2 inches of fresh snow, in June.  Slow going for a couple of miles until it turned back to rain.  I almost t-boned into a herd of elk crossing the road because my helmet visor was fogged up.  Excitement for a few seconds.  Luckily I was going very slow.  Elk are really big when they are really close.

No matter what it will be a fun break.  Then it is back to the school.  Lots of work to do over the summer.  Server room to rebuild, computers to debug, laptops to repair, wireless to configure, programming course to rebuild and so on.  It never ends and I love it.


June 1, 2015

I am going to try this again –  It is a MOOC for high school teachers on the Computer Science Principles course.  I tried it last year but things were just a bit too busy.  I also found it boring as heck which made everything else I needed to do much more important.  APCSP is a course that is working its way into the APCS curriculum.  It has the goal of widening the spectrum of students and topics covered in an APCS course.  I have looked through the course material and it definitely looks like a positive direction.  I only have two objections: 1. it is a MOOC, 2. it is AP.

MOOCs.  Not much to say there.  Having a teacher or someone to get immediate feedback from is a big plus for me but then I am old and stogy.  I like chatting about a topic face-to-face.  A chat room is just not the same thing.  When I go to a face-to-face class I make connections with people.  In a MOOC I make connections with avatars.  A bit too weird for me.  There are numerous studies on the completion rate of MOOCs and on-line courses.  The results are not good.  But still, knowledge is knowledge and if I can hang in there I expect to get something out of the course, ideas I can modify to suit my teaching style.  Since most CS teachers are teaching as a one-man-band things like this MOOC are a decent way of getting ideas.

AP. I am not a fan but then I do not teach one either. The concept of an accelerated course is OK.  The idea of regurgitating all that material on one test is not OK.  My high school offers AP and dual-credit courses.  The dual-credits are yearlong courses that include the complete contents of the equivalent semester long University of Montana course.  The kids are registered at U of M and get a U of M transcript.  They get the grade they get in the high school course.  The grade transfers to any college that accepts University of Montana credits.  No special tests, just a regular high school course but at the university level.  Being yearlong as opposed to a semester means more time on topics and more topics.  The courses also cost 25% of the regular U of M courses.  Win-win.   Right now our dual-credit courses are in CS and Math.  We offer AP English, AP US History, AP Chem, AP Art and AP Bio.  They are our advanced courses of course and I have no objection to the material or the methodology, just the test.  Measuring a student’s knowledge of a year’s learning on one test seems a bit counter to the very idea of how education should work.  The kids also have to look at the colleges they are applying for.  Many do not accept AP credits any more.  U of M accepts no APCS credits.

So with all that said why do it?  Teaching CS/programming can sometime be like teaching on a raft in the middle of the ocean.  You are out there all by yourself just hanging on hoping you are going in the correct direction.  With Math there are usually other teachers in the school, there are very active organizations like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the State NCTM organization and there are lots and lots of textbooks, one of which is bound to be close to what you want to teach.  In CS not so much.  You are usually the only CS teacher and maybe the only CS teacher for many miles.  The Computer Science Teachers of America simply does not yet provide the pedagogical support of the NCTM.  As for textbooks, there is no money in it for the publishers because the numbers are too small therefore the selection of high school texts is extremely slim.  When you also consider no one has really decided on a “best” high school language it makes it a bit rough to decide what book to write.  Most high school subjects are very static, a twenty year old math or history textbook is not all that different from a brand new one.  CS is a bit more dynamic.  Last year’s CS textbook can sometimes easily be considered an antique.  I have some 10 year old CS “Education Programs” that I keep around for the kids to chuckle over.

The only solution, especially for teacher education, is to go with something like this MOOC.  APCSP is worth learning about and the only practical way is this thing.  But they are grinders.  This one has something like 500 people signed up.  It will be a bit much to carry on any kind of discussion with that many involved.

Besides, I need something to do in the summer to keep me off the streets at night.