When it comes to CS curriculum I am a “the grass might be greener on the other side of the fence” type of guy. (Sometime the green is mold but that does not stop me from continuing to look. Always the optimist.) I am always looking to see if there is something new in the programming world for the kids and me to get excited about. CS is an elective so it has to be exciting. I also have the attention span of a second grader so CS has to be interesting for me to teach it. (Yes, I also teach math. I am one of those weird people that find math interesting.) In my search for the greener side one of the things I have been looking at is Microsoft’s Project Spark. If you are not familiar with it it is a 3-D game maker. I have mentioned it in previous posts as a strong possibility for a major part of a game writing class. It is REALLY cool as far as graphics go. But if I am going to use PS I have to make sure to it works for the kids. I had used PS briefly last year on the student owned laptops. They could not log in to Xbox Live (required to use PS) while in the school but if they logged in at home then used the laptop at school PS work just fine. This was something I had to chase down. So I had one of my students try it on one of the school’s two i5 laptops. Issues. I hauled the laptop home. PS worked. I hauled the laptop back to school. PS worked but would not talk to Xbox Live. Just confirming the problem and making sure I could repeat it. OK, it has something to do with the school. Sort of “Duh”. It did not take long to find out it was the school’s Lightspeed content filter. A brief discussion with the Lightspeed support tech (another duh moment) and there was a solution for individual computers. The laptops are not part of the school domain so Lightspeed does not recognize the login the same as to does the domain computers. Something in the Xbox Live login is blocked in Lightspeed so the laptops cannot access Xbox Live. This is a problem. But at least I now know the problem and I have a work around.
This is one of those examples that really brings home the idea of trying something new somewhat extensively before handing it to the kids. The “grass is greener” can result in bad things happening. Four or five years ago I got burned really bad from not checking out a very tempting teaching tool extensively enough. I tinkered with Gamemaker and decided to give it a try with the kids. There were a set of built-in tutorials that looked pretty good. I worked through the first tutorial with no problem. This is the point where I screwed up. I started the kids without checking out the other tutorials. The first tutorial went smoothly. The next two were junk. Errors, magic steps and just poorly written. We had to bail out of Gamemaker. Since then Gamemaker has written new tutorials that are very good. I have also become pretty leery of something new so I fiddle a lot more than I used to. PS is going to take some tinkering.
I am also not satisfied with Project Spark’s usefulness as a teaching tool. It is super cool but will it actually offer something worth teaching? Having a high coolness factor is not enough.
Another piece of greenery on the other side of the fence is Microsoft’s Creative Coding with Games and Apps (CCGA). This is a free canned curriculum built by Microsoft using Touchdevelop and intended as an introduction to programming for middle school or lower high school. I am not much for canned curriculum. I like doing my own thing because it is usually more directed for my students and more fun for all. But free is always worth a look and it might fit with what my school is trying to do in our middle school. The middle school programming teacher sees every student K-8 every two days. She desperately needs something canned. She has no time to build or tinker with a possible curriculum. I do have time so I do the research and tinkering and pass it on to her. The curriculum also looks like something that would work for a middle school after school programming club.
In February I will have the opportunity to attend a two day Microsoft seminar on CCGA. I am very excited about this. There will actually be other programming teachers there! There will be teachers there that have actually used this curriculum. You have no idea how big this is for me. There is a second programming teacher in my school. He teaches Scratch to one class of Programming I kids and is not really in to programming. He survives. Other than him I have not talked to another programming teacher live in like maybe six years? Hot dang! This is going to be like Christmas! Did I mention I was kind of excited about this? And it is only a three hour drive away (depending on the mountain passes). That is like next door.
I do not think Toughdevelop is a replacement for Python, Java or Visual Basic but it does look like something that would get the kids interested in programming.
The “grass is greener” approach is not anything original. It seems most of the programming teachers that have blogs or are on various web sites do the same thing. Admittedly that is far from a random sample of programming teachers but the sample does say some programming teachers are constantly searching. It’s not that there is anything particularly wrong with the tools we are using now, I think it is just that we like to play with new toys.