Archive for May, 2016

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.

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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.