Archive for April, 2017

CS End of Year Summary

April 21, 2017

There are about six weeks of school left.  Four weeks for the seniors.  It is time to look back on the year and consider how things worked out.  This year I only taught one CS course, two sections of “Introduction to Game Programming”.  The course looked at Gamemaker and Unity.

I had three advanced students also look at Blender and Amazon Lumberyard.  The Lumberyard was just for them to make a quick comparison with Unity.  The three advanced students knew nothing more than the rest of the students in the classes about the various software, they were just into it a lot more so I separated them from the crowd and turned them loose.  This was a great decision.  Two (senior boys) of the three worked in tandem.  Incredible team.  The third was a quiet sophomore girl who is an uber-geek.  She worked by herself in the same small room (my office) as the two boys.  Although she did not work with the seniors she was not treated separately by them and did contribute to conversations.    Not a bad dynamic at all.  If I am able I will try to separate the dedicated from the not so dedicated in future classes.  I do realize it has to be done in such a way that it does not cause any tension.  In this case it worked out perfectly.

Prior to deciding to offer this course I knew nothing about Unity, Blender or Lumberyard.  I had dabbled in Gamemaker enough to understand the scheme but not enough to really be proficient.  Since my expertise was nonexistent, I knew this was going to be a course taught by on-line tutorials, YouTube and anything else I could round up.  It was not going to be a lecture course.  My programming course involve very little lecture anyway so no great change there.  The biggest issue for me was finding and previewing the tutorials and YouTube videos.  I have learned from previous errors to always work through the videos before presenting them to the class to use.  There is some bad stuff out there.

Initially I thought of this as being a programming course.  The more I and the kids got into it the more I realized it is less programming and more like a building course.  Using tutorials you do more typing code than learning code.  It is a lot of “type this and see what happens”.  It is possible to learn some coding this way but it is not to efficient.  It is easy to just cut and paste, with no attention paid to what you just cut and pasted.  I had to shift my “teach coding” mind set to “teach problem solving” mind set.  Of the seventeen kids in the course I would say about half got to the point where they could build what they wanted for a game from just looking on-line for solutions.  They could recognize coding errors and understand what the code was doing.  The other half can cut and paste.  Four cannot read directions or follow a simple video tutorial.  Experience with other classes tells me that overall that is really not bad.  The scary thing for me is that the seven freshmen in the course were only surpassed by my three advanced students.  I have to dream up cool and exciting programming and CS stuff for them for another three years.  eeek.

I do plan to continue offering this “Introduction to Game Programming” course.  It is a great way to get kids started with some fun building using cookbook coding.  It is my idea of a great introductory drug.  It is possible for those that want to work in the game writing field to take something like Unity and run with it.

I do not think the course can really be turned into a true programming course at this level.  The background required in C#, in particular the Unity specific code required from C#, is just more than we have time for.  There are also aspects of coding that just do not come into play with the Unity environment.  The idea of code for loops and iteration come to mind.  For a true coding class I will stick with Small Basic and Python.  I am not says a good coding class could not be made using Unity and C# but the time involved would likely be more than a high school student could commit.  Or a high school teacher.  To really teach programming with Unity the focus would have to change.  Right now everything is “Unity using C#”.  It would have to switch to “C# using Unity”.  Not quite as tempting or as catchy.

There is one huge drawback to teaching Unity.  It sucks time like a black hole.  You get this cool idea for a game and four hours later you come up for air.  I am really glad I did not set up a comfortable place to work on my computer at home.  I would never get out of the house.

Technology in the classroom: A warm and fuzzy worm

April 12, 2017

Larry Cuban has one of the best blogs for creating head scratching questions.  His posts on school reform and classroom practice always make me sit back and think.  His latest post on “Have Silicon Valley Teachers Using Technology Daily Altered Their Classroom Practice?” really has me sitting and thinking.  Larry posted some of his “Yes” and “No” replies to his study and they are interesting.  It seems a consistent thread that the changes the teachers made are in how the material is presented (electronic textbooks, electronic handouts, better access to resources) and not a change how the topic is structured.  (By “structured” I mean teaching the same math (or whatever) the same way, just with an electronic textbook and on-line resources.)

I also follow Dan Meyer’s blog on Math Education.  I do not always agree with Dan’s views on use of technology in the classroom, some of his ideas are a bit too tech intensive for my mind, sometimes the math would be lost in the many issues that can happen when trying to teach with tech,  but they are always food for thought.  What I like about Dan’s approach is that his ideas are not just a fancier way of presenting the same math.  He suggests completely different approaches of teaching a broad concept.  For example using a phone camera to record the flight of a basketball, then derive the formula for parabola as opposed to memorize the general forms of the parabolic function then find ways to use it.  His approach is often looking at a problem then developing the math.  An approach I am a big fan of.

From what I can see in my small little world of western Montana, and from my broader reading, education has not changed with the introduction of technology in the classroom.  Things like interactive boards, electronic textbooks, clickers, and so on do not seem to have changed how the teacher waves their hands at the front of the room.  Are these “presentation” technologies really improving on how much a student understands and retains when they walk out of the classroom at the end of the period or two years down the road?  Does a digital book really make a difference other than the weight if the student’s backpack?

There have been changes in classroom practice, which fits under the umbrella of teaching, with the use of paperless classrooms, video presentations (Khan Academy like or home grown), clickers, interactive boards, iPads, 1-1 laptops and so on.  It still seems to me that a teacher from fifty years ago could step into the modern classroom and still operate comfortably.  No, they could not operate all the tech presentation devices but with a whiteboard they could easily teach the curriculum.  I am not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing.  It does seem strange to me that given the advances in tech we really have not changed the fundamental process of teaching most subjects.  The “sage on the stage” still seems to be the norm.  Is there nothing better?  I am not saying there is but with the years of education research with and without technology it just seems strange this is the preferred method for teaching. I know there are exceptions to the rule out there but those teachers that are exceptions seem to have developed their teaching methods independently through their own blood, sweat and tears.  Our student teachers are still coming in with the same fundamental teaching techniques I started with.

I remember the old saying “We teach how we are taught”.  Most of the present generation of teachers were not taught with technology and therefore use it as an add-on.  Presentation methods and maybe an easier way to hand out and collect homework are our concessions to technology.  Is this all tech in the classroom has to offer?

To really use the power of technology we would have to change how we measure learning success.  The present standardized tests would be worthless.  Using and teaching with technology assumes the student has access to said technology.  What would happen if a kid showed up at the ACT with a Chromebook in hand?  What a can of worms.  Now imagine the discussions out of the “let’s use technology to the fullest” approach.  Teachers would be up in arms immediately.  Math teachers would be making statements (and most make complete sense) such as: “Students should know how to do such and such by hand”, “Math is not a black box”, etc.  English teachers would have the plagiarism and file sharing issues to give them bad dreams.  Foreign language teachers would be out of a job.  Now let us bring in the economic issues.  Not every kid can afford a computer.  Not every school can afford to give out computers.  Staff training would be a nightmare.  All those standardized test companies would have to start from scratch.  Politicians would get involved and then things would turn into a real mess.

Somewhere in there is a dividing line as to how far we should go with tech in the schools.  In my math classes I assume a graphing calculator.  If they need the square root 3459 I assume they are going to use the calculator, i.e. the black box.  (When is the last time anyone found a square root using the long division looking algorithm? When is the last time you saw someone whip out a slide rule to compute a square root?  OK.  I admit it.  I have a slide rule in my brief case for these occasions but then I am old and weird.)  So the calculator is an approved technology.  How about WolframAlpha?  Not so much.  “It is the devils tool and will corrupt the minds of our youth.”  Or something to that effect.  I show my students WolframAlpha on day two of class.  If I want them to know the factors of some ugly polynomial, WolframAlpha it is.  I do not want my students wasting their time.  I am more into the “here is why we want the factors” and even that is getting a bit dated.

“Technology in the classroom” is such a warm and fuzzy at the moment.  Technology for enhancing teacher presentation and communication is expanding and is an accepted use of technology.  Since the graphing calculator was accepted, (we are still having issues with the algebraic computation calculators) students using technology to actually solve problems has sort of hit a brick wall.  Deploying the total power of technology to the classroom is right back to that can of worms.

I do have a solution to tech in the classroom.  Introduce whatever you are comfortable with and then hope for the best.  Hey, I did not claim it was a good solution.  I rarely get any of those.


One ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy

April 5, 2017

I am the IT guy at the school.  In a small school this means a whole bunch of things are mine.  Things like projectors, screens, sound systems and, worst of all, the bell system. I am the bell guy because the bells are rung by software.  Scheduling software I am sure was originally written in the 70’s, by evil trolls with large painful bunions.  A couple times a year I have to figure out how to use the software so I can change the bells for the new school year or fix holiday dates that have changed.  This software is an excellent example of not-user-friendly.  But it is good practice for my problem solving skills, which is a euphemism for “How in the heck does the %^$# software work?”  The bells were not ringing in the elementary school after spring break.  Of course the first thing I checked was the hardware.  I push the button, the bells ring.  Nuts, that means it is the scheduling software.  Nuts again.  I pull up the software.  I am pretty sure this was originally written for DOS 1 beta.  I email the company to find out if there was ever a manual written for the software.  Nope.  Bummer.  (Who writes software with no manual?)  I stare and tinker.  An hour later I have an epiphany.  “You’re kidding me.  That’s how it works?!”  I got it now.  If I was clever (never one of my stronger features) I would write my own manual on how this misbegotten piece of trash works but I only have to monkey with it once a year so I will let the bunion ridden trolls call this a victory.  All I care about is the bells are ringing and I do not have to deal with them for another year.  Maybe.