Archive for February, 2018

And Magic Occurs

February 8, 2018

We use Powerschool for out grades and attendance.  Part of my job is maintaining the updates and general odds and ends software like this requires.  Well yesterday I tried to install an SSL certificate on it so a piece of third-party software would work.  I got the certificate from GoDaddy and found the documentation to install it on Powerschool’s site.  I am good to go.  Shut down PS, go through the process of importing and checking the right boxes, startup PS.  No startup.  Hummm.  Restart the server.  No startup.  Undo what I did. No startup.  Usually PS take about two minutes to startup.  I wait for thirty minutes several times.  Nope.  It is 6:30.  Nuts.  Dinner calls and I head home.  I start a help ticket with PS support before I leave thinking I will call then in the morning.  I leave PS on so I will have the error messages available in the morning.  I get an email in the morning from PS support saying they see PS is running.  If there any further issues contact them.  I get on line and sure enough PS is up and running.  I get to school and the PS is really working.  The PS monitor that shows the status says it is not.  I close the monitor screen and reopen it and the yellow button turns green.  This is a live monitor.  It should not do that.

I have no idea what happened.  Overnight the software fairy waved her wand and made PS actually fix itself.  As Arthur C. Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I still have to get that SSL certificate installed but I think I will wait for a break.

Teaching with Videos: For better or for worse

February 5, 2018

(OK, I admit “teaching” with videos is an inappropriate use of the word “teach”.  It should be more like “have students try to learn with videos”.  Even that is a bit weak.)

I am teaching a couple of programming classes using videos.  One class is learning Unity using Patrick Felicia’s series “Getting Started with 3D Animation in Unity” (  $15 for a series of good video lessons.  They are pretty straightforward tutorials.  Patrick also writes a series of books on Unity.  I own his book series and have found it very usable.  I am also teaching an independent study for non-programmers.  The course is a dual-credit with the University of Montana and is intended for students with little to no programming experience and who may be looking at going into education.  Again the course is based around a series of videos or on-line tutorials.

I have used videos before (what teacher has not) but never to this extent.  I am learning some things.  First, no matter how focused or entertaining, programming videos are great for curing insomnia.  After about 15 minutes of listening and following directions, I am ready for a good nap.  The kids are good for about 15 minutes then they lose all focus.  Is it the video format or just the tutorial format that is the culprit?  I have to say videos are worse than text.  When using a book or text format I have a tendency to try things to see what happens.  I tinker.  I tell the kids to tinker.  If it blows up it is easy to go back a page or two and start over.  Videos just do not seem to give that feeling of flexibility or experimentation.  Going back in a video to find where you deviated is just not as easy as it is in a text document.

Second, it is hard to decide how far the kids should be at a certain time.  If the student misses a step in the tutorial process it could take them a while to figure out what went wrong.  Some students are interested in the material and enjoy building the project in the video.  Others are not as motivated and have a tendency to lose focus and wander into YouTube.  I cannot get too excited at students that do this because I do the same thing.  With Unity there is also the occasional technical issue.  Fummph, and something weird happens.  Start over from the last save.  (If they saved.)  Now that student is doing catch-up.

Third, and perhaps the most important to me, videos make really poor reference materials.  It is simply not practical to “thumb through” a video to refresh on something you have forgotten.  Last year I had an independent study student transcribe a Unity video tutorial to text.  He typed out the voice instruction and edited it so it made sense in text format.  He did screen shots of the video and of the Unity screen to use as graphics in his text document.  This translation took a lot of time but the result was great.  The text document is much more useful than the video. I also like something in an editable format (paper or digital) so I can add comments.

So now some of the “solutions” I have come up with to help alleviate some of the problems.

First, do not be a taskmaster.  The kids cannot sit there for 50 minutes (in my case 90 minutes) and watch these things.  It is simply not possible for the normal human being.  Let them wander every now and then to break up the monotony.  Have a game day every now and then.  If your schedule is so tight that there is no room for some days away from the videos then you have a problem.  Loosen up and let the kids have some fun.  Remember, this is a game making course so there should be time for some games.  I also deviate from Unity every now and then.  Alfred Thompson had a post on the FizzBuzz problem.  We took a day off from Unity and discussed this problem.  No programming language, just an algorithmic approach.  If the kids know a programming language have them refresh their memory by actually coding the problem.  I could not do this because I have one student who is pretty light in the language area.

Second, set some goals.  “By this date you should be able to do this with your character.”  Be flexible because it is computers and kids, weird things happen.  Since I only have four students they are all working in my smallish office.  I can see where they are and listen to what they are doing.  If I was in a bigger lab I would be sure to wander a lot, look over shoulders and keep a close eye on progress, taking a break from videos for a while, and totally gone into Never-never Land.

Third, reference materials.  I do have some print Unity books and the translated video available but the best reference I have by far is the students themselves.  I have four students in the class.  If one of them cannot get something to work at least one of the others can see the problem.  Collaboration is king.

Fourth, dual monitors.  The kids must have a dual monitor setup, one for the video and one for the software.  I have done videos in a lab.  I made sure there were enough computers so each student had two computers.  Without dual monitors progress is massively slow.

The biggest thing I am learning from this video learning/teaching experience, in this particular instance, is that using a lot of videos or a video curriculum is a pain in the rear.  This is not a labor saving invention.  You cannot just say “here, watch these” and walk away and expect good results.  Sometimes the video skips over something without enough detail.  There is very little “why” particular steps are done.  Overcoming the “bored to the point of brain dead” requires extra resources and planning.

Inexperienced programming teacher should not use a video curriculum like this.  There are just too many unexpected consequences.  Videos are a great tool but they will not do the trick as the only tool.  A good amount of experience is needed to make them a really usable tool.

I will continue to use videos to learn and teach, after all, there are just too many good ones out there, but trying to build a whole course around them is not the way to go.