Here We Go Again

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Once again it is time to saddle up and prepare to ride herd on another group of technology students. With the hustle and bustle of preparing for a new year I often forget how important it is to document what works and what does not. This year my goal is to journal, at least some of my classes, with an eye towards technique. We spent the morning in a professional development seminar presented by Dave Burgess of Teach Like a Pirate fame.  Needless to say, while I did not agree wholeheartedly with everything that was said, I do believe that Mr. Burgess was correct in one very important area.  We absolutely DO need to carefully consider our presentation and we need to devise ways to make it more engaging.  We are packaging and marketing a product for sale and we are competing with some of the best marketers in the world for the attention of our students.  In order to engage our students and give them the best opportunity to retain the material we present, we must make it palatable.

Before anyone grabs the tar and feathers, I have not bought into the theory that each lesson needs to be an epic presentation of Hollywood-like special effects.  I survived the “Working on the Work” phase of 2007 and 2008.  We all built carefully crafted set-pieces to be trotted out for special occasions like evaluations.  I have seen teachers with fire station poles, amusement park rides, and all sorts of props in the classroom.  I don’t think that this is a legitimate expectation for every teacher.  I do, however, think that each of us can, and should, put more care into the format and presentation of our lessons.  Any good craftsman will be interested in improving their craft because each of us, in the end, wants to do the best we can for our kids, or at least, they should be our highest motivation.

At any rate, my goal this year is as follows:

1.) Document what I am doing in class with video, audio, and careful notes.

2.) Use that documentation to improve what I am currently doing and use legitimate data collection and analysis methods to determine what is good and what is not so effective.

3.) Brain-storm ideas for more ways to present information more accurately and more interestingly.

4.) Archive and share what works and what does not in the classroom on these pages.

Having said that…Wish me luck…Here We Go Again.

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WeTeach_CS – Everyone Needs to be Digitally Literate

weteachcs-stacked-orange-largeAnother conference has come and gone.  I attend  a great many of these over the course of a year and one thing I have noticed is that most of them are too big.  TCEA is a wonderful place to share and learn but it is very easy to get lost. Bringing thousands of people together to share ideas, oddly enough, makes sharing those ideas much more difficult.  This is not the case with the WeTeach_CS Computer Science Summit, held each year in Austin at the J. J. Pickle Research Campus.  (That name appeals to me for some reason).

WeTeach_CS is a program sponsored through the Center for STEM Education by  the University of Texas in Austin with the express purpose of promoting Computer Science Education in Texas High Schools.  They are deeply involved in promoting Professional Development for Texas Computer Science Teachers and probably are best known for providing $1000 stipends for teachers who are willing to become certified in Computer Science and to teach it in the State of Texas.  WeTeach_CS provides training and resources in all aspects of Computer Science with a focus on helping teachers successfully pass the TEA 141 exam to become a certified Computer Science Teacher in Texas.  They provide support and resources for currently employed CS teachers to insure that students in Texas High Schools have the best access to Computer Technology and Education available.  They also act as advocates for Computer Science Teachers and educators in general.

To those ends, the staff of WeTeach_CS, led by Dr. Victor Sampson, Director of the Center for STEM Education, and Dr. Carol Fletcher, the Deputy Director of the Center for STEM Education, sponsor a summit meeting of interested Computer Science Teachers, Administrators, Technology Support Staff, and Vendors from across the State and around the Nation.  This event, ably organized behind the scenes by Amy Werst, Manager of Programmatic Operations for the Center, is a great opportunity for educators to share techniques and ideas with their peers from across the state as well as a place be become informed on the condition of Computer Science Education in Texas.

I have been privileged to attend this summit for the last two years (2015/16 and 2016/17) and I can say that, unlike many conference type events, this one is worth the time and effort to attend.  In the past I have attended trainings where the primary function seemed to be getting as many potential customers in front of as many vendors as possible.  Many of the “educator sessions” turned into sales pitches for whatever product the vendor was selling.  While I recognize the need for sponsors and that sponsors should receive benefits for the investment they make, it is very easy to take this to a level so extreme that it ceases to have any educational value at all.  (Advice to all event organizers of this type: Limit vendor/sponsors to the absolute minimum necessary to fund the event and make sure that the content they are providing in their sessions is actually useful to people who aren’t going to buy their products.)

I believe WeTeach_CS Summit organizers hit the balance perfectly.  Aside from main corporate sponsors (IBM and Oracle this year – Thank You Both Very Much!), there were only about 6 vendor sponsors in attendance.  This for a conference of a couple of hundred attendees.  The tables were located in the common break area and the vendors were not intrusive at all.  The sessions they presented were informative and useful, even to people with no intention of purchasing anything.  In short, they were an asset to the meeting and not a distraction.  It would have been very easy to fill the common area up with vendor tables and the organizers could possibly have made more money but I believe that the conference would have suffered.  Hats of the Amy, Carol, and everyone involved for doing a great job organizing.

The facilities provided by UT were, as usual for the university, top notch.  I am anUT Associate Faculty with the OnRamps program as well as a budding Bootstrap presenter and so I frequently attend meetings and presentations at various locations within the University of Texas.  I have never had a bad experience with any UT sponsored event.  The WeTeach_CS Summit for 2016/17 was an excellent reflection upon the University of Texas and the value it places on education in the State of Texas.  (I’m saying this even though I graduated out of the A&M system so you know it has to be true).

If Carol, Amy, and the other attendees of this conference are any indication, the future of Computer Science, and education in general, in Texas, is bright. Given the projected growth of the Computer Industry and all things digital, I would say that the future of the economy and the welfare of the people of Texas is also bright.  At least it will be if Carol Fletcher has anything to say about it.

Ready to Reload

learningAnother year has come to a close.  It is time to begin preparations for the next year.  This is a most important time for any teacher, but especially for technology instructors because the material changes so rapidly and we owe it to our students to do our best to update materials.  It might be OK to teach English or Geometry with a 2 or 3 year old book but digital technology can   be obsolete in months or even weeks.

For me this will be a particularly  busy summer because I am also preparing to present Java game development at the WeTeach_CS in June in Austin.  If you are a Computer Science teacher you should definitely make plans to attend.  If you are thinking about becoming a Computer Science teacher you will be able to sign up for a $1000 stipend for passing the CS exam.  You REALLY need to consider attending.  I will also be attending a training session at the Colorado School of Mines in July to become a Bootstrap evangelist.  If you have not heard of Bootstrap, drop me a line.  It is a great way to teach Computer Programming and Algebra at the same time.  Finally I will be presenting at the OnRamps Summer Conference in Austin towards the end of July.  I am taking the family to Colorado for that presentation and we will spend a week there afterwards for a vacation.  Yes, teachers get to goof off all summer…right.

Meanwhile I am committed to revamp and polish my courses for the summer.  I am also committed to adding Captivate content to my coursework.  I have completed the first lesson in basic programming and integrated the SCORM package into Canvas.  Now it is just a matter of grinding them out until they are done.  I think I will track my progress in Captivate as I add content.  If you are interested in using Adobe Captivate then stay tuned.  I will add “how-to” content as I update.  I am also trying to introduce Muvizu animations as an instructional tool.  Wish me luck on that one.

I am also going to focus on developing video content from my class.  I have an acceptable camera and tripod.  Now I just need to figure out how to video classes without using a camera operator.  I am also doing a considerable amount of audio recording using Captivate and Camtasia to build online lessons.  My goal is to make my class completely available over the Internet for students who are absent on any given day.

If that was not enough to do for the summer, I am also learning to speak and read and write conversational Japanese.  Thus far I have almost completed Hiragana and I have begun Katakana and even started the Kanji.  If you are already a non-native Japanese speaker I would really like to hear how you managed it.  Needless to say the summer is a busy time for teachers.

Well I think that is quite enough for one summer so I am going to get busy.

夏を楽しむ

(Enjoy the summer)

Teacher Tools Day 4 – SharePoint

sharepointTeachers are constantly faced with the necessity of posting something, be it pictures, lessons, pdf files, or especially videos to the web and then allowing students access to those resources. SharePoint, from Microsoft, is the best tool for that job, bar none. While a Google drive or other cloud service may allow you to share a file and grant permissions to your students, SharePoint simplifies the process and takes sharing documents to a new level.

What is SharePoint and do I have it?

Microsoft SharePoint is a business server application that allows users to post and share almost any type of file or media and then grant access to that material to anyone they choose.  The application integrates with Microsoft Office in a way that Google drive or other cloud storage applications can not hope to match.  It allows the user to post documents, set permissions, and then edit directly with Word, Excel, or other applications simply by dragging and dropping onto a webpage or folder.  SharePoint can be mapped as a shared drive to bypass the browser or it can be accessed as a web page.  SharePoint takes care of hosting and sharing video so that putting content on YouTube, which is often blocked in schools, or filled with inappropriate images, is not necessary.  SharePoint allows for the creation of sites for groups, teams, classes, and other units, and allows the creator to set permissions for those units down to the document level.  When combined with OneNote Classroom Creator, SharePoint becomes a Learning Management System in it’s own right.  It is fully customizable and allows users to create and publish apps that others can access if they are given the necessary permissions.  In short, SharePoint is a great solution for document control for any type of data.  SharePoint also contains a social media piece that allows students to collaborate and communicate while still being fully monitored and controlled by the network administrator.  SharePoint is fully accessible from outside the school network as long as login credentials are available making it an excellent way for parents to monitor the work their students are doing.  SharePoint is fully integrated into Outlook and can be used to create calendar entries for students to post assignments and reminders.  Finally, SharePoint is easily integrated with any school web site to allow secure access for anyone with school login credentials.

The online version of SharePoint is usually included with an educational subscription to Office 365.  If your school has Office for all of its students and teachers (and it should) then you very likely have SharePoint available.  The easiest way to find out is to ask your network administrator.  If not, then he is also the person to lobby for it.

I am often asked why I prefer Microsoft Office to the free online Google applications that offer similar services.  I am preparing my students for college, and/or the business world.  They will very likely not see Google docs again after High School.  By far the majority of the  market share of business document creation software belongs to Microsoft Office.  Why not start now teaching them something they will use throughout their careers?  Most corporate workers in America will be familiar with SharePoint, Office, and the other common Microsoft business applications.  It seems a waste to teach them something that they will use only temporarily, or at least, that is my opinion.

Teacher Tools – Day 3

htmlToday my picks for useful teacher tools are both related. HTML stands for Hyper-text Markup Language. It is the code used to create web pages, among other things. The code allows us to present text and other visible features through an HTML aware browser and allows us to create links to other documents using the anchor tag.

Every teacher should be able to write basic HTML and know the common tags.  Teachers should also be familiar with creating and uploading web documents to a site.  HTML is becoming the most common way to present content to students both in the classroom and remotely.  LMS systems like Canvas or Moodle all use HTML to present content and they allow you to edit HTML tags in order to more accurately control the material that you present in your classroom pages.  Being able to control the placement of text around an image, for example, is important to the presentation of your material.  If your pages are difficult or uncomfortable to read, it is likely that students will not read them.  You owe it to yourself and your students to learn the basics of HTML and web design and to use those tools as you create your materials.

The other part of this partnership is the use of Cascading Style Sheets to format and control the appearance of your material.  It is an established design principle that content and formatting should be separate.  Having the information in a different document from the formatting instructions allows you to change the appearance of your material without having to modify, or even touch, your material.  You can also edit your content without having to wade through presentation markup.  The current web model uses a markup technology called Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to accomplish this feat.  The content is stored in an HTML document as basically paragraphs of text with no formatting.  The paragraphs are tagged with class and id names that allow the author to assign presentation information even down to a single letter of a word or sentence.  CSS allows us to separate and update presentation and appearance for an HTML document without having to disturb the content and without having to search through the content for formatting tags.  To become a better teacher in the 21st century classroom you should commit right now to learning at least the basics of HTML and CSS and then establishing an online presence.  Build an educational philosophy page, a curriculum vitae, or a blog site to discuss the things that are important to you.

Favorite Computer Science Teacher Tools – Day 2

dell745On day 2 of our investigation into useful tools for teaching Computer Science I would like to point out a web site that makes teaching several different aspects of Computer Science a breeze…CodeAcademy.com

codeacademyCodeAcademy.com is one of the most useful and user friendly coding sites on the Internet. It also contains a huge amount of free content. I realize that the purpose of most sites is to generate income and I applaud that. Generating income is the motive force that keeps quality content in production. However, it is nice to share the wealth and give away quality material to draw people to your site. CodeAcademy has this down pat. One can learn Java, HTML, CSS, JavaScript in various flavors, and SQL just to name a few. I use CodeAcademy.com in most of my classes, even some that might not otherwise involve code. It is possible to set up classes and monitor the progress your students are making as well as to view the material they are learning. As a supplemental source of material it just can’t be beat. Thank you to CodeAcademy.com for providing such a useful amount of free material for my students.

imagineThe next item on my all-time list of favorite tools is a program (not software) created by Microsoft and labeled Imagine. This program, recently known as Dreamspark, provides professional grade coding tools and software to students for, basically, no charge. Where else can a high school student, learning to code, find a copy of Visual Studio Professional with a legal license, at no charge. The school or academy that uses the program pays a token fee of $99 per year and can make items like Visual Studio, SQL Server, and many other professional Microsoft tools available to their students at no cost to the student.

Well, that is day 2 of our top 10 list.  Only 3 more days to go until completion.  If you have questions about any of the programs or tools listed, OR if you would like to add your favorite application to the mix, please use the comment section below, and don’t forget to “like” and subscribe if this sort of topic seems worthwhile to you.

Computer Science Tools Review

9ipArbkiEReviewing the live adaptation of Ghost in the Shell has put me in the mood to present some other reviews and so without further adieu I will be presenting my Top Ten for Computer Science Teaching Tools. These are presented in no particular order or ranking and I would be very happy to have someone add to the list in the comments section below if I miss one of your favorite tools or programs.

greenfootOne of my personal favorite programming tools will always be the Educational Java IDE Greenfoot.  I believe that this is one of the most comprehensive and useful combinations of curriculum and tools available for teaching Java and the basic concepts of Object Oriented Programming.  Notice I added both of those qualifiers.  There are certainly more effective programming interfaces and some tools that make learning the basics of programming simpler but to combine both of those things into a single application, Greenfoot can not be beaten.  The program creator, Michael Kölling, is first and foremost, an educator rather than simply a programmer, and this is apparent in the way that he designed the Greenfoot application to bring out the basic tenets of programming, and specifically Object Oriented design while hiding much of the complicated boiler-plate code that students will get to soon enough in Eclipse or Net Beans.  Rather than begin in a procedural mode teaching loops and variables and other constructs and then bringing class into it  (There I go…bringing class into it) Michael starts off with proper class design principles from the beginning and teaches constructs along with OOP design.  The best time to build a mind-set, in this case, for Object Oriented Programming, is in the beginning and that is exactly what Greenfoot does.

arduinoMy next favorite tool is the combination programming environment and hardware that make up the Arduino system. In order to get students interested in programming and code creation we need to get them engaged. Nothing creates interest and focuses attention better than creating something that works. Lights flash. servos turn. robots move. All of these things tie the attention of the young programmer onto the task in a manner that does not seem at all tedious or difficult. With the Arduino programming environment concepts like functions, methods, variables, loops, and program logic can be taught in bite-sized portions that don’t overwhelm the young programmer. Also Arduino provides an avenue to teach fundamentals of engineering, circuit design, and making in general. Considering the price of the hardware, this is an excellent investment for a part of your classroom budget each year.

With that, the first edition of my Top Ten Computer Science Teaching Tools comes to a close.  I will continue the list tomorrow and try to finish by the end of the week.  If you have suggestions or comments, please list them below.  Also, “likes” are appreciated.

Thanks.