That Teacher with the Butcher Paper and Sharpies

I try to encourage my students to keep a paper-based notebook for their work in my computer science courses. I think there’s a benefit to taking notes by hand (when appropriate), and there are handouts, worksheets, paper copies of problems that I have them do by hand, and printouts of project specifications. Most of this is available on the website I keep for the students as well, but there’s something different about paper. You interact with it in a way that you can’t with a keyboard.

I’ve never really been into the idea of doing a lot of “crafting” in my classes, however. Paper, glue, tape, pencil sharpeners, colored markers, scissors, string… It all sounds very middle school (no offense to my colleagues there), and don’t even get my started on all those teacher meetings where we have to wander around the room, putting up stupid colored Post-Its everywhere.

I really hate that stuff.

Last year, though, a roll of butcher paper found its way into my possession, and I stuck a ring stand through it and set it off to the side in my computer science class. Recently I’d started to feel like there was a sizable number of students in my CS courses who were watching what I was doing on the board/screen, but they weren’t getting to write, to draw, to interact with the material the same way even that students in my AP Physics class work with ideas. I decided I’d find a good opportunity to see if I could change that.

Zookeeper

“Zookeeper” is a project in my AP Computer Science class that is designed to give students the opportunity to explore inheritance, creating an Animal superclass and a few subclasses that inherit from it. Object-oriented design asks one to consider data objects in terms of instance variables, and accessor and mutator methods. Every year I ask students to get together in small groups to consider their classes in some detail before jumping on to the keyboard. This year I asked them to draw diagrams of their classes on the butcher paper. It took a bit longer–I was surprised how much time it takes for someone to figure out how to tear off a piece of paper from a roll–and the result diagrams weren’t necessarily *artistic*, but that was beside the point. Being able to wrestle with the concept with paper and Sharpies resulted in projects that clearly demonstrated a greater facility with the concept of inheritance.

Binary Heaps

In the post-AP Advanced Topics class, we’ve just learned about binary heaps, a strategy for prioritizing items in what would otherwise be a standard First In-First Out queue. Here, optimized strategies for adding an item to the heap consist of placing it at the bottom and having it “percolate” up, while deleting an item from the top of the heap involves percolating down… and writing code to implement these strategies is hopeless without a solid qualitative understanding of the process.

Bring out the office supplies. Small groups of students each create their own heap structure on large pieces of butcher paper, then go through the process of inserting a value and percolating, or deleting a value and percolating. Cries of “Wait, what are we doing here?” intermixed with “Ohhhhhh! Now I get it…!” A few minutes later, armed with a clearer understanding of the mechanics, they’re ready to turn to their keyboards.

So, yeah, I’m that teacher now, the one with the butcher paper and the sharpies.

And I’ve got some post-its in the cupboard, too, but I’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

I Had a Pretty Good Day

Some days are better than others… and April 5 was a pretty good day for me at work.

The night before, it wasn’t looking like it. I’ve been behind in grading, in part because I’ve been working on developing some new assignments, and the one I’d been working on for my Advanced Topics class—The Elevator Project—hadn’t been coming together as quickly or as neatly as I’d hoped it would. After an hour or two wrestling with it, I crawled into bed with the idea that I’d have to rearrange the course calendar a bit…

Today was a Day 2, which means I get to see all of my students: AP Physics, and later on in the day AP Computer Science, followed by Advanced Topics.

AP Physics

It was already going to be a good day—a bit of lecture, followed by a fun lab activity—and just as I was getting going, I received a FaceTime call on my phone. I apologized to the students for the interruption, looked down to see who was calling, and didn’t recognize the 626 number. “Is one of you all pranking me?” I asked the class. I’d given my number out to all of them earlier in the week as an emergency contact for our field trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain.

I answered the call, and the face of Turner, a student in that class who was out sick for the day, appeared on the screen.

“Hi, Mr. White! Sorry to interrupt class. Did you get my email?”

“Uh… no. When did you send it?”

“Oh, about three minutes ago!”

“Yeah, I’m afraid I haven’t had a chance to read that yet. What’s up?”

“Would it be okay if I FaceTimed our class today so I don’t get behind on anything? If you could just prop your phone up there, I can see what’s going on…”

It was a good idea, and I applauded her initiative. “My phone is going to die if I FaceTime with you for the next hour,” I pointed out, “…but I’ll be happy to set up a GoToMeeting session with you. Look for an email from me with a link in it in two seconds.”

“Okay, thanks! Bye…”

I launched the app, got the screen pointed toward the board I was developing on, and a few minutes later Turner was following along from home, just as if this was something that we do every day.

Pretty cool.

Then it was time for our lab. Students were arranging magnets in various configurations, placing a clear piece of plastic over them, and sprinkling iron filings on the plastic in order to discover what the magnetic fields around those magnets looked like. One of the students in class, Nick, kindly volunteered to work with Turner, and for the next 30 minutes or so, there they were, looking at the magnetic field effects, making drawings, and discussing whether or not what they’d observed made sense, just as if she was in class.

When people talk about distance-learning, they’re often talking about a model in which a student watches a video lecture, and then maybe “interacts” with other students by leaving a few messages on an online discussion board. It doesn’t sound like a very robust way to teach/learn, and I think most people I know have a natural (and perhaps well-founded) distrust of the experience offered by taking an online class.

What I loved about my experience with Turner this morning was the natural way that the distance-experience occurred within the context of our regular class. And the fact that she was interacting with her teacher and peers in real-time was cool, too.

This isn’t something that can scale. This isn’t an experience that anybody is going to be able to monetize in any real way (I don’t think).

But it was awesome, and a great way to start my teaching day!

AP Computer Science

The AP Computer Science this year is overfilled, and the difference in the ability level of students varies pretty widely. The “Goldilocks” experience in there that’s just right for most students will be too easy for the more capable students, and require significant support for the students who are still coming along.

Today, as students were still struggling to recover from ten days off for Spring Break, I was trying to bring to a close our conversations around Sorting algorithms, recursion, Big-O notation. The Merge Sort was the topic for the day… and I wasn’t looking forward to it.

In the past I’d given them a template for this algorithm and had them try to fill in the missing pieces, or in tough years I’d forego this particular algorithm altogether. Today, I was having none of that. Today, I’d decided, I was going to develop it with them in class, step-by-painful step.

As I considered the lesson and how I wanted to run it, I realized that the timing was actually just about right for developing this moderately-challenging sort. One part of it consisted of keeping track of three separate pointers, one for each of three separate lists, and if I could do a good job of managing our development, it might be a solid introduction to some of the challenges they would face on the typical AP problem… and the test is coming up in just four weeks or so. I made some brief notes on what I wanted to do, and headed down to the classroom…

It worked fantastically. After a few moments settling into class—one student wanted to show me the new Tiger Woods video and update me on the current scores in the Masters—I grabbed a marker and took them through a quick review of the Merge Sort process itself. And then I was writing a bit of code for the first part of the sorting process. I targeted specific students with specific questions, and everybody was keeping up, more or less. I left the room at one point to let them work on their own for a bit, typing what we’d developed by hand into the computer. I came back to develop the tail end of that sort process… and then we were in to the business: the merge method that would pull each pair of recursive arrays back together.

And that, too, worked. They were on it, with insightful questions, and understanding nods when I explained how the thing they’d been thinking about was a good idea but wouldn’t work in this case because…

They were on it!

For just a moment there, I felt like a real teacher.

Advanced Topics in Computer Science

And following directly on the heels of that was the class for which I’d attempted to flesh out the Elevator Project, and more or less failed. I’d decided earlier in the day to re-frame it as an open-ended project. A few days before I’d had students fill out a Course Evaluation form and the results of that, while generally positive, also suggested that there was room to push the students a bit more. An open-ended project that gave students a bit more latitude to explore, fall down, and ultimately (one hopes) succeed might be just the thing.

I had typed up a brief two-page handout with a general description of the project: they needed to write a class-based simulation of a Hotel with a single Elevator that would move up and down between floors, picking up each Passenger from their current floor and delivering them to a requested floor. I passed out the blue photocopy of the assignment while explaining the general idea, and pointed out that this was a classic introductory Computer Science assignment and that I’d be working on my own version of the project at the same time they were.

“And… I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m about to write a simulation, I like to spend a little time with the actual thing so I can better understand some of the details of what I’m going to have to code. So…”—I started edging toward the classroom exit—”I’m going to ride the elevator for a little while.”

“Ummm… what?”

“Wait! I’m coming, too!”

“Come on you guys, let’s go…!”

And next thing you know, there is me along with thirteen Advanced Topics students crammed into the three-story elevator of the Poly building, traveling up and down.

Teacher: “So, are we going to write a Button class for the elevator buttons, or can we leave those out?”

Student 1 (with worried look on face): “What about the ‘Open Door’ and ‘Close Door’ buttons? Do we need to model those?”

Teacher: “You can if you want. I think I’m leaving those out of mine.”

Student 1 (relieved): “Oh. Okay. Me, too.”

Student 2: “Wait, let me off at floor 1. I’m going to run upstairs and hit the buttons for ‘Up’ and ‘Down’ at the same time. Don’t go yet! Wait for me to get there!”

Student 3 (in the corner, fists clenched in excitement): “This is so much fun!

Ah, my little Computer Geeks.

We got off the elevator a few minutes later and returned to the classroom, armed with ideas on how we might put together a solution to this problem. For the rest of the period, there wasn’t much beyond the sound of typing as people began working their way into the challenge.

Yup. It was a Pretty Good Day.

The Growth of CS Education at My School

by Richard White

2018-04-22

I’ve worked at four different high schools in my career as an educator, and taught computer science courses at two of them. I was the lone CS teacher at those schools, as are many of us. It gives us a lot of freedom in some ways, but it also makes teaching CS a bit lonely sometimes: as a science teacher, I enjoy lunchtime conversations with colleagues in that department, and benefit from having a colleague who teaches the same course I do (AP Physics C).

Computer Science is different. It’s not what many teachers consider a “core competency,” I don’t have a department chair to advocate for me, and having a single teacher of that subject implies that the classes offered by the school are limited to subjects with which I have some familiarity: I am comfortable offering an Intro to Computer Science course in Python, an AP Computer Science A course, and an Advanced Topics in CS (data structures) class, but I don’t offer classes in mobile application development, networking, or game development.

After several years of encouraging the school to increase the number of sections of CS offered, I am so excited that we made the decision to hire someone for a Math/CS position, and that I’ll soon have a colleague with whom I’ll be sharing CS teaching duties.

It’s a time of transition for the school, and for me as well. I’ve never had a CS colleague before! The courses currently offered at the school have all been designed by me, and taught by me for so long that I suppose I might be forgiven for being a little possessive of them. And yet (at this point, anyway) I don’t feel too worried about that.

It may help that I’ve seen our new hire teaching a CS class and I appreciated the way he worked with the students. Or maybe I’m just looking forward to having conversations with a colleague with whom I can discuss curriculum ideas, teaching strategies, projects, etc.

This new hire is relatively young, and although he has a decent amount of experience programming in a variety of languages, this will be his first experience formally teaching CS.

At this point, the challenge facing me is this: how do I share what I’ve done with these classes with the new teacher?

  • Course description? (of course)
  • Course syllabus?
  • Course calendar from last year?
  • Lesson plans?
  • Activities and projects?
  • Assessments (tests, quizzes)?
  • Teaching strategies?

I’m happy to share some/all of these things, but it’s also important for a teacher to be able to develop their own materials, and find their own way of teaching a class. I’ve worked with student teachers in the past, and giving them the freedom to find their own pedagogical identity is one of my favorite parts of that experience.

We’ll see how it all works out! In the meantime, I’m just so pleased that my school–a relatively small, independent institution–recognizes that providing CS experiences for as many students as possible is increasingly important.

No Textbooks for my Courses Next Year

tl;dr

I will not be using traditional, bound, textbooks for my classes next year. Instead, students will be using a combination of reading materials provided by the instructor, reference materials available online, and open source publications.

Complete text

Teachers have been asked to turn in a list of textbooks that will be used in their courses next year. This will be the first year in my 32-year teaching career that I will not be working from a traditional textbook in any of my classes.

This isn’t as big a step as it might sound, and it may be that I am in a somewhat unique position to be able to do this. For the past two years I have taught four different courses, and it is for those courses that I am making this decision.

Course-by-course analysis

AP Physics C: Mechanics, and Electricity & Magnetism

Textbooks for this course have, for a while now, been problematic. I’ve been very pleased with the textbook we use, but it’s large, heavy, and cost $411 on Follett last year. The homework problems that Craig and I assign have to be adjusted every time a new edition comes out–an increasingly frequent event–and the solutions that we provide to students have to be redone as well.

The topics of “classical” physics have not changed to warrant this kind cyclical upheaval. The cynical/realistic view of the race to release new editions is that publishers benefit when a course’s new textbook can’t be replaced by the old editions that students resell or pass on. Digital version of the book are almost as expensive and have a limited life-span: access to the digital version expires at the end of the course, and even for physical textbooks, publishers remove access to the textbook and its ancillaries once some number of years have passed–students and instructor can no longer access online materials for our 2010 8th edition of Serway & Jewett’s Physics for Scientists and Engineers.

Somewhat related to the expense issue is the question of how useful students found the text. Although I have provided references to the appropriate sections of the textbook that students can refer to as a supplement to classroom discussion, student evaluations of the textbook suggest that most students use the text primarily as a reference for homework problems–they don’t use the textbook as much for learning the content itself.

(Note: A quick glance at the Cengage website reveals that prices have come down on the 10th edition of this text. This helps to address one of my concerns, but not the others.)

I should also mention that there has been a black market version of this text, a PDF version that students have shared among themselves. While I applaud their resourcefulness, I can’t condone that strategy, and certainly can’t distribute the PDF myself, nor suggest that this is how they should acquire learning materials for our course.

The solution that I have promoted to our physics teachers is an open source one: the OpenStax organization, a non-profit based at Rice University, has published free, downloadable, textbooks (in PDF form) that students can install onto their computers. Student solution guides (PDF) are available for these textbooks as well. Printed versions of the textbook are available for a reasonable price ($48.50). These textbooks and the ancillary materials are being released under a Creative Commons license that allows for free distribution of this resource.

This solution checks all the boxes for us: free, easy-to-use (as a PDF on BYOD devices), distributable by us, and non-expiring. It’s a solid, long-term solution to a long-term problem.

Advanced Topics in Computer Science

This is the third year we’re offering the Advanced Topics in Computer Science course. The book we use for this class–Problem Solving with Algorithms and Data Structures, at $45, isn’t expensive as textbooks go, but the author and publisher have been kind enough to make available a free online version of the text as well. There are minor differences in the two texts, so this year, I began using the online version for class exclusively.

Although the printed version of this text is released under a traditional copyright, the online version has been made available as an open source document: “Problem Solving with Algorithms and Data Structures using Python by Bradley N. Miller, David L. Ranum is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.” This license explicitly allows for one to “copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format.”

What does this mean for students? I have made a copy of the online (HTML, browser-based) version of this text, and am free to make it available to students as a resource for this course. (They may use the online version as well.)

A copy of the Miller & Ranum text displayed locally in-browser

AP Computer Science A

This is perhaps the most challenging text to replace. As with physics textbooks, there are plenty of Java textbooks available, but not all of them focus on the AP Computer Science subset of material, and the ones that do exist tend to suffer from the same, multiple-editions, “re-publish early, republish-often” challenge.

In the past we’ve used the most recent version of Cay Horstmann’s excellent Big Java: Early Objects, Interactive Edition, 6th Edition, but Follet for the past two years has stated that supplies of that textbook are endangered. The Introduction to Computer Science using Java by Bradley Kjell is an online reference, updated in 2017 and released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. While this reference doesn’t (to my reading) have the narrative flow of Horstmann’s work, it does have the benefit of being available, free, and electronic.

As an instructor with growing experience in this course, I’ve been doing what many teachers do after a few years under their belt: I’ve started to use more and more of my own materials in the course. The BankAccount class that Horstmann favors is one I find students don’t understand as well, perhaps, as the Car class that I created for them the first year I started teaching it. Exercises, activities, projects, and review activities are increasingly my own, and this is the year that we’re going to walk away from the Horstmann textbook.

Intro to Computer Science

The *Introduction to Computer Science* course was the first Computer Science course (in recent history) that I began teaching at Poly, and the one for which the curriculum is most my work. This elective course has used another Franklin Beedle offering by John Zelle, the excellent Python Programming: An introduction to computer science. At $45 it’s another reasonably-priced offering.

It’s another book, however, that students don’t seem to spend much time reading. It’s an occasional reference, perhaps, but many of the materials used in the course now are materials drawn from my own experiences teaching that course over the years. As with all the classes, I post online materials that we develop during discussions—indeed, those materials are what is displayed on the board as I present in class—so this textbook, perhaps, is the easiest one to walk away from.

Online lecture notes written by Richard White for the Intro to Computer Science course

I’m a special snowflake

The fact that I’m able to consider dropping traditional textbooks at all is due in large part to a nearly unique set of circumstances:

  1. I have a personal history of posting materials online

    My Masters in Education included an educational technology component, and since that time I’ve made it a point to put as many of my educational resources online as possible. Whether coding a website by hand or using a Content Management System (WordPress is great), I think teachers should put as many of their materials online as possible. The fact that I’ve been developing materials for my own courses for such a long time as part of that process has placed me in a better position to continue that online-publishing process.
  2. Science and technology books are appearing online
    Where I am not using content developed by myself, I am using online versions of textbooks that have been made available by others. Different fields and subject areas are putting Free and Open Source (FOSS/FLOSS) materials online at varying rates, with Science and Technology leading the way. Without ready access to those resources, this would be a much more difficult process.
  3. Open source movement
    In turn, the idea of making materials available online is thanks in large part to the [open source movement](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open-source_model). From Richard M Stallman’s GNU Project to Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons organization, people are starting to formalize the processes that teachers have used for years: sharing materials developed for their own students with other teachers. I also got a big kickstart in thinking about this possibility by Red Hat’s Tom Callaway who gave a powerful presentation on Education and Open Source at the 2016 Southern California Linux Expo.

What happens next?

Materials for my courses will be available online at crashwhite.com, and the process documented at hybridclassroom.com.

The demise of Pretty Good Physics

This is my fifth year teaching AP Computer Science A. More than most high school teachers, CS teachers are sometimes seen as loners: often, they are the sole teacher in their subject area at their school. The College Board has an online discussion community that displays some signs of life, fortunately, and there is a Facebook group that a number of teachers use as a resource as well.

Facebook? I know. I don’t understand that either.

This is my 20th year teaching AP Physics C. The College Board’s discussion community for that subject sees quite a bit more action than the Comp Sci one, but the real resource for that class is the Pretty Good Physics site hosted at Wikispaces. The venerable Gardner Friedlander manages that site, a section of which is password-protected so that only teachers with appropriate credentials have access. It’s a fantastic resource, perhaps unique in the College Board’s collection of communities, and the vast majority of requests for resources on the AP Physics Discussion Board conclude with a reference to Pretty Good Physics.

I’ll have to convert the paragraph above to past tense soon. Pretty Good Physics has a goodbye screen posted on their website now:

This isn’t due to any neglect or mismanagement on the part of Friedlander or anyone else. No, the entire Wikispaces platform is being shut down.

To be fair, Wikispaces is shutting down for perfectly good reasons, and in the best possible way. From the webpage:

Wikispaces was founded in 2005 and has since been used by educators, companies and individuals across the globe.
Unfortunately, the time has come where we have had to make the difficult business decision to end the Wikispaces service.

Why is Wikispaces closing?

Over the last twelve months we have been carrying out a complete technical review of the infrastructure and software we use to serve Wikispaces users. As part of the review, it has become apparent that the required investment to bring the infrastructure and code in line with modern standards is very substantial. We have explored all possible options for keeping Wikispaces running but have had to conclude that it is no longer viable to continue to run the service in the long term. So, it is with no small degree of nostalgia, that we will begin to close down later this year.

When is Wikispaces closing?

To enable us to offer maximum support to customers off-boarding from Wikispaces we will be undertaking a phased shutdown approach. This will help us regulate the system load on the export tool as users depart from Wikispaces

Scheduled Closure dates:

Classroom and Free Wikis end of service, 31st July 2018
Plus and Super Wikis end of service, 30th September 2018
Private Label Wikis end of service, 31st January 2019

There was an initial panic from people in the AP Physics community, but the site has been archived, mirrored, downloaded, and backed up by a large number of people who know very well the value of the site. I’m pretty sure that the site will arise again someday soon. There is a strong support community, and it’s too good a resource to lose.

But the loss of PGP specifically and Wikispaces in general does bring to mind a couple of questions:

  1. Was Wikispaces a poor choice for building the PGP resource? Are there better choices for building and maintaining an online academic community such as this?
  2. Does AP Computer Science have a similar, off-College Board community maintained by someone?

I’d suggest that Wikispaces turned out to be a perfectly reasonable choice for an online community given its 13-year history, a surprisingly long run in technology time. The only thing that would have been more robust would be hosting it on a private site, and that has issues associated with it as well.

And if AP Computer Science has a similar community, I’m unaware of it. Gary and Maria Litvin have built a nice following around the work that they do at Skylight Publishing, and they regularly reply to questions on the College Board Discussion board. The Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/APComputerScienceTeachers/ (login required) is… hosted at Facebook, a decision that I reject for a whole set of Facebook-related reasons.

I’ve seen other non-AP Comp Sci efforts to gather materials and references for people, including Awesome Python in Education, hosted at github—perhaps that Open Source platform is the new, best choice for something like this. For the moment, however, Computer Science in general doesn’t seem to have settled in on a focal point that is clearly identifiable.

Is this due to the nature of our subject? Is it because we tend toward the Lone Wolf end of the spectrum?

While we’re figuring this all out, perhaps the best strategy for providing ongoing access to content is to Own Your Own Domain.

DIY for the win!

References
http://doug-johnson.squarespace.com/blue-skunk-blog/2018/2/26/so-long-wikispaces-youve-been-a-great-tool.html

CS for All?

There was an interview last month with the governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, posted at http://freakonomics.com/podcast/modern-democrat-win/. The governor sounds like an eminently reasonable person (to my political sensibilities), and at one point in the conversation, to subject of Computer Science came up.

From the posted transcript:

DUBNER (Interviewer):
In terms of preparing the populace for the labor scenario that’s coming down the road, I know you’ve been pushing to have every student in Rhode Island take computer-programming classes. Is that a thing already?

RAIMONDO: It’s happening now. We set a goal, I think a year or so ago, that by the end of this year we would be teaching computer science in every district and every grade, starting in kindergarten. And we’re going to hit that goal this year.

DUBNER:
So, I hear about this kind of thinking a lot, and I certainly understand the appeal and the resonance. But I do also wonder if there’s a proven upside of having everyone learn computer science or programming. It strikes me a little bit like the equivalent of having every student in America during the boom of the internal combustion engine learn to take apart a carburetor. And then I think, if you look at the history of economics and progress, that one of the main strengths of economic progress is the division of labor and specialization, rather than everybody chasing after the latest trends. So I’m curious what the evidence was that inspired that move of yours.

RAIMONDO:
I think of it as access and exposure, and also just providing people with a basic level of essential skills. So, everyone has to take math. They may become a writer, they may become an actor, but they ought to have a certain basic level of math skills. First of all, because it’s an essential skill to function. And by the way, they might like math. I think digital skills are the same thing. No matter what job you have, you have to have some basic familiarity with computer skills and digital skills. And so it is as essential in this economy as any other skill that we teach. But also, we know — and there’s loads of data on this girls, people of color, and low-income folks are less likely to go into I.T. fields, which tend to be higher-paying. However, if they’re exposed to some computer training, they’re much more likely to go into the field and do well at it.

“Access and exposure.” That about sums it up. Without even weighing in on the question of whether or not students should be required to take computer science, how do we go about providing them with “access and exposure” to this subject?

There’s some degree of irony in all of this given that most of us who are computer scientists now never had anything close to the degree of “access and exposure” students have available to them now. My “first computer” was a teletype with a modem link to a PDP-11 at the local hospital, and we were lucky to have it. (Cue the obligatory reference to Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch, at https://youtu.be/26ZDB9h7BLY.) Today, students have access to smartphones, inexpensive laptops, even Raspberry Pis, and more YouTube tutorials that you could hope to watch explaining how to program, how to develop, how to download…

It seems to me that students do have access, but the exposure is what’s missing at this point.

And that’s where CS teachers can be most valuable.

For those of you who teach at the high school level, does your school require a Computer Science class for graduation? What do you think of the idea of requiring Computer Science for graduation–yea or nay?

I’m B-A-C-K!

It’s been a very long time (208 days according to my to-do list) since I’ve had the chance to post anything here.

Let me tell you about it.

There have been two unrelated changes that got in the way of me posting anything new on here for the past seven months or so. One is the fact that I changed hosts over the summer. I’d had a good run with JaguarPC.com, but the time had come to switch to a new host. I settled on DreamHost.com, and over the course of a week or two managed to get most of my websites transferred over to the Virtual Private Server there. This WordPress-based blog, however, requires a MySQL database, and although I’d done a good job of archiving everything from the old server, I had to do a bit of futzing around to get it all up and running on the new server. Not a lot of futzing, but a little, and it took me this long to get around to taking care of that.

Software. Am I right?”

The second reason I haven’t posted is that I’ve been going through the existential struggle associated with the “mission creep” of this site. The Hybrid Classroom blog was initiated when I was a Physics teacher using some amount of Internet-based technology in the classroom. My teaching role at my school has changed significantly over the past few years, and now I spend the majority of my time in Computer Science classes. I’m pleased with this transition—I’ve always enjoyed teaching computer science, and it brings with it a unique set of joys and challenges—but I find myself wanting to write less about Educational Technology and more about Technology Education. The name of this site no longer reflects my primary interests… and I guess I’m just going to have to be okay with that.

It did briefly occur to me that I could start the site up with a new name, but I’d have to get a new name, and transfer posts over, or just let them rot on this site, and none of that appealed to me. So we’re just going to go with Hybrid Classroom and let people be a little confused about that.

I haven’t been completely absent from the Internet during the time this blog has been languishing. I have lots of things to share with you; we have some catching up to do.

One other thing I’m doing is taking down many of the old sites that I used to link to. Most of those related to Educational Technology, and to be honest, I don’t regularly read most of those sites any more. I have a new set of blogs that I rely on for Computer Science Education inspirations.

Oh, and comments are on again! I’m looking forward to some great conversations with you.

Volunteering: YouTube comments as community service

Volunteering: YouTube comments as community service
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2017-07-14
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by Richard White
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My school has a “Community Service” component to the graduation requirement for students. They must volunteer for a given number of hours in service to the community, and there are a variety of ways they can do this. Some opportunities are described by the school, but it’s certainly possible to develop your own community service opportunity and have that count towards your requirements.

Is it possible that commenting on YouTube might count towards Community Service?

I think of this possibility as I consider my own activity on my YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/rwhite5279), where I post videos occasionally, most of them related to computer science and computational thinking. I’ve built up a small following since I began posting 9 years ago: nearly 750,000 total views, and nearly 3000 subscribers as I write this. Increasingly, viewers of some of the computer science tutorials have begun leaving questions in the comments section.

This one, for example, on a tutorial on how to use object-oriented programming in Python to simulate a Magic-8 Ball toy that predicts the future (at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6drqLGdXHQA ) :

You can see the question there, followed by a response from me. Here’s another example, a question and response for the same Magic-8 Ball tutorial:

I have a number of friends, teachers or no, who volunteer time in their local community: serving food at the local soup kitchen, visiting people in nursing homes, tutoring students after school. I occasionally get the question “What are you doing on the computer there?” and sometimes find myself answering “I’m responding to a question someone left for me on YouTube.”

Isn’t this a form of Community Service? Isn’t this a form of Volunteering?

Another introduction to object-oriented programming (at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYYzteRKU7U ) prompted this selection of comments (and accompanying responses):

I’m well aware of the fact that online comments—”where nobody knows you’re a dog”—can be challenging: to respond to, to clean up (in cases of misuse or spam), to moderate. Some “discussions” become downright toxic, to the extent that some communities with a broad appeal have had to shut down the comments sections on their sites: if the conversation can’t be civil, there’ll be no conversation at all. In those cases, that strategy is probably the only one that makes sense.

In my little corner of the Internet, however, things are just fine, for the moment anyway. There’s not much fun to be had trolling computer science tutorials, and maybe that has helped to keep things a little more in-focus and on-topic.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to answering more questions. There is volunteering to be done, and I’m just the guy to do it. :)