education, educational technology, programming

Teaching Computer Science online – the hard parts

This semester I am teaching my first e-Learning course (I’ve been supporting e-Learning for five years; time for me to walk the walk, eh?). It’s a split ICS3C/ICS3U course in Computer Science and Programming.

I’m using Java with NetBeans and we’re coding “desktop” applications (i.e. not mobile yet). We might later move to Android programming, but I think that’ll probably be enrichment for interested students. There isn’t really a requirement to write for mobile in the course, and it adds a lot of extra layers of complexity.

“The Range”

Complexity would be fine, except many of the students are first-time coders – zero experience with programming of any kind. That’s normal, since ICS3x doesn’t have a prerequisite, and many schools (especially in Northern Ontario, but elsewhere too I understand) can’t afford to offer ICS2O as a precursor.

Of course, many of the students do have a bunch of programming experience, some in Javascript or Visual Basic, others in HTML, and a couple in many languages.

So I have what I think is a typically wide range in starting points for learning computer science and computer programming.

Troubleshooting at a distance

Teaching online has special challenges for any course, but ICS has software requirements that are significant and unusual. You need a “computer” – no tablets, no Chromebooks*. You need an application installed and a development kit. If students are using computers owned by their school boards they may have to ask to have those items installed for them. I’m sure you can imagine how easy that is to accomplish.

Of course, many students are using their own computers. I prefer this, because they can install their own software (a useful skill in its own right) and they have a lot more coding time (evenings and weekends).

So what do you do when you get an email like this?

“Hi Mr Grasley, I can’t find Netbeans on the computer at school. I don’t know what to do.”

After several email messages, we got it all worked out. I’m sure the student was frustrated, and I felt a little helpless. The special software needs are tough up front in the course.

These aren’t Word documents

The e-Learning environment has a handy document renderer which nicely formats Word and other documents for me in the browser. It’s a fairly new feature, and it works really well.

It can’t handle a .zip file containing a Java project, of course.

So, I have to download the student submissions and import them into NetBeans or unzip them and open the .java files in a text editor. A little more onerous, but still manageable.

That’s it so far

See, I’m not complaining – it’s pretty good to have only a couple of issues that are special. I like teaching online, I get to reference xkcd in my course, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the semester.

*It is possible to use a cloud-based development environment, which would allow you to code using other kinds of devices. I’m not “supporting” that just yet, but I can see it down the road. I’m hoping some of my students try it out and report back.

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education

This is me not keeping up

I was right to be a little nervous about starting my new job this fall. Not because I’m unskilled, or my students will devour me, or I’ve lost touch with the realities of teaching.

It’s because I have one foot in each world, and those two worlds both want to take over.

Case in point

I like to blog. I enjoy dumping my thinking and reflections here. See how many posts I’ve had since school started? Yeah. Ugh.

Finding time

There is more to do in a day than can be done in a day. My system-level e-Learning transition work officially takes just one period a day, but tends to spill over into 3+ periods a day. My online, combined ICS3C/ICS3U course is supposed to happen in another 75 minutes; that one mostly soaks up my evenings. MDM4U is the most manageable, probably because my class time is utterly sacred and untouchable. So I end up working 12-14 hour days and still have…let’s see…ah, down to 105 unread emails.

I’m not blaming

The new guys are learning the ropes (and rather well, if I can say that out loud), but it all takes time. It’s not their fault; not at all. I had years to learn, refine, and practice the eLC skills, so there is a lot that I’ll have to do for now while I teach them.

But it would be nice to focus…

…on just the teaching and department heading. Today I worked with the team and with Career Studies teachers using Blended Learning, and I felt guilty not being with my class (they had a solid math teacher with them today, which is sometimes a luxury, so it’s not a logical guilt). Right now I’m about to check on my ICS students and help them along so they can have a great Friday. And I’m thinking I should be emailing guidance counselors and I’m prepping for tomorrow’s BL session and then there’s that teleconference on Monday…. Definitely not keeping up.

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education

Starting over

It’s Labour Day again, but this one’s a little different. I’m not just starting another school year; I’m starting a new role as a classroom teacher and department head.

I’ve spent the past six years working centrally and I’ve decided to return to teaching students in a school (and online, actually). I’ll also have a part of my day for central work on e-Learning.

It feels a little like starting over. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve had to balance the Categories of Knowledge and Skills, plan for communication with parents, and decide whether and how to use a textbook. It took a little longer than I expected to get back in the groove, and I didn’t give myself a lot of time to do it.

That said, I’m really looking forward to it. New school, new colleagues, new students, and new learning for all of us.

See you tomorrow, everyone.

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Uncategorized

Sprawling ramble about whether to become awesome

Audio recording here.

I have a lot of interests. Maybe a lot of people do, but I feel I might be straying to one end of the continuum. I’m not saying it’s bad, exactly, but it definitely impacts my life.

Here’s the problem: everything is interesting. Really, everything. I’m fascinated by it all.

Look, here’s my current Twitter bio: “e-Learning Contact in Northern Ontario. I also read, write, paint, play guitar, code, draw, nordic ski, run, take pictures, shoot, cook, and play with the kids.”

The first problem with that? I left a bunch of stuff out. I love Lego and video RPGs. I love editing video. I love woodworking. I even like to cut the grass. I love gardening, except for the actual creating-a-garden part.

The second problem is more obvious: that’s a very, very long list, and it’s going to grow over time. I’m 34 years old; I know I haven’t come across all of the awesome and fascinating things to learn about in life. I expect and hope to have decades of riveting years ahead of me, and I just don’t really have room.

Up until now I’ve taken the Renaissance approach: I’ll learn a little bit about everything. Mile wide, inch deep. I’ll be okay or even pretty good, but not excellent, at everything.

But I sometimes worry that this is the “wrong” approach. Perhaps it’s less fulfilling somehow than becoming awesome at something. I feel like I have it in me to be excellent at, well, anything. That’s not me boasting, that’s just how I feel we all are about most things. We can become great at most things if we commit to them. That commitment is the component that’s missing.

For myself, committing to something means the exclusion of a lot of other things. For example, if I were to decide to pursue painting in my spare time I’d probably have to give up guitar or writing or programming or blogging or… see? I don’t believe there is enough time to do it all. I already feel bad sometimes about not being a highly skilled guitarist because I don’t practice or try to learn new skills. How would I feel if I had less time for guitar because I spent my time painting? Would I feel even more guilt?

Part of the issue is that I don’t know why I feel guilty. To whom do I owe a guitar performance? Only to myself, I suppose. Is my own expectation for myself truly higher than what I’m willing to meet? That’s kind of a foolish way to set my personal standards.

Maybe it’s because I’ve already “bought in”. You know what I mean: I own a guitar and a terrific amplifier; I have tons of drawing paper and lovely pencils; I have dozens of tubes of acrylic paints; I have LOTS of Lego. If I were to abandon something it would be akin to admitting those purchases were wasteful. Even to myself it’s hard to admit a mistake.

I did once, though. I used to knit; my mom taught me. I still know how. I learned a lot about the craft. I listened to podcasts, watched videos, combed through blogs and pattern sites, borrowed books from the library (yes, the physical kind), and more. I bought a full set of beautiful bamboo needles, including pairs of single-points, quintets (is that right?) of double-points, and 4″ circulars. They were lovely to work with, and I enjoyed it a lot. But I found I was enjoying other pursuits more, and that knitting was an exceptionally slow craft. I could draw a stunning portrait in less time than it took to knit a pair of socks, and I had more fun at it. So I gave my implements and a truly giant stash of yarn to my mom. Don’t worry; she’s making good use of it, and she’s teaching my daughter now.

I’m digressing, but you can see the symptoms above: I want to know everything about whatever I’m learning right now. I want to know the nitty-gritty, miniscule, no-one-else-even-cares-about-them details. I probably know more about knitting than half the people in Canada and I don’t even knit anymore.

I just finished listening to “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield on Audible. I’ll probably write a review for it once I have all my thoughts semi-organized about it. In the meantime I’ll say that the author believes in a lot of things, which kills of a good portion of his credibility with me, and he gets a lot of things right. The good part of the book is that he exhorts the author/artist/writer/entrepreneur/etc. to overcome “resistance”, the things in life that get in the way of “the work”, that thing you should be doing. Apart from his confused spirituality (angels, the Muse, and so on), I had two problems with his messages. I’ll admit, I’m possibly not the audience he was addressing, so please enjoy a grain of salt with my criticisms.

First, I got the feeling that the advice he provides is for professionals or would-be professionals. He disdains the “amateur” for not being serious enough and not loving the art or “work” enough to commit fully to it. That bothers me a lot, because he’s saying that I should pursue the one thing that is my “destiny” with single-minded zeal. This essentially precludes the possibility that there is anything short of whole-hog to consider in my pursuits.

The second and more important issue is that he contends (“assumes” is perhaps a better word) that “the work” is more important than almost anything else in life, and that the rest of life is just a distraction and an excuse to avoid doing “the work”. While my perspective would be called “resistance” in his book, I’ll share it anyway: the other parts of our lives make us richer, and the creative parts suffer without them.

So no, I don’t think I should give everything else up to be a stellar painter/programmer/guitarist/Master Builder. It’s not like I’m trying to monetize my skills; these are more “hobbies” or things I like to do for myself.

But there’s a little uncertainty there…. Why do I want to create? Many of the things I love are creative, although I don’t think of myself as an especially creative person. For whom am I creating? If no one but me was to ever view my paintings, would I still put brush to canvas? If I wrote a dozen songs that were all stunningly mediocre, would I be satisfied? What is the purpose? Is there a purpose? Does there need to be one? Do I need goals in my pursuits? Does there need to be tangible gain, or even intangible gain? Is the activity itself enough? Can I enjoy it even without a clear accomplishment?

As you can see I haven’t answered these questions, just spewed them across the end of this post. I don’t know how I should spend my time, or even whether “should” exists. I suppose I’ll just continue to obsess over this activity or that for a while until I decide what the right course of action is.

In the meantime, now that you’ve read my 1200-word navel-inspection, I want to leave you with Wil Wheaton’s words about why it’s awesome to be a nerd. This is what I identify with, and it’s a perspective that’s informing my thinking on how to spend my time. Read the entire thing, and go watch the video of the live event, but I’ll share his definition here because it so perfectly sums me up:

I think a lot of us have realized that being a nerd … it’s not about what you love. It’s about how you love it.

Thanks, and I’ll let you know if I have any epiphanies.

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publishing, reading

My thoughts on DRM: Digital Rights Management

DRM has been around for a long time. There are a lot of arguments for and against DRM from the perspective of the creator and the consumer, the publisher and the distributor.

I see these arguments being talked about along with the Amazon-Hachette battle. People are concerned about being locked into a platform.

I understand that. I like it when products are offered DRM-free, because I’m more confident that I will be able to access the product in several years, and because I have choice in how I consume the product.

I also understand how publishers are afraid of piracy; if it’s too easy to copy digital media, people may steal instead of paying.

But I think both groups are missing something (at least, some people in both groups).

DRM isn’t such a huge problem sometimes

At least, it’s not a huge problem when the management platform provider is good about ensuring the media is available forever on all popular devices. Amazon, for example, lets you read your Kindle books on pretty much everything. They don’t lock you into the Kindle device [anymore]. I have a Kindle, an iPhone, an iPad, and a laptop; all of them are perfectly happy with my books.

It’s also not a problem if DRM is a choice. If I can choose to purchase a book with DRM or without DRM, even at a premium, I’m a happy consumer.

What’s more, Amazon isn’t the only place to get books. I’ll admit, I prefer to buy books there (because then I have everything in the same account), but publishers have lots of other options (including other prominent booksellers like B&N, or distributing the books themselves). Amazon has provided a robust distribution platform, but anyone can publish and distribute an ebook. I’ve done it myself (for free, of course), several times.

Tor Books recently started a new imprint for ebooks. They’re going to be DRM-free because it doesn’t hurt sales and it’s best for the consumer. I’m happy about that.

DRM is a huge problem sometimes

Sometimes DRM is terrible. You have to have 17 different apps, which all function a little differently, to read graphic novels from 17 different DRMing publishers. That’s really irritating (“terrible” is overstating the case, I suppose). I don’t buy graphic novels for Kindle unless they’re exceptionally cheap because I don’t like how the iPad app handles them.

And if the publisher goes belly-up, stops supporting the app, or even stops supporting the app on your specific device, you’re out of luck. Enjoy your eternal subscription to the media you can’t view.

And it doesn’t work

If you want to keep people from copying digital works, you have to prevent them from viewing digital works.

For books, screen captures are inconvenient but effective, and only one person needs to do it. Retyping is slow, but people do that too.

You want to prevent people from copying music? You can’t let them play music, then, or they’ll find a way to copy it.

It’s not a solvable problem, since our playback and recording devices are the same things.

Interestingly, DRM actually encourages piracy in some ways. If you require your graphic novel to be viewed in your own app and a consumer already has a different preferred app, they might seek out a pirated copy so that they don’t have to use your platform. See?

I’m not worried

For now I’ll just make my choices, and hope that publishers start removing DRM from their products (they’re allowed to, after all, even/especially on Amazon). I want to be able to archive my own stuff, just in case Amazon deletes my account or Dark Horse stops supporting iOS apps.

To the publishers reading this, though: I sometimes decided to not purchase a work because it was DRMed and not available in the ecosystem I live in. I didn’t want to download another app or create another account, so you didn’t get my dollars, neither did your author, and I enjoyed someone else’s book. If you hadn’t DRMed it, I would have bought it. Sorry.

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publishing, reading

What if ebooks had come first?

I like to read books. I always have, and I expect that will continue for the rest of my life.

But I’ve changed in my reading habits a lot over the last few years. Now I read far more ebooks than print books, and I listen to audiobooks as well. Most recently I’ve started exploring graphic novels, mostly digitally on my iPad.

When I talk to people about reading ebooks (usually novels), they either hop excitedly foot to foot inquiring about the Kindle titles I love or they scrunch their faces as though tasting bitterness in their old-schoolery while proclaiming they prefer print books.

Why the polarity? Why do people love one or the other?

Why ebooks are better

They’re sometimes cheaper (not always).

They’re easy to get on release day, or any other day. They’re always available and never out of stock.

You can bring (and read) hundreds of them anywhere without lugging anything you wouldn’t already have (phone, tablet, etc.).

They’re not heavy (ever try to read a Brandon Sanderson hardcover?).

They’re not lost in a basement flood, they can be archived, and they can’t be stolen by literate, opportunistic ruffians in the coffee shop.

You can share your notes (even voice notes!) with a social network.

They can synchronize across devices, and with audiobook narrations.

You can adjust the type and screen to account for your failing eyes, the brightness of the room, your font snobbery, and the colour you want the “paper” to be.

From a publisher’s/distributor’s point of view, they require no storage and no shipping; that is, no per-unit cost. They can therefore maintain a back catalogue into perpetuity at no additional cost. Books can even be updated to correct typos, improve covers, and so on.

Why print books are better

You can share them easily.

There is no question that you own it, and you’ll always be able to read it.

You can write in them with a pencil.

They work when you’re out of power.

You can leaf through them quickly, which is helpful for some times of reading.

You can’t change the type, colour, or where stuff is on the page (that’s a good thing).

They don’t depend on screen resolution to look good.

But what if we had had ebooks first?

But of all the reasons people list for preferring print books, the one I hear most often isn’t such a “logical” reason: it’s just that people “are used” to them. It’s almost an argument from nostalgia.

I think if we’d had ebooks before print books the market would be different.

People buying print books would be incredulous at the delays (“You mean I can’t just click the button and start reading?!”), and at the limitations of the format (“I can’t embiggen the font!”). They would feel cheated at only being able to have a small number in their bag at once.

But print books would still have their place, because they truly are better at some things. They’re better when you need to look at a series of charts. They’re awesome for marking up. They are locally very shareable.

Sometimes digital text is later produced in print formats. For example, a series of blog posts might be sold as a paperback book (even while remaining free on the web). Or an ebook is successful and then has a print run. This is often to hit both markets, I’m sure, but sometimes it’s because a text is better represented in print. The authors whose books are published with gorgeous covers, creamy paper and stitched signatures revel in the work of art they were a part of. They may love the pagination, or how they were able to choose the font to evoke emotion instead of relying on Caecilia.

I love that there is a market for both, and I’m sad that many books will never make it into my digital library because of a publisher’s retention of rights without the will to digitize. I hope that authors and publishers will make both forms available to us, and I’m happy that print-on-demand will make it reasonable to do so without many of the costs of warehousing and shipping.

If ebooks had come first we would still have both forms, but more people would think more kindly of them.

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education

Who owns your final exam?

I was chatting with a colleague and our conversation drifted into some local history of students sharing past final exams electronically with each other. Then we stumbled onto an interesting question: who owns your final exam?

The teacher or the school board owns it

On the face of things, either you (the teacher, I’m talking to) or your school board own the intellectual property rights. As I understand it (I’m not a legal expert, folks!), if you create your exam on your own time, with your own resources (say, not using a board computer), then you own 100% of the rights to your exam. If you use board equipment and/or time, the board owns it. Exams are often reviewed/edited by multiple people, which could make things a little murky.

This question also comes up when teachers/school boards want to monetize their work (e.g. sell a lesson plan online, publish a book of assessment tasks, etc.).

If you use board equipment on your own time, I dunno. That’s complicated. Probably there would have to be an agreement between parties (ha ha ha).

The student owns it

But what if the student answers a question you ask on your exam? You certainly don’t have the rights to that student’s response, do you? Doesn’t the student retain ownership of their intellectual property (even if it’s something like their thoughts on symbolism in Divergent, or a solution to a physics problem)?

Okay, so it’s both?

The questions are yours or your board’s. The answers are the students. I think that makes sense, and seems fair (at least to me).

The document itself

But if the student wrote answers on a piece of paper that has your prompting questions on it — then what? Who owns that document? Is it a collaboration at that point? Do you and the student together have to make decisions regarding further publication and distribution? Does fair use allow students to publish their response with your question without seeking your permission?

Retaining all copies

Many schools have a policy of not returning final exams to students. This isn’t about intellectual property; it’s about preventing academic dishonesty (“cheating”) and reducing planning workload. I’m not in favour of this practice, in general. You’re welcome to try to change my mind, of course. I teach math, though, so maybe my stuff is more safely reusable anyway.

What to do

If you want the most control over your work, create your stuff on your own equipment and on your own time. Of course, that might make it difficult to collaborate with other colleagues, which is probably more important.

I’d advocate for returning students’ work to them as well; they invested time and effort, and you shouldn’t take it from them. If their work is too dangerous for other students to see later, you might want to revisit your final summative assessment practices.

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