Introducing…tooltime Tuesdays!

tim allen

So I am a sucker for 90s memories and for alliteration. And part of my intent for this blog was to connect people to resources, teaching tips, and accounts of my own teaching experience to learn from and try for themselves, not just to rant (/preach to the choir, most likely).

To that end, I’m introducing a suggested resources page that I’ll add to periodically. Today I’d like to highlight three things, two for teachers and one for students:

  • The Google code-in contest: Unlike typical programming competitions, students get experience writing/debugging/documenting/marketing real-life code for open-source software. If you have middle/high school students at almost any level of tech expertise (techspertise? …probably not), there’s something for them here.
  • Another Google resource, this one for CS teachers: a K-12 computer science search engine. I have yet to dig deep into this, but it seems useful so far.
  • For science teachers who’d like to learn to incorporate more computing into their curricula, join me in working through Project GUTS’s online PD course on computer modeling for middle/high school science courses. GUTS stands for Growing Up Thinking Scientifically, and the course involves an online portfolio as well as a science-related Hour of Code activity.

More to come! Stay tuned.

We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming…

…to bring you a snowstorm-induced lack of time to write the planned post. A question instead, spurred by a Girl Scouts workshop I helped lead this past weekend: how do you talk to kids about creating usernames and passwords? Fortunately, all but one of the girls in my group already had a pretty good idea of what they needed to do, but I ended up sort of stuttering, “Uh, it’s like a nickname you create for this website…”. And passwords? Shoot, even us grown folks are struggling with those.

Sunday soapbox: knowledge isn’t the only gap

Two days ago I suggested that even people who won’t be professional programmers may benefit from being able to create something like a website or mobile app for their own business or personal use. The case study I gave  computer science professor Paul Pauca, who, along with some of his students, created an iPad application to help his son, diagnosed as a toddler with Pitt Hopkins Syndrome, communicate with his family and therapists. They shared it in the Apple app store, and a year later, 1100 copies had been downloaded.

It’s fantastic that hundreds of families were able to benefit from the work they did, especially given the typical prices of standalone augmented/assisted communication devices. But I can’t help but wonder: what if you didn’t have to wait for a team of students working on expensive degrees? What if a member of each of those hundreds of families had the tools to create their own application, tailored to their own child’s unique needs?

Reality check, though: even if we open up who has the software knowledge, we’ve still got to keep an eye on who has access to the hardware, something Pauca himself comments on here (with apologies for headline’s lack of persons-first language).

Last weekend I went to a seminar about AppInventor, where groups of teenage students worked through introductory tutorials while other teachers and I had a crash course in the software and a conversation about how to teach it to students. I spent the rest of the day swapping emails with a young teacher friend about her mental prototypes for apps she wishes she had for using in her (1:1 iPad) classroom. As I dug around for things that might be potentially useful to her, Android app designs from the morning rattling around in my head, I stumbled into this. The part that got me:

At Apple, we see the results of…inequality every day. Minorities are significantly underrepresented in the technology industry. We want to do our part to change this. We want to open the vast potential of all the world’s future inventors, future dreamers, and future leaders.

I’m frustrated because that doesn’t match up with my experience of the ed/tech world. I got jazzed watching high school kids get jazzed about creating apps…and then realized that being able to write and then use your own apps is a long way off because the iPad has the school technology market so thoroughly dominated. Saying that you want to open up the world to inventors does not jive with a development process that requires an Apple device and the ability to pay a $99 registration fee only to wait through an uncertain review period. I understand that the security that comes from keeping out third-party apps is a huge part of the draw for schools…but surely there has to be some middle ground.

But…not everyone will be a programmer, part 2

Yesterday’s post talked about the usefulness in other careers and day-to-day life of the factual knowledge gained from studying computer science, but another idea worth touching on is all of the transferable skills to be gained.

Programming is all about being empowered to create something, not just to memorize and regurgitate. Programming is setting an objective or choosing a task, imagining how to achieve it, and then breaking it down into steps small enough to implement. Learning to program pushes you to be resourceful: when you reach the end of your own knowledge, you have the tools to acquire more and then to make it your own by applying it to a project.  It’s about being able to check your own answers, see that your solution isn’t quite right, and then keep trying new ones until you get it. It’s the open-endedness of the humanities combined with math’s requirements of specificity and clarity. In that, it may not be just a liberal art, but perhaps even the liberal art.

Individually, programmers have to develop strategic thinking, thoroughness, self-reliance, and executive function. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the interpersonal skills to be learned from working on a large project with a team! Can anyone who works with students (or employees, for that matter) honestly say they don’t wish those skills were better developed?


But…not everybody is going to become a programmer.

Oh. So history matters because we’ll all be historians? Kids need chemistry because all of them will be chemists? High school French is important because will become the ambassador to France?

If you’re saying that as a hint at a larger argument that maybe, probably, most of us aren’t entirely sure why high schools have the graduation requirements they do, then yes, by all means, let’s have that conversation.

But for this subject, I can point to concrete reasons. Jobs is part of it, yes, but another part is that even people who don’t do it professionally may be well served by being able to create themselves a website or application. And the bigger picture is that computation is happening in every field, and even if you’re not the one doing it, you’re well-served by being able to understand what’s being computed and why. Does it mean say that we’re focused on critical thinking when we’re missing a giant swath of background knowledge to think critically about? 

And that’s not to mention day-to-day life: In the face of recent credit card information theft, can you really argue that raising the average level of American tech savvy would be a waste of time, or that we wouldn’t do well to know just a little bit more about keeping ourselves and our identities safe online? By continuing to regard programming as a superpower rather than a basic skill, we put ourselves at the mercy of those who choose to use those powers for evil. That seems like reason enough to me.


Update: When I wrote the above paragraph, I hadn’t yet seen this: Americans are, in fact, more afraid of being hacked than of being murdered. Granted, that’s based on self-reported frequency of fearing something rather than intensity of fear, and I imagine having information stolen crosses most people’s minds any time they use a debit card, or whenever they walk into Target, Home Depot, or any other recently breached business, whereas most of us have fewer day-to-day reminders that homicides happen. Still, it seems telling. Keep yourself safe!

But…isn’t programming, like, hard?

Yesterday’s post was on the potential for real-life job preparation that computer science in schools could be. There are, of course, a number of reasons to argue with that idea, some more valid than others. Over the next few days, we’ll touch on a couple of them.

One of them goes like this: “Programming is what, like, the super duper smart guys in movies do! Isn’t that way too hard for kids?!”

In a word, nope.

We’ll talk at length later about this misrepresentation of computing in entertainment and culture more broadly (I’m looking at you, Apple Geniuses) and how it perpetuates both tech fear and stereotypes. For today, though, let’s just take a second to talk about what writing code is: it’s giving a computer a set of directions to complete a task. It can be done in any of a number of programming languages, which are just that: languages. And language is a thing our brains are naturally wired for.

Sure, many programming languages have more formal structures and rigid grammars than most human languages, and we have to write new ones consciously rather than letting them naturally evolve over time. At their core, though, they’re still languages, and kids in several countries (including Vietnam, Estonia, and now the UK) are picking them right up. I get as excited as anybody about kids in the news who write apps and Minecraft mods and whatnot – and I don’t mean to sell short anyone who’s motivated enough to seek out resources and dedicated enough to stick with a project – but I’m leery of seeing them heralded as prodigies.

Before fellow linguists jump down my throat, though, let me be clear about what I’m not saying here. We’ve convinced ourselves for a long time that kids are somehow magically still better language learners than adults, which may or may not be true. A huge difference between child and adult learners, though, when it comes to computers, is the fear I mentioned before. In learning, especially language learning, we talk about the affective filter, more or less the idea that if you’re scared or stressed out or anxious, it’s way harder to learn things. Kids are better learners of programming languages not because their brains are better wired but because they haven’t learned yet that they should panic about trying.

I’d really, really like to teach the Mommy and Me of programming, more or less : workshops wherein a parent/preliterate pair create an interactive storybook or holiday card together. My suspicion is that parents who would never seek out that kind of thing for themselves or be scared that their questions would be too dumb would give it a try if it were pitched as being for their children, and then they’d be able to see firsthand that it is something kids can learn. And, of course, there’s the added bonus of demonstrating to parents that screentime can be social time with their kids rather than isolating them…but that’s another story for another day.

We Need CS Because Jobs, Part 2

Oy. Sitting down to write tonight’s post, I’m realizing, is the first time I’ve sat down (well, other than on my bike) in sixteen hours now, and the long post I’d been drafting in my head is just not going to happen tonight.

Instead, I’m going to leave you with this article from Wired that neatly ties together a number of threads from yesterday.  Remember all those tech jobs there aren’t Americans to fill? We’ve been dealing with some of that workload – quality assurance, in particular – by outsourcing it to countries like India and China. However, software testing prices overseas are rising. As overseas software testers cease to charge rock-bottom prices, the article explains, the tradeoff of low cost for inefficiencies of time differences and language barriers are becoming less worthwhile to, well, anybody with software to test.  The article profiles a handful of people working toward “urban onshoring,” an attempt to transform struggling communities by bringing tech jobs to them.

Sure, a lot of jobs still are outsourced; sure, testing may not be the most glamorous software job in the world (for the record, though, the article addresses both of those concerns). However – and this is what really grabbed me about this piece – it’s a job with a starting salary of $35,000 a year that requires only eight weeks of training, even for people without college degrees. Given that, what could students be ready to do after eight years of regular computing instruction in schools? We’ve seen a lot of push in the last decade to get more students into college; however, we’ve also seen student debt increase steadily to a national total of $1.2 trillion and the economic disparity grow rather than shrink. What if, instead of pushing everyone to go to college, we equipped them to finish high school employable in jobs more lucrative than waiting tables and making lattes?

Why CS in Schools, Part 1

As I mentioned, this is the beginning of a series on why computer science has a place in our schools, why it’s not there now, and what to do about that. So tonight, as we’re watching polls close and results get tallied, let’s talk about numbers.

Specifically, numbers related to one of the clearest reasons to expose kids to computer science: jobs.

Tech-related jobs abound, but Americans qualified to do them, well, don’t abound. Nationwide, tech jobs outnumber CS grads three to one; on the west coast (what?!) it’s sixteen to one in California and an astonishing twenty-seven to one in Washington.  We’re on track to have a million unfilled computing positions by 2020! And note especially that we’re not just talking about software companies; two thirds of computing jobs are in other fields.


Jobs of any kind going unfilled when unemployment is still at nearly six percent would be unfortunate regardless of the quality of those positions. Given salaries in computing, though, it’s downright outrageous: the 2014 list of the best-paying college majors includes information technology, computer information systems, computer science, software engineering, and computer engineering. Software engineering and IT positions are among the top ten most common for people making anywhere from $48,000 to $207,000 a year, according to NPR (follow thing link for a less blurry and more interactive version of this diagram).


Note, too, that while many other math- and science-related majors appear on the best college investment list, they don’t (other than physicians) show up in the chart of most common jobs. We’ve seen a lot of push for more STEM in schools lately, but if we’re serious about preparing our kids for the jobs of tomorrow (and, frankly, today), it’s time for that to include exposure to computer programming:


Let’s change that.

(The first and last diagram, as well as much of my professional inspiration, come from


So now that we’ve gotten to know each other a little bit, here’s my master plan: NaNoWriMo is all about getting people who dream about writing a book to overcome inertia and just start, right? I don’t have a novel rattling around in my head, but I did have this domain name that I needed a catalyst to get off of the ground.  So…the goal is to get something posted every day for the rest of the month (although not things that add up to fifty thousand words, don’t worry!). I imagine a voice and clear idea about long-term posting schedule will emerge gradually, but in the mean time, in order to keep things organized, I’m going to expand on the talk I referred to in my first post.

Here’s the outline for the next four weeks, then:

  • why computer science has a place in the K-12 curriculum
  • why it’s not currently occupying that place, and
  • what to do about that

And here, in the form of a nifty infographic from Kodable, is a sneak peak at some of those things:

5 Reasons to Teach Kids to Code

Intro followup: No, I’m not teaching for America

I didn’t intend to start here. This is, after all, a blog about technology education; if it’s a soapbox, it’s meant to be a focused one, not a platform for everything that goes on in my head. But my first post included a link to a bio that’s now out of date, and it seemed like a good idea to set the record straight.

Long story short, given a lifelong love of teaching and words, I started on an ESL education track as a sophomore in college. Most of the way through, I got cold feet about the content area and started considering TFA as a path to trying a different one without having to go back to school – it seemed to me that the primary criticism was that five weeks couldn’t possibly be adequate preparation, so a person who’d done all the coursework for a traditional license was bound to do fine, right? – and applied. My acceptance letter (placement: special ed) came two days into our special methods class, two days I’d spent falling in love with teaching ESL. Not ready to give up the license I’d been working toward and intrigued by the overlap of the two fields, I deferred in order to student teach after all.

That’s the point at which I wrote that bio, and that was the plan for months. But as I student taught, I was surprised at how not good I was at it. My classmates experienced the same thing: that nothing is like teaching other than teaching, and that for all of our training and preparation and microteaching and field experience, for all of of our past successes in and out of school, for all of our passion and motivation and idealism, we were not good yet. Getting your head screwed on straight as a teacher takes a couple of years – exactly the point at which TFA teachers are released from their commitment. It seemed to me that letting teachers back out right as they reach competence can’t possibly be reconciled with a stated belief that all kids are equally deserving of a quality education. And if I became a “success story” of a career educator despite starting with them rather than because of it, would that not be perpetuating an organization I could now no longer believe in? So I declined their invitation.

These ideas are neither particularly novel nor constructive, a major reason I was hesitant to begin with this post. But then today I finally got around to reading Dana Goldstein’s article on how the organization is changing under new leadership, and now I have a note other than frustration to end on. I see two hugely important things happening under co-CEOs Elisa Villanueva Beard and Matt Kramer: first, the recognition that cultural tourism is happening – that many applicants are driven by a Freedom Writers-inspired white savior complex – and curriculum being added to institute to actively combat that. Hats off to them and to anyone reminding us naive twenty-somethings that we need to mature past thinking we can do anything, into understanding enough complexity to realize how arrogant it is to think any of us can singlehandedly save the world.

Second, there seems to be a tacit recognition that the shift from the original goal of alleviating national teacher shortages to a focus on developing a generation of leaders – without more acknowledgment that that was the case – was shady. It’s a good and necessary thing that people likely to influence policy are given a chance to see classrooms other than their own, certainly; it’s just also unfair to students to pretend that those people are quality teachers. The development of tracks of more intense and content-focused training and longer commitment implies awareness of that problem, and it’s what gives me hope. I’d love to see that idea pushed even further, to see the two completely diverge: one pathway for people ready to commit to a future in the classroom (whether that’s people changing careers or majors, or who couldn’t otherwise afford the semester of paying a school to let you work full time that is student teaching, or whatever other reason) to receive a year or two of focused training from veteran educators, and a separate path for future policymakers, administrators, and lobbyists to commit time to studying education in both theory and practice without having to be students’ teacher of record.

Yes, a lot of these conversations can get ugly, and existing legislation is flawed, and there is much temptation to despair. The fact remains, though, that the conversations are being had. We’re engaged in thinking critically about the directions we want to go, and the internet allows for more information to be accessed and more voices to join the dialogue than ever before. This idea of not losing sight of small gains is the tie-in to the computer science world as well: like education reform, attempts to diversify perspectives in tech have yet to succeed widely. However, they’ve gotten crucial matters to take root in public consciousness. We are thinking and talking, and that is step one. Don’t lose hope.