An Interview with Alfred Thompson

I’ve known Alfred Thompson for a few years now. We met at a Computer Science Teachers’ Association Conference a few years ago where one or both of us were speaking. We’ve also served on the Computer Science Teachers’ Association (CSTA) Conference organizing committee. At the time, Alfred was the K-12 Computer Science Academic Developer Evangelist for Microsoft. Our paths have crossed at various professional learning events since then and it’s always a pleasure to catch up and have a chat.  Alfred is one of those celebrities at a computer science event.  He’s immediately recognizable and typically has a group of people around him who just want to talk computer science.

I was delighted that he was able to take sometime for this interview.

Doug: Thanks for giving me the time for the interview, Alfred. I appreciate it. My mind is indeed fuzzy, do you recall exactly where we first met? I know that we had “met” online on Twitter long before our first face to face meeting.

Alfred: That is a tough one actually. Seems like we’ve known each other for a very long time. It was probably at a CSTA event, one of the annual conferences I think.

Doug: Before we start, let’s address the rumour – did you and Bill Gates leave Microsoft on the same day?

Alfred: No we didn’t. Bill actually retired a while before I left. He’s still active on the Board of Directors and I don’t have any official ties with Microsoft at all. I do still have many wonderful friends who work there though.

Doug: And, tell us what’s the deal with your signature hat?alfred-avatar

Alfred: I decided a while ago that I was tired of baseball caps but that I still needed protection for my head from the sun and the cold. I found that hat in an airport store in Austin TX on my way home from a TCEA (Texas Computer Educators Association) conference and liked it. Sometime later Ken Royal (@KenRoyal on Twitter) took my picture wearing it at another conference. I used it as an avatar for something and wound up using it in other places as well because I didn’t have a good “head shot” to use. I actually have a lot of hats that I wear during the year but that particular hat has become a sort of trademark and is how many people recognize me. So I wear it to conferences and other events to make it easy for people to find me. I bought a new, identical hat because the original one is showing some character.

Doug: If I was to do a technology inventory at the Thompson household, what would I find?

Alfred: I have two laptops (one mine and one my school’s). My wife has a desktop computer and a Microsoft Surface RT. Only the school laptop is not running Windows 8. There is an iPad Mini I picked up to broaden my horizons. I carry a Windows Phone and my wife has an iPhone which may make us a mixed marriage. And of course some video games consoles – a Wii and an Xbox 360. And several Kindles. I love reading on my Kindle which actually surprised me.

Doug: During your time at Microsoft, you did a great deal of travelling to speak to educators. Was there one event that specifically stands out in your memory?

Alfred: Probably the best was the opportunity to work with a program at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City. I helped put together a curriculum and train some student teachers to present a programming course to students in their summer program for high school students from around that state. The students were there for a summer enrichment program. Most of the students were from First Nations communities which often lack modern technology. I was able to travel there to see their projects at the end of the program which was quite a treat.

Doug: And for those days that you had to work “at the office”, where was “the office”?

Alfred: For nine years my “Office” was a room set up in my house. It was nice not to have a commute but it did require some discipline. Surprisingly the discipline was required more to stop working at the end of the day rather than getting started. I really enjoyed working with educators all over the country. And Canada even though that was not supposed to be part of my job.

Doug: You introduced me to some very impressive educators over the years that we’ve known each other. The most memorable time was the Partners in Learning Event in Washington. What was your involvement with that?

Alfred: Partners in Learning was and is run by a completely different part of Microsoft than I was working for so my involvement with them was more a relationship based on mutual interest in education than an official part of my job. I love what they are doing to recognize and connect innovative educators in many disciplines of education. A lot of computer science educators, which was my focus at Microsoft, are very innovative so I encouraged (and still do) CS educators to be involved in Partners in Learning programs. I was a judge for one US event which was an outstanding experience for me. I also attended a number of their events through which I meet some people who have become real friends.

Doug: It is so humbling to see teachers who are able to develop at that level. How does a teacher team work their way through the masses to get an invitation to get there?

Alfred: Many of the most impressive projects expand learning beyond the walls of the classroom. In one case, an elementary school class in the US met regularly via Skype with a similar age group class in China. Other projects involved students in service projects, to the school or the community, that not only involved learning but putting knowledge to practical use. Others are multi disciplinary involving teachers who teach different subjects in ways that show students how things are connected. The projects that move all the way to the international events all involved students doing things that make others say “I had no idea students could do such things.”

Doug: What sorts of things in the K-12 classroom were you most proud/excited to support?

Alfred: In my role at Microsoft I was able to provide professional level software to many classrooms who often would not have been able to afford it. Teachers took advantage of that software, and curriculum resources I could also make available, to teach students serious computer science. I worked with a lot of career technical schools who don’t always get the attention that prestigious college prep high schools get. In fact though they often have great CS programs that reach students that traditional schools don’t always serve well.

Doug: You’re now a computer science teacher at Bishop Guertin High School where they offer the following programs.

  • Advanced Placement Computer Science – AP
  • Explorations in Computer Science
  • Honors Programming
  • Introduction to Graphic Design
  • Multimedia Applications – College
  • Publications/Yearbook – College

Which of these courses do you teach personally?

Alfred: I’m teaching the Explorations in Computer Science and Honors Programming as well as the Yearbook course. We have 10 sections of the Exploring CS course and two of us split them. I have taught AP CS in the past.

Doug: That is a great deal of Computer Science.  Congratulations.  Many schools would love to have those numbers.  Does Robotics have a place at Bishop Guertin?

Alfred: Bishop Guertin has a wonderful FIRST Robotics team (Team 811) which I helped start when I was teaching here before working for Microsoft. The other computer science teacher runs it these days. We’d love to fit more of it the curriculum but that can be difficult as our students have very full schedules. I’m particularly proud that the team regularly is awarded for its sportsmanship.

Doug: How many students from Bishop Guertin go on to pursue further studies in Computer Science? Do they attend local universities or are they adventurous and head in different directions?

Alfred: We do have a good number of students go on to study Computer Science. A recruiter from one engineering university said they’d like to have as many students as we could send them. So they do well. Our graduates go all over. Some do stay local which makes sense as there are some great schools fairly local (Harvard and MIT to name two). Others travel all over the US and beyond. One of my students went to York University some years ago and studied Computer Science there. He has dual US and Canadian citizenship which made that a good move for him.

Doug: A popular feature at the CSTA Conference the past couple of years has been the developers smackdown. 15 minutes to develop the same app in iOS, Android, and Windows. You’ve been the Windows developer. Do you develop mobile apps with your students?

Alfred: I’m hoping to develop mobile apps with my students this year. There are so many platforms and students have something of everything so that can be complex to do well. I’m also planning on having my students program for the Kinect Sensor. It’s something different that I hope will have them thinking out of the box.

Alfred and team just before their presentation at CSTA13 in Quincy, MA

Doug: I know that you’ve written a number of Computer Science textbooks so let’s exclude those from this question – what’s the best Computer Science textbook that you’ve encountered? Why?

Alfred: I’m using Rob Miles C# Yellow Book as a supplemental resource for my Honors Programming course. Rob and I have known each other for a number of years over the Internet but have met in person only once. He and I have a similar sense of humor and writing style and I like his books.

Doug: Does Bishop Guertin use cloud based storage? Whose?

Alfred: As a school we don’t use Google Apps for Education or Microsoft’s Office 365 at this time. We’ve long had a good in-house IT team and so have a sort of local cloud. Student work is stored on a group of network drives that they have access to anywhere in the building. They don’t have access from outside the building which is something I want to look into changing. On the other had we do have a cloud based student information system that supports handing in assignments from anywhere as well as access to assignments and supporting resources. I’d say we’re about half way to a true cloud environment.

Doug: Is this truly the future for education and elsewhere that so many are predicting?

Alfred: I think so. Education is growing more collaborative and the cloud really supports that. These days I do some consulting on the side and my projects all involve sharing either on Google Docs or Microsoft’s Skydrive. We need to prepare students for that future. More importantly though, the cloud supports anywhere anytime learning. For example my students can go online and get copies of all my PowerPoint decks, view videos I have recorded or that other people have recorded, and much more. At my school if we can’t have school because of snow or other issues, we can and do assign work via the cloud. Students do the work at home and submit it on the cloud. We don’t lose days because of snow anymore.

Doug: If a student had an interview with you and asked “Mr. Thompson, what computer programming languages should I learn?”, what advice would you give?

Alfred: I’d say learn as many as possible. There really is no one right language. JavaScript is growing for Internet development. A C-family language like Java or C# is important. I would also encourage students to learn a procedural language like Scheme/Racket or F# because those types languages are growing in popularity especially in financial applications. Any particular language they learn in secondary school will be changed by the time they complete university so concepts are more important than specific languages.

Doug: Let’s get back to the classroom. Long time computer educators like us did our job without models like SAMR and TPACK to guide us. Did we not push students to high enough levels?

Alfred: It depends on the teacher to some extent. I think that models can help but if the teacher is not ready to push the student they are not going to. On the other hand a well prepared teacher is going to push as hard/far as they can get away with regardless or model or not.

Doug: Every time I share a story about collaboration or project-based learning or theories, one of my Twitter followers is quick to note that it’s got an elementary school focus to it. Why don’t middle or high school teachers report and publish their successes?

Alfred: I wonder about that myself. There may be something about the elementary school culture that just encourages sharing among teachers. On the other hand middle and high school teachers are being pushed so very hard to have students master standardized tests that many of them fear to try too many new and untested methods. Administrators are not always encouraging either. Doing truly innovative work takes a lot of time as well. In technology, things keep changing so fast that many educators are running as fast as they can to stay in place. It doesn’t leave a lot of time to writing papers, submitting proposals or preparing talks.

Doug: You continue to blog regularly. What’s your inspiration to continue to do that these days?

Alfred: I joke that I am incapable of keeping my ideas to myself. Seriously though, when I have or more often run into an interesting idea, I feel compelled to share it. Blogging also gives me a good chance to organize my thoughts. Comments are a bonus as well. I learn a lot from the people who leave comments on my posts.

Doug: Tell us about your “Interesting Links” post that appears on Monday morning. How does something make that list and how do you keep track from one week to the next?

Alfred: I’ve always tried to record things I run into during the week that may or may not be enough for a full blog post. One day I realized that I was tweeting a lot of things that I used to keep on a list. So I started reviewing the tweets I had made over the previous week and pulling out the things that I thought had lasting value. Things that make the list are often resources of some sort that I think teachers can use, interesting news stories or studies that offer educational insights, or blog posts by people I read that have ideas worth sharing. I include a lot of links to other people’s blog posts on Monday posts. I feel that sharing links to others is a good way to support and build a larger community of educators.

Doug: Since you’ve been a long time blogger, do you ever see yourself stopping? If you did, would you replace it with some other activity?

Alfred: I get occasional bouts of nothing to say and I wonder if I’ve said all I have to say. This seldom lasts very long. If I stopped blogging I would probably have to find some activity to replace it. I have no idea what that would be though.

Doug: You’re active on both Twitter and Facebook. Lately, you seem to be more present on Facebook. Is that by design?

Alfred: It’s not by design. I am not sure why I have been less active on Twitter lately but I feel like I am missing something. Facebook tends to be more about friends and family and Twitter more about “professional” which for me means education in general and CS education in particular. Teaching has changed my focus a bit in terms of how I spend my time so my balance is adjusting. I expect the balance to ebb and flow over time though.

Doug: I can’t let you go without giving me some computer advice. My PC is a Sony Vaio about three years old – it has an i7 processor with 8 cores and I’m running dual boot Windows 7 / Ubuntu. Should I upgrade to Windows 8? What would I gain?

Alfred: Windows 8 would probably boot and run faster than Windows 7. Microsoft is getting more secure in each version of Windows as well. Windows 8 really has two user interfaces – traditional and “modern” or “Windows Store.” The new interface is optimized for touch and I don’t find myself using it that much except on touch screens. As I switch between Windows 7 and Windows 8 laptops I do notice better performance on Windows 8. On a touch device I would definitely upgrade to Windows 8. The decision is not so clear on a traditional laptop.

Doug: Again, I really would like to thank you for your time for this interview. I also look forward to meeting up in St. Joseph’s at the 2014 CSTA Conference.

You can follow or continue to follow Alfred on Twitter (@alfredtwo) or on Facebook. He blogs regularly at http://blog.acthompson.net/.

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4 Comments

  1. Pingback: OTR Links 11/11/2013 | doug --- off the record

  2. Pingback: Textbooks | doug --- off the record

  3. Pingback: It’s a Poor Man Who Blames His Tools | doug --- off the record

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