An Interview with Peter McAsh

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(Peter and our friend Colleen Rose and their customized volunteer t-shirts, created amazingly from a handmade template and some watered down bleach.)

Recently, Peter McAsh came to Essex County for a visit with his family and we had a chance to get together for lunch and a chat.  We have been very long time friends. As we solved all of the things wrong with the world from our lunch view of the Detroit River, it occurred to me that Peter would make a great interview.

So, here goes…

Doug:  My first question in these interviews is always the same.  Can you remember when we first met?

Peter:  We have both told the tale of how we met.  We were kicked out of an Additional Qualifications course at Western.  When you asked me to do the interview, I knew that this was going to be the first question, so I looked up the date by checking our College of Teacher’s Qualifications.  It was July 1982, the summer of our third year of teaching.  Just so people don’t think we took the first two summers off, we were both taking AQ courses those summers as well.

Doug:  We enjoy sharing the “kicked out” story but there is more to it that we’re willing to explain to others if pressed.  Together, we were going to set the educational computing world on fire.  Yet, it was from different directions.  You were originally a Geography teacher.  What got you interested in Computer Science?

Peter:  In a time of declining enrollment I choose CS to increase my chances of getting a job, and it worked!  Looking back I realize that I was supposed to be in CS all along.  In Grade 13 we went to the University of Waterloo for a CS day and I remember thinking how easy it was to write the programs.  In first year I took a CS course for Social Science students and found all the errors in the textbook.  I worked for 2 years as an assistant in the Social Science Computing Lab. The majority of my 4th year thesis involved computer analysis of data.  I used a text editing program, designed to help you write programs, to write my thesis and create handouts for seminars which was before desktop word processing was a thing.  I enjoyed my CS practice teaching assignments more than my Geography placements.  I just didn’t get what the CS “gods” were trying to tell me.

Doug:  I may have been at the same Computer Science day!

You ended up in St. Marys Ontario and the secondary school there.  How much of a Computer Science timetable did you have?  What attracts a student to Computer Science?

Peter:  My first timetable, which was full year, 40 minute classes, consisted of Grade 10 Informatics, Grade 11 Data Processing, Grade 10 Consumer Studies.  I had taken none of these classes when I was in high school.  I was the only person teaching them.  There was very little material left by the previous teacher.  There were some very late nights preparing for the next day.
  
As we both know, the early 1980s was the beginning of the “Personal Computer”.  There were huge increases in enrolment in “computer” classes.  By the mid 1980’s there were more CS courses than I could teach.
 
I think the attraction to CS was that everyone thought they’d need to know how to program to get a job in the future.  I find this ironic given the current attention to “coding” and the idea that everyone needs to know how to code.  Do I think everyone needs to know how to code?  Most certainly NOT.  In the 1980’s it wasn’t true and it’s not true now.

Doug:  The concept of “we need programmers does indeed continue today”.  I shake my head when I hear it applied to why Primary Grade students need to learn to code.  Who knows what the world will actually need when they look for jobs.  Problem solving and clear thinking will take them miles.  Do you have a “great moment in Computer Science” that you can share with us?

Peter:  Alice – http://www.alice.org/  You and I have both taught a variety of programming languages.  Regardless of the language, the sequence of the concepts was very similar.  “Hello World”, variables, assignment instructions, calculations, loops, conditional branching, etc.  The languages were also all text based.  The biggest problem students had were syntax errors.  In 1998 things changed with the release of Alice from Carnegie Mellon University.  It was an environment designed specifically to teach introductory programming concepts with an object oriented focus.  It was initially designed for and used in first year CS courses at Carnegie Mellon and the research showed significant improvements in student learning and gender equity.

Alice does not start with “Hello World”.  The accompanying textbook did not introduce variables until the end of the course.  Better still there was no way you could have a syntax error because the code was drag and drop, a very new and innovative concept in 1998.

Doug:  Alice was an interesting approach and still very popular as a transition to Java programming.

Even though you made a commitment to the BIT 16 Committee, a fantastic opportunity for your daughter kept you from working with us on the first night.  Can you tell us a bit about her opportunity?

Peter:  My 22 year-old-daughter grew up with Harry Potter – books and movies.  She entered a national contest from etalk (CTV) to select the “Ultimate Fan” for the upcoming, at that time, movie series from JK Rowling “Ultimate Beasts”.  The two semi finalists would go to Toronto, compete, on etalk, to determine the “ultimate” fan. The winner would get to meet stars of the movie.
 
She won!
 

On the Tuesday when I should have been in Niagara Falls getting ready for BIT 16, I was with my daughter as she went to a taping of a show that featured the stars, and aired later via TV magic.  We then went to the meet and greet with the cast, and finally saw the movie, which had not yet been released.   An exciting time for her, and me!  I apologize to all those at BIT 16 who made the mistake of asking me about what happened and had to endure my lengthy #proudparent description and photos.  This is selfie of her with some minor actor! (used with her permission)

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Doug:  You’ve been a Bring IT, Together Committee member for a few years now.  What role(s) have you taken on and how do you do it?

Peter:  I retired in June 2013 and volunteered to serve on the organizing committee that you and Cyndie Jacobs were co-chairing.   You were hoping that I would take on the website.  As too often happens with retired teachers, that winter my physical and mental health crashed.  I was unable to take on the website and as I recovered I worked with Andy Forgrave, who did the website, and I took up the new portfolio of social media.
 
Social media has increased in significance for BIT.  It is our primary means of communication.  I have tried to expand social media and make it useful to followers for the entire year, not just during the conference.
As such, I follow the @dougpete social reading technique and post selected content daily to the Twitter feed.  I also scan tweets from BIT followers and RT selected items.  The Facebook Page is a reposting of tweets that were of interest.  The posts to Facebook are sort of a curated list of tweets.
 
Last year you suggested we add a blog to the website.  I’m responsible for the content, often having others write posts.
 
Two years ago, I took on the portfolio of volunteers.  You might recall that I made you, and a number of others, volunteer.  You should have the t-shirt to prove it.  I was assisted by our friend Colleen Rose.  For BIT 16, Colleen was responsible for volunteers.  Colleen and I worked together during the conference as the volunteers assisted with social media.  The use of the picture frames, Instagram, and LIVE broadcasts on Facebook, if I do say so myself, were well received.  When we didn’t have enough volunteer t-shirts, Colleen made them and I was her helper.   Colleen and I are working together again this year.  Who knows what we’ll do!

I have also worked with Lanyrd.  We are investigating an alternative to Lanyrd for BIT 17.

Doug:  Am I a bad person if I don’t remember the t-shirt?

If there’s one thing that permeates the conference in recent years, it’s the concept of teaching “coding” to all students.  Where do you stand on this?

Peter:  I hosted a Minds on Media centre in 2014 “Playing with programming: Coding for Younger Students” https://ecoo14-mindsonmedia.wikispaces.com/Peter+McAsh  I guess I couldn’t decide if the word should be programming or coding so I used both!

I don’t teach younger children.  The purpose of the station was to allow those who had an interest to see if coding would be something beneficial for their students.  I’ve never been a person to tell someone what to do.

Little did I know that “coding” would become such a thing.
 
The focus now, in my opinion, is a bit overboard. In younger grades, developing thinking skills, comfort with technology, and problem solving, are all more important than learning to “code”
 
As we talked about earlier, should learning to code be required?  I think not.
I recently read, and posted to BIT social media, this article with respect to Finland’s approach https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/02/teaching-computer-science-without-computers/517548/

Doug:  There are so many options for the beginning classroom – Scratch, Sphero, Swift Playgrounds, Hopscotch, …  Do you have a personal recommendation for anyone who reads this post?  Why?

Peter:  I would “recommend” Scratch Junior and then Scratch.  There is solid educational research supporting these platforms.  There is a nice sequence / flow to the curriculum.  It is being widely used so there is abundant support.
 
When I first saw Scratch as a CS teacher I thought, oh, nice for little kids.  I was right, and wrong.  I eventually developed a Grade 10 ICS course that used Scratch with a game focus.

Doug:  I’ve always said that there are amazing Ontario educators that we run into regularly.  Do you have any that you’d like to give a shout out to?

Peter:  This is like a question you are asked by your wife where there is no “correct” answer!  I’m going to go in a slightly different direction and mention only one person. John Walsh.
 
With respect to standing on the shoulders of giants, John is my giant.  He was teaching CS at HB Beal in London, where they actually had a computer, and was asked to go to Althouse (Faculty of Education, Western) when it was getting started.  At that time, Althouse brought in all the top classroom educators to lead each of the subject areas.  John was Computer Science and Data Processing.  He was my CS “professor” at Althouse.  What he did to support and mentor my development as a CS teacher was beyond the call of duty.  A couple of examples include:  he gave me the faculty’s TRS80 computer to take to a school where I was practice teaching and then let me keep the computer at my townhouse to get more familiar with it;  he insisted I be an Associate Teacher in my second year of teaching!  He nominated me for Associate Teacher of the Year (I wasn’t selected!);  he was also our instructor at AQ courses, that’s why he kicked us out as he knew we could get more out of the course by not being in class;  after I had completed my AQ courses John hired me to be part of the teaching team for the AQ courses I’d just completed; the last one I’m going to mention is when a one-year vacancy came up to teach at Althouse, he asked me to take the position (I turned down the opportunity, but that’s another story).  I’ve lost contact with John.  Last time I saw him was at his retirement in the early 1990’s.  If anyone has any information about him, please let me know.

Doug:  Good choice.  I, too, have fond memories of Prof. Walsh from my Western days.  One of the Walshisms that I’ve adopted now is removing my glasses to read fine print.

Social Media can be used in so many ways.  One of the topics that we discussed was the use of Social Media for personal gain or personal promotion with little follow through.  I thought that was insightful on your part.  Care to elaborate here in public?

Peter:
I spend a lot of my time on social media, perhaps too much!
The use of social media has been an ongoing discussion between us, mostly using social media!  It’s just recently that we both noticed an increase in posts that tended to say very little and appeared to be focused on self promotion.  In some cases, the self promotion directly results in personal, financial, gain.  How individuals use social media is a personal decision.  Our observation” is just that, an observation or a trend that we have both noticed. 

When anyone makes a post on social media about what they are doing it has some degree of self-promotion.  My answering these questions for Doug to publish is a form of self promotion.  I expect movie deal offers to come flooding in.  I hope Ryan Gossling is available.

Doug:  Recently, you’ve been offered an opportunity to take on a leadership role with your community.  What does that involve?  How do you see it rolling out?

Peter:  The Stratford Perth Community Foundation invited me to join the St. Marys Grant Advisory Committee.  The members of this committee consider applications made to the Foundation for projects within The Town of St. Marys.  This opportunity is so recent, the first meeting is not until later this week.  I was pleasantly surprised, and honoured, to be asked to join the committee.  This is yet another perk to being retired!  The ability to “give back” to your community by participating in organizations like this.

Doug:  During our visit, you mentioned that your brother is a real gadget guy.  Were there one or two gadgets that you got to play with that really impressed you?

Peter:  The answer to your first question when we talked about this was, “yes, he’s single.”  He is also recently retired but his gadget collection started many years ago.  Many, if not most, gadget purchases were a result of needs he perceived for his classroom teaching and/or the students he worked with (after leaving his original career as an exploration geologist, he taught in YRDSB, was a technology coach, and finally worked for the “vision division”, working with low-vision students,  he is also the owner/creator of http://www.linktolearning.com/ he is planning a new twist for that website, wait and see) #proudsibling

Gadget 1 – conduction headphones.  My brother and I both have otosclerosis “an abnormal bone growth in the middle ear that causes hearing loss”.  We have to remove our hearing aids (put them someplace safe) to use earbuds.  If someone tries to talk to us, even if we remove our earbuds, we can’t hear them!  Hearing aids and over the ear headphones don’t always work well either.  Conduction headphones (google it) work.  My brother just acquired new hearing aids with Bluetooth so he no longer needs his headphones.  They are now mine!  They worked very well on the train ride home to St. Marys.
 
Gadget 2 – heads up display.  My brother has a wonderful Roadtrek RV (ask me about the backstory sometime).  The heads up display can be used in any vehicle.  It sits on the dash, connects to the data port of the vehicle, can access your phone and then provides a variety of information on a small transparent screen.  He doesn’t have it setup yet but I’m looking forward to using it when the two of us travel to Newfoundland in June.

Doug:  Thanks so much for agreeing to the interview, Peter.  I really appreciate it.
You can check out all of the interviews done for this blog here – https://dougpete.wordpress.com/interviews/

Just a bit of nerdy trivia, Peter and I used Dropbox Paper for this interview.  It’s something that we’ve both been playing with and wanted to try it for something serious.

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2 thoughts on “An Interview with Peter McAsh

  1. I loved reading this post – I can “hear” you both. Best of all, you let us in on why you got booted out of your AQ course:) Truthfully…Ryan Gossling has got nothing on you, Peter!

    Like

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