Whatever happened to …


Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.

For many (including myself), it wasn’t their first programming language.  Then, it became everyone’s first programming language.  Now, it’s often not the first language again.

For me, I cut my teeth on Fortran, moved to COBOL, then to LISP, then to C and learned how to program along that path in my own high school and university career.  One of the things that coders will recognize through these languages are the rules and laws for success in the language.  Make one mistake in these programs and your efforts just won’t compile, much less actually run.

It wasn’t until I was actually teaching that I was first exposed to BASIC.  Actually, it was WATCOM BASIC on the Unisys Icons that showed up in our classrooms.  These machines were certainly not portable (you’d have to bring the fileserver home with you…) so it meant some pretty early mornings and late nights at school learning the language.  The implementation was the worst of “drop and run”.  There was no professional learning on the use of the language.  I’ll be honest; with a background of programming languages that are so strict with their rules, I had huge problems in the beginning just trying to get my head around this new language.  There just weren’t so many rules.  How could it ever work?

With the end of the Icon, we ended up buying personal computers and tried to make them fit.  Commodore 8032 and later IBM Personal computers showed up.  They all came with versions of BASIC.  There was no graphic interface so an understanding of the operating system was crucial.  You had to work your way around the computer to save and load programs which meant that teacher and student needed to know it all.  For some, it’s obvious that they were unable to distinguish language from operating system!  I’ve said it before and it’s worth repeating … that was probably the last time that I truly understood how computers worked.

It was also the time when buying a home computer was possible.  I cut my teeth on a Radio Shack TRS-80 before moving into a stream of DOS/Windows computers.  Not satisfied with the BASIC that came with the computer, I ended up purchasing Borland’s Turbo Basic and Microsoft’s QuickBASIC.  This opened a new world because you could now compile and run your masterpieces as executable files instead of the interpretive environment of the BASIC at the time.  With the popularity of Bulletin Board Systems, some allowed for add-ons called Doors.  For a time, I ventured into the world of Shareware.  Does anyone remember Bay Street Bulls?  Card Guppies?

Time moves on and so did technology and pedagogy.  BASIC was dropped like a hot potato as education embraced Object Oriented Programming.  Down with BASIC; up with C++, Java, Python, Turing, and others.

But, BASIC wasn’t dead.  Microsoft returned with Visual Basic and it’s now a popular teaching option.  In some cases, it may be the first programming language for the new code learner.  In other cases, graphic languages like Scratch or Hopscotch may be the first language.

They all have their strengths and weaknesses and fans.  Are there really any “bad” languages?

And yet, there’s something nice about opening an environment and hammering out a quick little program to get the job done.  Spreadsheet programs/environments have inherited much of the functionality of programming languages.  And yet?

My current go to language for the quick task is Microsoft’s Small Basic.

There’s just something that’s enjoyable to be able to sit down and quickly code something that just works for the sake of working.  The result is something that makes programming purists shudder.  But let’s not forget that sometimes process trumps product.

So, my questions for you this Sunday morning.

  • Have you ever written a program in a dialect of BASIC?
  • If so, which one?
  • What was your personal first programming language?
  • One of the featured programs on the Small Basic website http://www.smallbasic.com/ is Tetris.  Is that even a relevant game for kids today?

As always, I’d appreciate you taking a moment to share your thoughts.

Taking the challenge

I can’t ignore a good challenge.  Recently, Alfred Thompson challenged me to test out Microsoft’s new CaptionBot application.  He said that he had been having great success with it and challenged me to try it.  The premise is simple; you send it a photo and it describes what it sees.  It’s important to not send personal photos in times like this.

It’s learning so I’ll use my best teacher empathy.  We always try to find the best in our learners, right?

Don’t tell the rest of the Bring IT, Together Committee but I had it open in another window during our meeting last night and was playing around with it so see what I could do with it.

Here are my results…I just dug around some photos from some trips that were on the hard drive and decided to see how they worked.

The Famous Crab

A friend gave me this photo of a crab from a Scuba trip he’d been on.  It was a fond photo for sharing and editing in my Photoshop workshops.  If that was indeed a plate of food, arrangement needs to be revisited!

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls at night is one of the most spectacular things to witness (and capture with a camera).  I’m thinking the bot needs to go out more!


Well, if you look past that big bell with the crack in it, there is a man walking with the person with the umbrella in the background.

St. Louis

I guess I was distracted by that large arch thing when I took the photo.  There is indeed a building off to the right. 

St. Louis (again)

This sports fan was fascinated with the chance to take a photo of classic Busch Stadium.  I completely missed the elevated freeway in the background.

San Antonio

I’ve been to San Antonio twice and never fail to be humbled by the Alamo Shrine which served as a mission.



Well, that was fun.  I don’t think I’m ready to start not tagging my own photos anytime soon though.

Have you tried out the Caption Bot with your own pictures?  What kind of success did you have? 

I’m sure that this student will get better over time and learns.  We just need a bit of patience.

A scorecard?

There used to be a time when you didn’t need a scorecard to determine what would run on your computer.

If you had a Windows computer, then you ran Windows programs.

If you had a Macintosh computer, then you ran Macintosh programs.

If you had a Linux computer, then you ran Linux programs.

Nice, neat, wrap it with a bow and call it a plan.

Then, for me, it got a little murky.  I had inherited a Macintosh computer but I really didn’t like the Macintosh software.  Sure, it had Microsoft Office on it, but the Macintosh version of the software lagged badly in comparison to the Windows version.  I did some digging and found that running a Virtual Machine let me run Windows on the computer.  After a bit of playing around, I got it to work.  There’s a difference between working and working well though.  Or, perhaps at the time, the software wasn’t the greatest.  I was happy in the knowledge that I could do it.  I had a Windows computer along side the Macintosh so it just turned out to be an academic exercise.

Later, when I started to make Ubuntu my favoured operating system, there still was a need every now and again to run a Windows piece of software.  Sure, I could reboot the computer and run in native Windows mode.  However, I had done some digging and found that Wine was a wonderful utility that did the trick for me.  After a while, it became hard to know what was what so my “scorecard” was a folder called “Windows software” so that I could differentiate Windows software from Linux software.  

Enter the tablet world.  We were back to first principles here.  The iPad runs iOS software and smart people get it from one place – the Apple App Store.  Android tablets are similar and smart people get their software from one place – the Google Play site.  Both iOS and Android have incredible applications just awaiting installation.  And, it that doesn’t fill the need, there’s always the web where some websites become applications.

While I’ve always differentiated the use between my computers and my iPad, it was Zoe who talked me into going to a computer store a couple of years ago and buying a bluetooth keyboard/case for it.  Now, I can use it like a regular computer albeit with a smaller keyboard.  It requires a bit of balancing to get the true “laptop” experience but works wonderfully when perched on a table.

One piece of technology that I haven’t used seriously is the Chromebook.  We borrow some from the Waterloo board for onsite registration devices for the BIT Conference and I got to get my hands on Jamie Casap’s Pixel while helping him set up for his keynote a few years ago.  Nice devices (Jamie’s was really nice) but why would I want a separate device when I could just run the Chrome browser on my computer?  

Then, as she said “curiouser and curiouser”.  

The Chromebook became a device that didn’t require continuous internet ability.  You could run some of its applications in standalone with no networking.  Now, this gets really interesting.  Just like a tablet with limited storage, you couldn’t download every application available.  But, for the discriminating user, downloading a selected set of Chrome applications makes a great deal of sense.  The operative point here is “Chrome applications”.  If you do a search on the Google Play store, you’ll realize that’s only a subset of all that’s available.  There’s also all those Android applications…

Then, I read this article this morning.  “A million Android apps are apparently coming to Chrome OS“.  It comes with more than just speculation, but a screen capture.

I suppose that we should have seen this coming.  Both Android and Chrome OS have Linux roots and I’m sure that there have been very smart people at Google thinking and working through this for some time now.  Imagine all of your favourite applications running on a laptop with a real keyboard and not an add-on.   The approach looks incredibly sound to me and the beneficiaries will be those who like to combine the best of the web with the best of the local applications.  It’s pretty exciting when you picture the possibilities, particularly in education where these devices are proving to be very affordable and very functional in the hands of students.  And it’s not just for schools with their tight budgets, but for homes with their budgets.  It is not only attractive for initial purchase and the functionality afforded but also when it comes time to upgrade.  If all this comes to fruition, it will make shelling out the big bucks for a traditional computer a tough decision.

Is anyone keeping score?

Whatever happened to …


This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This was one of the first curricular pieces of software that this Computer Science teacher installed on the Unisys Icon network in my classroom.  Sure, it was a DOS application but it ran nicely in the DOS emulator that sat on top of the QNX operating system.  It only required 16 colours and CGA graphics.  For nostalgia, check out:  http://www.old-computers.com/museum/computer.asp?st=1&c=971

Once installed, I ended up sharing the computers with the Geography teacher for a unit so that his students could explore the software (and the world).

In my Computer Science class, we worked it for every angle that I could think of.  

  • It was one of the first applications we used that actually put the trackball to use as a mouse emulator in DOS;
  • With the hands of a surgeon, we could name a country (middle European worked nicely) and try to put the cross hairs over a country to get the details from the application.  You could see it move from pixel to pixel.  Switzerland was always a favourite;
  • We borrowed a print atlas and encyclopaedia from the library and compared the answers from there to the electronic version for accuracy and depth of information;
  • It was probably the first in-depth application of a database that students experienced electronically.  Sure, they had worked with the goofy 10 entry examples in class but here we had the world;
  • The database actually led to a project.  Dividing students into groups, they used some of the information there (and from the traditional atlas) to build our own “comprehensive” database, stored it in ASCII format, and then wrote some programs to query that database.  It led to some authenticity to their coding;
  • We talked about the importance of a database administrator for keeping the database accurate.  Sure, the database was good the moment that it went into production but population and even countries and their borders would change by the time it shipped.  It’s even more important today.  Check out the two screen captures below from Google Maps and Bing Maps of downtown Amherstburg.  Provincial highway 18 used to run through the town; now it’s Country Road 20.  One for the nostalgia fans!

  • It served as inspiration for one of my first computer curriculum writing projects – “PCGlobe Across the Curriculum”.  We milked the information there for every idea and cross-curricular concept that we could;
  • We had used PCGlobe 3.0 and 5.0 and they worked nicely.  A later version, PCGlobe Maps-N-Facts, wasn’t purchased.

At the time, it was a truly ground breaking application, opening doors for ideas and implementation is classrooms other than Geography.

I think it’s also a perfect example of something being made obsolete by followup technology.  The internet with its back end ability to make changes, political and geographically, almost instantly made installing a static atlas just a fond memory.  Now, “See how borders change on Google Maps depending on where you are“.

Today’s teachers will either:

  • remember using PCGlobe as a tool in their classroom – it might even have been used at an education faculty;
  • or, remember using PCGlobe as a student.

So, a few questions and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • what does an atlas/encyclopaedia look like in today’s connected classroom?
  • when you need the information traditionally delivered by an atlas/encyclopaedia, where do you look?
  • has your district licensed a product that you use regularly for this purpose?  If so, what is it and would you recommend it for others?
  • in today’s world with changing political situations, who do you trust for the latest, non-biased results?

Interactive Word Walls

Kudos to Joe Sisco for sharing this resource from the Tools2Go Windsor Essex Catholic DSB wiki.

If you know how to use Google Drawings (Extension) or web. you’ll dive in immediately after poking around in this shared Google Drive folder.  If you don’t, it’s only a very short learning curve before you’re up to speed.

As soon as you start to poke around, you realize that there’s a little something there for everyone.  It’s not labelled “READ ME FIRST”, but it probably should have been.  Open “How to Use Folder” and take a look through to see how to use things and some helpful suggestions.  The most important first steps is to make a copy of the resource in your own Google Drive.  The originals are Read Only and you’ll want to make changes for sure.

Or, perhaps even create your own.

Here’s a screen capture of a document in the Mathematics folder titled Number Systems.  What you don’t see in this capture are some suggestions and ideas for how to use and modify the various documents.

And, most certainly, the interesting part of any readme document is the inclusion of the word “Posterize”.

The whole resource is a nice starter package for just about any classroom.  Of course, once you get the knack of things…

A good resource like this gets great when the community gets involved and starts to share.  You can see the focus on Mathematics and Science now but the project is just begging for other subject areas and French versions.  How about in the school Resource Centre?  Faculty of Education?

The open-endedness of something like this is quite obvious.  It doesn’t all have to be teacher generated in your class.  I can think of all kinds of formative and summative ways to get students involved.

Take a look around and see if there isn’t a fit for your classroom.

It’s just a storage drive

Well, actually, my iPad is much more but it turns out that it can be much more than that.  I just hadn’t used it that way.

Here’s my own personal story of discovery.

It started when I was writing the post “What does the fox say?“.  I had taken a screen capture and was about to bring it into the post I was creating.

I had just forgotten about where I was. 

iPad owners know that if you plug your device into a Macintosh or Windows computer, it launches the iTunes or iPhoto applications.  (Which, by my terms of use are the most unintuitive piece of software.  Friends have suggested alternatives!).  The applications are there to let you view your media and play it.  Increasingly, iTunes seems to be an advertising program for further Apple services.  Why can’t the default view be the media on the device instead of something for sale on the store?  Rhetorical, I know.  We know the answer.

I never plug my iPad into this PC.  I did when I first got the computer to transfer media when it ran Windows 7 but it never charged the iPad.  Why?  “Why Doesn’t an iPad Charge When Connected to a Computer?”  It just isn’t an issue; I typically use the USB charger that came with the iPad and everything works well.

Now, I don’t know why but I was writing the post and decided to use the screen capture image.  I’m writing the post using Scribefire in a Firefox tab.  It’s how I write most of the posts.  Out of habit, I plugged the iPad into the computer and was going to transfer the file.  The second I did that, I could have done a face whack.  There’s no iTunes or iPhoto for Linux so how am I going to do this?  Probably like I would any other time – go to the iPad, find the picture and email it to myself.  As I reached for the iPad, I stopped in my tracks.

Two things happened.

First the iPad was displaying the green icon indicating that it was charging.

As I turned back to the computer, I noticed that the Launcher had an icon wiggling.

Son of a gun if it hadn’t mounted the iPad as an external device.  It was sitting right over the Windows 10 icon which is a permanently mounted device.  Does this mean I can just get in and explore? 

I try and … nothing.

But, it’s a good nothing.  I shouldn’t be able to just start exploring.  The iPad was locked.  So, I unlocked it with no idea of what I might find. 

What I found was interesting.  I now had access to a completely visible file structure.

If you’ve ever poked around a hard drive, you’ll recognize or guess what might be in those folders.  Of course, what I’m looking for is in the DCIM folder.  I quickly located the image that I wanted, saved it to my desktop, and brought it into the post.  I feel good.  Maybe this computer stuff is starting to “take”.

But then I started to poke around everwhere to see all kinds of stuff that I guess Apple doesn’t want you seeing when you’re navigating with iTunes. 

Ubuntu was good enough to suggest, as you’ll see in the top right, that I could use Rhythmbox to play the music and Shotwell for the images.  I’ll admit; I was really excited.  It was a whole new world for the geeky me to explore.  I took advantage of it to feed the inner me need to learn.  Oh, and play some music just because I could.

Normally, at this part of any blog post, I’m looking for something interesting to wrap it up.  I’m stumped.  It’s probably no big deal to the majority of blog readers, I’m sure. 

For me, it was a great moment.  By documenting it here, am I doing the visible thinking thing?  Let’s run with that as this post concludes.

Going further

There really should be pushback from yesterday’s post “What does the fox say?“.  As I write this post, it’s only about an hour old so the day is young.  This pair of posts was indeed planned to be this way.

It’s not that the SoundTouch app or Google’s implementation of animal sounds are problematic.  In fact, they are both excellent products of creative coding and I think are great examples to share with others who seek to engage with young learners.  If I didn’t, they wouldn’t have made this blog.

The challenge, as I wrote it, was that I showed how to use the two of them at the simplest possible level.  If you’re a regular reader here, you know that I haven’t bought into the theories that some are so happy to demonstrate as “research” when, in fact, no research has been done.

I boil the use of technology down to two things that it affords:

  • technology lets you do things differently
  • technology lets you do different things

Clearly, the simplest use of the two fit into the first category.  Teaching animal sounds is a staple (I’m so inclined to use “stable” but I know my editors would scream) in education and have been done in many ways since the first class ever.  You could sit a child down in front of either app and they’ll take it from there for a few minutes.  Then, they get bored and go looking for something else.  They might even try to mimic the sounds; a former superintendent used to call it “barking at the screen”.

If this was all that you expected from applications such as these, it becomes different to justify just why money should be spent on buying technology.

Or, you can do different things.  That’s where both of these applications shine.

As noted in the post yesterday, SoundTouch has been a favourite for three young learners around here.  Some of the things that we’ve done with it.

  • named an animal and then gone looking for it in the app
  • chosen a few pictures of an animal and then talked about why we liked one over the others
  • translated the animal names into French (thank you Grade 10)
  • looked in the background of the image for other things
  • tried to identify times where we’ve seen the animals/objects in real life (thank you Colasanti’s)
  • done a screen capture and then brought the image into a photo editor to make a good picture better with lines and different colours
  • choose a name for the animal and explain why
  • and I’m sure that we’ve done more.  I wish that I’d kept a diary.

It’s a wonderful example of just how technology can be used different ways in the classroom, often limited only by time and imagination.