Sorting


You aren’t long into a computer programming course before you find yourself teaching or learning how to sort the contents of a list. Any computer science teacher will do the standards…

  • sort an unordered collection of numbers in ascending or descending order
  • sort a class list alphabetically
  • sort groups of containers based on their capacity

While a quick read makes it sound like these are entirely different things and certainly they are to the eyes of a student learning to sort, they really aren’t. Computer wise, they all rely on being in some sort of order. Numbers or letters wouldn’t be terribly useful if they ultimately couldn’t be put in order.

The whole concept of sorting can be pretty academic or can actually be fun, particularly if you involve some activity or visualization to go with it. I’ve mentioned before how I actually have students “discover” an algorithm with 10 cards with the digits 0-9 on them, 10 people, and 11 chairs. The only rule is that only one person is allowed to stand up at a time.

The longer students stay in computer science, the more different sorting algorithms they learn. Over the years, I’ve taught many but truth be told, if I have to write a sort, the Bubble Sort and Selection Sort are the only ones that I have committed to memory. It’s actually one of those things that are easily found by any credible search engine.

Going back to visualizations, this a very interesting display.

Sorting Algorithms Animations

If you like moving things to clarify concepts, you’ll love this.

You’ll see a number of play buttons on the page and can play the animation by sort, by data type, or hey, all at once. Beyond the concept of learning how a sort works, knowing a number of different algorithms, the data, and the efficiency all become part of the learning package.

You’ve got to love something that makes a programming concept fun to visualize.

BYOD or bust


If your school provides a laptop or tablet for every student, you might just want to skip reading this post.

I got thinking about this at a recent trip to Sobey’s in town. The guard who counts the number of people allowed in the store has another role to play in public safety. It’s his/her job to sterilize the shopping cart handles as they’re put into place for the customers. In fact, they have their own table of sanitizer separate from the rest of us who go into the store.

When you think about it, those shopping cart handles are a frequent touch point – maybe even the highest touch point since we have automatic doors. So, it only makes sense to give them a wipe down before putting them back into operation.

That got me thinking about computer carts in schools.

We’ve really evolved over the years with providing access to computer and other technology for students. We started with two or three at the back of the room with students cycling through them, to everyone marching to the computer lab or the library for their “computer class” to computers coming in on carts with wireless access to the “point of instruction”. The common thread to this concept of sharing computers is grimy, filthy keyboards. Oh, and monitors with finger prints on them. Oh, and black edges around monitors as students adjust them for their height. Touch points with laptop carts don’t stop there. After each use, they need to be returned to the cart and plugged in so that there’s plenty of power for the next user. It’s also quite the gathering spot to await your turn to return your device.

Even if you take a good look at your own device right now, you might be a little disgusted with the dirt, smudges, and germs that you see or know to be there. If you’re like me, you probably keep a can of compressed air within reach to blow out the crumbs and goodness knows whatever drops in there.

I looked around to see what kind of advice is available to educators and found a link to this document on the Ontario Music Educators’ Association website.

Cleaning and Disinfection for Public Settings

It’s but one resource found at their COVID-19 resource page found here.

More impressively, they have created and shared

A Framework for The Return to Music Classes in 2020/2021

They take their advocacy seriously and I would suggest that it’s great reading for all educators and their context easily adapted for yours. This is exactly what a subject association should be doing in these times. You can’t pretend that nothing has changed and you’ll be back to whatever passes for normal the first of September.

So, back to computer use.

These are my thoughts on the use of computer technology for the fall. I think I’m normally a cautious person anyway but would be more cautious for the month of September anyway.

Computer Science teachers, I suspect, will be among the “luckiest” in terms of students having their own technology to bring to class. Now, more than ever, I’d be promoting that for those students and would spend considerable time at the beginning making sure that they have the same resources and configuration to be successful. You might even want to take Andrew Dobbie’s lead.

For other classes, a revisit to pedagogy would be in order. The good old teacher computer connected to a data projector or large monitor can be used for some of the important things that all students should know. Collaborative programming, internet search skills, media literacy, etc. easily come to mind.

Lots has been said about how the rules for general society aren’t being transferred to the school setting. At least in this one case, you’re in control. Choose wisely.

Please take a moment to share your back to school computing thoughts in the comments.

My media literacy


If you follow this blog or my Twitter feed, you’ll know that there is a daily post called OTR Links. I think I’ve explained this before but, when I’m reading and learning, I will share my reading with others. Share and share alike. With some software magic, it all gets packed together in terms of a blog post.

Where do I get these stories?

Basically, I use Flipboard with a couple hundred categories, News360 and about one hundred categories, the stories generated by my Speed Dial on Opera and the news feed from Microsoft Edge. Favourite news sources are tucked away in my instance of The Old Reader. I also have a separate Twitter account that just follows news sources.

I read a lot of articles and the ones that I find interesting, useful, helpful, challenging, or educational, I’ll pass them along. There are many articles that I don’t share for any one of a hundred reasons.

I’d like to think I’m objective but I know that I’m not. And, I don’t make apologies for it; it’s my own personal learning after all. If you like what I’m sharing then great, if not, you always have the opportunity to ignore or mute me. Unlike signing up for a course, I’m able to learn in different directions on the fly and based upon what’s current and interesting.

I tend to focus on Current News, Canadian News, Education, Technology, and more. Here’s the title bar from my Flipboard instance.

I never really think seriously about where the stories that I read come from. I know that some come from other people’s feeds and some are generated from my location. Sometimes there are assumptions – oh, you like in Canada – you must also like French language articles and things from the United Kingdom! p.s. I do but not for the reasons they think…

All of this will change.

This story got my interest…

Microsoft lays off journalists to replace them with AI

As a result, some of the stories will be generated by artificial intelligence and not a real person who has actually read them and passed them along.

I suppose that I should have known that it was coming and, in fact, may already be present in some cases. That’s set a red flag for me; we know how media sources can game a community or a service so that it gets hits and generate resulting advertising income.

In the long run, it’s going to take my own personal media literacy to a new level. I hope that AI will allow the service to dig deeper in its search for interesting and relevant content. But, having found that content, the responsibility will end up with me to be careful about the truthfulness of the content.

My, how you’ve grown


Regular readers know that I get really excited about maps and visualization.

Peter McAsh shared the resource Human Terrain recently. He was excited to share it because it was all about geography. Me, I like the visualization concept.

You start out in the San Francisco area but take the tour (bottom left corner of your screen). You’ll get a sense of what is shown and how it’s displayed. Of course, there’s a great deal of learning to be done along the way.

Then, play locally.

I zoomed in so that I could see both Detroit and Toronto.

There is quite a difference between the population of the two cities as you can see here. If you zoom in, you can see that the information is displayed in blocks. The higher the block and more intense the colour, the higher the population.

It’s quite interesting to pick out communities – Chatham, Sarnia, London, Kitchener-Waterloo, and so on. Zooming in on a location reveals quite the story.

We know that Detroit was indeed a bigger city as one time and there is a time shift that will take you back 30 years to 1990 and show the difference in two panels, side by side.

Of course, I didn’t stop there. I was off exploring the world with this tool.

Fascinating.

But don’t stop there. Back off to the home page for even more visualizations like this one showing US cities by their most Wikipedia’ed resident. Is that even a name?

10 Questions for Alfred Thompson


Ontario teachers are about to embark on a “Learn at Home” initiative with the extended closure of Ontario schools.  The situation will mean different things depending upon the school district that you work for and your subject area. 

At Bishop Guertin School, they moved their classes online three weeks ago and are trying their best to replicate what would normally happen in a regular classroom.  Alfred Thompson (@alfredtwo on Twitter) is a computer science teacher at Bishop Guertin and I asked him over the weekend to share his experiences and inspiration for Ontario teachers as they start this new adventure. 


The Decision – This had to be a big decision.  Who made the decision?  Is a school day scheduled the same way? 

Alfred: Our school administration made the decision. We draw from a wide range of cities and towns in two states. The area south of the city we are located in was starting to see a lot of COVID-19 cases and we decided that moving online was the best thing for our students, faculty, and staff. We moved online a week or two before most surrounding schools. 

We are having our morning homerooms (we call it advisory) meet online every morning. Being a Catholic school, we start the day with a prayer, morning announcements, and the Pledge of Allegiance.  We usually hang around for a few minutes of chit chat as well. 


The Students – At the heart of education are the students.  How are they handling being at home and handling the technology they’re using?   

Alfred: Our students all seem to have reasonable technology and connectivity at home. Our school is committed to helping students who don’t but for privacy reasons I would not necessarily know about that. Our usual tech support people are available via email and phone. Students have their contact information available to them. 

I think our students are really missing the personal contact with each other. In some of my classes I have just left the microphones open so they can chat among themselves for a while. 


Timetables – How important is having a regular timetable?  I know that you have a couple of students overseas.  How are they handling things? 

Alfred: I have two students who have returned to China. They are quarantined in hotel rooms. It’s lonely for them so I think they like “coming to class.” Being alone they are sort of still living on Eastern US time. They get up late and go to bed late. Their first class is 9PM local time and the last class is at their midnight. I don’t know how well that will work for them after quarantine. 

For my students who are still in the US I suspect that having a regular schedule helps. Though they do tell me that learning online is harder than learning face to face. 


The Tools – What are the tools that you and the students are using?  Are they working as they should? 

Alfred: Students need an internet connected device that can run Google Meet and Zoom which are the conferencing tools we are using. We have an integrated content management and student information system that we have been using for several years. It was developed by a company that Blackboard bought out some time ago. Students and teachers are used to using it for attendance, giving and returning assignments, and even creating and taking quizzes and tests. So that works out well. 

Discipline has been less of an issue if only because it is harder for students to distract each other. I did switch one class to Zoom because Google Meet didn’t do enough to let me keep in control of the microphones.  But other than that things have gone very well. Student seem to want to learn and make the most of the time. 


The Content – What courses are you teaching?  How have you had to modify things to accommodate the new reality? 

Alfred: I am teaching three courses. Our freshman Explorations in CS course, a Programming Honors course, and a section of Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles. We’ve dropped a few topics from the freshmen course but I feel good that we will cover enough to make it a solid course. I was running ahead of my schedule with Programming Honors and feel confident that we will cover all the material. Will we get as deep as I would like? I’m less sure about that. My AP CS course uses the curriculum from Code.ORG which is largely online anyway. We’ll cover that completely.  

One thing we have been able to do is give access for a virtual machine at school that students can connect to over the Internet. This gives them full access to all the software and tools they would have if they were physically in one of our computer labs. I cannot imagine teaching these courses without that. Not switching in the middle of the semester. 

So no asterisk next to anything. Full credit. 


Assessment – Since Bishop Guertin is a college preparatory school, you’ll need to provide a mark at the conclusion of the course.  How do you handle tests, quizzes, and later on exams?   

Alfred: Personally, I have been doing all my quizzes online for years so no change there. A decision about final exams has yet to be made. For most of my courses I evaluate a semester end project. That is still possible if we decide to have a final because of the virtual machine students can access. 


One-to-one – as any Computer Science teacher will attest, there are times when you need to sit down beside a student and work your way through an issue or two.  What does that look like online?  Do you use any group-work strategies that work effectively? 

Alfred: This is tough. What I do when I can is ask a student to share their screen by taking over as a presenter. This is not ideal but it works and it also lets me model problem solving for the whole class.  When that doesn’t work I can open the student’s project directly from the shared network drive and look at it that way.  

I really need to figure out some group work. On the other hand, I have had students ask me a question and another student will give the answer faster than I do. That’s pretty cool. 


On-going feedback – Every teacher knows of this question – particularly for those mark hungry students.  “Did you mark our tests/assignments/quizzes yet?”  Since you don’t have commute time carved out of your day, do you have more time for this and return things prompter than you might otherwise? 

Alfred: I have been getting to some things faster than I used to. Losing that close to an hour drive each day does give me some extra time. Students are being very patient with teachers and each other. There is a sense that we are all in this together. 


No screen Wednesdays – I remember you sharing that teachers (and students?) were to stay away from electronic things like this one day a week.  How’s that working out? 

Alfred: We did that as an experiment this past week. The feedback is that it went well.  We will have a four-day week this week because of Good Friday as well. There is some thought to keeping a Monday/Tuesday and Thursday/Friday schedule after that. I managed to spend a lot less time on the screen Wednesday. It was a good break even for a computer addict like me. 


Personal Workspace – Can you describe your own personal workspace that gets you through this?  Is there anything other than a computer, microphone, and camera that is needed to be successful?  In a previous profession, you used to travel far and wide helping teachers so you may have seen it all.  What advice could you give everyone at this time? 

Alfred: I have two laptops set up on my dining room table. I find that two screens are very helpful. I might even say essential. Both of my laptops have cameras, but I only use one camera at a time. I have a headset with a microphone that I wear constantly while “at school.” It has noise canceling features which is helpful to avoid distractions. I highly recommend a good headset for teachers. Less echo, better hearing, and sends a message to everyone else in the house that you are working. 

My wife retired in January, so she is not teaching. She does have her own setup in the family room which she uses. You know me well enough to know that there is no shortage of computers in my house. 

A second screen and a headset are two hardware recommendations. Setting out outside the main traffic area in your house is a second recommendation. Ideally you should have a place where you can leave your computer set up and not have to constantly set it up and break it down.  Our dining room is mostly for when we have guests so that works for me. It might not for everyone. 

Mostly, I would tell teachers to do what they can and not expect to be able to do all that they would in a normal classroom. These are not normal times. All you can do is the best you can do. 


Thanks so much, Alfred.  I know that your insights are comforting and insightful for educators. 

During this time, Alfred has picked up his blogging pace.  You can read his ongoing thoughts and observations here – http://blog.acthompson.net