Archive for January, 2012

An overview of the new iTunes U Course Manager works. This was news to me (emphasis mine):

The overall course design provides a nice bit of organization for a class, but you’re not going to run everything from within iTunes U. In particular, there’s no feedback from students, so you’re not going to use this for tests or grading. This is a one-way broadcast of information.

I’m not sure why, but I’d previously gotten the impression from Apple’s iTunes U page that it would support student submissions and progress tracking (e.g. seeing what the latest video each student has watched). It seems this isn’t the case at all, and it makes sense if Apple expects most courses to be publicly available (and hence not graded by the instructor), rather than targetted at individual classes.

I’m left more than a little disappointed by this realisation; consider my excitement over iTunes U greatly tempered now. With student tracking functionality, iTunes U could have been a great way for teachers everywhere to conduct their own “flipped classrooms” — it’d be like using Khan Academy’s coaching tools for instructors, but allowing teachers to consolidate their own videos and materials. I suppose the good news, though, is that innovation in this space is only just beginning, and there’s a lot more that will be done. (Anyone who takes this chance to say that “the education industry is ripe for disruption”, though, will be smacked on the head with a ruler.)

CS learners starting with web programming

January 27, 2012  |  Tags: ,   |  

On his blog, Kent from Anideo has started writing about transitioning from PHP/Rails programming to developing iOS apps. He writes very candidly and it’s a great read, both for web developers looking to dive into iOS, and for anyone teaching introductory programming.

I say the latter because Kent’s perspectives on compiled languages really surprised me (and, perhaps, other programmers who didn’t start with web programming). In this post, he tells us how, prior to doing iOS development, he had no idea what header and implementation files were. Worse, he couldn’t find much helpful information on the web, even on Stack Overflow.

Perhaps it’s a generational thing — many computer science majors before Kent probably cut their teeth entirely on compiled languages, and transitioning to web programming should have come pretty naturally to these folks. Going the other way, however, could seem very strange, even to a seasoned web programmer like Kent. (This could also explain the paucity of good information on SO, assuming that most contributors there are old and cranky enough to be all “WTF? You don’t know what .h files are?”.)

This trend doesn’t look like it’s going away, what with Codecademy, CS101-class and John Resig at Khan Academy all pushing JavaScript as an introductory language. I can’t really tell what Udacity is teaching first, but their CS101 topic, “Building A Search Engine”, seems to hint it’s probably not C (unless they’re really asking students to build Google from scratch, in which case sign up now!).

What do these developments mean? Probably not much to the field — “native” programming isn’t going away, and many more like Kent will figure their way into it — but for programming education, teachers may need to adjust quite a few assumptions about “what students already know” and “what to teach first”. There could also be a market for web-to-compiled textbooks. Oooh. (Watch as I proceed to fire up iBooks Author, fully aware that I’ll close an empty document in a few days.)

From a speech in 1981:

Comic books were my salvation. I read all of them I could get my hands on, and my reading got better and better, and my teachers soon began to marvel that I read with such “expression” while the rest . . . of . . . my . . . class. . . read . . . like . . . this. I could have told them the reason. You need a lot more expression for, “Aha, Superman, now my red kryntonite will turn you into a BOILED EGG!!!” than you do for, “See Spot. See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.”

The link goes to the excerpt on comics, but his full (slightly rambly, but understandably so) speech is here and includes his source of inspiration for Game of Thrones.

Microsoft has jumped onto the free-to-play bandwagon with its latest game, a text-driven adventure called Visual Studio 2010. The innovative new game marries the traditional interactive fiction text adventure with its arcane commands and exploration with the free-form, open-ended gaming pioneered by the likes of SimCity.

I downloaded it, went into insert mode, couldn’t find Esc, and sat around crying for hours. (Read the manual.)

The biggest news today is that Apple built a LMS

January 20, 2012  |  Tags: ,   |  

Apple announced a few things at their education event in New York yesterday. The highlights were iBooks 2, with its textbook support, and iBooks Author, its companion authoring tool. (iBooks Author looks like it has a ton of potential, and might inspire me to get off my ass and start on that intro programming textbook/comic I’ve always wanted to create.)

What I found most interesting, though, was iTunes U, because I think Apple just built a freaking learning management system (LMS). This may mean nothing to the tech world–and, true to form, barely registered a blip on my RSS feeds–but as a teacher, this is awfully exciting, and I have some very (perhaps unrealistic) high hopes for this. Allow me to explain.

A LMS, according to that no-longer blacked-out site, is:

A software application for the administration, documentation, tracking, and reporting of training programs, classroom and online events, e-learning programs, and training content.

Better-known LMSs include Blackboard and Moodle. I’ve had to suffer through local vendor AsknLearn‘s awful, awful piece of crap when I was teaching, and by the time I returned to offer a course, they’d replaced it with Blackboard, which was no better (and many, many times more expensive). I’m now trying CourseKit for a class, but it doesn’t quite feel like a mature product.

Back to iTunes U. Apple has made two key changes to iTunes U that makes it more like a LMS. From the info page, iTunes U has become a way for any educational institution to publish–and track student progress on–interactive courseware online. Elaborating on the emphasised points:

  • It’s no longer exclusive. Previously, iTunes U was only available for select academic institutions like Oxford, Stanford, Berkeley, Yale and MIT, who’ve been offering some great free courses. Now, though, Apple has made iTunes U open to educational institutions, including K-12, in 26 countries (including Singapore, whew! You can never be sure with these things).

  • It’s no longer just a way of publishing media and documents on iTunes. In its previous incarnation, iTunes U was just a distribution mechanism for videos and lecture notes. Apple has significantly expanded iTunes U’s capabilities to include quizzes, interactive books and assignment tracking. I.e., instructors can gather resources from other freely available courses, put them together as courses for their students, assign reading chapters in iBook textbooks, send out assignments that will deliver push notifications to students’ iOS devices, and track their progress in real time (wait, nope. Ah well.)

All this looks great. More access and greater functionality, all tied in with Apple’s strong device/platform ecosystem and the wealth of existing high-quality educational material on iTunes U. The obvious problem, though, is in that last sentence: “all tied in”. iTunes U as a LMS works best for schools in which all students have iPhones/iPads. This is, understandably, a business goal of Apple’s, but it’s certainly not realistic to expect most schools to set up massive iPad 1:1 programmes, and certainly not for some unproven delivery system (if anything, it’ll be for iBooks textbooks, but even that has a way to go before it becomes a compelling reason to go all-iPad).

I don’t have much more than that, I’m afraid: I’d love to try out the new iTunes U back-end Course Manager, but these are only available to educational institutions. I don’t know if the school I usually work with has signed up yet, but I’m already working on convincing them to do so, and I’ll write more if/when I get a chance to do up an iTunes U course.

(Update, a week later: Turns out Apple didn’t build as much of a LMS as I thought. I’m disappointed.)

Just found out about this. Comes with an interesting HTML5-based interface:

Discover  Last fm

Mike Zamansky is a very experienced and highly-regarded computer science teacher in New York, and founder (I think?) of the upcoming New York City Academy of Software Engineering (here’s Joel Spolsky on the topic). Imagine, then, my delight at discovering that he’d recently started blogging again.

I love his latest post on teaching:

I’ve been thinking a lot about my career as a teacher recently. I decided to leave industry over twenty years ago. As teachers, particularly teachers with technical backgrounds we leave a financially lucrative field to enter one with very few financial rewards. It’s also a field very much under attack, particularly in recent years. […]

So, what do I get out of the deal? Well, when I hear form my graduates, I know that I’ve made a difference. Also, the friendships I’ve developed over the years.

His other pieces are great, too — thoughts (with starter code!) on a software engineering class project that teaches design through implementation, some reflections and suggestions on the Stanford profs’ CS classes, and some details of a lesson module he developed to teach 2-D arrays (again, with code). Fantastic.

If, in the 1980s, you were blowing on NES game cartridges to try and get them to load, you must play this free Flash game. It’s a loving tribute to video games of the era, with faithful–albeit, on occasion, hilariously wrong–re-creations of gameplay and characters from Double Dragon, Mario, Contra, Zelda and more:


I’m stuck on the Zelda level, but I’ve actually been re-playing it so I can finish the game and try out all the different levels. Me! Wanting to finish a game! This is new ground, people.

(Thanks Brandon for the alert on the game.)

Updated Instapaper Article Tools user script

January 13, 2012  |  Tags: ,   |  

I was playing around with multi-site-specific browser Raven, and I wanted to use Instapaper Article Tools for Instapaper, like I did on Safari and Chrome. However, Raven doesn’t support Safari extensions, so I had to use the user script version. Unfortunately, that’s based on an old version of the Instapaper website, so it didn’t work as expected. Anyway, long story short (well, still unnecessarily long), I did up a quick fix for the script:

Download it here.

This should work with Raven, Fluid and Firefox with Greasemonkey.

(I sent a copy to the author a couple of days ago, but I thought there’s no harm posting this here too.)