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May 31, 2010

Virtual Schools: What Exactly Are They?

By Fran Trees

We are living in a world that is becoming increasingly dependent on technology. With expanding technology comes an exponentially growing number of virtual schools and K-12 learning programs that blend on-line or distance learning with traditional classroom environments.

With the financial challenges facing some schools, elective programs are being cut and courses with small enrollments are being cancelled. Our students are being deprived of exciting and valuable learning experiences. Computer science is an elective course in most states. Although some schools are lucky enough to have administrations and communities that value our discipline, many schools are dropping computer science courses and programs. This worries me terribly.

I find myself wondering if there are ways that the needs and interests of students in schools lacking a computer science curriculum might be met by virtual courses. I don't know a great deal about virtual schools, virtual courses, or virtual teachers. So, I asked a two friends of mine, Bob Getka (Florida Virtual Schools) and Shermonica Pittman (The Keystone School) to educate me. I include my questions and their answers below:

What exactly is the role of a virtual teacher?

Bob: A virtual teacher has many of the same roles as a traditional teacher, but these roles can be widely different within one "classroom". Some students may just need that guide on the side and be able to grasp most if not all of the concepts as they go through the course while other students need constant intervention. It can really be almost an individualized learning plan for each student.

Shermonica: Unlike a traditional teacher, a virtual teacher usually does not have to develop course content such as lessons and exams. These are done by the course development team with input from a subject matter expert (who may also teach the course when it's complete). The role of the virtual teacher is to grade student work and provide thoughtful, targeted, and specific feedback that both gives praise and constructive criticism. In addition, the online teacher responds to student questions. A good online teacher can explain the lesson content in several different ways both verbally and in writing.

How does the virtual teacher's instructions style have to change to meet the needs of their students?

Bob:A virtual teacher cannot be a one size fits all person, they must be able to make adjustments on an individual basis for each student.

Shermonica: An online teacher needs to be creative and have good grasp of technology. Creating videos to supplement the prepared content is a good way to further explain difficult concepts. However, a video of a teacher simply talking is usually not that effective. Videos that feature screen captures of the teacher writing and explaining code and visual representations of concepts (such as an array or linked list) can be very effective. Learning to use tools such as IM, Skype, and Elluminate Live will allow teachers to communicate with students in real time. An online teacher also needs to learn to decorate their online classroom. Many online courses include an area for a banner and announcements. This is usually the first thing a student sees. Thus, creating banners and announcements allow online teachers to decorate their classroom.

Do virtual teachers collaborate with other virtual teachers in design or development of course materials?

Shermonica: The answer to this is both yes and no. While this is possible, it is not as likely to occur as it would in a traditional school building. Also, keep in mind that just like in a traditional school there may be only one Computer Science teacher. At my school there are quarterly meetings for all teachers and monthly meeting for all full time teachers. During this time we do collaborate and share ideas.

Bob: I have not been involved in the development of a course but I have been involved in rolling out new courses. The teachers who develop and then teach a course are in contact with those teaching the course and I do feel like I have the support of other teachers within my area in my school.

I create a feeling of community in my classroom. I worry about the virtual teacher's rapport with the student and the communication among the students in a virtual environment.

Shermonica: This can be difficult. However, my school is committed to creating an online community. Thus we have a Facebook presence, an online student newspaper, a Biology Club, a community Service Club, a Photography Club, and a school wide discussion board. In my own classes there are discussion boards just for students in that particular class. Students who wish can show of cool programs they've written.

Bob: This is definitely something that is much harder to create with an online situation. But, early assignments can be made which give a teacher a window into a student's life. I do know that one of my students was in the state finals in basketball in Maryland, another from New York participated in a MIT competition. Yet another is constantly Googling items and sending them to me to see how they work in programs, just like they would in regular classrooms.

I wonder about the type of student that succeeds in a virtual environment. I wonder more about the type of student who doesn't succeed in such an environment.

Shermonica: Students who are not self-motivated and do not like to read will usually not do well.

Bob: Kids who flourish in an online environment are those that feel like they are being slowed down in a traditional classroom. I had a student a couple of years ago who really wanted to learn Qbasic so he signed up for the course and spent 70 hours over Christmas break and slam dunked the half-credit course! He would have never been able to move so fast in a traditional classroom. Kids who do not succeed are mostly kids who just lose contact with the course.

How does a virtual teacher encourage the students to assume responsibility for their own learning ?

Shermonica: This is stressed in an online classroom. At my school, the enrolment material explains that a student must ask for help. In addition to this, a good online teacher will contact struggling students to offer assistance. My school makes this easy by providing a report of students who are not progressing well. However, it is till up to the student to ask for the help.

Bob: This one is much easier in an online world. The whole curriculum is usually in front of the student at the beginning of the course and starting with the welcome call, the teacher puts the responsibility right on the student.

What does the virtual teacher value about the virtual classroom?

Shermonica:I can't speak for everyone, but what I value is the ability to concentrate on teaching my subject. I've spent up to an hour or more with a single student explaining a concept. Using Elluminate Live I can communicate with students in real time using a microphone. Students can communicate with me using a microphone or the instant messaging feature. In addition, there is an electronic whiteboard that we both can use. I can even share my screen so that the student can see what I am doing. It's often fun to write programs with a student in this way.

In a traditional classroom my attention was spilt between the entire class, and often my attention was directed toward controlling a few unruly students. In the virtual classroom I can work with students one on one. Thus the pace is geared toward the individual student.

Bob: There are so many new software pieces that have been developed that allow teachers and students to use so many different "classrooms" now that most kids can find their niche within the virtual world.

What makes a good virtual experience? Does the virtual teacher have bad days or frustrating experiences?

Shermonica: Every teacher has bad days and frustrating experiences and this is no different for online teachers. It's frustrating when students do not ask for help or try to cheat.

Bob: It was very neat to see once again, the responses to the students as they end the year and take the AP Exam and feel like they were prepared and did well on that exam. Just like in the traditional world, when a teacher finds a student has copied or finds that a student is not being truthful with his/her parents, it can be frustrating

How does a teacher who is dynamic, outgoing, and just plain fun in the classroom setting achieve the same type of success in a virtual classroom?

Shermonica: A virtual teacher can be successful by promptly answering student questions and providing good feedback on assignments. It's encouraging to see students use the feedback you have given them to make progress over time. A good online teacher will also always look for ways to add extra content to the class. Ongoing professional development is also important to stay sharp.

Bob: It can happen, it is just different! I am the chess club sponsor at my F2F school, if I taught full time I am sure I would do the same at my online school. Little things like this to make connections I see happening within the school I work for!

About these virtual teachers:

Shermonica Pittman: I have been teaching for the past 8 years. Currently I live in Rockland County, New York and teach online form home. I teach 7th Grade English, AP Computer Science, Visual Basic Programming, Java Programming, World Literature, Digital Video Production, and Web Design for The Keystone School which is a regionally accredited middle and high school that serves students in all 50 states and around the world. I am certified to teach English in Kansas, Pennsylvania and Florida. I have a Computer Science certification from the state of Florida and a Technology certification from Kansas and Pennsylvania. I earned my undergraduate degree in Computer and Information Science from the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida and my graduate degree in Educational Technology Leadership from the George Washington University in Washington.

Bob Getka: I have been teaching Mathematics and Computer Science for more than 20 years, having taught in Rockford West High School (IL), Naples High School (FL), Parker High School (WI), and Florida Virtual School. I helped the Wisconsin district develop their own Virtual Academy in '06 and am currently assigned its math teacher for two periods in the morning, returning to teach computer science at Parker for the rest of the day. I have served as a reader for AP CS Exam for10 years, the last 7 of which were as a question leader. I have an undergraduate degree from Rockford College with a BS in math/computer science and minors in business administration and education. My Masters degree is in Instructional Technologies from University of South Florida. In addition to teaching, I worked for 1 ½ years as a programmer at a bank.

Thanks to Shermonica and Bob for this information.

Please share your virtual school experiences or your thoughts about virtual schools.

Fran Trees
CSTA Chapter Liaison

Posted by cstephenson at 01:43 PM | Comments (1)

May 28, 2010

CS Teacher Job Opportuntity

By Chris Stephenson

We don't usually do job postings here on the CSTA Advocate blog, but this one is rather special and we want to let you know about the opportunity.

Evan Glazer is the Principal of the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and I had the pleasure to serve with him on an NSF Review Panel.

Evan let us know that his school is looking to hire two teachers of advanced computer science.

If you are a computer science teacher looking for a new job at an amazing school, check out the job description.

Chris Stephenson
CSTA Executive Director

Posted by cstephenson at 05:45 PM | Comments (0)

May 26, 2010

CSTA Members Speak Out

By Dave Burkhart

Earlier this year, the CSTA membership was asked to complete a survey rating the membership benefits offered by CSTA. Over a thousand members completed the survey. Here are a few highlights from that survey:

* 92% of our members said they would recommend CSTA membership to their colleagues
* 84% s our members said their CSTA membership provides professional value
* 79% of the members surveyed feel that it is very important to belong to a group dedicated to excellence in K-12 Computer Science Education
* 91% of the members are pleased with the information offered to them in the Voice
* 86% of the members surveyed say that it is very important for CSTA to provide curriculum materials.
* 81% of the members who read the Advocate Blog are happy with the materials presented
* The CS&IT Symposium is the most visible professional development event for CSTA.

The one thing that really confuses us about the result, though, is the number of our members who are not aware of many of their member benefits. For example, 87% of our members were not aware that they could request copies of our brochures and posters!

When someone joins CSTA, they receive a brochure outlining all of their benefits. We also highlight new benefits on our website and Facebook page.

Can you think of ways that would help us make our CSTA members more aware of their member benefits?

Dave Burkhart
CSTA Membership Chair

Posted by cstephenson at 08:36 PM | Comments (0)

May 22, 2010

Programming Dojo

By Samuel Williams

Moderator's Note: This blog post was written by a university student in New Zealand who is very interested in teacher feedback on a new programming teaching tool he has created. If you are interested in trying something new, give it a try and post a comment to let him know what you think.

At its core, Computer Science is the study of programming languages, algorithms and data structures. Learning a programming language allows one to grapple with these ideas and bring them to life. However, it can be a barrier too: a difficult language can be discouraging and hinder progress. Choosing a suitable language for students is important, and there are many factors to consider.

In addition to learning a single programming language, exposure to a variety of different programming languages increases awareness of not only what is available, but also the different approaches one can take to solve various kinds of problems.

To this end, I have produced an online resource called the Programming Dojo.

This website has been designed with both teachers and students in mind and includes informative summaries on a wide variety of popular programming languages. Each summary includes a brief description, example source code, and links to highly relevant external resources for learning about the language.

I have also included several resources primarily for teachers: a set of posters and a programming language comparison. The programming language posters are designed to be used in the classroom and each feature a particular programming language. There are several suggested methods for using posters discussed on the site. The programming language comparison, while inevitably a little subjective, tries to provide a balanced assessment of programming languages in an educational context. The comparison has been reviewed and incorporates fairly extensive critical feedback.

The Programming Dojo is still under development and feedback from Teachers would be highly appreciated: Is this a useful resource? Are there areas which could be improved? Are there other other resources you would like to see included?

The word Dojo is actually pronounced Dou-Jyou, and is a Japanese word that can most easily be translated as: "Dou" meaning pathway, and "Jyou" meaning place, so Programming Dojo is the place where one can start on the pathway of programming.

Samuel Williams

Samuel Williams is a master's candidate in Computer Science at Canterbury University, New Zealand. The "Programming Dojo" was developed as project work for a course on Computer Science Education run by Tim Bell and Lynn Lambert. Samuel Williams is an enthusiastic free software advocate and computer programmer, and enjoys hiking in the mountains.

Posted by cstephenson at 05:53 PM | Comments (1)

May 20, 2010


By Dave Reed

We all hear the stories about how the CS job market has turned around (if it ever really was on a downward slope). But, when talking to students or their parents about what a great career option computer science is, it's best to have some hard data.

Joel Adams at Calvin College has pulled together some stats and projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the CRA, and U.S. News & World Report that are quite compelling. In particular, there is a nice bar graph that shows the shortage of CS grads relative to new jobs created, and compares that shortage with other science disciplines. Check it out at


Dave Reed
CSTA Board of Director

Posted by cstephenson at 06:34 PM | Comments (9)

May 15, 2010

The 10 Worst Practices in ICT Education

By Margot Phillipps

Excuse me if you have already found this gem, but I was sent this link and immediately formed a strong view that I'd like to meet Michael Trucano:


Michael is a Senior ICT and Education Specialist at the World Bank. Working for the World Bank, he clearly travels and sees the same mistakes being repeated around the world.

I had to refrain from prostrating myself on the floor of ACM HQ when I visited last year, as I am so over awed by their foresight in writing the ACM Model Curriculum for K-12 Computer Science Education and assisting CSTA in its formation. So it is no surprise that I'd at least like to shake the hand of this gentleman!

The first mistake he notes is "Dump hardware in schools, hope for magic to happen". This is still a mindset. In New Zealand, schools are probably past the dumping of hardware in schools phase. We are now in the dumping in schools of ultra-fast broadband. We suffer from relatively slow internet speeds and there is a project to bring ultra-fast broadband to every school gate.

But mistake number 9 is "Don't train your teachers (nor your school headmasters, for that matter)". And without training and adequate PD, and the principal's really understanding the importance of that PD, new hardware or new bandwidth will achieve little.

And of course, related to this is number 5 "Don't monitor, don't evaluate". With the best of intentions amounts of money does get offered to schools for ICT Professional Development (PD) projects or put into centralised PD project. What school wouldn't hold up its hand for some relatively un-monitored money. But it is possibly money wasted as "credible, rigorous impact evaluation studies" are not done.

And my other favourite was Number 8 "Assume away Equity issues". There is an argument that computers can level out those equity issues but as Michael notes "they don't happen without careful proactive attention to this issue."

He left number 10 free. Mine would be "Place people from other disciplines in charge of your discipline". I wouldn't assume I could manage the Social Science curriculum of a school or school district or state or country, because my background is in ICT. So do our subject the honour of having people who understand the subject drive it.

What would you make your number 10?

Margot Phillipps
CSTA International Director

Posted by cstephenson at 01:33 PM | Comments (1)

May 13, 2010

The 2010 CSTA Elections

By Steve Cooper

For the first time, CSTA used on-line voting for determining its representatives to the Board of Directors. I'd first like to start by congratulating the winners of the contested elections:

Duncan Buell: University Representative
Myra Deister: At-large Representative
Deborah Seehorn: State Department Representative

But the main point of this blog post is to discuss my experiences with the process of on-line voting.

The process used was to send the membership a SurveyMonkey URL where they could go to vote. The URL was "public" in that anyone could go to that URL to vote. The voting occurred over a specified period of time, and at the end of that time, the survey was closed. To vote, an individual was asked for their name and e-mail address. The ballot form contained a significant amount of information provided by each candidate and radio buttons which the voter could use to cast her or his vote for the candidate in each position.

At the end of the election, the list of voters was reviewed. The database of all of the ballots (stripped of voting information) was checked to identify duplicates by name, email address, and ip address. Each ballot was then individually checked again against the CSTA membership database (by both name and email address) to make sure that the ballot was cast by a member in good standing. For individuals who had voted more than once, their last (in terms of a time stamp) non-blank ballot was counted. Non-members' votes were discarded. (We did identify several cases where a member attempted to vote twice. And, there were several votes from non-members.) We then sent each member who voted an email asking them to let us know if they did not actually vote. A few members emailed us to indicate that they had not voted but when they were given the ip address and timestamp for their vote, they realized they were mistaken and that they had, in fact submitted the ballot. Only one member indicated that he/she had not cast a ballot and that ballot was removed.

There were a lot of positive aspects about the on-line elections. CSTA saved money by not needing to mail out position statements and ballots. We could ask the candidates to respond to several questions, and could make those responses available to the membership. It was also much easier to tally the votes.

In all, I believe that the voting process was fair. (I welcome criticism from those who believe the process we followed was not fair.) I was not 100% happy with the process, as a lot of work was required to check the ballots and contact all of the members who had voted to confirm that they did, in fact, vote. The filtering out of the invalid ballots turned out to be reasonably straightforward to accomplish, but a simpler solution would be desirable. Next year, we may try an alternate solution (ideally one that is free or nearly free). I welcome suggestions about alternative solutions to try. But do keep in mind that any solution must ensure the anonymity of votes. As elections chair, I do not want to know how any particular member voted.

Steve Cooper
Elections Chair

Posted by cstephenson at 11:43 AM | Comments (4)

May 10, 2010


By Joanna Goode

Thanks to the hard work of the ACM Education Policy Committee and other organizations working to strengthen national policy support for computer science, there have been many important policy victories for computing education at the federal level. Issues of teacher certification, professional development, and curriculum have been highlighted as major topics which need to be addressed and strengthened.

As a community, I think we also need to start thinking hard about assessment. How can we measure student learning in a computer science classroom? How can we quantify what students know and can do? This is a challenge for a variety of reasons:
* Grant agencies and local educational agencies often want to see test score improvements to rationalize the existence of computing courses. So far, they often suggest looking at whether standardized test scores in math and/or science increase as a result of taking a computing course. To me, this seems to be measuring the wrong content knowledge. We don't assess geography knowledge by seeing how literacy scores raise, right?
* Traditionally, computer science courses rely on one programming language and assess learning through the writing of programs. But, as we move away from a programming-centric version of computer science towards a more comprehensive model, how do we assess the rich breadth of the field without relying on writing programs in a particular language?
* There has also been an emphasis on the creativity of computing. How do we measure creativity in computing on a standardized test in which there is typically only one "correct" answer?

In thinking about this problem, I have come up with two different approaches to solving our assessment problem in computer science education. First, I think that much like art, a portfolio approach might be a good measure to show students’ breadth of knowledge about computing, while also highlighting the creative solutions that we want students to derive as part of their learning. Second, I think we might want to develop some test-type items that are aligned with the items offered on the NAEP tests, which currently assess student learning in a variety of other subjects (arts, civics, economics, geography, mathematics, reading, science, US history, and writing). These could be given to students as pre-tests and post-tests when they enroll in computer science courses, to demonstrate whether or not they are developing computing knowledge and skills as a result of the course.

What other ideas do CSTA members have about assessment?

How do you assess learning in your class?

Joanna Goode
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 02:20 PM | Comments (1)

May 06, 2010

What is Computer Science: Undergrad Perspective for High School Students

By Mindy Hart

I get the pleasure of teaching a service-learning based course at the university each semester. Within this course, undergraduate students are trained to conduct educational programs that fit the mission of our outreach program. And sometimes, for fun, I like to make them do work! One of the hardest questions we answer when working with the K-12 students is What is Computer Science? So as a final assignment this semester, I thought I'd ask my service-learning students to answer that question. Here is what they had to say.

Computer Science is
* A broad topic
* A challenge
* A deterrent to your social skills.
* A field where everyone can find a place
* A field with a 50+ year history
* A multinational multicultural field
* A team effort
* A very open environment where students cooperate and professors are integrated into their classes
* A way to change the world
* A way to innovate the way people operate in their daily lives
* About understanding
* Awesome
* Challenging
* Communicating effectively
* Creating the next generation of software
* Embracing new technologies
* Engineering
* Frustrating
* Fun
* Hard to teach correctly
* Helping the global community become integrated with technology
* Here in the USA as well as worldwide
* Innovative
* Logical thinking
* Magical
* Mathematical
* Misunderstood
* Multi-disciplinary
* Needed in many professions
* Problem-solving
* Programming
* Really tedious
* Research
* Respectable
* Rewarding
* Rife with social events to help with networking for future careers
* Somewhere to learn very diverse fields
* Still a young field
* Teamwork (collaboration of a diverse group of people)
* Useful for every branch of science
* Well-paying
* Whatever you make it (to an extent)
* Worthwhile

So what else would you add to the list?

I think this is actually one of the hardest questions for us to answer, but is imperative for creating an identity for computer science. I think our tendency is to offer non-examples such as "it isn't just programming" or "it's not just sitting in a cubicle." And while these non-examples are helpful for delimiting ideas, it still does not give us a concrete idea of what it is. However, maybe we do not need a concrete idea of what it is because I think there is a reason for that (and it is stated in the next to last point in the list above) computer science is whatever you make it. It is important to note that it does involve aspects such as teamwork and problem-solving, but the more important message to send out about computer science is that it can encompass multiple interests and there is an element of computer science in many more disciplines than ever imaginable.

So, what is computer science to you?

Mindy Hart
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 02:00 PM | Comments (2)

May 03, 2010

What's Different About Boys' and Girls' Interest in Computing?

By Dan Lewis

Today's college-bound students have grown up immersed in the technology of computing, and what interests them is no longer the same as what attracted previous generations to computing. For them, computers have become an appliance and the Web is their new communication medium. So why should we expect that learning how to put hello world on the screen would motivate students who are used to computer games and Web pages filled with images, animations and other forms of multimedia?

University computer curricula are changing in response, but most still fail to attract girls to the discipline. A recent WGBH/ACM report found that instead of being intrigued by how computers work, today's students (especially the girls) are much more interested in "social interaction" and "making a difference in peoples' lives".

Fig. 1 - Student Interests.jpg

At a recent Preview Day, the Computer Engineering Department at Santa Clara University surveyed students who had been admitted for the fall of 2010 regarding their interests in computing. The results in Figure 1 highlight several key differences between the male and female students who attended the event. As anticipated, robotics, game design and computer hardware design were of greater interest to males, while females were more concerned with how computing can be used to benefit society. But what was not expected was how significant a factor gender is relative to interest in how the Web works and in the use of computers in graphic arts.

Fig. 2 - Applications.jpg

These differences are also reflected in our admission statistics. Last fall the department introduced a new degree program in Web Design and Engineering that combines the Web technologies of content creation and content delivery with Web-related courses from the fields of graphic arts, communication, sociology and applied ethics. As shown in Figure 2, this interdisciplinary approach has attracted a significantly greater percentage of women who (to our delight) also happen to have the highest SAT scores and high school grade point averages of all students who will join the department this coming fall.

New Image for Computing, WGBH Educational Foundation and the Association for Computing Machinery, April 2009. See http://www.acm.org/membership/NIC.pdf.

Dan Lewis
Santa Clara University

Posted by cstephenson at 04:09 PM | Comments (1)

May 01, 2010

South Africa

By Joanna Goode

I recently had the opportunity to travel to South Africa to talk with teachers and computer science education faculty about the computing curriculum in South African and the United States. They are concerned with low numbers of high school students pursuing computer science, the lack of gender and racial diversity amongst computer science students, the lack of regular support for professional development, and the programming-centric nature of the national curriculum.

At a colloquium for IT teachers and national policymakers, a discussion arose about how to make computer science more relevant for 21st century students. Many of the teachers felt that a three-year sequence of programming languages did not tap into students’ interests, but the national policymakers argued that folks could adapt the standards in ways that made the curriculum more interesting and simultaneously maintain the required curricular standards.

It became clear that teachers needed more regular professional development and support to be able to engage in this innovative teaching, but apparently, the national curriculum designers and the national professional development designers work in different offices and do not collaborate. This was a frustrating realization for the teachers.

As we work on computer science policy at the local, state, and national level in the United States, it is more clear to me than ever that we must continue to couple curriculum reform and professional development opportunities to improve computer science education.

Joanna Goode
CSTA Equity Chair

Posted by cstephenson at 03:35 PM | Comments (0)