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C'est la Z

Riffing on the CS Ed Podcast - Episode 1 - David Malan

I saw a couple of posts the other day about the CS Ed Podcast.

Kristin Stephens-Martinez of Duke interviewed (or will interview) six CS educators on a variety of topics. There are four posted so far:

  • David Malan

  • Dan Garcia

  • Amy Ko

  • Mark Guzdial

Before I started I thought I'd listen to a few and then share some thoughts but I found so much to unpack in the second episode where Dan talks about testing that I decided to share my thoughts on the first episode, then Dan's and then see if find anything to comment on in episodes three and beyond.

All the podcasts are available via the link above and transcripts are also provided - a nice touch for a number of reasons. It not only increases accessibility, it also makes the episodes potentially more discoverable via search engine and certainly more searchable. For me it was helpful as I only listen to podcasts while working out - running or in the gym so being able to search a text page to double check what I thought I heard while struggling to finish mile six or seven was a boon.

In episode 1, Stephens-Martinez interviewed David Malan of CS50 fame. The interview was mostly about tools used in CS50.

Even though I'm not going to comment on CS50 as it wasn't the direct topic of the interview I feel I should share my bias in case any comes through. I'm not a fan of CS50. This is an opinion I formed by talking to a number of my former students who have taken/TA'd CS50 and/or courses that follow it combined with my own thoughts and beliefs about CS Education. That said, I have no first hand exposure to Harvard's CS50 nor have I ever met Mr. Malan so I reserve the right to change my point of view at some point in the future.

Summary stats

  • Did I enjoy the podcast? Yes - I'd give it 4/5 on the making running bearable scale. The interview flowed well and a lot of information was shared.

  • Did I learn anything? Honestly, no. This was probably due to the topic but more on that below.

  • Should you listen? Yes. Again, more below.

Thoughts

A theme of the podcast was that Malan wants his students to be exposed to and end up using real tools but uses the CS50 tools to scaffold their way. Not having a huge amount of exposure I won't comment on how well this works but it's philosophically similar to my beliefs where I start my beginners in a simplified environment like Thonny for Python and have them "graduate" up to a more full featured yet less forgiving editor.

One of the tools they talked about was help50 - a command line tool to improve on error messages (there's also a web interface availabe). Instead of typing gcc myfile.c students would type hepl50 gcc myfile.c and instead of getting just the cryptic error message you'd also get an improved message. In my short time playing with it I couldn't actually get a better error but I only played with it for a few minutes.

I like the idea of sharing both the original error message as well as the improved one but can't really comment further. What I would have loved to hear, however was how they transition the kids first to use the tool and then to grow out of it. I'd also be curious to see if there were differences between adoption of and graduation from the tool as well as it's effectiveness for the Harvard population where everyone is pre-selected to be high performing in terms of class performance vs an institution that takes all comers.

Another tool I liked was style50 which tells you if and how your code violates coding standards but doesn't automatically fix it.

This is something I show my classes just using our editors style checkers. I have Emacs set up to give me a red tick when I violate style but only says what's wrong when I move the cursor over and it doesn't auto correct.

I like this as it raises student awareness but they actually have to make the change and learn to either code in an approved style or make a conscious decision to violate style.

For me, the missing part of the interview was the "how." How do you get the students to adopt the tool and how do you get them to outgrow them.

At the end, podcasts get to share something from tech that they find cool and Mr. Malan shared containers - Docker images as an example. The idea that you can package something for students and know that they all get the same package with the same versions of all the required tools. That seems to make sense but I think there's another side, a downside to containers both in terms of using them in classes and in terms of the direction we're going with containers in tech. All of that though is a topic for another day.

The podcast also covered other tools and if you haven't listened yet you should.

As I found a lot of rich material in Dan's interview I'll almost certainly write something about that. Also probably on Amy's about debugging. Spoiler alert - both are worth listening to. Dan's runs about 40 minutes and Amy's 24. I haven't listened to Mark's yet but expect that to be worth our time as well.

One thing I do want to point out is that all six interviews for this series are of college professors - no K12 teachers. Not sure why that decision was made but I found it to be interesting. Anyone who knows me is aware that I'm much more of a teacher as craftsman guy rather than a "the research says" guy so I have my bias but regardless, I think that interviewing a professor, a high school teacher, and an early grade teacher could give some very interesting and contrasting perspectives.

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