Thursday, December 24, 2020

Fall 2020: Hello masks and goodbye President McLarty

If you read my last post, I was somewhat apprehensive about Harding's attempt to hold in-person classes this fall. But by the grace of God, we made it without having to go online a single day. The photo below is from our faculty lounge where a Math professor tracked how many days we met in person. President McLarty signed it the last week of classes.

Tally of days we have met in-person and signed 'By the Grace of God! - BMc'

Fall 2020 will certainly go down as one of the most memorable semesters of my teaching career. We held in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic while simultaneously allowing some students to attend online. I personally revamped all my classes to accommodate my remote students.

  • The faculty did a tremendous amount of work to make the semester a success. Managing two different groups of students taking the same class is no easy task.
  • The administration spent many hours and significant money making the campus as safe as possible for our students. Instead of having in-person chapel as we normally do, daily chapel videos were created for students to watch online.
  • The physical resources department worked hard putting up plastic barriers in classrooms and getting the campus ready for our students.
  • The students showed up and did what they needed to do. They didn't get to have all the social opportunities a normal semester affords, but they wore their masks and social distanced when possible. When I was their age, I doubt I would have social distanced at all.

Photo of my students wearing masks

COVID and masks

Honestly, I was a little uneasy being in the classroom with my students the first few weeks of school. I read about several big universities having so many cases of COVID and wondered if the same would happen here. I read about the faculty at some universities fighting against the administration and publishing open letters warning their students of danger. At Harding there were faculty who also thought bringing students back to campus was a bad idea.

But as the semester went on, I got more comfortable with the arrangement. My students wore masks and sat at least six feet apart. No one seemed to be getting COVID from being in the classroom. For office hours, I would often meet with students online or outside.

The first student to have COVID was confirmed on September 10, and the first of my students to get COVID came a week later. Four more of my students would get it in the weeks to come. As you can see from Harding's COVID dashboard (screenshot below), the number of cases spiked in mid-October and then again in mid-November.

If my math is right, about 8% of our undergraduates got COVID during the semester. My students told me their cases were very mild. Usually the loss of taste or a sore throat was the worst of it. Most students with COVID were isolated in Kendall Hall where I was told the students often played games in the halls and enjoyed hanging out with other students.

For the students who were close contacts and had to quarantine, it wasn't so nice. Some chose to go home and quarantine, but many stayed on campus either in their dorm room or in the Heritage Inn. It was a very lonely couple of weeks. Some were able to focus on their school work, but others got behind because of their lack of focus. I personally would have gone nuts if I was confined to a small room for two weeks.

Being in-person with my students this semester was so much better than teaching online. However, teaching in a mask is anything but ideal. At times I would feel out of breath or worry that some couldn't hear me. It was a lot harder to joke around with my students. When I said something funny, they couldn't see me smile, and I struggled to read their reaction. I encourage a lot of in-class participation, and when a student would holler out a question or a comment, I struggled knowing who it was that spoke. There certainly was a handful of awkward moments, but we managed to get through it.

President McLarty

On Friday, October 30, I received an email that I could hardly believe: The Board announced that President McLarty was retiring at the end of November after a seven year stint as President. Chancellor Burks would be returning to take over the role of President until a new replacement could be found.

As word of Dr. McLarty's resignation spread, I had family and friends ask if I knew anything more about the situation. I did not. I believe most of the faculty were surprised. I knew Harding's finances were not stellar after the financial blow that COVID dealt us, and I knew that our enrollment had been dropping for about four years, forcing the university to lay-off about a dozen faculty and staff last year. But I also knew that our situation was actually less bleak than many private universities. No one except the elite universities have been immune in recent years to the troubles facing higher education.

For our students, McLarty's resignation was also quite a shock. Not only was the country going to potentially elect a new US President next month, Harding was also going to change presidents. We prayed a lot for Dr. McLarty at the beginning of class throughout November, and prayed for a smooth transition to new leadership.

I am going to really miss Dr. McLarty. He did such a good job relating to students. He was quick to pose with students for photos. He always posted only positive messages on social media. He would tell the students the first week of chapel every fall: If you think Harding is not for you and you want to leave, come by my office first and chat with me. And he meant it. Who knows how many students stayed at Harding because of Dr. McLarty's positive influence. An article from The Bison echoes many of the same sentiments.

I wrote about the Board's decision to name Dr. McLarty as Harding's next President in November 2012, and I wrote a post summarizing Dr. McLarty's first 120 days back in September 2013. I'll conclude with this photo that I took on November 20, 2020 of Dr. McLarty leading the campus in an end-of-the-semester celebration out on the front lawn. You can see a video of the event here.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The not-so-fun COVID-19 spring semester

I've been wanting to write down my thoughts about the Spring 2020 semester for a while. This is the semester that took us all by surprise and forced us college professors to move from in-person classes to on-line classes in a matter of days.

I remember one February afternoon chatting with a colleague in the locker room after playing basketball. I asked what he thought about this coronavirus thing that was getting a lot of attention in the news. He said, "I wouldn't be surprised if Harding doesn't allow our students to return after Spring Break." I was shocked. That would be crazy!

I was really looking forward to our upcoming Spring Break in March. Becky and I were traveling to Portland together so I could attend the SIGCSE 2020 Symposium. This would be our first get-away without the kids this year. I remember teasing my students the week before our break: "Don't be the one that brings coronavirus back to campus!" We would all laugh; none of thought it was all that serious.

However, a coronavirus outbreak in Seattle had some conference attendees (and my parents) worried. The SIGCSE conference organizers were telling us they were going ahead with the conference, but they were also offering partial refunds for those who wanted out. My parents kept asking me if they thought it was safe, and honestly, I wasn't worried at all.

As it got closer to our March 10 flight and more and more news spread fear about the virus, I also started worrying. On March 8, the governor of Oregon declared a State of Emergency. Becky and I decided maybe we shouldn't go after all. I hated cancelling, but I knew it was probably the best move to make. Thankfully the airlines, hotels, and conference organizers were all very understanding as I cancelled all our tickets and reservations just two days before we were supposed to leave.

My family then decided to visit my parents in northwest Arkansas. It was there that we learned that the SIGCSE 2020 Symposium was cancelled the day it was to start. We also learned that Harding, like so many other universities, would be moving all courses on-line. Students were not going to be allowed to return to campus. Toilet paper started selling out. A few people broke out face masks in public places. Our church cancelled Sunday's service. It was getting really weird very fast.

We returned to Searcy towards the end of Spring Break so I could start preparing to move my classes on-line. I was teaching five classes, my usual four CS courses and one additional course for the MIS department (the previous instructor had to leave at week five). Thankfully, I had already been using Canvas to post assignments and class videos. I was already familiar with the tools I'd need to use to go all on-line. For most CS professors, the transition wasn't nearly as difficult as it was for our colleagues in other departments.

I developed a plan: One day a week we'd meet synchronously so I could see my students' faces and check-in. The other days I'd just post a video of the day's lecture. Reading and homework assignments would continue as usual, but I cut out some content that I'd planned on covering. I also dropped project presentations from all my courses. I would continue to hold office hours at the same times and could chat via Zoom.

Many of my students made the transition to online without too much difficulty. But a number of them did not. It became apparent early on that some student didn't have reliable internet access. Some were taking on jobs or other responsibilities that would take away from their class work. Some were having family emergencies or personal issues. And some just lacked the personal discipline to keep up with their courses.

Most of my synchronous meetings had an absentee rate of around 25%, and it got worse and the semester progressed. When I checked to see how many students were watching class videos, I was very disappointed to see that a significant number of students weren't watching anything at all. It was not surprising that some of my students were asking how to do X when they hadn't watched the videos where I described X.

For most of the time we were online, I was honestly frustrated and somewhat depressed. I was frustrated that I couldn't get many of my students to continue engaging in their courses. I felt a huge gulf between us as our interactions were now only online. I was depressed that I sat in my office on a beautiful campus that was totally devoid of life. All of the fun activities, Spring Sing, graduation, etc. were no more. Even my kid's school went on-line, so the kids were home with Becky with only Zoom meetings to interact with the outside world. And I worried a lot about my students. Some were not communicating with me at all. I had to call several of them to ask why they were not turning in assignments, and I heard all kinds of answers ranging from "I'm just not good at online" to "I'm depressed."

Teaching online, in my opinion, is a poor substitute for learning in person. Of course it can be done... that's primarily the way I learn myself. But there's so much communication that is lost online. I can no longer read my students' body language to see if they understand what I'm saying. The delay in a Zoom meeting or the faces looking all over require my brain to work overtime and drain me. Sometimes it's even difficult for me to remember if I've said something before because everything I say online is from sitting in the same physical place. When I teach in person, I'm physically moving, I'm looking at specific individuals, I'm seeing faces. All of that is lost online.

For college students who still learning how to learn, the online experience presents difficulties. Instead of physically moving your body, smiling at your friends, laughing with those around you, seeing the professor's gestures, moving your eyes from your professor to your notes, all of which form memories and aid in learning, you experience only approximations of the same thing looking at a computer screen. For those who are extreme introverts, going all online might sound wonderful. But losing a physical connection to those around us is a huge loss to everyone.

Harding University is scheduled to start classes in nine weeks. The goal is to meet in-person here in Searcy. But with COVID-19 spiking here in Arkansas and other states, there are a lot of questions about how feasible it is for us to be physically together. Like most universities, Harding took a big financial hit last spring when we refunded all the school dorm and cafeteria fees, and we lost all the revenue that on-campus events generate. We need to be in-person in the fall, but we are preparing to be all online.

Although I am anxious about the future, I trust God will somehow get us through this.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Favorite books of 2019

Reflecting back on 2019, here are five of my favorite books:

  1. Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel

    This is probably the single most helpful book I've read as an educator. The authors point out the common mistakes and bad practices that limit effective learning. Then they share best practices, backed by the latest research, for making information stick. I've shared many of these practices with my students this past year and re-organized my classroom activities to support these best practices.

  2. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck

    Mindset was a gift to me and several other university instructors from zyBooks co-founder Smita Bakshi. Smita loved the book for the same reasons that I now do: replacing a fixed mindset with a growth mindset can lead to more personal and professional success. As a university professor, I also have the opportunity to encourage a growth mindset in my students.

  3. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith

    My Wednesday night class at church read through Smith's book together last spring. Smith shares how our loves are shaped by the rituals and practices we adopt from our culture. He compels us to re-shape our thinking and rituals so we love God instead.

  4. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz

    Deresiewicz calls out elite universities and the whole system that supports them for their inability to develop students that have purpose in life. It opened my eyes to the crazy train that many students ride when going the elite university route. The book made me very thankful to be at a school like Harding.

  5. Sleeping Giants: Authentic Stories and Insights for Building a Life That Matters by Nathan Mellor

    Nathan and I were classmates at Harding in the mid 1990s. I purchased his book after hearing him speak this past August at Harding's Faculty Pre-Session Conference. Nathan's talks and his book are chock full of personal stories growing up and the many life lessons they teach. I particularly enjoyed his stories about around Chic-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy. "It's my pleasure."

Friday, August 16, 2019

No laptops or phones in class

I've adopted a policy of not allowing laptops or phones in class. Isn't that a little odd for a computer science professor? Here are a few good reasons:

  1. Instructors with similar bans have found the ban improves grades and students are fine with it.
  2. Students not using electronics are harmed when others do.
  3. Having a computer out often leads to multitasking, and humans cannot multitask well.
  4. Multitasking lowers your IQ and may damage your brain. Yikes!
  5. Taking notes by hand helps you remember the information better.
  6. And finally, it helps me to see your eyes and tell that you are engaged.

Thank you, Frank Vahid, for providing some of the links.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Latest book: Mobile App Programming for Android

This week I'm putting the final touches on my latest zyBook: Mobile App Programming. If you aren't familiar with zyBooks, they are online books that include animations and interactive questions. (I co-authored the Web Programming zyBook a few years ago and use it in my web development courses.)

Mobile App Programming shows how to develop Android apps using Java. The book contains several complete Android apps: Pizza Party, Lights Out, Dice Roller, The Band Database, and others.

Below is a summary of the Mobile App Programming chapters. Contact sales@zybooks.com if you'd like to be alerted when the zyBook is ready for evaluation. You can beta test it this fall if you'd like.

  1. Introduction: Android platform, Android Studio, app resources, debugging
  2. Layouts and Widgets: Various layouts, widgets, event handling, styles and themes
  3. Activities and Intents: Activity lifecycle, restoring state, explicit and implicit intents
  4. Menus, Dialogs, and Touch: app bar, dialogs, context menus, touch and gestures
  5. Fragments: Creating fragments, fragment lifecycle, fragment and activity interaction, RecyclerView
  6. Working with Data: Shared preferences, file I/O, SQLite, settings, web APIs, Volley, Room
  7. Running Background Tasks: Background threads, AsyncTask, Handlers, Loopers, services, notifications
  8. Graphics, Animation, and Sound: Shape drawables, animation drawables, property animations, custom views, playing sounds, SurfaceView
  9. Sensors, Camera, and Location: Motion sensors, taking photos, Google Play services, Google Maps
  10. Testing: TDD, unit tests, JUnit, integration tests, Espresso, UI tests



A big thank you to the zyBook staff that helped in producing this book: Roman, Kenny, Liz, Evan, the college interns that proofread the text, and tech support.

zyBooks don't usually have a dedication page, but I dedicate this book to my wife Becky who encouraged me these past 18 months while I worked on my book and my boys Ethan and Braden who love to play my Android apps. I love you guys!

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Kids Coding Adventures 2018

Today was the final day of Kids Coding Adventures 2018, a coding camp that I've directed for the past three years at Harding University.  23 kids attended, who ranged from 2nd thru 4th grade (a few 5th graders snuck in). I had two fantastic helpers from Harding Academy (Mason and Anna) as well as my oldest son.

In previous years we used Tynker, but this year we used Microsoft's MakeCode to program Minecraft mods using blocks or JavaScript. This required us to use Minecraft Education Edition, which is a special version of Minecraft that interacts with programming environments like MakeCode.

A few of my observations, in no particular order:

  • Kids absolutely love Minecraft, so they were really excited about camp. But loving Minecraft is a double-edged sword: It's challenging to keep kids on task when they can easily start "playing" Minecraft.
  • Minecraft Education Edition is only $5, which is really inexpensive. And it's easy to install. However, each user must have a special Office 365 account, which is a headache for our IT guys to setup.
  • Using MakeCode was challenging, especially for the 2nd graders. You must flip back and forth between the MakeCode window and Minecraft, and flip back and forth between chat and regular mode in Minecraft.
  • Two major usability problems with MakeCode:
    1. The responsiveness is pretty bad. I saw frustrated kids clicking multiple times on a button that should have immediately responded, but it would take seconds to process the first click.
    2. When you mistype a chat command, there's no feedback that the command was mistyped. This happens more often than you might imagine.
  • I discovered three problems in MakeCode the first day: a tutorial had erroneous logic, and MakeCode had 2 bugs, one of which would completely erase all your code. (I've reported all the issues to Microsoft.)
  • Most kids struggled more than I thought they would with creating objects using the "fill with" command. We focused on using only the x and y axis, but it was still tough for them to convert a simple picture into code. Next time I'll spend more time doing simple exercises to get these ideas across.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

That's so Bellingham!

I've spent the past 5 weeks in Bellingham, Washington, working at Faithlife on revamping the Logo Bible app for Android. My family is here with me, and in another week we'll be heading back to Searcy.

We've really enjoyed our time in the northwest. Bellingham is located near the Pacific and just 20 miles south of Canada. We've spent most of our weekends traveling to nearby destinations like Mount Baker, Seattle, Vancouver, and Olympic National Park. Below are some landscape photos I took at Olympic just to give you a sense of the incredible beauty in this area.

Working at Faithlife has been a huge blessing. I've worked with a very talented group of guys who have taught me a lot. I'm especially thankful to David Mitchell, an alumnus of Harding's computer science dept, who arranged for me to spend 6 weeks here as a visiting developer.

I can't say enough positive things about Faithlife. They have a company culture that encourages excellence, and their mission is to service the Church. The vibe I get from the employees is very positive; everyone seems to really enjoy their work. I was even able to have coffee with the CEO, Bob Pritchett, who eagerly desires to meet one-on-one with all his employees, even the interns!

Speaking of interns, shout out to Stephen Hoffmann, one of our current CS students, who is doing a summer internship at Faithlife. Stephen competed in a company-wide hackathon yesterday, and his team was awarded the "Awesomeness Award" for developing a live-streaming capability that churches could use in during worship!

What am I going to miss about this place?

  • The fantastic weather, which at this time of the year is lots of sun, low humidity, and temperatures during the day around 70 degrees.
  • My work. I enjoy doing software development and working with a great group of guys. (But I also really enjoy teaching... it's my dream job.)
  • The church. We've worshiped with a local church and made some great connections. We are thankful for those who invited us into their homes.
  • The pro-environment focus. People here are very conscientious about treating the planet well. You won't see a single plastic bag at the grocery store, and every restaurant allows you to recycle your used plates, forks, etc.
  • Walking to work! We live only a block away from work, and it's so nice to be able to come home for lunch. Many days I never even get into an automobile!

What am I not going to miss? Hearing loud/drunk people leaving the bar at 2am. Living downtown is cool for 6 weeks, but I'm thankful to be going back to a house in a quiet neighborhood! :-)