49th Annual Symposium on Computer Science Education


Yesterday, I had the pleasure of presenting my co-authored paper, Social Software Design to Facilitate Service-learning in Interdisciplinary Computer Science Courses, at the 49th Annual Symposium on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE). The paper was a fun write that combined my research in social online social networks, interdisciplinary study and service learning.  Below is the abstract:

Service-learning continues to play an increasing role in higher education as instructors look to incorporate high impact practices that challenge students through active and experiential learning. Yet limitations in learning management systems (LMS) can be barriers to service-learning project success. In this paper, we present an experience report on the design and implementation of an interdisciplinary service-learning course for computer science. We also present on the design and implementation of specialized social networking software as a mechanism to support service-learning across interdisciplinary computer science courses. More specifically, this research introduces customized social software, consisting of blogging, wiki and discussion software as tools for facilitating the specialized needs of these courses. These needs range from the ability for project management and milestone tracking, which are supported through wiki technology and messaging, self-reflection, which is supported through blogging and information exchange and knowledge sharing, which are supported through online discussion boards, social bookmarking and file-sharing. Results were largely positive, with a majority of students indicating that the course learning environment supported learning, collaboration and course community.

Find out more about SIGCSE here: https://sigcse2018.sigcse.org/


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The Blockchain Bubble

Over the past year, blockchain technology has exploded.


For those in the dark, a blockchain is a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using some form of cryptography. With the near-collapse of the financial markets in 2008, blockchain technology came into existence as a way of managing transactions that are independent of traditional financial institutions that control and dictate fiduciary trust between two independent entities. The blockchain eliminates these brokers through the implementation of a publicly verifiable ledger. You can read all about the original blockchain in Satoshi’s Nakamoto’s whitepaper, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.” https://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf

While the technology has proven largely successful through the original Bitcoin implementation, numerous imitation technologies have emerged, some proving to be better than their founding father. Nevertheless, regardless of which technology proves to be best, the phenomenon that has emerged is a combination of part 1849 Gold Rush, as miners seek to add blocks to the blockchain and are thus rewarded with cryptocurrency, which represents fiduciary gains provided by the specific blockchain technology, part DotCom Boom, as digital companies compete and find uses for blockchain technologies and part Housing Bubble, where investors are looking to cash in on and manipulate the market to maximize financial returns on investment.


Let’s take a look at one particular exchange, Ethereum… Ethereum is an open-source, public, blockchain-based distributed computing platform featuring smart contract functionality, it is alarming at the cryptoexchange growth. In one year, the price of Ether has skyrocketed from $10 to over $1000. The only plausible explanation is Bubble Madness, of course, but what happens when the bubble bursts on all of these cryptoexchanges? What happens to the underlying systems that depend on blockchain technologies to support their business models? After all, the technology is open source, but the power required to construct blocks is high; in the case of mining a single bitcoin, the estimates range from 100MW and 10GW of power. To understand what even 1GW of power can generate check out the following article: https://energy.gov/eere/articles/how-much-power-1-gigawatt.

Given all this, the rise and fall of cryptocurrencies has been exciting and discovering new uses for their application even more so. And it will be interesting to see how government regulation and market demand play out over the next 3-months. If I had to put my money on it… I would buy gold, which is always a good bet.


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Fake News! Read All About it!

For those interested, I will be presenting a lecture at the Camarillo Public Library on Oct. 9 @ 6pm. The lecture is open to the public.

Abstract: In this lecture series, Dr. Brian Thoms will present on issues surrounding fake news. While the subject has received wide-spread attention in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election and post-election, the concept has been around for centuries and refers to the deliberate publication of misinformation and or hoaxes in mainstream media. In addition to a brief history of fake news, Dr. Thoms will also present on tips and strategies for verifying whether or not information we receive, or media sources we receive it from are, in fact, reliable. The lecture will also explore the phenomenon of viral news and how misinformation spreads across popular online social networking systems such as Facebook and Twitter.


I will also be serving as panelist on Contemporary News and News Gathering in Thousand Oaks. This program will be held on Thursday, October 12 beginning at 6:30pm at the Grant R. Brimhall Library. Panelists will include media experts from KCLU, the Daily News and Los Angeles Times and will be moderated by TO Mayor, Claudia Bill de la Pena.

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Slow and Bursty



Recently, I returned from a trip to the Galapagos Islands, where I had the chance to scuba dive with sharks and observe the pristine natural wonders the islands offer. I recommend that everyone visit if ever they get the chance.


However, I would not recommend this destination for folks hoping to take a working vacation. Although the Galapagos are home to numerous endemic plants and animals found nowhere else on earth, as they are uniquely adapted to its harsh climate (see Charles Darwin for more info), they are also home to some of the earth’s lowest internet speeds. And I mean slow… Possibly slower than the pictured tortoise!

During my eight day trip, I had the opportunity to take hundreds of amazing photographs of its unique landscape and vibrant life, but virtually zero opportunities to share my amazing adventures on Google Photos or social media. In fact, I found that the bandwidth on WiFi was exponentially slower than the bandwidth on cellular (shown above), leading me to believe there is no direct wire connecting mainland Ecuador with the islands six hundred miles west. This suspicion was confirmed after a quick Google search returned Zachary T. Kessel’s blog post surrounding internet in the Galapagos (http://confluence.gallatin.nyu.edu/sections/research/internet-in-the-galapagos).

The result was a vacation within a vacation. That is, a vacation related to all things tech and I waited until I returned to Quito, which sits atop the world at ten thousand feet before I posted my first photo, which was actually a series of photos of just some of the places visited while in Quito and the Galapagos. Check it out here: https://www.instagram.com/p/BX1vhAAArD6/?taken-by=mmmmbrians.


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Converting Social Networking Software into Course Management Software

It is no secret that I rely heavily on social software throughout my teaching. With the exception of a few courses, which are heavily technical in nature, I apply social software in just about every one of my classes. However, in the past, I have utilized a combined approach, relying on the grade book available in institutional course management software (i.e. Blackboard, Angel), while utilizing social software to facilitate discussions, group writing and blogging. Feedback from students in recent iterations has suggested I use only one system.

And why not?

Well, first, it’s hard to find the time to develop them for one… . But I gave it a shot never-the-less.

This summer, I decided to teach an accelerated online course on human computer interaction (HCI). In order to move to the singular model, where all course requirements and objectives are available within one system, a few technical requirements needed to be made…

First, with the help from the folks at ClearDev, I moved SocialXYZ to HTTPS. The HTTPS protocol ensures that website data being sent to and from SocialXYZ.com is encrypted. Usually this doesn’t matter, but across open networks, such as coffee shops, airports and public wifi, it is very important to help ensure that student grades are kept secure.


Next, I needed to implement that gradebook to store those ‘secure’ grades I eluded to. This wasn’t so difficult, but it did require me to think quickly and creatively as to what a gradebook needs, without overdoing the requirements. After all, I had less than two weeks to analyze, design and implement this thing (I wonder if Blackboard operated on such time frames). The result is illustrated below. It’s not the prettiest gradebook, but it provides all the necessary functionality including the Assignment Name (and link to), Grade, Instructor Feedback, Due Date and Status (open or closed). The backend consists of two database tables for gradebook_items and student_gradebook_items, which links specific students to their grades for those items.


Finally, I also needed to add quizzes. This was more involved and required three new database tables. One for the quiz, which tracks each quiz and metadata surrounding each quiz such as the quiz id, quiz chapter information, quiz status as open or closed. A second table tracked quiz_questions, which paired specific questions, available multiple choice responses and correct answers. A third table linked students with their quiz answers.

The quiz interface required two new views of the database data. The first, illustrated below, is the user interface for taking quizzes. Students can save a quiz and return as long as the quiz remained open. Students can also submit a quiz, but return later on and edit their responses. Quiz answers are not shown until a quiz is closed.


The second interface, illustrated below, is the user interface for reviewing quizzes. A nice feature of this quiz, while simplistic, provides users with a breakdown of class responses per question.


With the summer session wrapping up this week, I am hoping to get some valuable feedback from students. In the past, I have focused specifically on interaction and community, with less emphasis on learning, so it will be interesting to see if students value this model better. Again, this is an accelerated online course, so results will not be conclusive, but they will provide very useful insight. I will also be able to compare these results to results from accelerated courses using Blackboard, albeit from a different course subject matter.

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