The new curriculum and web science

There have been many arguments over the new computing curriculum. The more I look at it, the more concerned I am that it appears narrowly focused on programming, whereas computing can involve so much more.

One case in point is the course I’m currently studying at FutureLearn, the Open University’s contribution to the MOOCs (massively open online courses) currently sweeping the web. This particular course, sponsored by Southampton University, is called Web Science: how the web is changing the world. It looks at the effects the world wide web is having on society, and how we have influenced the web.

The topics it covers are ones that are important to understand, and that I spent time in the classroom trying to get across – that technology is new, but pervasive, and affects our lives in more ways than we can imagine. In fact, the same topic is covered in a book I’m currently reading in order to review: Digitized: The Science of Computers and how it shapes our World.

If children are truly to understand the importance of coding, and to be able to express themselves effectively using digital media, then they also need to understand the deeper concepts of computing, for example how it can help us to build a better world, and to better understand our own minds.

I’ve been quiet lately on here lately, as I left my teaching post in July. After a break away from classroom technology and learning for a bit, I’m getting restless and I’m starting to look for ways that I can help schools make the move forward from office-based computer skills to real computer skills. If anyone has any suggestions – or anyone in the Canterbury, UK area (or online) would like practical help – then please do get in touch. I will be resuming my quest to produce teaching materials in January, but not being in a classroom regularly makes it harder to keep up with the practical side of things.

Incidentally, there’s another MOOC coming up that ICT teachers really should be seeking out: Teaching Computing part 1 (part 2 to follow) from the University of East Anglia, which aims to prepare teachers to teach the new computing curriculum in both primary and secondary sectors. The course lasts for 4 weeks and is expected to take up around 4 hours per week, but of course anyone seeking to teach computing should be prepared to devote time to it – my biggest fear is that computing will go the way of ICT, with too many non-specialists stumbling through and not giving the subject the rigour that it deserves.

 

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The new computing curriculum

Back when I was at school, people suggested to me that I could work with computers. Believing that working with computers consisted of entering data and typing, I rejected that option outright, unable to think of anything more boring.

Then I got my hands on a ZX81, and I discovered that while using a computer might be boring, someone actually had to write the programs for others to use. That was where my interest lay, and where I found real pleasure.

I completed a degree in computing and IT, and by the end of it had a growing understanding of how much society is dependent on computing systems, and of how problems are solved by careful thinking and planning.

At this point I was also trying to earn some money, and extended the childminding training I was doing by getting a job teaching in adult education. I was teaching beginner IT classes, so while I had done all this marvellous learning, I was now teaching how to use a mouse and use basic spreadsheet formulas. It wasn’t the most inspiring of subjects, but it was enjoyable, and at least in the early days I was learning more about my subject all the time as I came across problems that others were having.

I went further by qualifying to teach in a secondary school; the business ICT was not the most interesting of topics, but there was the creative and computing sides to tempt me. The first school I trained in used Flash and Fireworks, and the second had a strong control element, and both of these encouraged me to believe that the subject was well worth teaching.

It seems to me that the trouble with ICT is that it’s easy to teach but hard to teach well. Most people these days have some level of ICT skills, but generally the subject seems to have a bad reputation as far too often it’s taught by people who have no real training in it and don’t have any real knowledge to pass on (I rush to add that this is the general impression I get, not from my very limited first hand experience).

I have sought to keep a balanced curriculum, including creative, business and more technical elements, within the current guidelines, and I feel this is really the best way to go. The skills of word processing, basic spreadsheets and (to a lesser extent) databases are still important, even if you’re only running a home. Being able to balance a budget using a spreadsheet, write a well laid out letter, use the web efficiently and understand the consequences of using ICT for a business will be applicable to everyone, surely. Being able to express yourself creatively using ICT is also important; I’ve long had admiration for those who take ideas from the world around them and modify and develop them through use of technology, and I feel creativity is essential to living well. That’s not to say the new curriculum is wrong: you can’t possibly make the most of computers without having at least a basic understanding of how they work and the implications of them.

Now the curriculum is being completely overhauled. I should be rejoicing: it’s changing to embrace the side of the subject that first attracted me. I only became interested in computers when I found that I could write my own programs; surely I should welcome the chance to encourage that interest in others?

Sadly, things are not that straightforward. The draft curriculum does seem to be written in a rather biased way; maybe this is simply a reflection of the extra detail needed for the new elements, but it would be a shame if in the pressure to include computing elements the creative side was lost, not to mention the less interesting but still important business ICT.

Partly prompted by these changes, there are discussions taking place on the future of the subject: there are fears that the focus on computing will drive students away, or that the lack of teachers available to actually teach computing will mean that the subject will become still more watered down and weakened. I was shocked when I did my training to discover that while to teach maths you had to have a degree containing at least 50% maths (and that means maths, not accounting or economics), to teach ICT all you needed was an A level or equivalent experience.

There are already schools where ICT is taught in a cross-curricular way rather than in discrete lessons, and this worries me; while there are teachers who will encourage the use of ICT to complete work, are they actually prepared to teach the ICT skills needed, or are they dependent on the skills the students already have? Will they merely take advantage of the fact that students have a basic ability to type and correct documents, or are they willing to spend time teaching how to use audacity, for example, to create a podcast, thereby increasing oral skills? As long as there are discrete ICT lessons where the students can learn these specific skills, I can imagine some teachers taking advantage of those skills, always assuming they have the knowledge themselves to support them, but I don’t see much space in an already crowded syllabus for the extra teaching of ICT skills alongside the specific subject knowledge, which is a shame as using two separate skill sets will surely develop students’ thinking skills and ability to relate learning to different areas.

The new curriculum is still under consultation, and I have to trust that by the end of the consultation period it will feel more balanced. In the meantime, I intend to do the best I can to encourage good ICT and computing teaching, by developing and offering materials to help support teachers in the new curriculum, including cross-curricular learning. It worries me, for example, that primary teachers are expected to teach computing, which for many must be completely new and alien. I also see many opportunities to combine ICT with other subjects, but feel that often teachers just don’t have the time to investigate and create materials suitable.

I’ve no idea how this will pan out, just as I had no idea when I started this blog how it would develop, but it’s a good excuse for me to put my own skills and creativity to use, and to extend my own ability and knowledge. And so www.coinlea.co.uk is born. Not much there yet, but I’ll be adding resources as I develop them (or find them in my filing system!), safe in the justification that as I’m offering them to others I don’t need to feel that time spent on them is mostly wasted.

Feel free to take a look, make use of anything you fancy and suggest anything you’d like to see in there.

 

 

on computers and female geekism

computer kit with lots of components

build your own computer kit

I and most of my family headed to Margate today for GEEK 2013 (Games Expo East Kent). I and one son went last year and enjoyed the talks and discussions that took place. I was disappointed that there didn’t seem to be scheduled talks this year, and I felt the whole event was much more about looking back and being a games consumer than looking forward and being a games creator, whereas last year the balance was better. Still, there was the main hall full of games consoles for people to play (didn’t spot any ZX81s this year, but spotted a couple of BBCs and Commodores with things like 10 John was here 20 goto 10!) and the upper hall with stalls and exhibitions.

Youngest son enjoyed the halo and minecraft most, of course. Hubby and I found more of interest in the upper hall, where alongside the cosplay there were also electronics demonstrations. The Pi and Arduino workshops turned out to be a couple of people showing what they were and promoting them, and I had an interesting chat with one man about computers and schools and programming and electronics.  There was also a gentleman selling kits to build your own computer. The kits cost £20, and the end result was a tiny circuit board, smaller than a pi or arduino, that included a fully working keyboard (8 keys), plugs into a TV and can be programmed to produce simple games – think of a ZX81 DIY kit, but much smaller.

We decided to buy two, one each, and left the man with our padded envelopes full of components. The instructions are available via the website, and there is also a support group who we are told are active in producing listings and ideas.

Expect to read more about this project over the coming weeks as and when I get a chance to build it and play with it, but the other thing that struck me during the day was how male-oriented the event was. Everywhere you looked, there were boys crowded around screens, playing, watching, discussing, and females were definitely in the minority. There were a couple of talks in the end, unadvertised but announced on the day, one about the history of games and promoting the speaker’s book, and another from a couple who were promoting their film on the games industry in the UK, and through those there was also definitely the message that the games industry is dominated by men. (There was another unadvertised talk, too, a Q and A with indie games developers, but that was scheduled at the same time as the movie talk, which was rather irritating as I would have liked to attend both.)

So why is the computer industry so male orientated? This was something I pondered as I returned to the house and sorted out making tea and organising the washing machine and dryer, pottering around doing various household tasks before finally managing to sit down and get the laptop out.

Is that part of the reason? That the boys who dabbled in computers grew up into men who dabbled with computers, while the girls who dabbled grew up to take care of the house and children and had no time left for playing? That the boys are eager to try things, and the girls much more likely to step back and watch them? The same thing that makes men more likely to figure things out for themselves and women more likely to ask for help? The same thing that makes men more likely to be competitive and women more likely to be co-operative?

Is this innate or is it culture-related? While men are those making games, they will make games that appeal to men, which means men are more likely to want to enter the industry and make more games. While women are content to step back and let the men get their way, how can they change things?

When I studied a foundation course with the open university, as part of the science module we learnt about how it was not until women joined the scientists that a whole new side of the way gorillas behaved was recognised. In the same way, it’s not until women really push themselves into the computer industry that the industry will grow properly and become more balanced.

The idea of introducing computing right from the start of the educational progress is a big step towards that, if done in the right way: if we can introduce it in a way that doesn’t alienate half the population. In the same way that we need to get over this “cool to be useless at maths” attitude, we need to get over the “I can do email and facebook, what more do I need” attitude about computers.

Getting back to the kit, I feel like I’m on a quest to find out how computers really do work. The programming side is straightforward, and I understand the theory/software side of things. What I don’t understand is how the hardware makes these things happen. That’s part of what my electronics experimentation is about, and I welcome this chance to take my knowledge back a stage further, but at some stage I still want to know how the software is acted on, how the processors themselves work.

In the meantime, it’s back to school next week…

 

An amazing summer

It’s nearly time to go back to school, so my time spent blogging/playing with computers is likely to drop rather, but I just wanted to look back on what turned out to be an amazing summer, completely different from the previous few.

It started with me realising that while many years ago I looked up to those older than me, and more recently that has crept to admiring the work of my own generation, suddenly I’m finding that those younger than me are doing wonderful things – somehow it feels like life has passed me by and moved on, and it’s the next generation now pushing things forward.

I’ve learnt about things like hackspaces, where people gather to share ideas and make things, and I’ve learnt about coderdojos, where people, including kids, come together to develop their programming skills.  I’ve learnt about hackdays, where people come together just to get some concentrated coding done and to learn and share.  I’ve learnt that if something doesn’t exist you don’t just complain, you go out and build it, and make it look good into the bargain, and the end product can matter less than the learning from the process.  I’ve learnt to solder, and started to learn basic electronics.  I’ve learned that people do indeed use HTML to create clean-coded web pages, and that reading other people’s code can be fun as well as a learning experience.  I’ve played around with several different programming tools, and learnt some of the advantages and disadvantages of them.  I’ve revisited a lot of my learning and discovered that I haven’t forgotten as much as I thought, and that I can do more than I always imagine.  I’ve improved my multimedia skills as well as programming skills, because communicating is just as important as programming when it comes to a complete project.

I’ve learnt that it’s an amazing, exciting world out there for someone who wants to learn, because there are so many ways to find things out – not just books, as there was in my youth, but websites with written content, images to look at and even demo videos to watch.  There are colleges and universities out there offering learning for free, and plenty of people to share the learning with.  Many people who are out there working on various projects are able to do it not because they studied officially for years, but because they went out and got the learning they needed, in whatever way they could.

Kicked into action by this, I started to do things for myself, instead of just sitting wishing, and so I’ve done a lot of coding, both on projects from books and on my own projects.  I’ve written games and apps, and developed my understanding of how and why games work, and how computers can control so many things around us and why it’s so important to know exactly what you want and to be able to explain it clearly.

I’m ending the summer a lot more confident about what I can do and what pitfalls to look out for, and with a conviction that the time is coming when more and more people are learning to make and do things for themselves, and that for those in that position there are many opportunities to succeed.

I just wish there were more opportunities locally to meet up with like-minded people, because however much fun it is to meet people in cyberspace, it’s got to be even more fun to get together in person, with the fun and games that can ensue from that.

Science museum

Yesterday I was busy working through the udacity and coursera materials, but today we all headed up to London to the Science Museum.  I was disappointed in the Alan Turing section, as it didn’t really give much information about his work at Bletchley Park or his contribution to computing, but I was amused to notice that the exhibits demonstrating computer programming in that section were powered by arduinos!

The history of computing section of the museum concentrated heavily on Babbage’s analytical engines and some of the earlier huge computers, while missing out all the more recent developments from the 80s onwards, which was a shame, but the web lab that drew us up to the museum in the first place was fascinating.  My favourite was probably the universal orchestra, which consisted of different percussion instruments.  Half were controlled by the people in the museum, and the other half were controlled by people connecting from all round the world.  Each person had 6 notes to place on a grid, a different colour for each instrument, and the collective made for a haunting set of shifting rhythms.  Each visitor to the museum was issued with a lab tag carrying a unique identity, that they would use in the machines at the museum. This would then store the work they did.  You can also scan your lab tag at home to access what you’ve done at the museum or explore further.

sketchbot scanning a photo and etching it in sand

sketchbot with processed photo

Another experiment was the sketchbots – some were controlled by people inside the museum, and some by people around the world.  The camera would take a photo, you would see that photo processed and reduced to a series of lines, then a robot arm would sketch the portrait in a bed of sand. This was fascinating to watch from start to finish.

There was the promise of teleporters – massive periscope-type gadgets that you could rotate to see a place the other side of the world via webcam – and a chance to track connections to different servers around the world to locate photos.  Displays on the walls explained about all the technology.  Altogether a very enjoyable way of exploring how people from round the world can interact together via the internet.

So the science museum gave us an interesting day out.

 

Online learning – MOOCs

There are many ways to learn: attend college or university, try to teach yourself from a book or videos, and now a new way – MOOCs – massive open online courses.  These are very new to the scene, but many of the big universities are quickly picking up on the idea.   I’m currently enrolled in courses from two different providers, Udacity and Coursera.  Both provide their learning through videos and online questions with instant feedback, plus quizzes or other work to be completed independently and assessed (assessment is done either automatically or via peer assessment).

Udacity offers, among others,  CS101 introduction to computer science,  which is a basic introduction to programming via Python.  This course not only offers a good grounding in programming, but also does it via building a search engine, thus showing some of the secrets behind google; one of the first tasks you do is build your own web crawler to collect links.

Coursera offers Internet history, security and technology, which shows how computing and the internet developed and some of the issues involved, a course which requires no technical skills and is recommended for anyone who uses the internet regularly.

I do recommend you check these out: each course has thousands of students from around the world enrolled and learning, and the forums tend to be very supportive places.  If you keep up and complete the materials by the deadlines a certificate is usually offered, which is good to show what you have done but probably holds no actual merit; the main benefit is in the learning itself.

There are examples on the websites of students who have gained jobs following their studies and some impressive projects that students have built, and udacity is starting to offer formal tests of their learning in the on-line learning centres around the world.

One word of warning though: they do involve proper learning, and you will get the best out of them if you take them seriously and set aside time each week to work through the materials and attempt the tasks.

 

 

How quickly things change!

“The system now reaches over 50,000 participants at over two thousand sites in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, Japan and Korea.
“Science fiction writers like Orson Scott Card, William Gibson, and Norman Spinrad, among many others, have speculated about the possibilities of a time when government, commerce and culture are all conducted on “the net” and when most citizens will have access to the system. That day is not yet here.”
Henry Jenkins, 1989, writing about USENET, the community on the internet before the Web itself was created.

Is the day here now?  For many people, I believe it is.