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.



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 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…


Computing club

Every week after school I hold a computing club in my classroom.  In theory it’s open to anyone, but in practice I tend to get year 7 and 8 pupils coming in (11-13 year olds).  There’s a complete mix – some of the brightest kids in the school, but also those who might struggle with academic work.  A good mix of boys and girls.  They’re fairly free to choose what they want to work on, so this evening, in the midst of an OFSTED inspection, I had a couple of boys and three girls working on gamemaker projects, a couple of boys dismantling the old computer again (with less success at rebuilding it than the older students!) and one boy sitting working through a Python exercise sheet, as well as a couple of others working on various other projects.  These were kids who were all willingly staying behind after school to learn more about building their own games, programming computers and how they work.

It was the sort of scene that gives you a warm feeling inside 🙂

We do want eventually to be able to work on App Inventor, and to work properly on the lego robot in the cupboard, but for now they seem content to figure out how to make the boss die when they attack it enough, how to make the chest open when the man touches it, how to get a character to pick up a sword or simply marvel at the insides of the machine they take so much for granted these days.

Incidentally, a great introduction to game design for younger children, and a good step between playing games and using game maker, is gamestar mechanic.  In it they’re introduced to different game mechanics through a series of game challenges, starting by playing them, and building up to tweaking the settings in the games in order to fix them.  On the way they unlock features to add to their own games, and are encouraged to publish games for others to review.

One important lesson we learnt that way was not make the first level too hard – if you have stats on your game that says 200 people have played it and 2 people have completed the first level, you know you’ve started too tough!

Our year 8s were introduced to it at the end of year 7, as the final lessons of the summer term and as the end of a unit on gamemaking that saw them doing all tasks from designing graphics through programming via Scratch and eventually into level design through gamestar mechanic, and I still see several of them returning to the website as their activity of choice when given a few moments to themselves.  Indeed, some have continued on the site at home and built and published their own projects.


Computer autopsy!

The GCSE computing class is well under way  and seem to be coping well with Python, but we decided that for the last lesson before half term we wanted to try something a little more practical as a treat.  My older computer was dragged back from the shed, where it was residing without a side panel or hard drive, and I took it into class. I also took in my pi and arduino to show them that computers come in different sizes, but it was the big computer that was the main attraction.  I have quite a small group, and they happily got stuck in dissecting the computer.  Those who didn’t want to get quite so hands-on documented the proceedings with a camera and video camera, or researched components on PC World.

We all marvelled at the weight of the CPU, felt the coolness of the heatsink, wondered at the tangle of cables, took the machine completely to pieces and spread it on the desks, then started the reassembly.  They even managed to get it almost back together!  We did discuss the need for earthing to avoid static, and that the components shouldn’t really be handled as much as we did, but I think by the end of the session all who were there were left with a deeper understanding of what’s inside the box on the desk, and while the boys showed no hesitation in dismantling things I learnt a lot too, and at least would feel a little braver in venturing inside should the need ever arise.


Arduino – first steps

arduino on base

Arduino bolted to its base

Time to get to grips with some technology!

First job was to set up the arduino and install the software.  The arduino bolted to the baseboard and the software was available from the arduino website.  The arduino connected to my computer via the USB port and I located and uploaded the first sample program, which flashes an LED on and off repeatedly.

I originally tried using a video to help me with my first project, but soon discovered the instructions from the arduino website and the experimenter’s guide were more than enough.

first program

This program turns the LED on and off repeatedly

The program seemed clear, although I haven’t tried writing my own yet – apparently it’s based on C.  It has two required functions, the setup function and the loop function.  The setup part tells the system what inputs and outputs to use, and then the loop function carries out the actual work.

Setting up the breadboard itself was rather fiddly at first, until I got the basic idea.  All the layouts for the starter experiments are included, and it’s a case of cutting one out, pinning it to the board and then pushing the right elements through the right holes.  The breadboard then joins to the arduino and sits neatly next to it on the base.

As soon as all the wires were connected, the red LED in the middle of the breadboard started obediently flashing on and off – a very satisfactory end to my first project, with no troubleshooting required.

flashing light project

This simple layout has a flashing LED

This is the project in action.  I need to clip the wires for the components, as at the moment they’re rather long, but I’ll save that for a day when I feel a little braver, as I feel it’s better at the moment to have them too long than too short.

flashing light layout

This shows the layout of the circuit

Instructions are provided for developing the project by connecting the LED to an analogue output instead, so that instead of on or off you can adjust the brightness of the light, and a program is provided to demonstrate this as well.

This shows a close up view of the circuit, including the breadboard with the printed template.  The LED is connected to pin 13 of the arduino, which corresponds to the code lines

int led = 13;

This all seems very straightforward so far, and I’m looking forward to learning more.

(Click on any image to see a larger version)