BBC News – Can the UK raise it’s game?

Last week BBC newsnight covered the issue of “teaching kids to code” in a short film that made reference to Eric Schmidt’s speech and the lack of Computer Science teaching in schools.

The news article and a short clip are available here:

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First real lesson with Microsoft SmallBasic today. Used the excellent “SmallBasic Curriculum” lesson presentations that they provide, which worked well and saved a lot of planning/resource effort (although it took nowhere near 30 minutes for students to complete most tasks!).

Students recreated a “Hello World!” program, and then experimented with the properties (colours etc) of the TextWindow. They then moved on to variables that could store text, and some even started to work with “if” conditional statements (not from the lesson tasks, but just because they wanted to add logic to their code).

Even better news is that there is no need to install SmallBasic on your network to try it out; students can run the platform from a USB memory stick.

Surely a positive sign if the lesson is timetabled just before breaktime, but the students won’t leave at the end!

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Introducing GCSE Computing

This year we have introduced the (pilot) OCR GCSE Computing course. It was entirely optional, but available to most students.

In Year 10, we have a class of 19 students (all boys). In Year 9 (we now have a three year Key Stage 4) the class is bigger, and has one girl! The gender balance is something I hope to address in the future (very open to ideas on how to achieve this!).

In the first week I asked students to sit the specimen exam paper. This was incredibly unfair considering how specialist this course is. Oh well : )

The idea behind the early mock exam was to give students an opportunity to see what the paper will look like, and also for me to identify areas where students had existing knowledge or misconceptions (Assessment for Learning). I was pleasantly surprised how well the students did overall.

What I didn’t expect was for many of the students to go home and teach themselves how to count in binary and hexadecimal (one of the exam questions)! I think this is a good indicator of the interest that students have for this subject.


Students have genuinely loved recreating the arcade classic "Pong" using Scratch

More recently I have been using Scratch to teach the basics of programming, asking students to recreate the arcade classic Pong using these excellent videos from David Phillips. There are three main problems to solve; the paddles, the ball and the scoring system. I allowed three lessons to complete the task, but many students were so motivated after the first lesson that they had completed the entire game on their own by the next morning (and I didn’t even set any homework)!

Overall a very positive start to the course, now the challenge is to convert this natural enthusiasm into good GCSE grades for the students and the school…

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Tony Sale

I was incredibly shocked to learn that Tony Sale (whom I met in person at Bletchley Park just a few weeks ago) passed away:

I was genuinely inspired by the museum tour that he gave whilst I was there (I tagged along with a group of students from a Sheffield school) – I can only hope that his passing gives the NMOC the media attention and financial support that it needs to become a real success.

Tony Sale explains to a group of school-children how encrypted German messages were intercepted and decoded

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The National Museum of Computing

Last week I attended a training course arrange by OCR for schools taking part in the pilot of their GCSE Computing course. Apparently this course is now just a couple of weeks from becoming a “real” course, and I think it looks great. I hope the two classes of students who will be studying it with me next year also agree!

The course was held at the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park, which was a nice touch, since the “Colossus” machine built here is widely regarded as the first electronic computing device in the world.

I thought I’d share my feelings about the museum which was fascinating and moving, but also left me a bit disappointed.

Arrival at the Museum is rather odd. Bletchley Park’s buildings still stand where they did during the war, but now they are surrounded by a housing estate and other general urban sprawl. My SatNav didn’t get me to any kind of main entrance, just a random side street within the local housing estate. When I found the entrance, I wasn’t greeted with a large manor house (which is apparently there somewhere!) but instead something that looked like an abandoned industrial area with a mix of overgrown vegetation climbing up the fences, crumbling old buildings and faded signs.

You can easily park outside “Block H” which is the series of huts that house the museum. Block H is where the original Colossus was constructed, and is where the replica sits (and works) today.

The National Museum of Computing

Building isn't pretty, but it is bomb-proof.

Apparently these are the original buildings from the war, which were put up rapidly with the only requirement being that they could withstand bombing.

I was very lucky that I had the opportunity to look around the museum before and after the OCR training. A few friendly (and stereotypically bearded) volunteers are on hand to make sure you know where to go, but you can’t really get lost because the huts are quite small.

I first looked at the main exhibit which is a long room with a rack of radio receivers (actually picking up modern-day teleprompter signals from Germany, albeit about the weather rather than war) and working replicas of “TUNNY” and Heath Robinson machines.

Made out of bits of telephone exchange

Around the corner in the next room is a working Colossus machine, which looks amazing with 2500+ valves and lots of other telephone exchange electrical switching stuff. It was running when I was there, apparently busily decrypting old war codes. When keys are found, they are output to paper via an electro-mechanical typewriter!

Working replica of the original Colossus

The construction of this replica was led by Tony Sale, who to my amazement was happily pottering around the site, and also giving a talk to a school group visiting from Sheffield (apparently a Maths class from an all-girls school).

Tony Sale explains to a group of school-children how encrypted German messages were intercepted and decoded

This part of the museum was incredibly interesting and moving, but felt (and smelt!) a bit like someone’s home workshop or shed! Perhaps that is the look they are going for, but I think it is more likely that they don’t have the money or other resources to do these machines justice and put them in the huge dramatically-lit glass cabinets on monolithic plinths that they should be sitting in.

Other parts of the museum do have a more modern museum feel to them (inside at least, the huts are still just as tatty on the outside!). I thought the 1980s ICT classroom (complete with a dozen or so BBC Micros) was a great idea, and apparently visiting schools can have lessons on programming here (whatever happened to those!).

I was particularly enthusiastic about the 80s retro computer gaming room (because it brought back so many happy memories) which housed a range of 80s computers that almost certainly would have spent 98% of their time playing video games, from the ZX Spectrum (which I had) to the Amiga and Atari ST (which I was always envious of). Everything was fully working and connected to peripherals such as joysticks and cassette-players. The games were already loaded, but for the real experience I think you should be made to wait 20 minutes while the computer screeches at you.

80s retro gaming! (I wonder what these girls are thinking...)

Overall the museum seems quite small and “under construction” which is a real shame because it certainly felt like there was/is huge potential. The 80s gaming room and one or two other similar exhibits certainly are moving in a good direction. We were welcomed to the museum officially by Chris Monk of the TNMOC, who explained that there are plans to introduce more interactive and kinaesthetic exhibits that make the history of computing more relevant to young people today (ie. how did we end up with smartphones and facebook). If I lived more locally I think I might even volunteer to help with these exciting projects myself!

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Mobile Phone rooting, custom ROMS & overlocking… by 12 year olds!

It was Open Evening at school tonight, where prospective year 6 students and their parents tour the school.

In ICT we used our “ICT Leaders” to showcase work and tools that are used within the curriculum. Overall a lively and informative event.

On the interactive whiteboard we played a very polished “hit the target” game, created by one of our young ICT Leaders using Scratch. Very impressive and great fun!

I think the thing that surprised me the most this evening though was the in-depth technical discussion I had with a year-7 student. He has an HTC Wildfire mobile phone, which I noticed was running Android 2.3 (I spotted the black notification bar)… and so began a discussion about “rooting” Android, installing custom ROMs (not an easy process – I speak from experience!) and overclocking the phone’s processor “to stop Angry Birds being laggy.” All this experience (and advice!) from a 12-year-old…

This student has also created his own Android APP using the Google App Inventor. Perhaps the open nature of the Android operating system allows these children the same tinkering opportunities that the ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64 did back in the 80s?

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Creating Mobile Apps with AppMakr

I presented my experiences of creating mobile apps with AppMakr at the Hampshire ICT Conference 2011. I hope those that attended the workshop found it interesting, and perhaps even useful.

I have trialled a small unit of work based on AppMakr with some year 9 ICT classes this year. I have been encouraged by their enthusiasm for the project, and in some places surprised by how well they have worked around the limitations that AppMakr has.

A criticism of AppMakr is that the data it can present could (and probably should) be presented in the form of a nicely mobile-formatted web page, rather than a native app on a device. Having said that, I do regularly use the BBC news mobile app on my own smartphone – therefore completely contradicting this idea!

Another criticism came from one of the conference delegates who attended the workshop, suggesting that actually publishing “school project” apps would mean filling up an already crowded app market with (relatively) low-quality apps with a very specific audience. This made me think of articles I have read that apply Sturgeon’s Law to mobile app stores.

I have uploaded the presentation that I used at the conference for anyone who wants to refer to it. Feedback is always welcome, but might be ignored ; )

Creating Mobile Apps – Hants ICT Conference 2011

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