Software in Education

by Mary Branscombe

The teaching of technology has shifted from Excel and PowerPoint to coding and digital literacy.

HardCopy Issue: 67 | Published: November 6, 2015

In September 2014, the UK national curriculum changed, replacing Information Communication Technology (ICT), which focused on using packaged software rather than programming and computer science, with a new computing curriculum. Partly driven by a recent OECD report saying that using computers in education hasn’t improved student achievements in reading, maths or science at all, this new curriculum concentrates on digital literacy: “Not just how to work a computer, but how a computer works and how to make it work for you,” as then-education secretary Michael Gove put it earlier this year.

Starting at age five, children will learn coding, in terms of algorithms, debugging and logical reasoning, in addition to IT skills ranging from online privacy and how to evaluate the results returned by a search engine to understanding networks and data analysis. It’s a far broader approach, designed to give children the digital skills they will use at work while helping them think logically, articulate problems and be creative.

“There is an opportunity here to skill up children and make sure the workforce for tomorrow has the appropriate training and mind-set, because the skills they learn today are not necessarily the things they will use tomorrow – but it’s the mind-set of coding and learning those skills,” points out Richard Rolfe. “We can help children develop their skills so they can work with anything in the future.”

Rolfe is a former head teacher who co-founded National Coding Week, an annual session of events that he sees as a good complement to the curriculum changes, because it has the same emphasis on understanding technology more broadly. “I teamed up with a former student to teach adults coding skills and digital literacy. The idea isn’t to try and turn them into coders; we’re trying to get them to understand the different opportunities and threats in the digital world.”

 

Beyond coding

Adopting a new curriculum is always a lot of work for teachers, and there has been a lot of investment in training, with extra government funding for the British Computing Society (BCS), Microsoft and Google funding training programs and Oracle offering free membership in the Java and database-focused Oracle Academy to schools, universities and teachers. BT is funding the Barefoot Project to give teachers resources for teaching ‘computational thinking’ and Microsoft has worked with the BCS to found the Computing at School group to support teachers.

BBC Micro:Bit Computer

The BBC will distribute the micro:bit computer to all Year 7 children in the UK next year.

According to a recent survey from Raspberry Pi distributor element 14, which manufactures the micro:bit computer that will next year be given to all Year 7 schoolchildren in the UK as part of the BBC’s Make it Digital year, a third of primary teachers said they didn’t feel confident they were ready to teach coding effectively, or didn’t have the right equipment. Only one in five said they’d added coding to teaching subjects beyond technology, and students are only spending about 45 minutes a week coding. Despite that, pupils are enthusiastic, with over 85 percent of teachers saying their students are responding positively to learning coding.

“Schools which are blessed with teachers that have both skills and interest in the topic seem to have embraced the change, whilst those that don’t seem to be struggling, essentially in primary schools where bringing in such a specialised resource can prove to be a real challenge,” notes Dave Coplin, whose title of chief envisioning officer at Microsoft UK involves considering the future of how we use technology.

But Coplin is also seeing the idea of general digital literacy reach people. “I’m beginning to sense a shift from pure computer science to a broader awareness, understanding and even love of what technology can enable in everyone’s future, be they coders or not. Although the push for ‘computer science’ is at the heart of all this, people are realising that understanding how computers work, even at just a high level, is as important to the future of our children as learning to read and write.”

That changing view is coming in part from a whole range of coding initiatives, in the UK and elsewhere, with the new curriculum and National Coding Week being just two examples. “The UK was the first country to make coding compulsory,” Rolfe notes, but Germany, Australia and Singapore are doing the same. There are programs such as Code.org’s Hour of Code and Decoded’s Code in a Day, organisations like Apps for Good and Young Rewired State creating communities of coders and makers, volunteer services like Founders and Coders, boot camps for coding, online courses like Codecademy, the Code Club and CoderDojo networks of after-school clubs, and sponsored events like Google’s Summer of Code, Microsoft’s YouthSpark program (which includes DigiGirlz Days aimed specifically at girls) and Microsoft’s worldwide Imagine Cup competition. The BBC is running a Make it Digital tour, partly to get children and teachers excited about the micro:bit computer, but also to showcase how wide the digital world is, from robotics to weather forecasting.

Raspberry Pi’s in space

Action cameras like GoPro have made it easier to attach cameras to weather balloons to do high-altitude photography, but a Raspberry Pi is lighter, doesn’t have lens distortion, and you can hook up an altitude sensor and a tracker so you know where the balloon is going to come down.

High altitude ballooning is a great school project. Children get excited about the idea of sending something to the edge of space: “It goes up 30,000 metres!” enthuses David Moss, Head of Computing at Stoke College in Suffolk, who is in the middle of setting up 15 Raspberry Pi’s for the school, some of which will be going up in a balloon as part of the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s Skycademy program.

The balloon project is also relevant to multiple subjects. “It’s hugely cross curricular,” Moss points out. “We’re dealing with the science of the balloons: there’s a lot of maths involved to work out the height, the trajectory going up, the trajectory going down, and where it will land.

There’s obviously geography involved. There’s French if it goes too far, or marine biology if it lands in the sea, or dendrology if it ends up in a tree!”

Moss is so impressed that he’s replacing many of the Windows PCs the pupils currently use with Raspberry Pi’s: “It’s a phenomenal piece of kit. It’s got Minecraft. It’s fully programmable in Python, so persuading children to program in Python is easy. Want to build a city? Use Python to build it and debug it. They really enjoy it. Children have used computers for so long that they’re blasé about them, but the Pi is a breath of fresh air.”

Nimbus Chase screenshot A Raspberry Pi doesn’t just take photos as it goes up in the balloon – it also sends back tracking information so you can retrieve it.

Some of this activity is in response to the demand from the industry for skilled workers, but there have also been grass roots movements to make coding and development more accessible, along with the rise of the ‘maker’ movement and tiny, cheap computers like Raspberry Pi and the Arduino.

In 2011, teacher Alan O’Donohoe helped start the Raspberry Jam community of Raspberry Pi enthusiasts after two girls in his school won a national coding competition, but still didn’t think that coding was something 13 year old girls could do. “I resolved to try to do what I could to make it seem as normal and acceptable as possible for a 13 year old girl to indulge in really geeky computing activities, like programming a Raspberry Pi computer,” explains O’Donohoe. He was delighted to see a girl show up to a recent meeting with a Raspberry Pi project she’d built: “it just seemed so perfectly normal and acceptable that a 13 year old might want to spend her summer holidays working on such a project.”

The next step, according to Nic Hughes, primary teacher and ICT co-ordinator at Latymer Prep, is bringing this kind of hardware out of the clubs and into schools, where teachers will be dealing with larger groups of children and a range of interest and ability levels. “Minecraft programming and physical computing with LEDs and buzzers: this all needs to be in the curriculum, not just in a club. Let’s play around with this in our clubs, then bring it into the curriculum so it has an impact on all kids, not just the really eager ones.”

 

Tiny computers

If you grew up in the 1970s or 1980s, you almost certainly had a home computer that came with a simple programming language built in, usually BASIC. Even if you only wanted to play games, you were as likely to find yourself typing in a code listing as going out and buying a game. Games consoles may have brought technology to many more families, but in some ways we lost a generation of young coders to them, especially as programming tools became more sophisticated.

The rise of the web and the increasing power of JavaScript has been one avenue for making coding more accessible to people. Researchers at Microsoft who couldn’t find good tools to teach their own children programming came up with Kodu, a visual programming tool that they built initially to run on Xbox and to work with the game controller. It’s now available on Windows, and you can even use the micro:bit as an interactive controller. Much like Minecraft, Kodu is about building 3D worlds, but underneath you’re doing full object-oriented programming, and indeed the programming system in Microsoft’s Project Spark game-building service is based on Kodu. Both Kodu and Project Spark is available free, along with the other coding tools for students like TouchDevelop and SmallBasic, on Microsoft’s Imagine Access site.

TouchDevelop is also the programming tool for the micro:bit. Because it works in any browser, students can write code on their phone, tablet or computer and use it to control the LEDs, the programmable buttons, the accelerometer, magnetometer, and the five input and output connections which you can connect up to sensors, motors, robots and other devices.

The micro:bit has been delayed until early 2016 by power supply problems. However getting them into every school will make the hardware hacking movement that started with Arduino, Raspberry Pi and Intel’s Galileo computers mainstream. Schoolchildren won’t just be writing code, they’ll be playing with the Internet of Things.

CodeBug

The programmable CodeBug looks a bit like a bug and is easy to program in a web browser.

As Rolfe points out, these small, barebones computers, that come without even a case, are both cheap and exciting when compared to sitting children down in front of a desktop keyboard: “If you say to someone, ‘do you want to learn programming? Well, you have to buy this £400 computer and there’s a big handbook to work your way through and then there are some exams at the end,’ that will appeal to a certain group of people, but it’s a small group. The fact that these devices look nice, they look intriguing, they’re small, they are well-priced, they are accessible, they’re available in the high street; that pulls people in because they seem less intimidating than big devices and complex computer science courses.”

Raspberry Pi and Arduino projects have been showing up in schools for a while. Kids have built everything from weather stations to electricity monitors to pet feeders to automated pill dispensers, extending them with Shields (Arduino) or Raspberry Pi HATs (Hardware Attached on Top). Then there are kits like the Fuze, which put a Raspberry Pi in a case and keyboard, ready to hook up to a screen and start coding in a version of BASIC. Designed for schools, these kits come with support for teachers which includes lesson plans.

If soldering and assembling hardware seems a little intimidating, then simpler systems make an excellent introduction. The new CodeBug is a smaller board that costs just £12.50 and is designed for teaching the basics of programming and electronics. It looks like an insect: the legs are touch sensitive and the ears are switches, and children can program it using a drag and drop environment in a browser, and then download code that controls the LED screen and connected modules.

Modular littleBits snap together with magnets and are colour-coded for simplicity, so power modules are blue; inputs, such as buttons, switches and sensors, are pink; outputs, which could include lights, audio and moving parts, are green; and orange wires connect external Arduino modules. It’s like building with Lego blocks that actually do something. There are littleBits kits with multiple modules and accessories, like the Smart Home kit for internet-connecting existing devices, and the Korg Synth Kit for building modular synthesizers, as well as larger sets of modules designed to equip a whole classroom.

“If you can link programming to music and other things, you open up a whole world of different possibilities that will engage people,” Rolfe points out. “It’s not about learning skills of programming because in themselves they’re almost pointless: what we should be trying to do is to use the programming to create solutions to problems.”

littleBits robot

Building a robot with littleBits magnetic components.

He’s keen to see digital literacy as part of all subjects in school, rather than something that’s taught in isolation, and Coplin agrees: “I think the push for computer science is absolutely the catalyst for this change, but in itself, it is not the totality of the change we face. The need to solve the ‘computer science in schools’ problem has driven an awareness in teachers, parents and children alike that technology is the bedrock of our future, but I think schools – and parents – need to do more to connect the dots and help their children use technology to help them achieve more in anything they have an interest in. Technology should be something that transcends learning topics, and not a lesson in its own right.”

Take maths lessons, where a large part of the curriculum is teaching techniques that computers have made irrelevant: “We need to stop teaching calculating and start teaching maths,” claims Conrad Wolfram. Conrad is co-founder of Wolfram Research with his brother Stephen, and together with other mathematicians are pushing governments to shift to computer-based maths education.

Coplin argues that bringing coding into schools as a fundamental skill is a huge opportunity for reaping the benefits of technology more widely, and it’s part of what education is all about: “Technology should be considered a gift for everyone, and as such should be one of the ultimate levellers of society. It shouldn’t matter what vocation you choose, your life will be enriched if you have access to the basic skills that enable technology to make a positive difference in your lives.”

Whether it’s a Raspberry Pi hooked up to a weather balloon, building your own musical instrument, or writing a mobile app, the new coding is about teaching children and adults that technology can make the world better.

Find Out More

You can find out more on the Grey Matter website at www.greymatter.com/hc/academic. If you’d like to discuss any of these initiatives further, call Grey Matter on 01364 654100 or email maildesk@greymatter.com.

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