A Strange Experience – Being on the Other Side

Since I’ve been working for pi-top, I’ve experienced being on the other side of the EdTech system and it’s certainly been a bit of an eye-opener

I’ve tested various products over the years and found problems and complaints, bugs and surprises, delights and nightmares, but it has been a really interesting experience for me being a producer of content rather than just a consumer.

Firstly, I thought it would be really easy to implement all of the things on my ‘want’ list – it turns out that it’s nowhere near as easy to just ‘add a button that prints out all of the users’ or ‘add a widget that allows the teacher to find out the answer’. All of these things require thought, tweaking of the UI (user interface) and lots of code.

I’ve learnt that things that seem obvious to me are not necessarily useful or even acknowledged by other users.

I’ve learnt that a developer can spend two weeks working overtime to completely overhaul the interface and I’ve not even noticed a difference (sorry).

I’ve discovered that it’s really important to make it clear what the delete button does… and I definitely didn’t accidentally delete a huge chunk of a resource which, thankfully, had been backed up.

I’ve found out that it’s really, really important to get more than one opinion and that relying on mine alone is not enough.

I’ve learnt that developers can’t write resources for beginners even though they really, really mean the best and want to help.

I’ve learnt that even someone like me can make things too difficult for beginners and it’s important to have someone who is truly a novice to try things out.

I’ve found out that sometimes developers just want to sit and watch you use the interface whilst giving them a running commentary so they can figure out what needs to be done next.

I’ve learnt that creating good quality content takes time, creating interfaces takes time and editing information takes time.

I’ve discovered that ‘popping over to ask a quick question’ is akin to tossing an hour’s worth of work into the bin for a developer and it’s better to contact them over Slack.

I’ve found out that developers don’t read emails…

Above all, I’ve learnt that being this side of the interface is HARD WORK and although we sometimes get frustrated with developers bringing out software that doesn’t do exactly what we want it to do, it’s not through lack of trying. It’s pretty important to give developers constructive feedback explaining exactly what doesn’t work as you’d expect and what you’d like it to do instead rather than getting cross and frustrated with it. Communication is vital to ensuring that a product is the best it can be.

Finally, I’ve learnt that pi-topCODER is going to be an incredible resource when we’re done with it and I’m proud to have been part of the team working on it, even if I sometimes feel like I don’t really know anything compared to the people making it!

Swift Playgrounds

It’s about time Apple joined the Coding Revolution – with Raspberry Pi, code.org and Google running projects for years, it was only a matter of time before something was released. And boy is it a good one… with glossy graphics and slick tutorials, Swift Playgrounds has certainly hit the ground running as a way to teach coding concepts to pupils on an iPad. However, it’s not without faults, but then nothing is, so let’s take a look.

A few weeks ago, I visited Apple HQ in London along with a few CAS Master Teachers and various CAS reps and teachers. As it turned out, the majority of attendees were primary school teachers, which brings us to the first flaw in the Swift Playgrounds roll-out. The first thing we were told about it was that it was primarily made for Year 7 pupils and older and this becomes clear when you work through activities as the vocabulary is very dense and would certainly lose many younger pupils. However, the look and feel of the app is very primary-friendly which is why most of the secondary school teachers hadn’t shown an interest, assuming it was ‘not for them’. Indeed, a primary ex-colleague of mine was recently shown Swift Playgrounds and after about ten minutes, decided it would be the perfect way to teach KS2 coding, unaware of its secondary-school target audience. When you spend some time playing through and looking at it, however, you begin to realise that it is indeed best suited to KS3, particularly because of the skills it is highlighting and teaching.

So, you can see very easily just how much effort Apple have put into Swift Playgrounds and how determined they are to make it a useful classroom tool. Not only is there a wealth of content that is easy to download, there are accompanying iBooks full of Keynote presentations, information, progress charts and comparisons to the CSTA standards. Information is made as clear as possible and it is quite fun to play the games. You can explore the current playground challenge by rotating, zooming, changing angle etc. Code is presented in text boxes with lines and phrases of Swift pre-written in them, and it is still drag and drop so that pupils become familiar with the language without having to write it by themselves. This makes coding and debugging easier when they are ready to move on to independent coding. You are also able to select a different character and alter the speed at which your code is run, which adds an element of personalisation.

img_0003   img_0004You can see here the interface for downloading lessons and a selection of the different types of lesson, including one for Hour of Code. There are some interesting resources that are worth exploring as all of them are slick and well made.

 

The first tutorial is called ‘Learn to Code 1’ and it talks you through using the interface from the beginning. img_0005img_0006

At the start of the game, you are limited to a few commands, but as you move through you are offered more commands and, in the second section, you are shown how to create your own commands, or functions.

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Now, one thing that was picked up on the training that I attended was that the US curriculum for Computer Science places more emphasis on explaining functions than on the word algorithm, which is different to the UK curriculum, where algorithm is considered a core word for coding and function is a later skill to learn. It is worth bearing this in mind as Swift Playground is geared towards the US curriculum. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Let’s take a look at the code needed for ‘Four Stash Sweep’, which is approximately halfway through Learn to Code 1, with my solution to the problem included.

My solution is certainly not the most elegant, but it does demonstrate the complexity of some of the easy tasks, I can’t imagine doing this with primary-age pupils without a lot of support – I’ve had to write three functions to make my code more efficient as well as understanding ‘for i in range’ as a loop. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the content, but it does make it clear that Apple are right to pitch this as a KS3 resource in spite of it looking like something for the juniors. It is definitely teaching text-based coding concepts, even if you are dragging the blocks of code into place.

A bigger problem lies in its running speed. When I tested it at Apple, it worked really smoothly, everything was simple and easy to use, but of course we were using brand new iPads. In contrast, when I used it at home on an iPad mini 2, it was slow and frustrating at times. The iPad mini 2 is the minimum specification device required to use Swift Playgrounds, along with the iPad Air, meaning that some early-adopting schools are already feeling excluded unless they upgrade their iPads. Perhaps those schools should consider upgrading them, but it is upsetting when there’s no budget to do so.

So, what next?

Apple are marketing Swift Playgrounds as a way to get to grips with Swift, their open-source language which allows users to create apps and content for iOS and macOS. This is very appealing to schools and young people because, let’s face it, who doesn’t want to be the next app-store millionaire. Making learning goal-orientated makes it instantly more fun and so to present to pupils that they could eventually make a real-life app will certainly inspire them to get more interested in learning to code. The fact that when you use Xcode to write Swift, you can use a playground to test your code, is deliberate to draw a link between Swift Playgrounds and the more ‘real’ Xcode environment and is a clever move by Apple, albeit one that confused existing users as to which playground was which. Swift works across multiple systems, including Linux and therefore Raspbian and I look forward to hearing about some Apple/Raspberry Pi crossovers in the future – perhaps we’ll finally see a RPi physical computing project which is controlled from an iPad!

Where does it fit?

My gut instinct is that Swift Playgrounds would be a great tool for a flipped learning environment. Pupils could work through the game in their own time and come to school armed with questions. Teachers could discuss concepts and offer their class challenges based on the skills they’ve practised at home while using the app. I think it is a great tool for KS3 programming and a lovely way to introduce pupils to the world of programming. I would worry about a whole class just sitting and plodding through in the classroom without the teacher bothering to be involved and it would far too tempting to just sit back and let them get on with it which is why I think it would be better suited to independent work outside of the classroom so that the teacher could focus on discussing the skills and developing them in the classroom.

My initial concern that it was a little too restrictive, like Discovery Coding, have been dispelled and I think there is plenty of opportunity for pupils to explore and create once they have learnt the most basic skills. There are some lovely, interesting resources already available (I recommend taking a look at ‘Drawing Sounds’ in the Swift Playgrounds ‘featured’ tab which you can download and play with) and I look forward to exploring and creating my own playgrounds once I’m more confident and perhaps after I’ve worked through all of the ‘Learn to Code’ modules.

 

 

 

 

Headlines about Computer Science

It’s been well over two years since the new computer science curriculum was introduced in the UK. Not that long ago, Roehampton University released its wonderful Annual Computing Education Report 2015 which says clearly, in black and white, that the numbers of pupils taking computing compared to those that took ICT are significantly lower now and, more importantly, the proportion of females has dropped. Newspapers jumped onto headlines exclaiming that we should have stuck with the old ICT curriculum, but that doesn’t address a number of significant issues.

So, let’s look at the lower number of students studying computer science compared to ICT. There are two things to consider here – when I was at school, ICT was seen as a bit of a joke subject: not one that was taken seriously in academic circles. It was a subject where you learnt to use Excel and create a blog, but it was a bit of a ‘soft’ subject. I suspect that a number of the pupils studying ICT were doing so because it didn’t require quite as much work as, say, French GCSE. Let’s compare that to Computer Science – the computer science curriculum is as difficult as learning a new language because you are actually expected to learn a new language, whether that be Python, Ruby or JavaScript; for the controlled assessment, you need to write some code. It is therefore not a soft subject by any measure.

The other thing to consider is that in a number of schools, there is a fear of failure – I have heard no end of stories from teachers who have been told in no uncertain terms that only the ‘top’ mathematicians are even allowed to consider computer science – no school wants to have a drop in the percent of grades A*-C that they can brag about (or whatever the numbers are in the new system). That immediately isolates around three quarters of the pupils. While I agree that there is some correlation between academia and computer science, it is also true that many pupils with dyslexia and ASD are excellent programmers who may not succeed in maths or English, but would, in contrast, perform exceedingly well in a Computer Science GCSE. Why should we exclude pupils that are interested just because they aren’t in the top set for maths? Surely it’s better that a pupil gets a low grade GCSE in CS than get no GCSEs at all?

By the way, I’m not criticising the schools for not being confident enough to allow everyone to study CS at GCSE level. It’s the system that forces them to fear failure and to force their pupils to conform because of that fear of failure. What, then, can we do to fix it?

On top of that, we have that issue of teacher training. Some of the best teachers in the UK for teaching the ICT curriculum are being pushed into teaching computer science without any knowledge of the necessary skills and there is no time nor funding for them to learn. Of course, they’re not going to want difficult or potentially weak children when they are not confident themselves!

Another issue is that the new GCSE assumes that pupils have been learning about algorithms since they were 4 years old and spent most of their school life learning about coding from an early age. Except that most of these pupils have probably learnt ‘a bit of HTML’ in a ‘coding lesson’ in year 9 and that’s about it; you have no idea how many secondary-aged pupils have told me that is their only experience of coding at school… How can we expect them to study at an advanced level when they’ve missed out the easy level? It takes both an excellent student and excellent teacher in order to achieve this feat, so is it any surprise that both numbers studying and grade expectations are dropping?

What about the fall in numbers of girls?

Well, I loved maths at school, but I know I was in a minority – I was the only girl to get an A* in maths GCSE and I was the only girl to study maths and further maths at A-level. Maths is a traditionally boy-heavy subject so if we’re limiting students to top-set maths then yes, that does exclude a lot of girls. However, that’s not the main problem with the subject, let’s be honest…

Computer science has a massive image problem – when you think about programmers, most people will imagine a middle-aged, over-weight man. When we talk about successful people in the industry, most people will list off “Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg”. So, where are the women? We are seriously lacking in positive female role models who demonstrate a passion for CS and programming even though evidence suggests that women write code equally as good, if not better, than their male counterparts. How many girls out there were put off as teenagers and never really got started – I know I was! I mean, how many schools even have a female computer science teacher?

This is something I’ve been saying in various circles for quite a while, but I really don’t know what the solution is – there are some great people out there like Carrie Anne Philbin from the Raspberry Pi Foundation and groups like the Stemettes and Django Girls, but is that enough? Young women like Yasmin Bey and Cerys Lock are flying the flag for young, female coders, but they’re still not well known enough outside of our community of already-super-enthusiastic people.

My heart feels like the key is in the teacher training. At the school I used to teach at, because of my enthusiasm for coding, my Code Club was 50:50 male:female. The girls were just as excited as the boys and so far three of them have come and talked very eloquently about their coding experiences at Wimbledon Jam. I should point out that only one of the three was a ‘top set’ mathematician, but that didn’t stop the others from being passionate and enthusiastic about learning to code. I was also given the freedom to tailor my curriculum to my resources and my pupils, something not always available to state schools where results are the only thing that matters and pupils are lost in the overwhelming need to achieve.

We need to support the people on the ground level, the teachers in the classroom, to help them to nourish and enthuse both male and female students and to help them to realise that computer science is for anyone who is interested and not just one subset of society.

This isn’t a criticism of the teachers as individuals: they’re doing the best they can. However, without the right training, without the right support, how can we expect teachers in the classroom to fill pupils with a sense of wonder and excitement for CS? Something has to change.

Just so we’re clear: I’m not a feminist. I’m not saying we should be holding girls-only events and pushing a female agenda even if the girls aren’t interested, I just wish that I’d been more supported as a teenager and felt more like coding was something that was socially acceptable for a girl to do, because who knows what might have happened if I had been! I just want us to encourage and foster interest in everyone to ensure that all students get a chance to be the best that they can be, no matter what their gender, ethnicity or background.

One final, happy note – take a look at the new Raspberry Pi Pioneers competition. That’s how you encourage people to get excited about computer science! I look forward to laughing at all of the (intentionally) funny entries and hope lots of young people have fun entering!

*please note this blog reflects my personal views and not those of any company that I represent.