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.

 

 

 

 

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Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE) 2015

So, this post isn’t specifically about coding in the primary curriculum, but I wanted to share with you nevertheless.

Last week I spent a week in The Netherlands courtesy of Apple who selected me as one of their distinguished educators for 2015. The ADE programme has been running for 21 years, since 1994, and there are currently over 2000 ADEs across the globe who are using Apple technology to support teaching and learning. This year, they selected around 650 worldwide, 50 of whom were from the UK, and these educators were invited to attend an institute in either Florida, Amsterdam or Singapore.

How are teachers selected?

In order to apply to become an ADE, teachers are required to answer 4 questions (within a specific character limit) and create a 2 minute video to share their story with the team. The idea is to show how you are making a difference and how Apple has helped in some way. For my application I focused on my community support work with Coding Evenings and supporting teachers within my school and the wider community. I mentioned use of iPad within the school and how 1:1 deployment has changed the way children study. For my video, I focused on the changes I’ve made and how I support people in my school – if you really want to see it, you can find it here.

My impression, from talking to other people there, was that Apple selected teachers who were collaborating, inspiring, innovating, supporting teachers and communities and making a difference to more than just their own class. The people who are seeking out new and innovative technologies that can truly make a difference to teaching and learning and are reaching out to share what they are doing with those around them.

What can you expect?

The first thing I found from joining the ADE community was that I had a ready made group of friends – there were lots of people who were keen to share their ideas and practice. There were lovely people as excited as I was to meet each other and one lovely teacher from France suggested we all bring souvenirs from our own country for a gift exchange. On the community site, I found a primary school teacher from Lincoln on the same flight as me and we headed off for a week in The Netherlands.

When we arrived at the hotel we were surrounded by loads of people wearing matching lanyards; we were all given a badge, jacket, t-shirt and itinary on Filemaker Pro and told to make sure we had our lanyards on display at all times.

The institute didn’t start until Monday, but we arrived on Sunday to have a chance to get to know each other, and it was a welcome opportunity to relax and get used to our surroundings. On Monday morning, we were in the hall by 7.45am and ready to start. Each morning started with some very loud house music pumping into the hall, which was overwhelming at first, but become completely unconcerning by day two.

Part of our first day was to split into learning communities – the presenters were keen to stress the importance of selecting a community that reflected your passions and not just what you teach and so, by lunchtime on day one, I found myself labelled as group leader of the primary coding group – 11 educators from around the EMEIA region (Europe, Midde East, India and Asia) with a similar passion for code.

There were a few activities that were focused on corporate stuff (correct use of the Apple logo, guidelines on creating iBooks in the Apple style) and presentations on Apple software, which encouraged me to think more carefully about some software that I’d previously dismissed, but the best and most interesting part of the whole week were the showcases by new and existing ADEs letting us know what they were doing to inspire other teachers and learners. All of the showcases were interesting and fascinating, but one or two were truly inspiring – my particular favourite were two women from the Czech Republic working in a special needs school and using iPad to support learning (they had me in tears with their story).

I also met some really wonderful educators that I plan to stay in touch with and share ideas with – I already can’t wait to meet up with them again. Special mention to my room mate for the week, Sarah Jones, who is using technology to bring together journalism students from around the world in a collaborative and interesting way; Benji Rogers, who supports and trains our next generation of teachers at Plymouth University whilst being a real life magician; Caz Barnes, a primary computing teacher in Geneva using green screen to make learning in Geography more interesting; Tim Lings, an inpiring techy teacher from London, who can moonwalk like a pro and last, but by no means least, my plane buddy and all round amazing teacher and amazing person, Chris Copeman, who kept me sane no matter what else was happening during the week.

Apple let us play with a load of third party tech such as Sphero and Dash, which can be controlled from an iPad as well as some other really cool tech and I’m already thinking about better ways to integrate this into my teaching in a cross curricular way.

I know there is a lot of anti-Apple sentiment out there, including some in the Pi Community, and I know some people will assume that the week consisted of a load of fans who love apple and love everything about them, but actually I felt like it was more about creating a learning community and collaborating with peers. Yes, there was a focus on Apple devices, but at the end of the day, the most important thing was about getting together and sharing what works. No one blinked an eye at me setting up a Raspberry Pi to demonstrate, in fact, a couple of the Apple staff came to take a look at what I was doing! I wouldn’t describe myself as a massive Apple fan, but I like my MacBook Air and iPhone and I like what they’re trying to do – I went in with my eyes open and was fully prepared to become annoyed with an overwhelming corporate message, but that just wasn’t the case. It was a lovely opportunity to meet some truly inspiring people as well as playing with some great resources and I’m so grateful to Apple for giving me a chance to meet them in such a lovely, friendly atmosphere.

So, if you are using Apple tech in an innovative way, consider applying because it really is an opportunity not to be missed.