Don’t “Make a PowerPoint!”

As an ICT teacher, at this time of year my room is always booked out by other teachers doing some ICT with their classes.  It’s the only time of year they can get such free access to the ICT suites and many of them do some great ICT lessons.

However what really makes me irritated is when a class is told to “Make a PowerPoint about X”.  It is this kind of lesson that has given ICT such a bad name.  One worse is when students have to print it out at the end of the lesson…..

PowerPoint is designed to create screen-based publications.  This means that animation can be effective (it can also be horrible) and that whilst it will print OK, it’s best viewed on screen.

Briefly there are 3 ways I have used PowerPoint within lessons successfully.  Other presentation packages are available obviously and we have used Google Docs as well.

Create an Information Point

This is designed to be viewed by the user sitting in front of a computer (or touchscreen).  The user should be able to navigate the information point using the mouse (or touch).  It should be clear to the user when all the content on a slide has loaded.

Features needed:

  • action buttons or hyperlinks
  • animation on slides all with previous or after previous
  • auto or mouse click transitions disabled between slides so the user has to use the navigation

Create a Digital Poster

This is designed to run on a screen in (say) a reception area.  The school probably has one.  It should run with no user interaction at all.  These can even be displayed in the school reception.  (In industry these are called digital signage so I should probably call it that).

Features needed:

  • transitions between all slides to be set to go automatically (with careful timing)
  • animation on slides all with previous or after previous
  • slide-show set-up to run in a loop

Create a Presentation

This is designed to be presented by someone standing in front of a room full of people.  Any user interaction should be carefully considered based on the content of the presentation and the impact the presenter wants to make.  I think if students are going to make presentations they should actually present them.  This is difficult in a class of 30 which is why I prefer the two previous options.

Features needed:

  • the design of the presentation should mean that the presenter does not read their slides as this is very boring and assumes the audience is stupid
  • the presenter should decide how they want the animation to run – do they want every slide to load automatically or do they want to reveal bits of content manually? (This takes practice.)
  • speaker notes should be created – mainly because it removes the temptation to write everything on the slide!

Testing and a little tiny bit of Computer Science?

Any of these options needs careful testing.  The first two, provided a tight brief has been set (e.g. 5 slides or 3 minutes) can be easily peer reviewed by having a quick trip round the class by lots of students.  They can also be uploaded to the VLE and peer reviewed at home.

The testing part also encourages pupils to consider the HCI (Human Computer Interaction).  It’s very, very simplistic here but will start to get them thinking along the lines of other screen-based apps and websites they have used – what works and what doesn’t.  Neil Brown from University of Kent has blogged about using HCI as a way of teaching Computer Science without the programming.

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Teaching HTML/CSS in School – some useful tools

I gave a presentation last week at the Bring and Brag preceding the CAS Wales / Technocamps conference in Swansea about a variety of different web-based tools you can use in school to teach HTML and CSS.

Mozilla Hackasaurus

This is a lovely site which is based on the X-Ray Goggles toolbar widget.  Essentially you drag the widget to your toolbar and once activated, it shows the source code of the site as a layer above the page.  It allows the user to show the code of various parts of the page and separates out the <div> tags and classes.

hackasaurus

It’s a great fun little app that takes the sometimes very complex viewed source code of a page and links it directly with the content.

googlehack

The hack part comes when you start editing the content.  Lift an image from another URL, edit the text, change the colour, size, etc.  Then you can commit the changes and publish (to a separate URL).  Of course as soon as you commit changes, the questions start flying!

Wow Miss – are you allowed to hack Google?

Are you going to be arrested?

Does everyone’s Google look like that now?

Without you actually teaching it, a number of key points come out:

  • the source code of every web page is available to view
  • images have their own URL
  • the page you are currently viewing, is stored locally on your computer
  • hitting F5 refreshes the page – your computer goes back to the server to get a new copy

Playing around with the code is simple – or can be made harder if the students want to challenge themselves.  Yes they can hack Facebook (a popular request).  The site also has some nice resources including the Hacktivity Kit – a guide to running your own Hack Jam.

Thimble

This is another Mozilla project aimed at web-based website building.  The site has a number of pre-prepared projects all of which run in a split-screen.  The projects guide students through various tasks all with the aim of getting used to using various HTML and CSS bits of code.  The projects themselves are fun – silly and fun, but make a really nice starter for a series of lessons on HTML / CSS.

thimble

I tried two of the projects on classes last week.  Two year 7 classes tried the Make Your Own Animal project.  They learned how to edit the HTML and switch the images around as well as some basics about HTML tags.  One of the classes was a very low set.  The concepts of image URLs were fine – some struggled with the motor control needed to copy and past precise bits of text.  The project also got them to describe the animal they created so we had some nice creative writing and literacy in there too!

thimble

A top set year 9 class tried out Bakery Bash.  Now this really is silly and has a screen full of dancing cat gifs.  There is nothing in this activity that could be described as remotely cross-curricular but it is FUN. Within minutes students were delving around in the web looking for the URLs for images.  Some sites didn’t show the image source on a right click so they went straight into the source code and started reading it.

bakery bash

A point on browsers

The obvious question when running Mozilla sites is, “do we have to use Firefox?”.  At my school, students are currently only able to use Internet Explorer.  Enabling browser choice is (one of the things) on my to-do-list.  I had a hunch this might be the case in other schools so I did a quick Twitter poll to see whether this was the case (please note this is very unscientific).

Well if nothing else it proved what I thought would be the case. (Clearly I should have asked what other browsers if there’s a choice but I didn’t.  At least they have a choice.)

Before the lessons I put a copy of Firefox Portable on all the students user areas.  Unfortunately it didn’t pick up the proxy for our filtering in school so wouldn’t work (which is odd as my year 10 students use Portable Apps with no problems – often running of memory sticks and still through the filter – I digress).

However Thimble worked just fine in IE.  Hackasaurus didn’t want to know.  We’ll sort the browser issue out soon.  Interestingly though Thimble also worked well on our paltry 8mb broadband connection (yes that’s 8mb shared between the several hundred users in the school).

Where Next After Thimble?

So, Thimble is great fun.  We made cats dance, we replaced cats with pictures of our friends etc.  We need a scheme of work.  Thankfully I have one up my sleeve!

We already teach a unit of work (in year 8 – I just didn’t have a year 8 class the day I tested Thimble).  Students create a website on either Caerphilly Castle or the Spanish Armada using Adobe Dreamweaver.  It’s a SoW with it’s merits but we’ve been struggling with the fact that essentially, most of the lessons are spent teaching the software which is not what we want to do.

So enter Dreamweaver split screen.

dreamweaver

The split screen is the same layout as Thimble.  If you edit the code and then click on the page view – it updates automatically (there are some CSS elements that need to be previewed in the browser). I showed students another site:

W3 Schools

.. and they were away.  This site acts as a library of HTML, CSS, XML etc. It also allows you to test code (again on a split screen basis) and see what it will do.  The student who’s work is shown above wanted a background graphic on his page so worked out how to edit the CSS himself.

But HTML is just a bit of coding – where’s the more advanced stuff?

I actually think that web development is a great intro to coding for kids.  They use the web already and so understand the way a website might look and behave.  However, in terms of computational thinking it’s not great (at this level anyway).  However once you have mastered the basics you can start introducing JavaScript to a web page without needing to download anything new.  No new software, no new IDE’s (integrated development environments), no changes to user profiles that scare technicians.  This is the stuff that makes the web interactive.

(My JavaScript capabilities are currently very limited – it’s a summer holiday project)

Codecademy

This is a site with lots of bite-size tutorials that run in the web browser.  They’re introducing new languages all the time but at the time of writing it’s Web (HTML and CSS) JavaScript and JQuery.  I’ve tried out the courses in Web and JavaScript and found both to be good.  Some students have been trialling the JavaScript at lunchtime and some have fared better than others.  It gets quite mathematical quite quickly.  The environment is excellent though and the courses are short enough that you could do 10 minutes a day (which is the aim of CodeYear).  You can also create courses there which offers huge potential for teachers to tailor make something suited to their scheme of work.

Codecademy gives out badges when you finish courses which can be shared on Facebook and Twitter.

CodeAvengers

Thanks to Russell Wareham for showing me this.  For students who want to learn JavaScript but find Codecademy too hard, try out CodeAvengers.  It’s a more gameified environment – which even gives little games as rewards for reaching certain levels.  The JavaScript tutorials are a little simpler as well.

codeavengers

Hopefully then some useful ideas on how to integrate a little, or a lot, of computer science / coding into ICT lessons.

Questions for Leighton Andrews

Formulating good questions is something we teachers are generally good at, and something we try to develop in our pupils.  Unfortunately, outside of a classroom there is often a delay between hearing someone speak and thinking of a suitable question to ask or witty ripost to make.

I was reminded of this on Friday at the Computing at School Wales / Technocamps conference in Swansea University (#caswales) after Leighton Andrews AM gave his speech. As is the nature of all good political speeches it was well tailored to his audience.  There was an expectation of a big announcement but not of much detail.  Infact we got more detail than expected and I suspect this was the reason why there were so few questions afterwards.  For those who missed the event and the brief coverage on BBC Wales Today in the evening the broad outline is on the DfES website.

I was very encouraged to hear the Minister talk in such positive terms about all pupils in Wales having the opportunity to learn Computer Science in school but probably the most exciting part (and the bit that shut me up) was the announcement of £3 million investment in the professional development of teachers to support the teaching of computer science and IT.  Wow!  Hurray!  We’ve got £3 million quid let’s go and produce a load of computer scientists!

On reflection, I have a few questions I wish I’d asked Mr Andrews at the time.

  • How will the £3 million be broken down?

Is this going to be spread out over a number of years?  Will a portion be assigned to primary / secondary / HE?

  • Who do you think will be delivering the CPD?

There are proposals in the pipeline but I’d be interested in hearing his opinion.

  • Will schools have to bid for the money / opportunity for CPD?

The Welsh Assembly Government has launched many funding streams in the past but schools usually have to bid for the money.  It’s often a complex process which I won’t pretend to fully understand.  Schools have to give explicit details of how they will spend the money and explain how they will meet national priorities.  Theoretically this is No Bad Thing.  Giving thousands of pounds to a school for a project to teach spreadsheets through the medium of expressive dance in the foundation phase would probably be a waste of money (apologies to any schools running sector-leading projects along these lines).  However the bid process can be time consuming and incurs an admin cost to the school.  It also means some schools / teachers miss out if their Senior Management do not see this is a priority.  Despite the CAS information pack having gone out to headteachers of secondary schools in England and Wales in March / April this may still be the case.

  • What restrictions will be put on schools or delivering organisations (such as CAS Wales and Technocamps)?

Many of the funding streams we have had access to in the past have had restrictions on how the money can be spent.  For example: can only be spent on software, or hardware, or with specific organisations.  Some people have objected to the top-down nature of the money in this announcement.  Under these specific circumstances (lots of ICT teachers in Wales need to be trained to be able to teach Computer Science effectively to A-level) I think some top-down spend is appropriate.  BUT every school has different needs.  Here is where I think schools may need to spend the money:

Taking teacher(s) off time-table for a short period on a regular basis to attend a training course run by a delivery organisation.

Taking teacher(s) off time-table as above but to attend internet-based live training.  Given the distances between some rural schools in Wales as explained by Hannah Dee from the University of Aberystwyth, weekly training at a bricks and mortar location may not work for some places.

Giving teachers time to spend bringing their skills up to a decent level with practice.  All teachers get 10% of timetable time for planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) – usually in school.  All teachers do work outside of this as well in order to do their jobs effectively. Some of the skills we will need to teach CS will come, not just through training courses but also through time spent practicing alone.  Programming is the main area here.  I can see that having attended a number of training events to learn about the many constituent parts of Computer Science covered by the CAS Curriculum teachers will need time to assimilate this information and practice their coding skills.  We’ll still have our day jobs to do on top of this.  At the moment I’m trying to fit in learning python (from a book) and javascript (from Codecademy) as well as planning lessons and writing reports.  It’s time consuming and needs my attention for a decent stretch of time – so right now isn’t happening.  Maybe it will happen in the summer holidays – but then family life should take priority!  An hour a week to dedicate to this would make an enormous difference.  I need it to do my job effectively and it’s over and above my normal PPA requirements – I don’t need it forever.  (I’m fully signed up to the notion that CS does not === programming but I think programming is the bit that will take us most time to learn).

Buying hardware / software and installation requirements. Most schools have pretty locked-down networks as far as students are concerned.  One of the requirements of learning computer science is that pupils will have to create and run programs.  Network technicians MAY need support and guidance to make sure this happens safely and effectively on the school network.  Will there be training available for them?  I don’t think software purchasing will be a big issue as this is an area where there are so many free resources but some schools might want to purchase something – will they be able to?  Conversely if some of the budget is ring-fenced for software and we don’t want/need to buy it – will it be wasted?  Some schools might need to upgrade hardware to run some of this free software.  Some schools might want to buy kit such as cheap Android tablets to let kids really experiment with App Inventor.

So Mr Andrews – these are the questions I should have asked – what’s the answer?

Computer Science – or Programming in School – or BOTH?!

Recent blogs by Jason Gorman and Neil Brown about the differences between Computer Science and Programming have resonated.

To summarise, Computing at School, on the back of the Royal Society report are clear that we need to make Computer Science distinctive from ICT as taught in schools.  Their proposed curriculum includes programming but also includes other areas of computer science including computational thinking.   Jason Gorman seems concerned that an over-emphasis on computer science theory will bore students and put them off – when actually all they need to do for most real-life IT jobs is programme.

I think somewhere between the two lies a common ground.

I am head of ICT at a comprehensive school in South Wales.  We teach ICT to students across the age range and are well equipped.  Our schemes of work are currently largely traditional ICT based but it’s not all Office software – we teach a lot of web development using Dreamweaver and Flash.  We make changes to schemes of work every year mainly due to the increased ability of incoming students in year 7 and have been moving towards a more computing curriculum for some time. (“Computing” is the generic term used for Computer Science in schools – it will probably change).

I only started teaching when I was 32. Like Jason Gorman, I did not do a Computer Science degree and spent 8 years before teacher training working in the IT industry.  I did a Geography degree, because I enjoyed it, and with no real idea of what I wanted to do with my life ended up on the IBM graduate training scheme after a year as a pre-university employee with them (making spreadsheets).  Four weeks into my job I found myself on a COBOL training course.

Like many people in the IT industry I moved between different companies with mergers, takeovers, etc. and spent most of the time working within the insurance sector.  Initially as a COBOL programmer but then moved into more of a systems analyst role.

In trying to get more computing into our Key Stage 4 schemes of work my biggest concern is that we will focus too much on programming.  I don’t think I KNOW what computer science we should be teaching (and yes I have read the CAS proposed curriculum ) but I do feel that if we have students who can use Scratch to make a game and use Greenfoot to create a world – but little else – have we moved on?  They’re still users at that point.

I agree with Jason that we don’t want to be teaching too much computer science theory.  The analogy is made with Physics – everyone studies Physics but we’re not all Physicists.  True – but an understanding of forces (for example) is probably more useful in day to day life than a hash map (what is a hash map?!).  That’s probably a hopelessly crude analogy and undoubtedly demonstrates my lack of understanding.

However I do think we need to back up our exciting programming with more theoretical groundwork.  One of the reasons I stopped working in the IT industry and became a teacher was because I realised I was a good COBOL programmer but lacked the background to be a truly great programmer.  I can, and have, learned other languages, but my code never as efficient as I’d like it to be.

School children need to learn how to break down and analyse the world around them.  Ideally not in terms of making a cup of tea unless they are going to build a Teasmaid.  I have a student currently making a game of Tag in Scratch with 4 players.  He’s breaking down the rules of the playground game into an algorithm that he can then build in Scratch.  He’s defining and initialising variables, setting out the rules for each sprite, looking at which bits are repeated and can be called as a subroutine.

I’m concerned that my limitations mean he won’t get as much out of this as he could, but then I’ve always thought of these sorts of processes as intuitively logical.

Summary

I think we do need to get people involved in the IT industry at all levels (not just software developers).  In Wales there is a big push to “bridge the gap” and increase social mobility.  I’d agree with Jason that the answer is not to push LOTS more people into CS degrees (but decent increase in numbers would not be unwelcome).  Rather industry needs to look more at apprenticeships and other opportunities for school leavers at 16 and 18.  There are hundreds of jobs in the IT industry that could provide social mobility and we do need to do more to support this in school.  Providing we give a good background in both the theory and practice of computer science in school there’s no reason why a school leaver who is not academic, but is logical, couldn’t become a truly great programmer, database admin, software tester – etc.  We do however need lots of training for teachers like me, who want to get this right and not send lots of Scratch users out into the world.