How Can I Help My Child get Into Computing?

I was asked yesterday by a friend to advise on some ideas for her 10 year old who wants to do some App building.  I thought a few more people might be interested in this too so here are some ideas for getting children into computing generally. I’m focusing here on the younger age group.

Scratch

A visual development / programming environment developed by MIT.  This is a free download and whilst it can be used for some very basic stuff is also good (later on) for helping kids develop ideas about algorithms.  Proven from age 6 by by Genevieve Smith Nunes and also used at 16 in the DiDA Games Authoring unit.

It’s fun and easy to use.

You can also buy (for about £35) a Picoboard which allows you to control Scratch with light, sound a slider and other custom sensors.

Scratch can also be developed with a modification called Build Your Own Blocks.  There are lots of Scratch tutorials on the web and also some books on Amazon.

Kodu

This is another free download development environment, this time from Microsoft.  It can be downloaded to run either on a PC or an Xbox and children can build games to be controlled either using the keyboard and mouse or the Xbox controller (a USB wired controller is about £17).

You can’t (yet) build games on the PC and then transfer them to the Xbox.  Kids seem to enjoy the very gamified environment and it comes with a fair number of tutorials. Another good place for tutorials is Geeky Nicki’s brilliant site (also good for Scratch).

App Inventor

For actual App development you can’t beat MIT’s App Inventor.  This site takes you through the basics of building Android apps.  It can take a little time to figure out setting it up – especially if you want to plug your phone into it but the absolute excitement my 10 year old son had from his App being tested on my HTC Desire was brilliant.  There are 3 parts to it – the designer (which works in the browser), the building blocks editor which is a Java-based download and the phone.  If you don’t have an Android phone or yours isn’t supported then you can use the emulator on the screen which works just as well.

It builds nicely on from Scratch and there are some very good (if a little wordy for younger and more impatient children) tutorials. All the tutorials are text / image based – no video which is good if your internet connection is poor.

Code Avengers

This site contains lessons in learning HTML, CSS and Java Script.  It’s actually aimed at teenagers and I think the JavaScript would be over the heads of the 10 year olds but the HTML is good.  You sign in and build a profile page on a “phone” – and if you plug the URL into your phone you can see it on your phone!  Nice idea.  It awards badges as you progress and they are adding functionality all the time.  Nicely styled for kids too.

 

There are of course loads of other suggestions.  This is aimed at being a quick intro into things I KNOW will work for a keen 10 year old.  They are all free and should appeal to the kids as well as be suitable for them.

Finally if your child is really keen on getting into Computing and not really being provided for at school by ICT lessons then please join Computing At School!  CAS is a grassroots organisation with a wide range of members from teachers, university professors, industry experts and parents all keen to get kids into Computing.  It’s grown now to over 2000 members with an active online forum and 2 annual conferences.  There are local Hubs all over the country (I’m Hub leader for South East Wales) where we try to help out with the needs of the local people.  Joining CAS could provide a link into lots of local people really keen to point you in the direction of organisations and activities that can help.

 

Aggregation of Marginal Gains – why cycling and education are so similar

  1. During the Olympics and Paralympics the British Cycling team won lots of gold medals.  Some other teams questioned whether everyone was actually playing by the same rules and of course Team GB cycling director David Brailsford was interviewed repeatedly about his strategy.  The phrase “aggregation of marginal gains” was bandied about a LOT but as he described – Team GB had focused extensively on the tiny details that could gain them an extra 100th of a second.
  2. GCSE and A-level results tend to show an upward trend year-on-year (with some exceptions).

Now – some of the things “we” (as in people) are better at with regard to sport than, say, 20 years ago.  The duration, intensity, location and timing of training is carefully managed.  Nutrition is better understood – not just the need to load up with carbs before an event but the availability of nutrition gels during endurance events.  Technology has played a huge part in terms of the physical stuff (carbon fibre bikes, better shoes etc.) but also the impact technology can have on assessing training.

Of course all the other teams have access to this as well (to a greater or lesser extent depending on funding – the velodrome is not a level track for more than 1 reason).  However Team GB appear to have investigated every single possible improvement in performance – even to the extent that washing your hands properly means you get ill less.

Now I think we’ve been doing something like this in education for, well forever really.  Exam results have got better, and let us assume that Ofqual have done their job properly over the years and that exams have been properly standardised from year to year – i.e. they are not getting easier.

People outside education often scoff about the near constant improvement in exam results.  Here are some things schools and individual teachers have been doing over the past few years – some of the “marginal gains” we’ve made.  Feel free to add your own:

  1. near obsessive examination of questioning techniques, types of questions, who is being asked, who is answering, the time between the teacher asking and the student answering
  2. assessment for learning – types and quality of feedback, who is giving the feedback
  3. students teaching each other
  4. nutrition – yes it makes a difference in sport and in education too.  Anecdotal: teachers do report improvements in concentration and behaviour when diet improves.  Only today in the staff room the science department were discussing how most of the bottom sets don’t have breakfast whereas most of the top sets do.
  5. data – we have a lot more of it and use it to target students much more effectively
  6. technology – I don’t actually think ICT is the panacea for everything BUT there are lots of ways in which technology improves the access to learning for many students.  Not “the internet” but the differences in the way information is presented.

Of course there have been many negatives – things taken out of education that teachers feel is missing but the way something like AFL starts off as a Big Thing – then becomes so embedded in your lessons you don’t even realise it’s a thing at all is a marginal gain.

The problem is that if Team GB win even more Gold medals in cycling we’ll be delighted.  When more students gain better grades – the boundaries are shifted and the whole system is said to be flawed.