International Women’s Day – my speech for the IT Wales event

I was honoured to be asked to speak at the annual IT Wales International Women’s Day event in Swansea last night. The evening was hosted by broadcaster Mai Davies (who was a delight to sit next to at dinner) and we were welcomed by head of the BCS in Wales, Beti Williams MBE. I must also pay tribute to Sian Jones and the rest of the IT Wales Technocamps team who did a great job organising the event.

It was a fascinating event with some amazing women present. Sharon Bagshaw, Vice President IBM Global Processing Services with the DVLA spoke of her interesting and varied career within the global giant. Perhaps it was a mistake for me to leave IBM after only 2 years?! Siân Hindle, founder and director of La Crème Patisserie was astounding not only for her baking but also her business acumen.

I don’t make 5 cupcakes, I will only make 5,000 cupcakes.

Bridgette Griffiths, IT Delivery Manager for BT spoke of the Superfast Cymru project seeking to ensure all homes and businesses in Wales have access to superfast, fibre-optic broadband which will place Wales in the top 10 globally for internet access. We’ve just got fibre at home and I can’t WAIT until we can get it in school as well!

I was asked to speak about my career route (so far!) and the various things that are being done to promote girls in Computing in Wales. The text of my speech follows. This is slightly longer than that delivered last night. I’ve had a stinking cold all week and was worried I was losing my voice so I cut a little out. Mai’s advice to gargle port was excellent but as I was driving I stuck to water!

Speaking at the IT Wales International Women’s Day event

So what did I have to say?

Waking up on the final morning of my COBOL programming course at IBM as a graduate trainee, I realized I was now, probably, a programmer. It was a bit of a surprise to be honest and despite my best efforts I seemed to have sleepwalked into a technical role in the IT industry. I spent 8 years in various jobs before leaving to retrain as a teacher in 2005. Now, as head of ICT at Y Pant School in Rhondda Cynon Taf, Computing At School hub leader for south east Wales and a member of the Welsh ICT curriculum review group, I am looking at ways in which we can give children the education, training and excitement in Computing that will help them aim towards the huge variety of satisfying careers available in the tech industry.

I was your average bright student in school. Pretty good at everything but with no idea what I wanted to do. Going through a short materialistic phase I fixated on the idea of being a city trader so opted for A-Levels in Maths, Economics and French. I applied to University to study Economics and got a place at King’s College, Cambridge (I must have sounded more convinced to them than I did to myself!). However as they had taken too many students on gap-years the year before, and me being an August baby I was asked to take a year out and defer my entry to university. I was thrown into a panic as I’d just assumed myself to be on the treadmill of school, university, and career. Thankfully my forward thinking dad, through his membership of the then Institute of Electrical Engineers (now the IET) found out about IBM’s Pre-University Employee scheme. Despite misgivings that surely a massive computer company such as IBM would want people to be programmers and I definitely did not want to be a programmer, I applied and successfully negotiated the interview to be offered a position in Basingstoke working in the RS6000 marketing group. My job involved importing big datasets from all over Europe & performing analysis on the data. To be honest I floundered a bit, the data was all in different formats and having not spent years programming on the BBC Micro as many of my peers seem to have done I felt pretty clueless.

I must have made a reasonable impression though as the department offered me summer work for the next two years and I was then put straight through to second interview for their Graduate Trainee scheme. By this time I had switched to Geography from Economics (materialism had been overtaken by crusading environmentalism for a time) but was still adamant that I did NOT want to be a programmer. I was reassured by both the interview process and my time already spent in the company that even huge computer companies need people to work in departments such as sales, marketing and HR. However the reality is that what the tech industry really needs is people doing the front-line work. Network specialists, hardware engineers, systems analysts, database managers, testers, and of course programmers. People who can independently find creative solutions to all kinds of problems.

I joined the company in 1996 and went straight to the Hursley Labs in Hampshire. It was a nice twist of fate – my great grandfather had been a gardener on the Hursley Estate decades before it was taken over by IBM. In 1996 the world was beginning to be gripped by the millennium bug so a group of us, actually all girls, found ourselves learning how to put programs through the scanning software IBM had developed. We were looking for data variables with hard-coded 2-byte years. It’s telling that at that point I didn’t know what a variable was and had only the haziest idea about bytes. I was aware, through meeting up with other graduate trainees on the excellent courses we were sent on, that others were learning about something called Java which sounded exciting. Thankfully the millennium bug didn’t turn out to be as contagious as first thought and I was able to spend New Year’s Eve 1999 watching fireworks on the Thames and not frantically fixing code in computer systems as I had first thought. After a year or so I was transferred out of that project to the HUON insurance team. I’d asked to do some of this exciting sounding Java but the need for COBOL programmers was higher – which was how I found myself on that programming course. I later left IBM to join HUON which then became The Innovation Group and thus became one of those thousands of people in the late 90’s and early 2000s who worked at the same desk for several years but for 3 different companies. The desk of course was virtual. I was sent all over the UK on projects for AXA insurance, Norwich Union as it was then, Halifax and Lloyds TSB (which is what brought me eventually to Wales). I designed, wrote and tested code that is still apparently running today in insurance call centres processing home and car insurance quotes. I spent time in the training department creating and delivering technical training courses and was sent to Melbourne to deliver a course. Later on I was involved in piloting a new version of the software to increase the efficiency of the call centre process which also had some synergies with web processes so I was sent to Tokyo to work with Direct Line on a motor insurance project they had running there.

It was a great job. Creative, very well paid, fairly stress-free and with reasonable hours – so why on earth did I leave to become a teacher? I had increasingly become a fairly niche consultant. Expert in a very specific field. The development contract at Lloyds TSB in Newport had come to an end so my job would have gone back on the road. With two very small children it wasn’t something I could do. In my 20’s, unencumbered by family responsibility I had worked with lots of people who did leave their families at home whilst they stayed all week in unglamorous locations but it wasn’t for me (incidentally most were men). I looked around for jobs locally and there were loads, but all required specific knowledge and experience of technologies I knew little about. I had genuinely enjoyed my time as a technical trainer and having always wondered about teaching in the back of my mind, jumped ship.

So in 2006 I started working at Y Pant School as an ICT teacher. Scaling my experience was hard at first. I’d been working on a database with over 400 tables so didn’t see the point of working on one table. I had to learn software in a way I hadn’t really done so before. Programming didn’t enter into it at all. Being new to the job, teaching a subject that just hadn’t existed when I was at school and with a young family I got on with teaching the curriculum I had in front of me – and enjoyed it. I still do. Sure teenagers can be exasperating but mostly are interesting, engaging and funny. The ground is always shifting in schools and there are new ideas all the time but it makes for a very dynamic place to work.

However, as each new cohort of year 7s arrived in September they would take less and less time to get through our carefully planned schemes of work. What took 6 weeks in 2006 was being completed in 2 by 2011. Students had a hunger to learn new skills and to be creative with their use of the computer but advanced PowerPoint wasn’t cutting it any more. I had thoughts that perhaps they would enjoy some of the challenge I had encountered in my previous career but teaching COBOL to 11 year olds didn’t feel right. Still, something had to change.

I discovered Computing At School, CAS, which had been founded in 2008. CAS is a grassroots organization in collaboration with the BCS and supported financially by a number of organisations, including Microsoft and Google. It now has over 3000 members who come from across schools, higher education and industry. The majority of members are teachers and all have been working together to promote computing in schools. In Wales, CAS is led by Dr Tom Crick, an academic at Cardiff Metropolitan University. We have 6 local Hubs, and together with Technocamps, CAS organizes a conference in June every year at Swansea University.

In fact the last year has seen an enormous sea-change in ICT education, which appears to be rippling through schools, universities and also the IT industry. For those of you not directly involved I’ll summarise the main points. In August 2011 Eric Schmidt, then Executive Chairman of Google delivered the annual MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh with a devastating critique of technology education in the UK: “I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools,” he said. “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.” He wasn’t entirely correct as thanks to CAS the tide had already started turning. OCR launched the first GCSE in Computing to a pilot group of schools in September 2010 and that has since been joined by Computer Science GCSEs from 3 other exam boards including the WJEC here in Wales. In January 2012, Michael Gove, Secretary for Education in England “disapplied” the mandatory programme of study for ICT in England inventing a new word in the process. However, education (and thus thankfully, literacy)in Wales is fully devolved, with a distinct National Curriculum. For many, this decision was just what they’d been waiting for but sadly, less enlightened schools took this as a sign to take ICT off the curriculum altogether and replace it with the humanities subjects praised so heavily by Gove as part of the English Baccalaureate. However, the publication of the draft programmes of study in the revised National Curriculum for England a couple of weeks ago has marked a step-change for Computing in the UK. The subject has been rebranded from ICT to Computing, a sweeping change that sees computational thinking, algorithms and programming being taught from the age of 5, while still teaching aspects of digital literacy.

In Wales, our curriculum has always been less prescriptive. Many schools had been using this to teach some aspects of computing for a while. However it was never a compulsory subject at GCSE and whilst some schools, including my own, had made it mandatory for all students, the number of students opting to take it at GCSE and A-level have been falling year-on-year. Computing A-level which has been around for many years was also seeing a drop in numbers all over the UK – and it had always been a niche subject anyway. In 2012 just 298 students in Wales sat A-level Computing and only 38 of those were girls – but I’ll come back to that later. At the CAS Technocamps conference in June last year, the Welsh Government’s Minister for Education Leighton Andrews spoke of the importance of Computing as a high priority for growth in Wales stating that “It is [therefore] vitally important that every child in Wales has the opportunity to study computer science between the ages of 11-16.” In November he announced a review of the ICT curriculum in Wales and formed a steering group comprised of teachers, industry professionals and academics to advise on this. The group is co-chaired by Janet Hayward, Headteacher of Cadoxton Primary School in Barry (and also a computer science graduate!), Dr Tom Crick and Stuart Arthur, Head of Operations at Box UK, a software development company based in Cardiff. I am one of those in the group. Obviously the curriculum review process is ongoing but I think it’s fair to say that there will be a significant change to what students are being taught in schools.

It’s an exciting time for computing education at the moment. This little device (hold up raspberry pi) the Raspberry Pi, made at the Sony UK Technology Centre near Bridgend has created enormous worldwide interest in physical computing and programming. Over 1 million units have been sold and Google have announced they are donating 15,000 to UK schoolchildren. There are amazing, and freely available resources on the web which are being used in and out of schools. Organisations such as Code Club and Young Rewired State are doing a great job in enthusing, engaging and empowering young people to become creators with technology. Here in Wales we are lucky enough to have Technocamps to support us. Technocamps is a 6 million pound project funded by the EU Social Convergence Fund via the Welsh Government. They deliver free workshops to 11-19 year olds across the convergence areas of Wales led by Swansea University in partnership with Bangor, Aberystwyth and Glamorgan universities and are generating real excitement for the discipline in their work.

So, what about computing and girls? It’s well documented that the IT industry is dominated by men. According to Little Miss Geek founder Belinda Parmar, and the e-skills Technology Insights Report in 2012, only 17% of the jobs in the UK tech industry are held by women.. We hear negative talk about “brogrammers” and the booth babes at conferences but whilst perception is a problem the audience and speakers here tonight are evidence that this is not the only story of the IT industry. From my own experience I was often the only woman on the team apart from those in admin roles but apart from isolated individuals, it wasn’t a problem. However my lack of background in computing meant that the roles open to me were fairly limited. The males who joined both the Pre-University programme and the Graduate trainee program at IBM at the same time as me often had years of bedroom coding behind them and were therefore directed towards the new and exciting research and development projects. That wasn’t IBM’s fault – a business has to use its staff in the best way possible. We’re now seeing fewer and fewer students generally programming in their spare time but hopefully projects such as the Raspberry Pi will begin to turn the tide.

However if we carry on as normal, we probably won’t see any more girls programming Raspberry Pi’s as we saw girls programming BBC Micros in the late 1980’s. As I said earlier, just 13% of those students taking A-Level Computing in Wales last year were girls. Exam board OCR has told me that nationally only 14% of those in the pilot group of students taking the GCSE for the first time were girls. We offered GCSE Computing at Y Pant for the first time this September and not a single girl opted for it. Our ICT option courses see a variation of between 10 and 30% girls as well.

It’s been said, by Emma Mulqueeney of Young Rewired State, that in terms of getting girls into computing, “Year 8 is too late”. That is, if girls are not introduced to this subject before the age of 12, they may well never bother. By then, it appears that the perception of geekdom has been set. Computing and IT is seen as a boy’s subject and at secondary school, girls seem to be much more susceptible to the need to fit in and be part of the crowd. It’s not irreversible. Technocamps have easily met their target of 45% girls for their work by encouraging teachers to bring whole classes to their workshops – not just the geeky boys. They also run fabulous events in creative wearable technology and are approaching computing from the creative and artistic side to get away from this perception that computing is all sweaty programmers sitting in darkened rooms. They are also setting up Technoclubs for Girls. Many of us have been teaching programming at school through computer games – game development is an easy hook into algorithms – but games appeal massively to boys and less so to girls so the work Technocamps is doing in this area is vitally important.

We need to be starting right at the beginning with computing. Girls don’t have a problem with the perception of maths or science in general. It’s quite cool to be good at maths in junior school. If we start teaching everyone computing, right from primary school then everyone will have had some experience of this regardless of gender or family background. By the time girls get to secondary school they will be putting their logical skills to practice writing programs and engaging with creating technology not just using it. e-skills forecasts that the IT sector will grow at twice the rate of other sectors in the UK by 2020 and here in Wales there is huge potential for the industry to play a role in driving growth and providing jobs, it’s one of the priority sectors for economic renewal Just a month ago Virgin Media announced 230 jobs in product development, sales and customer care here in Swansea. We need to be doing everything we can to make sure that the technical jobs in the future are sought after by women and men and that we don’t just leave girls standing on the sidelines.

Much of the problem of girls and computing is cultural – so what can we do? Curriculum change is already happening as I’ve said. It’ll take time for the effects to be felt in the workplace. Change obviously starts at home and schools cannot bear all the responsibility. We all need to be aware of the unconscious gender bias we exhibit in talking to children about technology and probably the biggest impact comes from parents If parents subtly, or not so subtly indicate to their daughters that tech jobs are boys jobs – then that’s what they’ll grow up thinking. It’s not easy, Belinda Parmar of Little Miss Geek refers to boys often having a “magnetic attraction to computers”. My son is obsessed by technology and it’s therefore easy to leave my daughter out of the conversation and choose different conversations with her. I was lucky enough to have a mother who encouraged me to aim high and an engineer father who has always felt gender should never be a barrier to any career. Role models are important and at the moment faces such as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs dominate the perception of success in computing. There are many unsung female heroes of computing and some are here today. We need to celebrate what they are doing but we also need to celebrate what WE are doing. Whether you are male or female, next time you are in the company of a teenager, talk to them about your job and why you love it so much. Tell them how creative it is, how absorbing and if they show some interest, help them to learn more about it. Volunteer to help your local school whether through joining CAS or by running a Code Club at a primary school.

I think my 8 year old daughter possesses the logical skills to be an amazing computer scientist. It may not be what she wants to do, but if she does one day find herself working as a programmer I hope it’s because she chooses to do it, without any negative stereotypes holding her back, and that she has the educational experience behind her to forge a path of her choosing through the industry. It’s an exciting time for education in this sector and to be part of genuinely creating a new subject at school. It’s vital for the future of the children of Wales that we get this right and enable them to have a deeper understanding of technology whatever career path they eventually choose. Especially those that become programmers.

A Self Organised Learning Environment, and I wasn’t even there!

Sugata Mitra in his excellent and prize-winning TED lecture discusses the idea of Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLE). Essentially the idea is that children, given the Internet, can teach themselves and find the answers to big questions. He’s the founder of the Hole in the Wall computer in project. India. Watch the film to find out more.

There’s an idea I’ve pondered for a little while. I want to stop spoon feeding pupils. I want them to be confident to make mistakes. I want them to be able to solve problems independently. Actually some of this is quite hard to do as a teacher.

My year 10 class (age 14) have been learning JavaScript and HTML. I set them a problem; to create a web page that would convert a temperature to Celcius or Fahrenheit depending upon what the user requested. I gave them some of the code and also the formula. They worked on this problem for 5 weeks, 1 hour per week. I gave help only in extreme circumstances (if I felt an individual was just getting nowhere and was beginning to get down about it). They browsed, they debugged, they discussed and argued,and eventually they got it.

The more striking example came two weeks ago. I was out of school for a meeting so had left work for my classes. One year 7 class (age 11) were midway through a database project and had already created and populated their own databases. I set the work to carry out some sorts and searches on the table. I also asked that they provided screenshots of these and wrote about them to show what they had searched for and why this would help a user. I left the lesson plan on my desk with an example set of screen shots taped to the wall at the front.

On my return, the cover supervisor apologetically told me there had been a mix up with cover and she had only realised halfway through the lesson that they didn’t have a teacher. She was covering a rowdy year 11 class so only managed to pop in a couple of times but the children had seemed quiet and busy.

Next lesson I discovered the students had done all the work set. That’s relatively unprecedented for a cover lesson anyway, but they’d also taught themselves a new skill. Filters and sorts in databases aren’t rocket science but they hadn’t done it before and with something new I’ll ALWAYS demonstrate first.

What did this mean? Should I resign? Did the children need a teacher?  Could they just teach themselves from now on?

Well, no.  Ultimately there were certain factors I put in place for this to take effect:

  • example material on the board
  • video tutorials on the school intranet (very short tutorials, some only 30 seconds, teaching specific skills – I’ve been using these for years for self-paced learning)
  • ground work in the lessons before on this topic to design and create the databases and discussing how and why databases are used in society.

That was this scheme of work.  Last term year 7 created web pages using HTML and a bit of CSS.  They used Code Avengers to build up their own skills and I also showed them W3 Schools and encouraged them to find out new stuff for themselves.  One of my colleagues who is less confident with HTML effectively threw whole lessons over to W3 Schools and I think the outcomes from her class were better than mine!

So, I think Self-Organised Learning Environments have some benefit.  I do think Sugata Mitra is right in indicating that the structure of schools today is not as effective as it could be but I don’t think knowledge is obsolete.  Groups of children, given access to knowledge and the thirst to acquire it will teach themselves something.  Whether those Tamil children really understand the depths of DNA replication is questionable but I don’t think that’s the point.  They sort of got a bit of it.  I bet the day after he left they discovered Minecraft.

However what we as teachers do is set the frameworks in place.  The structure of learning is important and education as an internet-based free-for-all would result in a lot of surface-level knowledge.  That said, I think there is definitely something to be said for stepping away from the lesson sometimes and telling the students that any answer to a problem is fine, as long as it addresses the problem

Edmodo – a year on

edmodo badges

edmodo logo

A year ago I came across the social learning network Edmodo.  Probably via Twitter, I’ve no idea really.  What started out as a small-scale trial is now fully embedded across the department and also used extensively by other groups in the school.  It might be useful to share how and why this has happened.

I teach a relatively large class, now in year 11 doing a coursework-only vocational ICT course (DiDA).  There are 28 students and as they have very different abilities, by March of year 10 had got to the point where they were all working on different things and managing their own work well.  The full DiDA qualification has 4 units, each equivalent to 1 GCSE in points.  Each unit contains probably 12 separate pieces of work. Every piece of work needs to be reviewed, receive feedback and be re-drafted.  Most are screen based and therefore not suitable for printing.  Over the two years that’s over 1,300 pieces of work I need to look at if I only look at it once.  I usually look more than once.

I REALLY wish I hadn’t done that calculation 😦

Anyway I needed a way of keeping track of what I had looked at, and for the students to record my feedback.

The first group was set up for the students working on the graphics unit.  They developed logos, example packaging, shop fronts and digital posters for a “healthy takeaway shop”.  They uploaded, I gave feedback (based on exam board marking criteria) they resubmitted and I gave more feedback.  As an aside they also realised that if they uploaded relatively large png files it took forever but if they converted to gif or jpg the upload times were much better!

edmodo1

After about 3 weeks (I’m impatient with trials – if it works it works). I rolled out to my other classes who were soon uploading all their work.

In September we decided to start using Edmodo with year 9 doing the Essential Skills Wales qualification in ICT (I won’t dwell on that).  One of the requirements of this is that students submit two drafts of much of their work.  Many forget (who ACTUALLY saves 2 copies of a presentation when you know the 2nd is much better than the 1st?) so Edmodo handily keeps these drafts for us.

We then started using it with large numbers of students.

My 10 year old son watched me marking at home and told his year 6 teacher about it.  She’s set it up for his class and I also log now as a parent!

School Stats

We now have over 1000 students, 31 teachers and 38 groups on our Edmodo.

It’s being used in ICT, Art and Maths as well as for general 6th form communication, student parliament and vocational activities such as 6th form buddies and Duke of Edinburgh’s award.

My colleage @ademuzzy has presented once to the whole staff on Edmodo and once as a 1 hour CPD to a few teachers.

Lessons Learned

Students really engage with this (“it looks like Facebook!”). They like choosing their favourite quote, learning style and career aim.  We’ve kept a bit of an eye on the profile pictures to avoid the pouty ones.
It’s great for students to submit work and get comments.  Written feedback on work is very important and something we are focusing on this year in school.  Writing comments on work gets a bit samey after a while and if your’re anything like me the students at the bottom of the alphabet can get a raw deal.  However, like with reports, you often want to write the same thing, with a few alterations on many students’ work.  Yes I copy and paste comments – but I then change the 20% of the words which are important.  Saves tons of time and means I write much longer and more meaningful comments.

It’s excellent for discussions.  For OCR Cambridge Technicals in year 12 I set a question (below) and asked students to comment.  The resulting discussion can be used as evidence for their qualification!

edmodo discussion

As a Head of Department I really like that I can see all the work that students are submitting and all the comments my colleagues make.    Not because I am keeping tabs on them (although it IS part of my job) but because if a colleague makes a really positive comment about some work I have a look at it.  I wouldn’t have seen it before and it means we can ALL share in the good work.  I don’t have special access as a HoD – colleagues can also see my comments.

This means we can use Edmodo as an easy way of moderating work across the department which we plan to do in March.

We can set up a group for a particular group (e.g. year 10) then small groups within that for particular classes. The same assignment can be sent to all small groups but if you’re careful each can have a different due date. (Bit fiddly this – at times I think we have micro-managed).

Students really take note of the due dates of tasks!

The smartphone / tablet apps are excellent cut-down versions of the main site.  When the WiFi works in my classroom I walk around with the iPad discussing student progress with individuals.  Great!

I can link it to Google Docs (as can the students) and all my Google Docs can be transferred into Edmodo seamlessly.

The students like the backpack feature – they can put work in their backpack to take home.

I can give parent codes to parents to see what their child is doing.  Now as a teacher I had no idea what this looked like but when my son came home with a parent code I logged on (different account).  I can see what assignments he has due, the work he submitted and the marks and comments his teacher gave.  It means I have a MUCH clearer idea of what his teacher is looking for and can have a really meaningful discussion about his work with him.  As a parent I’d actually rather this than formal reports.

It’s made marking loads of fun!

notifications

Well no it hasn’t, but it has helped.  The notifications tell me how much marking I need to do and it’s satisfying to tick them off.  I can also create badges to award to students who pass particular criteria.  There are lots of generic badges on Edmodo, you can share badges with other teachers and also create your own. Ideally it would link up with Mozilla Open Badges but I guess you can’t have everything.  Incidentally year 11 scoffed at the badges when they first saw them but now have a bit of a competition going on.

edmodo badges

We can also link up with other teachers and groups round the world.

Probably most importantly, Edmodo runs really well on our dreadful internet connection! (currently<8Mbs for the whole school.  Welsh Government cash set to change that soon!

There are inevitably some downsides.  Sometimes it doesn’t quite do what we want, but that’s a small price to pay for a free site that in the space of a year has revolutionised the way we run this department.

Ultimately any teaching tool has to be judged by whether it raises attainment.  We won’t have the results of these qualifications until August 2013 and there are too many factors to enable a straight comparison to last year to take place.  However as a teacher, I know exactly where all my classes are on all pieces of work.  I am giving much better feedback to students on their work.  Students are reacting to my comments and redrafting their work.  As a parent I am having really high quality discussions with my son about his work.  How can all of this NOT lead to better attainment?

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.

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.

Using Facebook for Global Citizenship

I gave a talk today at our local authority education service, ESIS about how we have used Facebook in school.  The audience was more primary teachers than secondary and I sensed a bit of a silence in the room afterwards.  I think Facebook seems to be a taboo subject.  It’s seen as the baddie (despite almost every teacher I know being on Facebook!).

So – how did we use it in school?

Last year I was involved in a Comenius project.  For those who don’t know, Comenius is an EU project that funds school partnerships.   We received around 17,000 Euros to take part in a 2 year project with partner schools in Sweden, Italy, Germany and The Netherlands.  The project was set up by my colleague Holly who teaches art.  She was interested in the ways in which identity is shaped by local and global factors – and by new technologies.  I was brought in to help with the tech side.

The first phase of the project used a Moodle hosted by the German school.  Students from different schools were paired up and exchanged information.  It functioned and information was shared but students didn’t really engage. We set out to look for ideas to increase engagement.

We were aware that the students were using Facebook (as were the teachers) for the majority of their communication anyway so, we took the plunge.

A Facebook page for school

I’ll backtrack a bit.  I’d been running a school Facebook page for a while.  That started after the 4,000 hits our school website received on a snow day (checking whether school was open) crashed the site.  We only have 1200 pupils but it seemed that everyone hit F5 on every possible internet enabled device in the house.  Which meant I couldn’t update the site.  A lesson on site hosting followed.  Facebook has massive servers and can handle a lot of traffic so it seemed an ideal way of communicating this information very quickly.

I set myself up a new profile on Facebook using my school email address.  Facebook prefers you to have the one profile understandably but there’s no real way for them to get rid of duplicates as they only real criteria they have is email address.  You can’t use Miss or Mr as a firstname so teachers who like to keep their first names a mystery won’t like this (and probably aren’t reading this anyway).

The school Facebook page has about 250 followers.  It would have more if I updated it more often.  A few people have commented or liked and it ticks along.

Back to the project

Using my teacher profile I set up a group on Facebook for the Comenius project.  I set it as a closed group meaning that only members of the group can see posts and content.  The other options are an open group where everyone can see everything and a private group which is so secret you won’t know about it unless you get an invite.

I then invited the teachers on the project from the various schools to become my friend and then admitted them into the group.  once they were in the group I made them all administrators.

The only way students could get into the group was by being admitted by their teacher.  We agreed between us that we would only admit our own students.

The part that many teachers had an issue with is that in order to admit a student the group we had to be friends with them.  I decided it wasn’t a problem for 2 reasons:

  1. This was my teacher profile.  There’s nothing personal on there about me at all.
  2. You only have to be friends with the student until you have admitted them to the group which takes about 30 seconds – then you can unfriend them.  I really don’t want to go down the route of seeing what students post to their timeline!

Prior to admitting students we sent letters home to all the students taking part in the project to explain how it was going to work and giving parents the opportunity to opt their children out.  Not one parent replied.  We didn’t admit parents to the group but encouraged them to ask their children to show them.  We also only allowed students over 13 to take part.

How did we use Facebook?

The 2nd part of the project was to create a short film on the topic of Community.  We told students that the films would be uploaded to Facebook and discussed what would be suitable for inclusion and what wouldn’t be.  We checked the films first and then the students uploaded them to the Facebook group.  All the other students in the project could then comment and like – which they did.  It was a very simple way of sharing the work and getting feedback from people all over Europe.

We also had a live chat one evening to discuss the films.  This was less successful as we couldn’t hold the chat during school hours.  Most schools in Europe block Facebook!  Out of the control of their teachers some of the students got a bit silly and ruined it for the rest.  They were disciplined the next day in school (not our school, our students were great!). We ran out of time to do more but I’m confident that when the novelty goes the silliness will go too.

What were the main benefits

First and foremost, it enabled students to KNOW they were meeting the right person.  As soon as they found out the names of their exchange partners, they all went on Facebook to find that person.  Anyone who’s tried to look for an old friend on Facebook knows that can be akin to the needle and haystack.

Secondly, students really engaged with the project this time round.  They connected and chatted and shared.  Once they had met for real, face-to-face they followed up with more in-depth connections.  Even now, a year on, they tell me they’ve been chatting to the friends they made in Holland or the family they stayed with in Sweden and are making plans to meet in the summer.  It’s a far cry from the wooden letters I wrote to my French exchange partner (sorry Carole).

We’re planning to repeat this with another project starting in the Autumn should we get funding.

Cross-Curricular ICT

As ICT Co-ordinator for my school as well as the Head of ICT, it is my responsibility to ensure standards in ICT across the school.  So often I see a piece of work done by a child in year 9 which is way below what that child does in my lesson.  I know they can create a PowerPoint with a master slide, an effective design, embedded video and audio, hyperlinks etc.  So it pains me when I see them in someone else’s lesson creating a multi-coloured back-drop with hard to read fonts and hitting enter to bring up endless tedious animation.  It’s not the teacher’s fault, it’s the child being lazy.  So how do I share with the other teacher the expectations I have of their ICT work?