Computing at schools? What about the teachers?

As a workshop developer for a Welsh project called Technocamps, I spend my  working life trying to encourage young people and teachers into computing nad computing careers. So imagine my utter joy when I hear that ICT in schools will be replaced by computer science. My initial reaction: YIPEEEEEEEE.

Then FEAR. Who is going to teach this? A high majority of our future computer science teachers do not come from a computing background, let alone an ICT background.  According to the general teaching council of the 28,000 who became teachers in 2010, only THREE had a computing related degree.

Before I started work on the Technocamps project I did my PhD looking at why there aren’t enough women in computing and then did my postdoc looking at something similar. I published papers, researched and was seen as some sort of expert in the area of getting kids into computing. However, I had only been seeing things from one aspect. I did not realize the amount of support and encouragement that schools will need to teach a computer science curriculum. Schools which I had observed, have issues with the current ICT Curriculum.

In order for this reform to work we need to upskill teachers, not a one day training course or a light evening session, they need consistent support. It takes computer science graduates three years to be experts in the subject computer science, teachers need a similar type of training. We need to remember that computing is not as easy as ICT and therefore need to make sure we do not put young people of by having unskilled teachers.

When computers were first introduced into secondary schools, teachers did not know what to do with them and a lot of money was pumped into teacher training and equipment. This training was a session on computers, however this was not enough to increase their confidence in teaching computers. Young people know more about computers than teachers and are able to tell if the teacher is not confident in teaching a subject, which is why its important the right training and support is given.

I am really glad that we are looking up and taking an interest in IT education, however I hope it isn’t a one off speech and I hope that thought has been given about the consequences in terms of the quality of education out young people receive.

 

[updated 11th January 2013, 16:07 - minor grammar issues!]

Three tools to help teach programming to young people

The tools below are what we use in Technocamps to get young people enthused about computing. So far our feedback has been really positive. For ideas on how to incorporate these into the classroom please go to: http://www.technocamps.com/resources . Do you use other tools? I would love to hear about them. Feel free to comment below.

Scratch

Scratch is aimed at 9-11 year old students, although we also use it for 12-14 year olds. Scratch is a fun program to teach. Its drag and drop and does not expose the user to errors. It does not take much to get things happening. E.g. getting a cat to move forward 10 steps is a case of using two drag and drop boxes and pressing start. This is great for younger pupils who are impatient and looking for results straight away. It is free to download and does not take too long to learn. For my experiences on teaching scratch click here. 

Alice

Alice is very different to Scratch, in that the application deals with concepts such as objects, methods and properties and relies on the user being able to think ‘independently’. It is a drag and drop program, so it’s a good follow on from Scratch. The approach we have used to teach Alice is by getting participants to go through the Alice tutorials before getting them to make their own 3D animation. This is an excellent way of getting participants to get to grips with its concepts and the vocabulary involved in object-orientated design. It is satisfying when 15 year olds are leaving the room discussing objects and methods! Again this is free to download and it helps with concepts. For my experience on teaching Alice, click here. 

Green foot

Greenfoot teaches object orientated design using Java. It is recommended that this is taught to students who have had prior programming experience and/or doing A-level / A/S Level computing. They allow users to create ‘actors’ which are in ‘worlds’ to make games, animations and simulations. Its interactive and interaction tools are built into the Greenfoot environment. Unlike the two above, this introduces students to common syntax errors and is a lot more real than the other two.

Alice in a Technocamp wonderland

In my previous blog post I discussed what it was like using Scratch in Technocamps workshops. This post will discuss our experiences of using Alice to help teach object orientated design.

Alice is very different to Scratch, in that the application deals with concepts such as objects, methods and properties and relies on the user being able to think ‘independently’. It is a drag and drop program, so it’s a good follow on from Scratch.

Tutorials.

The approach we have used to teach Alice is by getting participants to go through the Alice tutorials before getting them to make their own 3D animation. This is an excellent way of getting participants to get to grips with its concepts and the vocabulary involved in object-orientated design. It is satisfying when 15 year olds are leaving the room discussing objects and methods!

Although this method is effective, is it is not popular with a number of participants. A number of participants have said that this is the worst part of the workshop, where as others said it was the best part of the workshop.   As a workshop developer I am in a dilemma about how to deal with this predicament. Do we keep going with the tutorials or take another approach?

Trying

After participants have gone through tutorials, they are asked to look at the animations and make their own games. This can be problematic as often they have gone through the tutorials but not paid too much attention to what was actually being taught in them. Or they have realized to do the animation they actually want to do, is actually going to take a long time, which means they get put off and start talking about how difficult Alice is to use.  In other words, they give up far too easily!

Reflection.

Each tutorial takes about 15minutes to go through depending on the ability of the class and their patience with Alice.

Another issue is the program itself, participants have found it slow and therefore frustrating to use. Young people are not the most patient of people!

Overall, Alice gets across the main points to those who want to take the time to learn it and it allows space for creativity. However, we need to find a better way of getting the tool across. Using Alice is OK for prolonged lessons e.g. for 10 lessons or so, which means they can explore at their own pace, but for a one day workshop, we need to think of different ways of teaching it. Any thoughts, hints and advice would be much appreciated!

Rockin it with Scratch

I am not a teacher. I do not pretend to know how to teach pupils, manage pupils and assess their knowledge. Its not what I was trained to do. I am a researcher, I am interested in computer science education so I have only really interacted with young people on a researcher level i.e. what information can I get out of them in order to publish my next paper.

Since taking on my new role at Technocamps, I have found myself in a classroom environment teaching pupils foundation concepts in programming. My primary role (as well as delivering workshops) is to decide upon content and making sure that they are at the right level for the group. But also making sure the content is engaging for young people so they go away thinking they want to learn more (this is actually quite difficult!).

The first three workshop modules that have been developed are based upon programming concepts. We have used Scratch, Alice and Greenfoot to get these concepts across. The aim of these sessions is to emphasise the importance of clear instruction giving and sequencing. The next sections will describe my experiences of using these tools.

Scratch is aimed at 9-11 year old students, although we also use it for 12-14 year olds.

Scratch is a fun program to teach. Its drag and drop and does not expose the user to errors. It does not take much to get things happening. E.g. getting a cat to move forward 10 steps is a case of using two drag and drop boxes and pressing start. This is great for younger pupils who are impatient and looking for results straight away.

However, I have found that there were issues in using Scratch. Getting pupils to understand the concept of ‘control’ was tricky. A majority thought that dragging a box over that said move 10 steps would be enough to move the box. It took a while for them to understand that in order to move something you have to give it a clearer instruction. Interestingly, once they got this concept it was much easier to grasp concepts like ‘forever’ or ‘if then’. Sequencing was a lot easier.

Scratch uses co-ordinates for some instructions e.g. glide to x:-13 Y:-102 to get an object to guide to a particular area, however a majority of year 7s had not done x and y co-ordinates so they did not understand this aspect. So for some pupils the ‘go to’ instruction was more appropriate.

A difficult aspect of teaching anything to this age group is the unwillingness to try themselves, ask their friends for help or to experiment. Even after constant encouragement and emphasis on the fact that they will not break Scratch it was still tricky to get these things across. I do understand that this group are not used to learning independently.

As someone who is not trained as a teacher, my instinct to help a student is to take the mouse from them and do it for them. However, I have since learnt that this is the wrong way! I now try to make sure that the pupils are always the ones who are ‘driving’ the computer and to make sure that they are answering their own questions (this can be difficult! Especially just before lunchtime!)

Overall teaching Scratch is a pleasure as once the pupils gain confidence with the interface, get used to experimenting and are happy with how it works, the results we get are amazing. Pupils who come in with little understanding about sequencing are leaving talking about the ‘if’ loop or how making games is not as easy as they once thought. I don’t think teaching this module requires a huge amount of technical knowledge, but rather patience with pupils to help them get the results they ‘want’. Check out this youtube link for examples of what you can do with Scratch:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxDw-t3XWd0

Tune in for the next installment where I will put the world to rights about teaching Alice!


 

OCR Computing GCSE

A couple weeks ago I went on a teachers training course about the new OCR Computing GCSE course. It was an interesting day as I had heard a lot about the course but did not know how it was structured. The course covers the following aspects of learning:

  • Computer Systems
  • Computer Hardware
  • Software
  • Data Representation
  • Databases
  • Networks
  • Programming

The course does provide a very thorough and real foundation of what computing is in terms of fundamentals. The examiner said that the aim of the course was to go beyond Scratch and give a foundation to certain aspects of computing. These key fundamentals such as algorithms and computer systems are taught along side programming.

Something which was interesting was the ‘controlled assessment’ part of the course. Controlled assessment is basically coursework but done within the lesson. The advantages of this is that teachers and examiners know that cheating has not taken place. Its very locked down so students cannot use google or any resources that ‘real’ comp scis would have in industry or research. However, I feel this could be detrimental to the GCSE and could put off students from taking it further, especially girls.

Students who can take computing assignments home and do it in the ‘safety’ of the own environment are more likely to explore and feel comfortable to be creative as they will have access to resources.

Girls suffer from computer anxiety – which means they find it intimidating using the computer in front of others as they feel they will be laughed at for making a mistake. Making them do programming in front of people will put them off as this is exactly the issue with computer A-level. This was an issue amongst the teachers also.

By enforcing that students first experience of programming is alone, it reinforces the geek stereotype of working alone.

The type of controlled activities are things like making a calculator or hangman.

What can we do to help? 

Teachers need support to teach this course, without it, it won’t be offered in schools.

There is a lack of resources in terms of books and text books for the course. It would be great if we could contribute resources on different areas of assessment from our own lectures and courses.

I personally felt that the most worrying aspect of the course was the lack of the big picture. There needs to be more of a real world emphasis, things like HCI and interdisciplinary aspects are not covered and its these things that can help contribute to young people being turned on by computing rather than being turned off. Don’t get me wrong, every computer scientist needs to know the fundamentals but they need to know how the fundamentals can contribute to this wonderful world we live in.

Geeks = Chic

In light of the recent news in light of computer science education in UK Schools, I thought I would start this blog to reflect upon this and give my own experience and understanding of this area. The article which spurred me to start this blog was on BBC News and it was ‘Coding – the new Latin’.  I will also be reflecting on the work we are doing in Technocamps.

Almost everyday for the last five years, I have been reading articles, press releases and have attended discussions on the skills shortage in the IT industry. Today is no different. Its the same arguments, same people and the same phrases. Don’t get me wrong, I am REALLY pleased that we are seeing these discussions take place, but I really would love for us not to have to worry about this. My PhD thesis investigated why girls did not enter into computing courses or careers as well as also looking at why people in general were put off by its prospect and had the following results:

1. The type of course in IT or computing previously experienced had an impact on whether female participants decided to continue with further IT and computing courses.

The results of this thesis have shown that the courses taken by participants either at GCSE or at A-level had a direct impact on whether female students decided to continue studying IT or computing at A-level or degree respectively. GCSE level participants generally found their course boring and found it difficult to understand what they would learn from further courses in IT. Those female participants who took A-level IT were far more likely to continue on to study it at degree level because they enjoyed the course and were able to understand how it related to the IT industry. However, female participants who took A- level computing were far less likely to continue to a computing degree because they found the programming module difficult and did not understand how the concepts of the course related to the real world.

2. Female participants were more likely to study maths than computing at A-level and parents influenced them to study computing at university.

Female participants studying computing at degree level did not rely on their previous experiences of computing when they were deciding whether to take computing at university. The majority of female participants did not study A-level computing but entered their degrees with A-level maths, and it was their parents who persuaded them to study computing at university.

3. Classroom atmosphere has an influence on female participant’s opinions on the IT industry as well as their confidence levels.

The atmosphere of the classroom or learning environment has an influence on the opinions of female students on the IT industry, as well as confidence levels. In particular, this related to females on A-level computing, who found the lessons difficult. They felt intimidated by the number of male students in the class and felt they did not receive the right type of support. Participants taking the A/S level course indicated that they would not continue to the A-level course as they felt neglected and isolated.

4. Parents/guardians heavily influenced the views of female participants to continue to study computing or IT at degree level.

The influence of parents/guardians was high, persuading or dissuading female participants to continue or begin to study computing or IT at university. This was done in two ways: first, by introducing their daughter to computers, getting them to help with setting it up and generally encouraging an interest in computing, secondly, through helping their daughters to research computing and IT degrees at university. All female participants studying computing degrees said that they would not do this course if their parents had not supported them. A recent study conducted by the British Computer Society (BCS) found that girls were interested in computers but they would not like to pursue it as a career path (Georgiou 2005). This research extends those findings by demonstrating that if females have support and guidance then they are more likely to follow this through.

5. There is a distinct difference between the way in which male and female participants used the computer at home and this influenced attitudes on IT careers and courses.

Positive experiences involved varied prior experiences of computers; these included game playing, social networking and using the computer with friends. The majority of girls questioned, who did not perceive themselves in the IT industry, said that they only used the computer for homework and social networking. Those that did perceive themselves in the IT industry were exposed to other things such as game playing and information about IT careers. These were the types of experience which were active learning ones and involved the process of reflection, understanding of how what they were doing could apply to the wider world, and the complexity of what they were doing.

6. Views and perceptions of the IT industry and courses changed as female participants became older because they became more realistic and more positive than younger participants.

Views and perceptions of the IT industry changed and developed as female participants became older, and they became more realistic. The older participants had a broader experience of computers at school, whereas younger participants had to rely on skills-based experience from school. As participants became older, they were more likely to want to work in the IT industry.

I look forward to hearing your comments. Feel free to get in touch. xxx