I’m writing this post on the train home from the amazing CAS Conference 2012 (#casconf2012).
I tried ot tweet as much as possible during the two days, but between a limited battery life and (more importantly) getting actively involved in many of the sessions there is much I haven’t talked about.
As always, my blogging is almost entirely selfish and my main priority is to start to reflect on what I’ve learned over the last two days. It’s all very ‘gut reaction’ stuff before I forget the details.
Thursday – Bring & Brag
The evening before the main conference is traditionally a ‘bring & brag’ unconference style event. Meet up, eat nibbles, drink wine, then a series of short presentations .This year the whole thing felt tight and slick, with quick turnarounds, short presentations and little reliance on slideshows. Being partly involved in the running of the B&B session I didn’t really get chance to make many notes, but Alan O’Donohue (@teknoteacher) was as energetic as ever, Ben Gristwood (@Mr_G_ICT) talked about some really interesting work with Digital Leaders and someone (I forget who!) talked about a 6th form student who built a gaming PC for their A2 extended project – something I want my Y7s to get involved in this term!
Thankfully Leon Cych (@eyebeams) was there capturing everything – video, audio and stills – and I should have the audio from each mini-talk to post on the CAS Rounup Podcast over the next few weeks.
Friday – Plenaries – CAS LAndscape & Future and Centres of Excellence
Partly housekeeping and partly letting everyone know where everything is going, Simon Peyton-Jones (chair of CAS) and Bill Mitchell (Director of BCS Academoy of Computing) talked about the many, many events that have occured over the last 12 months, including the Royal Society Report, the official withdrawal of the ICT PoS and, vitally, the fact this isn’t the government saying ‘we don’t value ICT’ but TPTB offering us the opportunity to decide what WE think is important. Bill also talked about the CAS/BCS Network of Excellence. The hope was to get 200 schools and a couple of universities involved int he first year, with maybe 30 universities and lots of schools by 2020. So far there have been over 500 school applications and over 20 universities have expressed an interest, so the motiviation is there and next year should be a very exciting one.
Keynote – Replacing City Traders With Robots – Dave Cliff
Keynotes are funny things. Sometimes they’re fascinating and engorssing, sometimes they’re practical and involving, sometimes they’re dull and seem t go on for ever. This one was definitely the first. Giving a bit of context (horses and pigeons being the early information and communication technology used by the very first stock market traders) we looked at how automated systems have developed to the point where they are involved in 95% of all stock market transactions – many with no human involvements at all. Then we looked at how humans have managed to screw up complex technology on a grand scale. The scariest topic was ‘normalisation of deviance’ – the idea that something outside of acceptable parameters doesn’t immediately end in failure, so we accept it as ‘normal’. This is ultimately what led to the Challenger disaster and demonstrates nicely why relying on technology can be a risky business. Bring the two topics together and you have an almost entirely automated multi-national economic system written by software engineers that has repeatedly shown in recent years that it is working outside the bounds of safety (an IPO going from $15 per share to $0.00002 per share in less than 1.5 seconds, quicker than the CEO can hit the off switch, with no rational explanation from any financial authority is just one of many scary examples given). This might not sound like the most fascinating of topics, and it might not be the most obvious way to start a conference about teaching computer science in schools, but Dave did a fantastic job of demonstrating not how, but WHY computer science is so important.
Workshop 1 – Arduino: If seeing is beliving, what is touching? – Chris Martin
I’ve been hearing people talk about Arduinos for a while now. I even tried to buy a kit a few years ago but the company, for some reason, decided not to process my order and I never did get round to chasing it up. With a simple programming interface (there are only two buttons you need and a space for some syntax), a USB lead and any manner of ‘bits’ you can program a physical device. Starting with making an LED flash on and off we were quickly controlling the speed of the flashing using potentiometers, using light sensors to turn motors and using acoustic proximity sensors to set off explosions (because, and I quote, “it’s not just chemists that get to blow s**t up”). The kits are around £40 with everything you need to get started, and with paired or small group programming you could get away with 4 or 5 for a class. As a workshop should, this was hands on from the start and while some students naturally engage with on-screen programming, the idea that you can do something with a physical output in seconds is undoubtedly engaging for many. I think half a dozen Arduino kits half just become my top priority with any spare budget, even more so than the Kinect I was after.
Workshop 2 – Algorithmic Problem Solving – Joao Ferrerrira
I’ve mentioned more than once that while my GCSE Computing students have really engaged with computer programming and have enjoyed getting to grips with the discrete elements (assignment, selection, iteration, file handling, etc.) my big bugbear is that most are not good at problem solving, decomposition and abstraction. That is to say, ask them to write a for loop to display the first 20 square numbers and you’re sorted, but give them a problem (like how many trips it will take to get a load of vampires and maidens to a hotel bar) and they just don’t know how to start breaking th eproblem down into manageable chunks. Joao presented some really interesting approaches to generating algorithms without a computer. Some of it was quite heavy (Hoare triples and state change diagrams, for those who know about such things) but I really do think there’s scope here to investigate better ways of helping students to start thinking computationally, which is an essential part of computing as a discipline.
As an added bonus, it turns out Joao lives less than 3 miles from my school and is running his undergraduate course on algorithmic problem solving in September at my nearest university. Suffice to say I’ve made sure he’ll be presenting at a hub meeting before veyr much longer!
Now I’m not normally one to go into *so* much detail, and this isn;t about the food (delicious though it was). The point here is I actually 5 minutes (maybe as much as 10) to catch my breath. Those 3 sessions were all genuinely inspiring and packed with brilliant ideas and stuff that I wanted to think about. The cogs were whirring and had that been the end of the day then I would have happily set out for home with a spring in my step and feeling that I’d got a heck of a lot of value. As it was, there was still much more to come!
Workshop 3 – The productive teacher – James Franklin
James wanted to talk about a pedagogical approach called Minimally Invasive Education, pioneered by Sugata Mitra. His argument is that in the absence of a teacher, learners will teach themselves. If you provide them with the resources and the encouragement then they can learn at least as effectively without direct intervention as they would with it. To this extent James showed his Y7 class a series of manipulated images and gave them 6 lessons to teach themselves and each other the skills required to replicate them. He actively refused to do any teaching or answer questions and removed any rules in order that they shouldn’t be barriers to learning. Want to text your Dad to help solve that problem? Fine. Want to use your phone to wathc a video tutorial on YouTube? Fine. Want to tie your tie around your head like Rambo? Well… only if you can justify it pedagogically.
A very similar technique apparently worked well for spreadsheet modelling too and feedback form the students was overwhelmingly positive. James’ GCSE cohort didn’t do quite as well, however. While they learned a heck of a lot about databases and could explain why forms were useful in terms of your ability to add macros, action buttons and user-friendly interface elements, they scored very poorly on practice papers because they weren’t hitting the rote answer expected by the exam board.
Maybe this says something about the way in which we assess students, and maybe this approach is better suited to skills-based topics rather than knowledge-based. James admitted himself that he would be very wary of using this technique to teach programming from scratch as it is too easy for students to waste a lot of time exploring the wrong avenue when a simple array would save them all the hassle.
Overall it’s a brave approach, and one that would almost certianly fail an inspection on the grounds that not eveyr student can demonstrate progress over one lesson (in fact, the fact that they can sometimes make no progress in a lesson is actually the point!). That said, if we want independent learners who can solve problems, communicate, work collaboratively and don’t sit around waiting to be spoon fed then this might be just what the doctor ordered.
Workshop 4 – Sensing the world (with Scratch)
My final workshop of the day was spent playing with picoboards, a £40 sensor board that plugs in via USB and talks directly to Scratch. With nothing more than a simple driver install I was playing the trombone by blowing into the microphone and moving a slider bar, and then managed to quickly write a working game with a variety of controls including light sensing, buttons and more. Much simpler than an Arduino and much more focused on physical input that a Raspberry Pi, I can see why these engage students so well and they’re going second on my shopping list after the Arduino kits mentioned earlier.
Plenaries – How Google can help you & Raspberry Pi
I have to admit, I was totally exhausted by this point and somewhat overwhelmed. Andrew Eland and Alan Mycroft both spoke eloquently and engagingly about their respective topics and Google is very keen to support computing as a discipline. Particularly as their UK recruitment of software engineers is doubling every 18 months (a trend that shows no sign of letting up in the near future). I *still* have yet to get my hands on a Pi, and even when I do, I think I might just be too busy playing with Arduino kits and sense boards to get much done.
In summary? Best. Day. Ever. Last year was great, the year before was fantastic. This was simply awe inspiring. All the things I haven’t mentioned – chatting with Susan Robson, catching up with frineds from the CAS Working Group, shared conversations in the atrium over sandwiches (or a pint, last night). They were a huge part of it all and I’m heading back and JUST the right time of year, all set to plan the most kick-ass curriculum you’ve ever seen.