Thinking Out Loud

Drink More Ovaltine

Originally uploaded by emotionaltoothpaste

I’d like my students, especially at KS3 and KS4, to have more opportunities to explore Computing as a discipline (this should not be news to anyone who has rea this blog before), but I don’t have time to run a club.

One idea that’s quite popular is to run a small competition, so here is me thinking out loud about it:

It needs to be quite simple. I applied to have a crack at the British Informatics Society’s Informatics Olympiad late last year which promised to be a fascinating computing competition backed by Lionhead Studios. It turned out to involve a 3 hour exam and was quite complex.

The competition needs to be easy to get into. It needs to present a student with something they think they have a reasonable chance of succeeding at. I don’t want to pitch it too low, but pitching too high will simply leave me with no competitors.

The competition should be language independent. I know some Y10s who have taught themselves VB, some Y8s who have taught themselves Java, etc. while it’s true that once you understand the basic principles, transferring them to a new syntax is usually fairly straightforward for simple programs, it’s another barrier.

I need to be able to see what is genuinely the students’ work and what is the work of parents, forums or plain copying and pasting. Comments will help but I might need to go so far as to interview each entrant! (Or at least a shortlist).

Students don’t like being given a blank piece of paper (often). giving them a skeleton to hang things on makes getting going much easier.

Here’s my main idea right now – I write a simple cipher program that shifts the characters 3 spaces to encode and -3 spaces to decode. Make sure it uses a loop (for the menu), an if statement (for the menu) and methods/functions/procedures to do the work. I write it in Python, Java and VB (6? .net?) with a few comments and provide lots of links to tutorials (codingbat, codeacademy, etc…).

The students have a short list of suggested improvements, but they are encouraged to expand as they see fit. Some example extensions might be to let the user choose the number of shifts, to use a more complicated algorithm, or even generate a cipher using a passcode.

I’m no cryptography expert so I’m not looking for SSL or PGP standard stuff, but I think that a keen Y8 pupil ought to be able to do something with it…

And winners would receive a Raspberry Pi (I could find £50 in the budget for a KS3 and a KS4 winner…).



What future for Computing?

Intel Pentium die shot

Originally uploaded by mark.sze

This isn’t a post supporting and slating a national, or even regional, agenda for computing in schools (those who read this blog regularly will know I am already incredibly pro-computing).

In our school we offer GCE Applied ICT at 6th form and for many years we have also offered AS Computing as an ‘enrichment’ option. This means that myself and one other colleague used to give up a couple of free periods and a couple of hours after school each week.

Now that my other colleague has left, it’s just me. And while I’m really enjoying teaching the course in my own way, using Greenfoot as an intro to BlueJ, it’s pretty tiring to do the planning, marking and teaching on top of my full teaching workload and Head of Department responsibilities.

If we were to run Computing as a full option it would cost us 10 hours per week once we get both year groups up and running, and we just don’t have the staffing to do it – either in terms of hours or in terms of willing specialists (I’m convinced that all of the colleagues in my department are capable of delivering the content, but they’re not).

So, as we prepare leaflets, flyers and other parts of our annual recruitment drive I am seriously considering dropping the course from September 2012.

Ironically, this will be the first time we have a GCSE Computing cohort coming through into the 6th form and I thought it only fair to try and gauge interest before making my decision. The result? 6 of the 11 are seriously considering taking the course even though it would involve having less teaching time than they deserve, and some of this being outside of school hours.

This is in addition to 2 or 3 other students I know are considering it who have not taken GCSE Computing.

While I’m not sure I could find the energy to run another year of Computing (200 hours of my time) for a class of 2, I would feel horrendously guilty for not allowing students who have followed Computing for 2 years to carry their studies on, especially if I’m heading for double figures.

I’ll need to make a decision pretty soon…

Life as a Head of Department

stress free zone

Originally uploaded by thornypup

Our Y11 cohort are running through 4 possible IT options.

GCSE Computing students have completed one controlled assessment, have one more to do and a summative exam in June.

Our GCSE ICT students have completed one controlled assessment and one exam. They are likely to resit the exam in January as results were poor, have another controlled assessment to do and a summative exam in June.

iMedia students have completed Unit 1, Unit 6 and Unit 7, which is worth a single award, and need to get those submitted for external moderation ASAP. This year they need to get Unit 3 and Unit 5 done by Easter and get those moderated as well.

OCR Nationals students have finished Unit 1, a thick unit and a thin unit – enough for a First Award (worth 1 GCSE). They need to finish one more thick unit for an Award (worth 2 GCSEs) and one more thin unit on top of that for a First Certificate (worth 3 GCSEs).

In Y10 though, there are only 3 options.

The GCSE ICT students are just starting their first controlled assessment, with one exam in June.

The OCR Nationals students are aiming to complete Unit 1, a thick and a thin by the end of the year.

Those choosing the new Creative iMedia are simultaneously working towards Units 203 and 214v with one member of staff and 204 and 212 with another. Due by the end of the year, they will then have to try and complete 201 and 202 to achieve the double award with the option of picking more units up for a triple award.

Then we get on to the AS Applied ICT, A2 Applied ICT, AS Computing and KS3…

In regard to administration of qualifications I was asked today “Is it actually complicated or does it just seem that way?”. I’d have to go for the former.

No wonder I haven’t been blogging much of late!

Why should I be teaching this?


Yesterday I posted about my new Digital Storytelling course at Mukoku. Students use audio editing software and Storybird to create both a short story and an audiobook of that story, with optional extra activities of using video editing software or presentation software to present the information in yet more forms.

I’m actually quite excited about using the course with My Year 7s next week and I’ve also enjoyed seeing my son (11) start to use Storybird himself (having co-authored 1 book and written 1 all by himself in the last 2 days).

What I don’t like is that an ICT teacher is the one doing it. English – yes. MFL (in a different context) – yes. This brings us back to the old discrete ICT vs embedded ICT argument. Should all ICT be taught through other subjects? Or none?

The answer, of course, lies somewhere in-between. Spreadsheets are undoubtedly ICT tools, and while I would like to see Science and Maths lessons using these tools, I think there needs to be discrete teaching. Databases are also ICT tools, although heading in the direction of Computing/Computer Studies. Programming is definitely Computing/Computer studies.

A lot of the ‘C’ topics in ICT could easily be taught elsewhere – creating presentations, flyers and posters, use of online tools such as email and forums. The problems here are two-fold:

Teachers in non-ICT subjects often lack the skills necessary to teach ICT effectively*. How many teachers in your school book an ICT suite and tell their students to ‘make a PowerPoint’? How many would appreciate the reasons for resizing or reformatting images? How many would appreciate just how unfailingly awful Word Art is? How many would consider having students use Prezi, video editing software or other methods of presenting the information*? Without a significant amount of training, support and practice, it is unreasonable to expect non-ICT specialists to teach these skills to the required level.

The other problem is access to equipment. PC costs have never been lower and there are an increasingly diverse range of technologies out there – notebooks, tablets, mobile devices and much more on the horizon. And yet in most schools there are just enough computers for the ICT lessons plus maybe one or two departments who have paid for their own suites (in our case MFL and DT). Teachers wanting to book an ICT suite have perhaps a 15% chance of finding one not scheduled for a timetabled lesson, falling to 1% if they leave it less than a week in advance. The chances of finding 2 or 3 lessons in a row in order to complete any significant computerised tasks is typically nil.

So there is a lot that needs doing if things are to improve. I share my ideas with other colleagues – both within my own school and through the likes of Twitter, Techy Tips and Mukoku. I offer to give up free periods to support others. I offer to hang around in my teaching room (a Mac suite) when booked by others in case they need a hand, or just the safety of knowing I’m there just in case. Sometimes I feel like I’m peeing into the wind, sometimes I think I’m trying to move a rubber tree plant.

* I am very aware that some non-ICT specialists are very knowledgeable in this area and do an awful lot of brilliant work. I am also aware that a number of ‘specialist’ ICT teachers are making pupils victims of the ‘anyone can teach IT’ policy, although they are in the minority in my experience.

More Mukoku goodness – Digital Storytelling

Will Lion

Will Lion

For those not in the UK, this is the end of a half term week – a week with no school.

So what do I do? I spend several days building up resources for new units of work. It’s official – I have no life.

But enough self-pity, I’m here to tell about the new course. For some years now I’ve been both reading to my children and listening to audiobooks. This unit takes that idea and asks students to a) write their own short story and b) record it as an audiobook and add audio editing elements using either Audacity or Garageband. I think it would work well as an ICT project, English, MFL or Primary – so everyone’s a winner!

Unusually for the mukoku site, I’ve not field-tested this course prior to release and so I can’t guarantee it’ll work perfectly. If you’re interested though, check out the course and the resources therein.

Mukoku course: Y9 programming w/Alice


As mentioned in a previous post, I have been working on a 6 week Scheme of Work aimed at introducing Year 9 students to programming, specifically with Alice for 5 lessons out of the 6. I’ve run this unit this term and have made minor changes so I’m pretty confident that I could use this ‘off the shelf’.

As always, the materials are provided with a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license and there is a full Moodle backup of the course available so you can drop it straight in if you’re Moodled up yourself.

This course (and several others) is now available at

Time to move out?


I’ve been using Edublogs to host this blog since October 2006 (almost 3 and a half years!) and a couple of people have recently asked why I’m still using them.

The truth is it’s probably 60% habit and 40% avoidance of hassle plus having to redirect people to any new hosting solution. On the other hand, the adverts, nag screens ever-approaching image-hosting limit and lack of customisation are all motives for moving on.

In particular it’s definitely time to sort out my categories (as my focus has shifted massively since my M2 year!) and a redesign is probably long overdue. This I could do here easily enough, but maybe it’s time for a fresh start…

I’m not really wanting to spend any money on hosting, so as I see it I have a couple of options:

  1. Leave things as they are
  2. Install yet another PHP/MySQL CMS on the school webserver and redirect
  3. Use
  4. Something else…

I already host 2 Moodles on there that aren’t strictly part of my schoolwork (although I do consider them helpful as part of my CPD) and don’t want to overload bandwidth or annoy TPTB if I can help it.

Thoughts, as always, very welcome!