A generation of amoral hackers?

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The Mirror

I must admit, I chuckled when I saw the article by The Mirror, warning that a generation of “amoral and disruptive youngsters who use their skills to kick against society …with many using the skills they picked up in lessons”.

Anyone who has been in the classroom with a bunch of mixed-ability Y9 students, trying to encourage them to write/adapt a  program to switch on LEDs or play rock-paper-scissors, knows that classrooms aren’t exactly a hotbed of sedition.

However, I find myself in a genuine ethical dilemma when it comes to GCSE Computer Science.

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The new OCR J276 specification includes specific references to online security. As expected you get some stuff on legislation (including data protection & computer misuse), references to anti-malware, firewalls, user access levels and passwords. You now also get mention of encryption, penetration testing and network forensics.

Encryption – no problem. It’s a little vague  but there are no specific mentions of algorithms (as you get at AS level) so I dare say we’ll look at the Caeser Cipher, probably Pigpen and a couple of others – moving up to the purpose of online encryption.

The interesting bit is the addition of penetration testing and network forensics. My experience in this area is pretty limited (I once cracked a neighbour’s WEP key just to see if I could, but that’s about it). Forensics; I suppose I could look at the logs on one of our servers or have a look at ownership of files in Linux but other than that I’m a bit stumped.

The one I’m pondering, though, is penetration testing (thankfully shortened to pen testing in common parlance – I can’t imagine the sniggering this is going to induce). The aim is to try and find vulnerabilities in a computer system. And the best way to teach about it (in general) is by doing it. So, I’ve been looking into methods and software to set this up in a classroom.

I could install Kali Linux on a Raspberry Pi and use it with a home-made LAN that is totally separate from the main network, or I could use the awesomely named MyLittlePwny (based on the PwnPi OS). With a little LAN built up of various Windows boxes, a spare (outdated) Mac and some Pis I suppose I could get the students to explore and experiment. But then I suddenly find myself drawn back to that article in the Mirror.

This year I’ve already had to intervene with some Y10 Computer Science students, one of whom thought it would be funny to copy a batch file that would delete/rename work in the user’s home directory and a couple of others who thought it would be fun to distribute it around the class. Do I really want to give those students links and hands-on experience with a more powerful arsenal?

Of course any lessons on these topics would need to be bookended (and interlaced) with discussions of morality, legislation and the difference between white-hat, grey-hat and black-hat hackers.

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Top Secret

Another option is to make use of free online games (e.g. Hacker Experience or Slave Hack), maybe even looking at some paid-for desktop/mobile alternatives (e.g. the intriguing looking Top Secret, the assembly language simulation TIS-100, the retro hacking classic Uplink, its nephew Hacknet or the bizarre but engrossing looking Else Heart.Break()).

I’m not really sure what my conclusion is yet. I think that lessons in pen testing and identifying vulnerabilities in order to fix them are a good thing in principle. In practice, I’m not sure how akin it is to teaching self defence, only to find one of your students used their new skills to go and mug someone.

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GCSE Computer Science specification roundup

Finally TPTB (Ofqual) have accredited the OCR GCSE specification for computer science. While this was inevitable, I didn’t want to review the specifications until they were all in.

So, here are my thoughts:

WJEC / Eduqas

Pros:

I went to look at this first because I’m still intrigued by the online exam. Assessing programming skills in a timed environment is quite realistic and avoid the dirge of 20 hours of the kids staring at a screen and my having little opportunity to support them. The CA can become an exercise in grinding (akin to repeatedly carrying out a boring task to level up in a role playing game) and so I’ve always thought there should be something like the AQA A Level Comp 1 exam at GCSE, and WJEC are the only board to offer it.

Cons:

It has to be Java and it has to be Greenfoot. The practical exam cannot be carried out in any other language or environment. Now I like Java, and I love Greenfoot. But I’m not sure it’s the right starting point for GCSE. There’s a lot of boilerplate and a lot of syntax (semi colons, curly braces, etc.) which VB, SmallBASIC, etc. and Python avoid. It also means you have to introduce object orientation (explicitly stated in the spec) – which is a big leap for a new programmer IMO.

More worryingly, the exam is in addition to, rather than instead of, the NEA. So you still get the 20 hour dirge on top.

The theory content explicitly states that students need to be able to use HTML. That, in itself, is not necessarily a bad idea, but it’s an extra language and set of syntax rules to learn on top of everything else.

Conclusion:

At this point I’m out. A glance through the theory content looks broadly similar, but I want the practical exam to be instead of NEA, not in addition, and I don’t want to be forced into one environment – at least not if it’s an environment I’m not entirely comfortable with choosing.

Edexcel / Pearson

Pros:

The specification is in line with the other offerings. Two written papers, one 20 hour NEA. The content is similar across all boards and is a notable step up from the previous incarnation (e.g. binary representation now needs to include sign & magnitude and twos compliment representation for negative integers). Reading the sample papers – this new course is going to be hard! But this is true for all boards.

Cons:

The controlled assessment must be carried out without access to the Internet or a school intranet. So no extra help allowed, even if vetted internally. This is the most strict set of rules I’ve seen for this one. You can put copies of appropriate digital documents in home directories so I’m chilled out a little on my 4th reading of the spec.

You are also restricted to one board-set NEA task.

The mark scheme for the NEA gives 24 marks (40%) for implementation and 36 marks for analysis, design, testing, refining and evaluation. Systems lifecycle and consideration for data structures and for testing are important. But that sounds like a lot of emphasis on writing about programming with less than half about the actual programming.

The controlled assessment sample provided was quite vague (again, a common theme). This allows for creativity at the top end but very little support or scaffolding for those who might struggle.

Conclusion:

Theory and exam-wise, it looks much of a muchness. The NEA also looks broadly in line (which is part of the point of the reboot), but the controls are extremely strict. I did find the exam papers looked fairly accessible.

AQA

Pros:

AQA – you know where you are when reading the specification. It’s not the single most important aspect but I find the format of the document very easy to follow.

It’s also the exam board we are using at A Level, so there ought to be some good commonality between the two levels of specification. I always thought that the OCR GCSE legacy spec suited the AQA AS legacy spec extremely well.

Again, familiar content. This time no negative binary numbers, but you do have things like Huffman trees, which is something I will need to investigate myself before I’m ready to teach.

Internet access is allowed (implicitly) for the NEA. The only specific reference I could find was in section 5.2 (avoiding malpractice), which says that students must not copy directly from “the internet or other sources without acknowledgement”.

I’m not sure if this is a pro or a con – my current Y11s have had a really difficult time trying to avoid spoilers, or judge what is a spoiler, on their recent controlled assessment tasks. It’s certainly more open than the Edexcel approach, however.

The sample NEA task looked much more scaffolded than the Edexcel task which is a key issue for those students who need a bit more support and guidance.

Cons:

Only 30 of the 80 NEA marks are for programming, the rest for analysis, design, testing, refinement and evaluation. That’s 37.5%, and I thought Edexcel’s 40% was low!

AQA’s interpretation of pseudocode looks more scary than Edexcel’s. Where Edexcel has lots of text-based output statements, AQA’s sample exam questions look like a sea of syntax that could well put students off.

Conclusion:

Honestly… I think it’s close between Edexcel and AQA. I much prefer the AQA sample NEA task, but prefer the Edexcel exam papers. The theory content is similar, with some subtle differences but nothing that couldn’t be overcome with good planning from the outset.

OCR

Pros:

It’s OCR. It’s Rob, Vinay and Ceredig – the team I’ve known off and on since 2010 (OK, it was George and Sean that I knew initially, but still…). It’s the team with a very supportive Facebook group that I’ve made extensive use of, and helped to take part in.

Edit to add: The support is a huge issue. Whether it is exam board support (the coursework consultancy is a great idea) or community support – having other centres nearby with the same questions and the opportunity to moderate both NEA and internal assessments is invaluable.

The new course is an iteration of the old one. I’m very familiar with the old one and have largely enjoyed it. The content has been ramped up here, as with elsewhere. Still no negative numbers here (unlike Edexcel), and not much that I’ve seen here and not elsewhere.

The NEA allows you a choice of 3 tasks each year, the only course to have this. So the students can choose the task that suits them best, or you can choose for them (more likely). The NEA also allows intranet access. This is implicit rather than explicit but I’m sure I’ve heard from Rob or Ceredig that this would be acceptable (within reason, of course). No Internet, but see above for comments on the rampant cheating that this might help to alleviate.

The NEA mark scheme award 20 / 40 (50%) of the marks for programming, and the rest for analysis, design, testing, refinement and evaluation. The highest ratio of doing to writing about doing that I’ve seen yet.

The NEA tasks are broken down in a similar way to the AQA offering, providing a little more clarity than the Edexcel vagueness but still with freedom to explore at the top end.

Cons:

Edited: It’s OCR. Which might lull you (or me) into a false sense of doing what we have previously. For old hands like me who’ve been teaching the OCR spec since 2010 it is possible I will slip into teaching the same content – which would be a very bad thing as there is a definite shift.

OCR’s is the only spec that explicitly references SQL. I didn’t see anything in the sample exam papers but it’s definitely there in the specification. I don’t mind SQL, but given the choice of enforcing that students learn another set of syntax versus not doing so, I’m tempted to leave that until KS5.

The NEA mark scheme only offers 12 / 40 marks (30%) of the marks for programming. The lowest ratio of doing to writing about doing that I’ve seen.

Yes, that’s a contradiction to what I said above. There are 8 extra marks for ‘development’. Current OCR centres will be familiar with this section. It is kind of about doing and kind of about writing. And I didn’t see this quite as explicitly in the other specs. Going back it is there in the AQA spec (approx. half of the programming marks) – although there it is more about the summative description of what you have created rather than a narrative of how it was created. The Edexcel spec also focuses on the completed product with only a reference to screenshots demonstrating debugging skills.

In my experience the documenting of the development process is one of the most frustrating elements for the students. They want to be on and doing, not stopping to write it up as they go. And this leads to frustration and also to lost marks when actually they are very good programmers and problem solvers.

The chunked / scaffolded NEA tasks are not quite as chunked as the AQA sample assessment task I don’t think, though still clearer than Edexcel.

Conclusion:

NEA (only 20% of outcome but a significant investment of time and enthusiasm) offers the most freedom and a fair amount of support as well as a familiar structure for the writeup.

The exam structure and presentation is largely familiar which is reassuring, but I would need to keep making sure I’m delivering the right content for the new spec and not the old one.

 

Overall Decision?

This is harder than I thought it would be.

I like the OCR team. I’m familiar with the OCR way of doing things and I like having the flexibility of choosing from 3 tasks each year. I like bullet-pointed, chunked programming tasks. I don’t need the Internet.

 

OCR still has the development section of NEA, which ought to be fine but is a drag. With AQA I can reduce the impact of that, keep my bullet points and still have freedom over how much the students can access online resources. Edexcel have made the NEA task description too vague and locked the rules down very tightly.

Exam wise I think I prefer Edexcel. Negative numbers aren’t so tricky and that was the only difference in theory I could find on a quick scan. The exam papers look relatively friendly and the pseudocode wasn’t as off-putting as AQA.

For me, it’s down to Edexcel vs OCR. With OCR I get more support and feel more comfortable with what is expected. With Edexcel I think there is the potential for a more prosperous pair of exams, though I do worry about the NEA.

 

Further thoughts

This new spec is going to be hard. Noticeably harder than the current spec. 2d arrays, subroutines (functions, procedures and libraries), specific network protocols to learn and more focus on writing accurate algorithms. I’m glad the NEA has dropped a lot, and this means we’ll have more time for exploration and learning instead of assessing and assessing, but next year is going to be a real challenge.

Just say Yes!

I wonder how many times I’ve had a good idea (or a bad one) and managed to talk myself out of it. It’ll just make more work, I’ll look stupid when it falls through, I won’t pull it off, someone else would do it better than me.

I remember, some years ago, being invited down to the Emirates to do a 15 minute talk on collaborative technology. I think it was because I started a shared slideshow on Google Docs to collect and share ideas for non-techie teachers but I’m really not sure.

I’d never stood up in front of other teachers before, I was on sage or role model, I’d never even been to a conference. I read the email, read it again, thought for about 30 seconds and replied yes and hit send. I did it quick because I knew that if I thought about it I’d say no.

I didn’t know what I would say, what I would recommend or how it might be perceived. And I’d have to wangle the day out of work. But if I said yes quickly then what the hell, I’d just have to make it work. And I did.

15 tools in 15 minutes turned into a 10 minute rush through as they were running late by the time it was my turn, but it went down very well. It led to my first Teachmeet (where I further compressed it to a 7 minute version – mostly by skipping all the pauses to breathe I put into the original), a further series of sessions (including a visit to BAFTA) and ultimately, gave me the confidence to run all kinds of CPD sessions that have kept me sane.

At the same time, I’ve had lots of ideas for after school activities. I’ve bought sewable, wearable Lilypad kit, PicAXE robots, Arduino kits, Raspberry Pis and more. But my Y11s need coursework catchup time. It means more work when I am flooded with marking. It doesn’t provide ‘measurable impact’ for my appraisal. I’m tired!

However. In the same way that my CPD sessions, my CAS work and my other ‘extra’ stuff keeps me sane, running this kind of stuff is a big part of why I became a teacher in the first place. Not to get people through exams, or controlled assessment. Not to make sure my PP, SEND, Level 4, Most Able and other cohorts make the requisite demonstrations of progress according to their KS2 data. Not to convince students who ‘don’t like IT’ that they should engage for 60 minutes a week because I want them to. Those things are important, but the thing that really gets the blood flowing is working with enthusiastic people who want to know more about something.

I did that in passing before I was a teacher, and it was what made me look into a PGCE. It’s why I like running CPD for teachers. And it’s why, when I saw a tweet showing a wind speed graph at the Forth Bridge during a storm I decided I was buying a weather station, talking to the science department and doing something with students.

It’s early days, and I’m not sure I have a clear end goal – but then the end goal isn’t really the point. I’ll find some interested students, we’ll do some stuff, get lost along the way and we’ll all learn something. I don’t really know what I’m doing – so it may all go horribly wrong. It will undoubtedly cause more work for me. And I’m sure there are others (@tecoed) who could do it better. But if I don’t say yes quickly then it won’t happen. And that would be a great shame.

This is not a CPD session

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Jam Packed Roadshow, Darlington, January 2015 – Mark Clarkson

This Saturday I will be spending 6 hours at school.

Why? Because I’m launching the first Teesside Raspberry Jam – a hopefully regular meetup for people interested in Raspberry Pis.

teessidejam.eventbrite.co.uk

I say first, because I’m not counting Alan O’Donohoe’s excellent JamPacked roadshow that came to nearby Darlington last year. That was a fantastic event, and one I attended as a parent and a tech nerd rather than as a teacher. But it sowed a seed in my mind, and this year I’m determined to do more of the stuff I enjoy.

So, this Saturday I am inviting ANYONE who has an interest in Raspberry Pis to come to my school any time between 10am and 2pm. Turn up late, leave early, bring a friend, whatever works. It’s for children, adults, parents, teachers, nerd, geeks, newbies, the uninitiated, the hackers, the builders – anyone.

I will have some Pis, some robot arms, power and networking. That really is it – no program to stick to, to objectives to be assessed.

As a result of my typical network reach I’m expecting it will be largely populated my teachers from the area and pupils from my school. It would be GREAT to have a wider reach, but maybe that will come later if we can establish this as a regular (monthly?) event…

Please do come if you can, and please do spread the word.

Controlled Assessment Strategies

The Passage of Time

Originally uploaded by ToniVC

How many teachers are spending at least some of their time planning schemes of work, resources and other bits and bobs for the next academic year?

How many of those teachers will sit in 1 hour chunks (or some other arbitrary time period), during which time they start, get stuff done, save and then (whether finished or not) put everything away and start a new task for another hour.

My Y10 computing students have just finished a 20 hour controlled assessment task. 2 or 3 times a week they’ve come into my classroom, logged in, grabbed their controlled assessment booklets and ploughed on with a task. 55 minutes later they get told to stop, save, put it away until the next time – worst case scenario due to their timetable, in 6 days time.

Don’t get me wrong. There are interventions, tips, hints, guidance and all sorts of other things going on – I’m not just leaving them to fend for themselves. What seems ludicrous, though, is that sometimes the students are just building up a head of steam, getting into the zone, getting themselves into the task, when they get the call to save, log off an pack up until next time. That process of getting yourself into the right frame of mind, and into the right headspace to be able to visualise the problems and challenges you’re dealing with, must sap the students’ productivity.

When I have a big job to do, I’ll sit down and do it. It might take me 90 minutes instead of an hour. It might take me 4 or 5 hours. It might take me a few days or even weeks, but it’s very unlikely that I’ll be using pre-defined, 1 hour chunks to get it done. It’s unnatural to do so.

I’m seriously considering booking my students off timetable in order to complete their controlled assessment in larger chunks. Initially I thought about 5 days, Monday to Friday. That would give me time to do some bits that don’t count towards the time and would give the students time to really get themselves into the task.

The downsides? There’s little time to reflect on the problem. A task that is completed over 3 or 4 weeks has time to permeate, and gives the students time to research and reflect. It may be that, with such a number of subjects (plus all that, not inconsiderable stuff going on outside the classroom), most students aren’t really doing this anyway (my homework tracking book would back that up), I’m not sure.

There’s the logistics of covering my timetable for a whole week, as well as the effect on other subjects of losing their students for a week. If every department did that then it might (MIGHT) be chaos. Or, it might work out really well. Certainly the Geography department take students out for 3 days of fieldwork around this time each year. Why not computing students as well?

Another issue is that time to help students identify issues and to spend some time away from controlled assessment working on them. The OCR programming tasks, for example, come in 3 parts – each progressively more difficult. I’ll usually stop and do a week or two of revision on a particular concept before starting each task, to make the students are fully prepared. So maybe I do 1 day for task 1, 1.5 days for task 2 and 2 days for taks 3, spread out over 3 weeks?

The issue raised here also raises the question of whether the model is flawed for the rest of the year. Carousels, where students learn about Subject A for a half term, Subject B for a half term and then Subject C for a half term, with longer lessons (perhaps a half-day at a time) might be more natural and would allow for longer project-based activities to be explored more effectively. But that might be a post for another day.

Has anyone tried the more intensive approach for longer controlled assessment tasks? Any feedback from those who’ve been there would be much appreciated.

What does Computing look like?

Computer Science

Originally uploaded by Lower Columbia College

Has anyone seen the new Computing programme of study*?

I’m betting lots of you have heard about it, and a few of you have read it.

If you haven’t, you really should – it’s only short. In fact, for KS3 it amounts to 9 bullet points. Nine.

Most ICT teachers will probably look at it with dismay, or at least some trepidation. First, the DfE have ditched “ICT” and replaced it with “Computing”**. And the bullets cover topics such as computational abstractions, sorting algorithms, boolean logic and the fetch execute cycle to name but 4.

There are a few… addendums? Caveats? A couple of points to make, at least.

First, ICT has not been ditched. ICT, as a subject title, is seen as being devalued in the eyes of the DfE. I’m not getting into my own point of view on that, at all – it is what it is and while I appreciate that some feel angry, undermined and under-appreciated, that’s not what I want to talk about right now. The DfE has rebranded the subject as Computing – which isn’t the same thing as ditching it entirely.

Take a look at bullet points 8 and 9:

“undertake creative projects that involve selecting, using, and combining multiple
applications, preferably across a range of devices, to achieve challenging goals,
including collecting and analysing data and meeting the needs of known users”

&

“create, reuse, revise and repurpose digital information and content with attention
to design, intellectual property and audience.”

That sounds a lot like ICT to me. Looking at presentation software, designing documents for hardcopy (i.e. posters and leaflets), spreadsheet modelling, data handling with a database, web design, image editing, video editing, audio editing, digital creativity – it’s all in there.

It’s written up in a pretty vague way – but then it’s meant to be. The PoS is supposed to be slim, and vague. It provides the pegs on which we get to hang our curriculum. Again, I have my own opinion on the sweeping changes being brought in by the DfE in the last few years – but we are where we are. The government wants schools to have more independence. Here is an outline of the kind of stuff we want you to do – you fill in the blanks.

And most ICT teachers, and most ICT departments, should feel comfortable with their own curricula to meet those two criteria. The fact that it represents 2/9 bullet points (22%), doesn’t mean that it should equate to the same proportion of curriculum time.

So what about the other 7 bullet points?

“understand at least two key algorithms for each of sorting and searching; use
logical reasoning to evaluate the performance trade-offs of using alternative
algorithms to solve the same problem”

Well, that’s potentially a half-term’s work. To do it properly I’d probably want to build up to it over the three years – looking at algorithms in general and sorting algorithms in particular as part of a wider context (or I could try and sell the pupils on a unit of work all about sorting data – but I’m not sure they’d find the prospect as exciting as I probably would***). I doubt highly that anyone is suggesting we spend as much time on the bubble and shuttle sorts as we do on the whole “ICT” curriculum as it was.

Think back, those of you who’ve been in this game more than 5 years or so, and you may recall the KS3 National Strategy. A lesson-by-lesson programme of study for the whole of KS3. Many schools took it as a prescribed scheme of work that must be followed at all costs – when in fact it was designed as a starting point for schools lacking enough specialist ICT teachers. Here was a set of resources you COULD use as a starting point, and build upon until to meet your students’ needs and your staff expertise.

I see this new document in the same way. There are 7 new things that you might not be familiar with if you’re not a computer science specialist – so we’ve put a good bit of detail and a good bit of emphasis into them to make it clear and to give you a starting point. There are also two bullet points at the end to cover the stuff you already know – and we’re not going to patronise you on those ones because we trust you to know what you’re doing.

I’m sure some will accuse me of being naive (a criticism I’ve faced more than once), but until someone tells me that I’m wrong, that’s the way I’m planning to read that document.

My school’s KS3 ICT/computing curriculum is made up of 3 strands – digital productivity (e.g. MS Office type stuff****), digital creativity and computer science. Creating a computer game? You need to design it (creativity), build it (computer science) and advertise it (productivity). Find the user manual for any computer game and have a look at the credits – see what the different people have contributed to the game. I bet a lot of them have done some ‘coding’ at some level – but I bet a hell of a lot have done all sorts of other work – all of it done on, or with, a computer. That’s the model I’m taking at KS3…

* http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/n/national%20curriculum%20consultation%20-%20framework%20document.pdf, pp. 152-155

** I know that, technically, only English and other languages should be capitalised as proper nouns, but I think it helps differentiate between general stuff relating to anything computer based and the specific subject area we’re talking about.

*** I’ve met Tony Hoare, who invented the Quicksort algorithm – I doubt the kids would be as humbled as I over that experience!

**** Doug Belshaw quite rightly picked me up on this point within about 30s of hitting the “post” button. I don’t want to amend the post too heavily as this isn’t the point I was trying to make, but his criticism is fair. Nomenclature is a big deal – just ask teachers whether we should call our subject ICT, Digital Literacy, Computing, Computer Studies, Computer Science, IT or something entirely different – then step back and watch the argument ensue.

I accept that being productive is not about using PPT and Word. I was trying to rapidly differentiate between a set of topics – a set of topics that are never truly distinct anyway. Does making a poster fit into productivity, or creativity? Ultimately both, but for the sake of trying to categorise things I’m going to lump it in productivity – with a tacit understanding that layout and design are key principles involved.

Communication and collaboration would fit into productivity, as would turning a machine on, managing files & folders, eSafety, etc. Call it digital literacy if you prefer. Call it Hungarian Basket Weaving if you prefer! And I apologise for making the reference to MSO (although I’m leaving it there – I don’t believe it editing all of my mistakes out).

CAS Conference 2012

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!

Lunch

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.

Summary

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.