Spoilt for choice?

Your Vote Your Choice

Originally uploaded by alternatePhotography

A little over 2 years ago I managed to get my department onto the OCR GCSE Computing Pilot. Now, our first cohort is coming out the other side and with all the ‘kerfuffle’, a flood of exam boards (well, 2) have suddenly gone from saying “there’s no demand, it’s not worth it” to rushing out GCSE Computing specifications for first teaching from 2012.

My default position is to stick to what I know. I’ve spent 2 years creating resources and learning about how OCR wants me to tackle the specification, and how it wants the students to tackle it. But on the other hand, I don’t want to sit here out of habit and miss a better opportunity.

This morning I’ve had a good read through what AQA and Edexcel have to offer. And I think I’ll stick where I am. Not least because for an exam board to go from ‘no spec’ to a spec ready for submission to the DfE or Ofqual or whoever is doing the QCA’s job these days within a couple of months is a little bit rushed for my liking.


The AQA spec looks broadly similar, although the theory topics skip a lot of the software and binary representation stuff in favour of prototyping and testing and there are two programming controlled assessments which is a little more… up front than the OCR approach (in which the practical investigation has really turned into a programming task – although they were bullied into that by the (then) QCDA and I like that at least it’s something a bit different.

A key point for me is that in the summary marking criteria for the programming unit, the programming techniques used section gets 36 of the 63 marks – the next largest component being just 9 marks. Sounds ideal!

Until you read the detailed mark scheme, where you get those 36 marks for “discussion of most of the programming techniques” – death by writeup…

You actually get 9 marks for producing the code itself.


What can you say about Edexcel? In fairness, I moaned that AQA had probably rushed their specification out. Edexcel haven’t – because there isn’t even a draft to look at yet. There are some outline details – a 40% written exam, 35% practical exam and a 25% controlled assessment.

I must admit, I’m a fan of practical exams. They’re logistically more difficult, but they provide a more accurate reflection of a student’s ability than coursework and the focus switches to teaching and learning rather than doing and redoing.

That said, with options evening tomorrow, I don’t feel compelled to jump to a spec I haven’t read and I’ve not been a huge fan of Edexcel’s output in recent years (although I know many that have).

So at the moment I don’t feel that spoilt for choice. Competition is a good thing, and for centres coming at GCSE Computing for the first time either in 2012 or 2013 then perhaps the route is a little less cut and dried. For me, though. It’ll be another year at least with OCR.


Mr Clarkson Talks About Computers…

Jr Network Geek…

Originally uploaded by Cassey

http://www.youtube.com/user/mwclarkson <– Useful AS Computing resources

I have 3 (count them, three) AS Computing students. Due to timetabling constraints I teach them for 1 hour a week during school hours and 2 hours a week after school.

Due to other commitments, one student misses every other 1 hour session and a different student misses virtually all of the 2 hour sessions (so he’s essentially doing a full AS on one hour a week).

In order to provide some more assistance I’ve started creating some simple videos. Production value is nil (a cheap camcorder, a tripod and a mini whiteboard), editing is limited to adding a few titles at either end and the script is made up as I go along.

Hopefully they might be of some use to others too, and if you do spot any glaring errors, then do let me know…


Don’t Panic!

don’t panic towel

Originally uploaded by norrix

Well, by now you really ought to be aware that the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, has had quite a lot to say this morning on the topic of ICT and Computing provision in schools.

I’m not actually going to say too much about the speech specifically, but more about the consequences.

What I will say is that the rhetoric and soundbites in the media outlets* had me pretty disheartened first thing – but reading the detail in many of those reports and the speech itself I think everything’s going to be fine (and if you disagree, just go to make-everything-ok.com).

I’ve seen forum threads, tweets and comments all day from teachers in turns ecstatic, perturbed and distraught at the future prospects for careers, subject areas and the academic future of our students.

ICT provision at KS1, 2, 3 and 4 is still compulsory. And so it should be. Students need to know how to use computers to complete tasks – modelling, presenting information, research. This may be delivered in a cross-curricular format, at least at KS2 and 4. It may be taught as a discrete subject.

Maybe this will give SLTs and HoDs the push they need to look at which elements really should be taught in a cross-curricular format. Maybe Science and Maths will be given some formal responsibility for delivering some of the above. All schools now formally have the freedom to choose the most appropriate method. I would more than happily let my Maths colleagues deliver spreadsheet skills and modelling techniques. I’m not suggesting that cross-curricular is the only way to go, but I spend so much of my time making up scenarios to give the skills a context that it does seem there’s an opportunity there.

And what of the Computing side of the curriculum? I’ve been teaching Computing topics at KS3 for years. Initially just when ‘no-one was looking’ (especially the kids), but increasingly explicitly as the years have gone on. And I’m hardly alone. Gove has been quoted suggesting that in the near future our 11 year olds could be creating 2D animations. I started delivering Scratch lessons to my Y7s in 2006 I think…

At KS4, those studying a GCSE or other Level 2 course in ICT can continue to do so and I’m equally certain that ICT qualifications will be around for a long time. With the expansion of Computing topics lower down, there should be more opportunities for Computing to be popular as a formal qualification, and this is a good thing. It’s about choice and exposure.

Some are clearly concerned that Computing is for a niche, or at best a minority. I wouldn’t go that far, but History, Geography, Music, Drama, Art… they’re none of them for everyone at KS4. And again, nor should they be. But now, hopefully, all schools will have Computing at KS3 so that students can make an informed choice, and all schools should be able to offer Computing as a qualification so that students have an opportunity.

What changed today? For me, actually, very little. I had a great discussion with my Y9s about their options (as planned), practiced search techniques with my Y8s (as planned), created radio adverts with one Year 11 group (as planned), had a go at coding a theatre booking system with my Y11 Computing group (as planned) and looked at the TCP/IP stack and common protocols with my Y12s (as planned). Tomorrow will be similar. Y7s creating a database, Y13 creating an interactive Flash product, Y10 video editing, Y12 practising working with arrays – a broad and balanced curriculum made up of essential application skills, creative use of computers and the study of how to make computers work for us.

The future is not what a politician tells us it will be, the future is what we do with what we’ve got.

* BBC News – “The current information and communications technology (ICT) curriculum in England’s schools is a “mess” and must be radically revamped”

Telegraph – “‘Dull’ technology school lessons to be replaced”

ZDNet – “‘Boring’ IT classes face being axed”

I could go on…

Some thoughts on IT, ICT and Computing


Picture courtesy of the flickrpoet site

Nick Jackson wrote a blog post yesterday entitled ‘Put the brakes on’, specifically relating to the current push for Computing. The main thrust of his argument (as I understand it) is that we need to consider what the results of this push might be, and that the many good bits of ICT risk being pushed out in order to make room for the ‘new’ content, and he posed a number of questions.

Although I want to reply directly in the comments, I also didn’t want to submit a 3000 word essay* there, so I’m doing that here instead and will provide a brief summary over there. So, expect some strong, and very personal opinions. Any comments and any inference are entirely my own.

* As of now WordPress is telling me there are 2753 words, so not far off!

Why was ICT introduced in the first place?

To an extent, this is a distraction. Rather than concentrating on the historical aspects of how we got here, I’m interested in where we go next. Alternatively, you could read into that ‘why should we teach ICT in the first place’, which is a more useful question. Now I have no statistics to hand, but how are you reading this? How many computers, computer programs and computer users were involved in your toothbrush? Designing it, designing the equipment to make it, tracking the finances within the company that made it, organising the shipping to the retailer, examining the ideal price point, marketing, designing the packaging, researching the most efficient design of the head, analysing the way that bacteria and plaque attack teeth and gums, and so on, and so on and so on. There is a real need for everyone to learn enough about IT to make use of the technology we have available, at whatever level of ability and requirement. I don’t think that anyone is arguing against the need for IT to be taught in schools here. I find the biggest arguments are those that try to define what IT actually is.

Why did Computer [studies] largely disappear into the shadows?

Short answer, I don’t know. I wasn’t around at the time. I’m led to believe that universities didn’t want students who had studied Computer Science in the same way that my primary school didn’t want me to have learned to read and write before I got there (“We like to teach them our way”). How much of that is true, I don’t know. When I was at school in the early 90s, my IT lessons involved using a spreadsheet to plan a Teddy Bear’s Picnic and creating a newsletter with textflow in a DTP. And that was about it – certainly no Computer Science there. and no wonder I didn’t take the subject at KS4 or KS5.

Why is it that universities, in particular those offering Computer Science and other related courses, don’t seem to be that interested in all this debate or in getting involved in designing a clear curriculum pathway up to degree entry?

For the first point, they are. Having just spent two days at the semi-annual Computing At School Working Group Meeting in Cambridge, the Computer Science agenda is very much at the top of people’s priorities. Whether it be university academics, genuinely (i.e. personally) interested representatives of exam boards, school teachers, IT industrialists, researchers, parents or some bloke who happened to be wandering past, there is a large group of very interested people who have a lot to say on the matter. I’d love to give you a list of names, but I’m not sure how appropriate it would be as I don’t think the attendance list is publicly available elsewhere. Suffice to say I’m happy, excited and encouraged. But if this wasn’t happening, how else did Eric Schmidt happen to fly in from the US and suddenly decide to add his opinions on the teaching of IT in schools if people aren’t talking about it? I’m sure it’s not something he decided to find out on his own.

I suppose the last argument is slightly off topic considering the original question which specified universities, but several of them were well represented. For the second part; again, there are many people interested in how we get a good intake for Computer Science degrees. CS is unique in having such a broad baseline at the start of the degree, from those who don’t really understand what CS actually is, right up to those who are already doing paid programming work in their spare time. This discrepancy makes differentiation incredibly difficult, even for the very top universities (did I mention that the meeting was hel din Cambridge?) that take the best and the brightest and it’s something that those responsible for running these courses desperately want to improve upon. Perhaps the message isn’t getting through clearly elsewhere, but within CAS it is pretty clear. Universities want a better calibre of student in terms of their experience and exposure to Computer Science and they want to help schools identify appropriate routes.

Add to that, that Computer Science at schools is about more than getting people into computer Science at university. My brother is a materials scientist, and writes his own code all the time. My dad used to a chemical engineer, ditto. Research scientists and engineers all over the place are writing their own code. Thousands of people try to maintain small websites using online template tools or Publisher. How much easier would their jobs be if more people knew a bit about scripting and coding – be it Java, Javascript, HTML or CSS? Mathematicians using Matlab, office managers knowing the difference between RJ45 and RS232 – all these things are distinct from a Computer Science degree, but some CS education further up in their education could do wonders.

Are there not other areas of ICT that are equally as ‘valuable’ as Computing?

Absolutely. I would split IT up into 3 distinct categories: Digital Literacy, or IT for users; Digital Creativity, with image editing, video editing, audio and animation; Computer Science, the technical bits including programming but also looking at system architecture, interface design, networking and protocols.

Maths does something similar – Numeracy and then Pure, Mechanics, Statistics and Decision.

English does something similar – Literacy, English Language and English Literature.

I wouldn’t necessarily argue at this point that any one of those is more important that the other, although there may be some room for positioning at some point in the future. When I first got into teaching, 7 years ago, the IT for Users agenda was the entire curriculum. Over those years the creativity has come in more and more. The big gap there is the technical stuff. We effectively have a generation of students who know how to punch the buttons into a calculator, but don’t understand how multiplication actually works – and that’s why I’m pushing. I don’t say that we shouldn’t teach students how to use the calculator, but we need to make sure we also cover the fundamentals that make it work.

What will happen if ICT ‘soft skills’ are not taught at all in schools?

If by ‘soft skills’ you mean how to create a decent slideshow, make a poster, interrogate a spreadsheet, et al. then it would, of course, be pretty bad. A lot of the ‘soft skills’ are not covered well anyway, and if I didn’t teach students how to create a 3 table relational database in Access just for the sake of it then I’m not sure that they would be significantly worse off. Equally, I can spend 4 hours trying to explain why consistency and brevity are the key elements of a good slideshow, only to see the same student arrive for a History lesson and use a different background for every slide, cut and paste whole passages from the Web and use every animation they can get their hands on. I’m wandering off topic a little, and regardless of the issues surrounding these skills, they are important and it is vital that students get experience in how to do these things well. Whether the cross curricular model is working or whether we keep it in departments is besides the point, the answer to the question is ‘of course we need them’.

If ICT is to be taught cross-curricular, is that really going to work in your school?

At the minute, it would be a struggle. We do try to make contextual links with other departments where we can. Our graphics work ties in with Art. Our Sketchup work ties in with DT. Our presentation work ties in with Geography. What I would love is for the Maths and Science departments to take the spreadsheets and models off our hands. They’re both pretty busy right now and I can see much resistance to what I think would be a better model for delivery and so the answer is ‘no’. And even if it was ‘yes’ then there would still be room for this stuff in ICT as a specific subject. If you are a teacher IN English, then you’re a teacher OF English. The same is true of IT, but English still has a valuable place in the timetable, and so does IT. Again, I refer to my earlier point – IT is made up of 3 elements and I’m not campaigning for the death or dropping of any one. One of them is woefully under taught, however, and it’s that imbalance I am seeking to redress.

Are the Computing qualifications on offer really that good?

Tail wagging the dog. That doesn’t make the question invalid, but we need to teach the right things, and then assess those. What we shouldn’t do is find out what we can assess, and then teach that.

At GCSE there are two real options. OCR GCSE ICT with the optional programming module instead of the multimedia module, or OCR GCSE Computing. The former we haven’t gone for, largely because of OCR’s reputation over the GCSE examinations and coursework moderation from the previous incarnation of the ICT GCSE. The GCSE Computing we have gone for, and we’re currently in the second year. We’ve not sat the exam yet, but the theory content looks good to me. There’s significant crossover with the ICT GCSE and the ‘new’ bits are in line with my understanding of Computer Science. The coursework controlled assessment tasks are pitched pretty high, and while the paper looks fairly accessible the practical work is coming out as pretty bi-modal. Either you’re looking at A/B or D/E, with very little in the middle. Research shows this is true at KS5 and degree level too, so it’s not necessarily a failing on behalf of the OCR specification.

What is less forgivable is the continuing reliance on describing the situation, planning, testing and evaluating. While I understand that these are fairly universal across ICT specifications, students at this age level should be looking at the principles and practicalities. Until you can write code, you’ll always struggle to design it. I experiment with writing words as I go; deleting the bits that don’t work, rewording phrases and so on. This is also how a lot of code gets written. Yes, it’s important to put some thought into it, but the weighting is all wrong.

I suspect that, again, OCR’s hands were tied on this issue, and I’m hoping that the death of the QCDA will help at least a little.

At KS5 there are several A Levels in computing, plus a number of vocational qualifications. There is some complaint that the specifications are just squashed down versions of a degree course, and certainly some of the content is similar to my own Computer Science degree, but I’m not really in a position to comment with any authority. I do know that I enjoy teaching the AQA specification and that the students seem to gain knowledge, skills, enjoyment and enthusiasm from the course. I’d call that a win.

What about the average student who just wants to use a computer to complete tasks they need to do, what should they be taught? Programming? Will that engage them?

Whatever is needed, what we are offering now simply does not work. Students are bored by ICT. Teachers are bored by ICT. Employers and universities are fed up with the lack of skills, knowledge and understanding that students have when they get there. Studies have shown that drilling spelling tests doesn’t actually help people with spelling when they’re writing sentences. Likewise, getting students to create a good PowerPoint when someone stands over them doesn’t seem to help them when it comes to doing the same under a different context. For that they need some understanding of design principles. Getting students to use a spreadsheet to work out whether they can afford an extra £1 on the cost of a prom ticket might tick a box in ICT lessons, but understanding how the spreadsheet is working and learning about how you can use VBA (or similar) to extend the core functionality would actually be pretty handy.

Does teaching Shakespeare engage all students? What about trigonometry? Or coastal erosion? Or cadences? Or the periodic table? There were plenty of Y6 and Y7 students at last night’s open evening asking about programming opportunities and I’ve yet to meet more than a handful of students who didn’t enjoy making games in Scratch and Alice. So, yes, I think we can justify an opinion that all students should be exposed to these skills and that most students would benefit.

Some responses to other bits that weren’t in that list of questions:

“We’re very very good at making games – but we need the skills. We need computer scientists, animators, artists and there aren’t enough of them,” 

Now, am I being a little pedantic here or are there three different strands to ICT cited in that quote?

YES! none of them refer to the use of MS Office though…

“a mix of personnel with STEM skills and creative talent ranging from animation to design and fine arts.”

Yet again, am I seeing something more than Computing mentioned here? And even where there is no mention of arts or animation skills, design or other non-specific Computing skills, there is reference to some ICT skills that I doubt most Computing courses cover.

And again, no-one is saying (ar at least I’m not) that Computing should be taught over and above all. Simply that there isn virtually no Computing, there has been absolutely no Computing and there needs to be more of it to complement some of the design, artistic and animation skills that are already being taught – although they’re still fairly new and they’re not necessarily being taught well or ubiquitously yet.

And finally in direct response, Nick linked to Tristram Shephard’s blog post where I saw that, speaking of the OCR GCSE Computing:

Hmm – there’s nothing that could be called forward-looking or creative here – in fact it reads much like GCSE specs from the 1990s with a bit of programming thrown in for good measure.

Now while ICT should and does change at a rate of knots, Computing (for the most part) shouldn’t! Logic gates, von Neumann architecture and the basic programming principles of assignment, selection and iteration haven’t changed. Arguably OOP is a better paradigm than procedural code and network topologies have changed, but the difference between teaching people how to use applications and how basic, fundamental principles work is that the former is constantly changing and the latter not so much. I bet that Maths teacher in the next room is still teaching that Pythagoras stuff. And the scientist on the other side still keeps banging on about stuff that Newton thought up ages ago!

In summary:

On an entirely selfish note, I am really pleased that the Computing movement is gathering momentum, and once the Raspberry Pi becomes available (see yesterday’s post) I have every intention of getting my hands of dozens of them. There has been a real lack of Computing in schools for a long time, and this needs to be addressed. Partly because I altruistically think that all students really should have access to this stuff and partly because I selfishly love teaching this stuff. I also selfishly love teaching Creative iMedia, so please don’t think that I want Computing to oust everything else. It takes a lot of momentum to shift the status quo, however, so I’m pushing like mad and make no apologies for doing so.

Raspberry Pi

Today I was lucky enough to see a first hand demonstration of the new Raspberry Pi.

I first heard about the project a year ago and initially had mixed feelings about the project that was designed to ‘recreate the BBC Micro for the 21st century’. You see I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to recreate the BBC Micro, and I wasn’t sure that a computer system with virtually no operating system and that you had to program to get it to do anything would be viable given the plethora of computing devices currently available to young people.

What we have 12 months later, though, is a circuit board that is not much bigger than a credit card that can run from either mains power or 4x AA batteries. It has two USB sockets, HDMI and composite (for SCART) video out, a 3.5mm jack and an optional 10/100 ethernet port. Onboard storage is via SD card that holds the entire operating system, so if your code manages to wreck the OS you can simply wipe and restore the SD card. It’s virtually unbrickable.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation who are behind the product (and are an entirely not-for-profit venture) will offer a downloadable image that will feature a flavour of Linux (Debian was in use for the demo, but is not the only option). It will come preinstalled with Python, Scratch, BYOB, OpenOffice and… potentially anything we want. I anticipate a number of custom images being created for specific purposes.

As well as handling programming tasks, the bespoke GPU allows you to decode and view full HD (1080p) video, while only drawing 1W of power. This means that your 4x AAs will last you for 30 hours and on a big telly I can promise you that it looks amazing.

The real beauty here, though, is the price. The base model will be $25, or $35 with onboard ethernet. This equates to £25/35 with VAT and other overheads. If schools are not having to pay the VAT then we’re talking around £20 per unit. Read that again slowly – a fully functioning PC, with USB keyboard/mouse input, RAM, an OS, programming environments and an office package. For £20.

This means that I can give one to every new Computing student at less than the cost of a textbook. It also means that parents and grandparents can pick these things up as educational Christmas presents. Heck, I spend more than that per month for my mobile phone, and I can’t write a Scratch game on that or plug it into a HD TV.

While almost all of my students have home PCs, their parents are sometimes reticent to let them install software – much less start writing their own code that might make system calls or do things to the operating system. Now my students will be able to take their Pi home, hack away with it to their heart’s content, and if they manage to break it – just re-zap the SD card. Worst case scenario, we have to pay £20 for a new one.

And if you ever had to worry about your network manager refusing to let students program on your network – they no longer need access to your network!

One issue that does worry me a little is the lack of VGA output, and this is something that may well appear in the second generation of the device.

The initial release will be at the end of November and will be for the bare device. This will allow the developers, interested educators and hacktivists to start playing with the device before a more consumer-friendly version in a case is released around March time.

I’m particularly looking forward to helping create a CAS book to go with the Pi – a user manual incorporating 15 Scratch games, 15 Python programmes and 15 Ruby projects you can code straight out of the book. A bit like the electronics kits where you wire up a burglar alarm, morse code transmitter or FM radio.

So, we have interesting times ahead, and I for one am looking forward to taking my first delivery in December with much excitement.

Another new web presence – AS Computing

I may have mentioned that this year is the first time I’m teaching AS Computing on my own. And in my spare time. And for free…

As I create resources for each lesson I’ll be uploading them to a new Posterous blog. The resources will, naturally, be CC licensed and duplicated at my Mukoku site.

Master Chief, Backed Up

Originally uploaded by Rico-san

Computing At School – Update

Alan Turing

Originally uploaded by photoverulam

Having just got home from a 2-day working group meeting of the Computing At School I am incredibly pleased with how the day went. We had a cameo from Professor Chris Bishop as well as representation from Microsoft, Google, BCS, Vital, schools, universities, ITT providers and more.

As well as the work we got done, there was a real sense of enthusiasm and opportunity to do some pretty wonderful things – particularly from KS1 to KS3, areas that are easy to overlook.

One enormous realisation for me is just how much stock Microsoft, Google and BCS are putting into Computing as a discipline and Computing At School as a movement. As well as a significant amount of funding, these organisations are prepared to give both their names and some really key members of staff in aid of CAS and this level of commitment can only be massively positive.

The news there is a little vague, but at the summer CAS Conference (June 24th), much of it should become clear.