Level 3 BTEC Nationals Information Technology

This is a summary of the Preparing To Teach course I attended in May, hosted by Pearson.

First, a little context. I teach in a school where the sixth form has an intake of around 200-230. We’ve offered Edexcel GCE Applied ICT for a long time (must be approaching 10 years now) and it’s done us, and our students, very well. There’s a heavy practical element, with 66% coursework and 33% based on two practical exams (one spreadsheet modelling and one database). We typically get students of middling ability, with some from the very top end. ICT is often seen as a 3rd or 4th A Level to complement the subjects people want to take on (with some exceptions, of course).

So, with the Applied ICT course coming to close we needed to find a new Level 3 course that is suitable for our students. Having looked at a variety of options (OCR Cambridge Technicals, what was A Level ICT, A Level Computer Science and a few others) we thought that the Pearson BTEC in IT was the best fit for our students.

Pearson have held a number of Preparing To Teach meetings, and they have a few more calendared for the near future. A few people on a Facebook group for the BTEC had asked what was said as they weren’t able to get to a meeting. So my recollections are here. I’m writing this without the aid of my notes (they’re at school and its half term, so I’m not). Errors and omissions are mine!

Course Structure

This is all available in the specification at the main Pearson site, but to summarise, we’re doing the Extended Certificate, which is equivalent to a full A Level. This includes 3 compulsory units:

  • Social Media (90GLH, internally assessed)
  • Data Handling (90GLH, practical examination)
  • Synoptic paper (120GLH, written examination)

And one of 2 optional units:

  • Spreadsheet Modelling (60GLH, internally assessed)
  • Web Design (60GLH, internally assessed)

I may have misnamed some of those units but you get the essence of it at least.

By doing the Social Media and Data Handling units in Y12, students can cash out with a Certificate (equivalent to an AS) as those are the only two units in that qualification.

There is a complicated method of calculating the overall grade based on the grade for each unit (as they’re all weighted differently), and as a newcomer to BTEC it is surprising that there is no granular scoring within a grade boundary. I’m used to GCSEs and A Levels where an extra UMS point in one unit counts towards the overall grade. Here it’s a flat score for a Pass, Merit or Distinction with no measurement of a high Pass or a low Pass. It’s a Pass.

Students do also need to pass all of the compulsory units in order to get an overall qualification.

Unit 1 – Synoptic Paper

Strange that this is referred to as Unit 1 when the board recommend that you do it last (as it’s synoptic) or at least long and thin. And it’s not needed for the AS.

The content is pretty much your standard ICT fare. Input and output devices, pros and cons of teleworking, advantages and drawbacks of networking, etc. The level of detail goes beyond GCSE level and a lot of the delegates who are currently running the older Level 3 BTEC were a little worried that their students wouldn’t necessarily do so well with the SAM written paper. Having taken plenty of kids through GCSE ICT which has exactly these kind of questions (though with less technical detail), I’m not too panicked just yet.

The paper is made up of 4 markers, 8 markers and 12 markers (plus some 6 and 10s, but stick with me).

A 4 mark question might be a simple ‘state 2 disadvantages of using 3G to access your work as a graphic designer’. Point and expand, point and expand. Straightforward stuff.

An 8 mark question might be a little more open ended, though with a similar style of question. Here the exam board recommended using PEE grids (Point – Explain – Evidence). These are standard operating procedure within our History department and I suspect English too, so kids should be used to the concept.

The 12 mark questions are your longer, essay style. Here it was suggested we look at connectives and sentence starters – although I think you might as well go the whole hog and take a good look at VCOP as a literacy strategy. It will take a little time to train the students up and it might be wise to speak to people from other departments who are already running courses with these types of exam for some good pedagogical support – but it’s manageable and less intimidating than it might seem.

Other than that, there’s not much else to say, really. There is a SAM paper on the website and it’s worth reading the spec carefully to make sure you’re covering all of the content (I’d come across a LAN, WAN and mesh before, but never a PAN).

Unit 2 (or is it 3?) – Social Media

I really like this unit. I really like this unit. It takes something the kids are aware of but don’t fully appreciate, and gets them to think about it and use it within a context. And it’s relevant.

There is a sample brief which it is recommended that centres use, though it is not even slightly compulsory to do so. The idea is to teach them some stuff on social media, and about how businesses use it and what kind of posts generate the most interaction (or ‘traction’ if you’re into corporate doublespeak). Why is Boaty McBoatface so popular? Are people more likely to look at a post with a picture, a video, a hashtag? Etc…

Then you give the students a context. The sample is about giving a presentation to a local chamber of commerce (locally we have an enterprise unit with 5 or 6 startup shops in one building , each with a 3 month lease at virtually no cost – by the end of which time they can rent somewhere with their established business or fold without going bankrupt). This lets them show off their understanding of how social media is used. The students don’t need to do the presentation, and the scenario doesn’t need to be real. A PowerPoint presentation with presenter notes (for added detail) would be sufficient.

The second part of the assignment is that the student has now been approached by one of these companies to actually manage their social media campaign for them. The students should ideally work for different companies and these can be real or made up. Parental involvement is fine, and my idea is to alter this so that students are running the social media accounts for a department within our school.

Students should do some analytical work looking at the interactions their posts have had. Some social media services will provide these, but I suspect most students will have to manually collate the date – how many likes, how many reposts, how many comments, etc.

Some people had concerns over allowing the students to have real control over social media. I can understand this, and it is a risk. I know my students well and I’m happy that with a stern briefing, much discussion and a signature on a acceptable use policy my students will be trusted to take the reigns of a real social media account. Pearson are happy for centres to run an internal social media platform (e.g. Yammer) or even something totally made up (e.g. Fakebook). Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles can be heavily locked down, and it is fine for friends and family to fake the interactions – though the student should discuss this in the evaluation.

Database Exam

I’m giving up completely with unit numbers now. They do matter in terms of admin but the link to the spec is above.

The database exam is something we’ve been doing for years with GCE Applied ICT. As before, some of the long-time BTEC folks were concerned about the examined nature of this unit, but it’s not something I’m going to lose sleep over.

The assessment is a 10 hour exam, completed as you choose over a 1 week window. It needs to be arranged as a proper exam, with JCQ rules on invigilation, etc. It is not controlled assessment. The questions will be consistent on each paper – here is a scenario and a flat data file, normalise and great an ERD, write your data dictionaries, plan your forms and reports, create your tables, import your data, create specific queries, evaluate. Only the scenario will change, though there won’t be any pre-release.

Students are expected to use something like Access (the Applied ICT said you MUST use Access – this one at least looks manageable in OpenOffice Base or potentially other relational database management software). They can use wizards, etc. and with good preparation and practice I suspect they will do just fine.

Those who haven’t been teaching the old Applied ICT course will find a treasure trove of past papers for the 6957 unit from that course.

Modelling and Web Design

We didn’t really look at these, though they will function in a similar way to the Social Media unit. Teach them some stuff and then give them two assignments – one to show understanding and one to plan, create and evaluate.

Administration

I think I was the only person at my meeting who wasn’t a long-standing BTEC teacher, so the admin side of things was new to me. I’ve heard many horror stories but it doesn’t seem so bad once you get the procedures in place.

You need a plan. You should plan to do some teaching, then release an assignment. The students should have a fixed deadline for this and once it comes in you should have your own deadline for marking it, and then getting an Internal Verifier (IV) to moderate it. Once internally verified you can give the marks out and, if there is a good reason, you can grant a resubmission to some students (though this shouldn’t be the norm – there should be a compelling reason). A bit like CA at Level 2, you can give general advice on what is needed but not specific ‘do this, add that’ kinds of comments. The resubmission then need to be back within 10 or 15 days (there was some discussion over whether this is calendar days, week days, days with a timetabled lesson and whether the clock is ticking over half terms, etc.).

A sample will always be called for the Social Media unit, though this might typically be 3 or 4 students per cohort, even for fairly large cohorts. The optional units may or may not be sampled depending on the luck of the draw, but 3 samples out of 30 is a lot less than we send off now so I’m not worried about that.

And I think that’s about it!

No doubt I’ve missed something off, but it’s worth reading the specification and having a good look at the sample assessment material (SAM). Pearson are also producing a load of delivery guides and other resources to help teachers.

My plan is to have 2 teachers, with a 60/40 split. The bigger portion will be coursework with any time remaining afterwards given over towards exam prep (especially in Y13 where it’s a 120 GLH exam and a 60 GLH coursework unit). I’ve not picked an optional unit yet.

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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.

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.

AQA

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.

Edexcel

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.