Mama teach me how to code: who cares about the lost generation of parents?

I recently wrote a post for the IOE blog about the surge in enthusiasm for the challenges and opportunities of computing in schools. I drew attention to recent press coverage as well as to the interjections of Michael Gove, The Royal Society and Nesta, which I have discussed previously in this blog. For example,  John Naughton in the Observer outlined a manifesto for teaching computer science in the 21st century, and Janet Murray in the Guardian celebrated the enthusiasm of a new generation of coders in schools. In the debate so far, much attention has been given to discussion of the training and skills requirements for teachers, and this is certainly vital.  However, there is a broader group of influencers and supporters who need to be equipped to progress the initiative effectively.

John Naughton highlighted School Governors as a resource that needed to be harnessed and I would add to that another important category of resources, and that is Parents. In my experience that vast majority of parents are keen to help their children progress at school, but they can be anxious about their knowledge of the way that certain subjects, such as Maths, are taught at school. What chance will most of them have to help their children learn computer science? There is much research evidence to support the important contribution that parents can make to their child’s achievements at school, so who is tapping into this vital educational ingredient to make sure that they are able to gain the skills they want and need in order to be able to help their children achieve of their best?

Time to re-load? Computational Thinking and Computer Science in Schools

Snapshot—April 5th, 2012 In Chicago today the Obama re-election campaign is set to be the most technically sophisticated ever seen with voters being wooed via Twitter and Facebook, and digital technology along with those who understand how to build and use it set to play a key role in influencing people’s decision making. Across the Atlantic in the UK we face an abundance of choices about how to exploit and use technology, and this poses an enormous challenge for both the current and future education of our children. The realisation that we need people who can produce as well as consume technology has brought a new energy and excitement about computer science and computational thinking, which is being heralded by some as the new literacy of the 21st century. The technology revolution has changed the way many of us work and interact, it has generated new industries and new
businesses, and it is natural that we now look to schools, teachers and the education system to help us to understand how we might best prepare our children to live, work and make best use of what computer technology offers.

But how best can we do this?

A mess? 2012 has seen the Secretary of State for Education state that “ICT in schools is a mess” and he has called for a new approach with the hope that technology can be used creatively to develop curricular content: the ‘wiki’ curriculum. What is happening with ICT and computer science education in schools has also been the subject of a 2011 Naace report entitled “The Importance of Technology”, an Ofsted report on ICT in schools, and the importance of providing young people with the skills required by the new workplace is captured by Nesta’s Next Gen report. Clearly there is growing concern and government commitment to change, so what change should we make and why?

Is Computer Science the answer? Computer science is an important element of the debate. The Royal Society’s 2012 ‘Shut down or restart?’ report suggested that a sound understanding of computer science concepts enables people to get the best from the systems they use, and to solve problems when things go wrong. However, computer science is evolving rapidly and its interdisciplinarity means that its evolution touches on many domains and every day life. There are significant challenges for those interested in how best to include it in the curriculum.

Are we sure we know what we want to change? There is already some excellent teaching of ICT and computer science in some schools within the current curriculum and programme of study, so not everything is wrong. Care needs to be taken that the changes we make do lead to a better learning experience at school: an experience that inspires and educates. But, are we clear about what is wrong with computer science and ICT in schools now? Can we be precise about the rationale for what learners at different stages need to be taught? What do we want learners to be able to achieve as a result of studying computer science? Where do ICT and computer science fit in the structure of the school curriculum: media, design, science, cross-curricular?

How can learners tap into the power of computational thinking? The skills of computational thinking can be taught with or without computers, by exploring how processes work, looking for problems in everyday systems, examining patterns in data, and questioning evidence. With a computer, learners can put their computational thinking into action. Could a focus on computational thinking better equip learners to use their understanding effectively and to learn how to apply a range of computing tools? Writing the code that makes a computer behave in a particular way is a creative pursuit: reflecting on what you have constructed is a key part of learning. We may therefore valuably ask: How can we develop good computational thinking for children?

Are we looking in all the right places? Are there less obvious areas of research that might help us answer some of these questions? For example, many people encounter the experience of Flow and are all too familiar with the experience of losing themselves in a task. Might the idea of Flow itself help us understand the learning process in computational thinking and computer science? Researchers in the psychology of programming have spent decades exploring how people learn to code, surely their expertise needs to be drawn into the debate?

There are no short cuts to answering these questions. The process of addressing them requires an interdisciplinary and participatory approach that involves groups from across the sectors that is inclusive in nature and powerful in design. This will require an approach that is new to society, schools, teachers and learners: a process that must be both flexible in its thinking and realistic in its understanding of the role of schools.

Tomorrow we will be having a debate about some of these issues at the London Knowledge Lab and I’ll report back on how that goes.

Read our briefing paper (from which the above text is taken)

Follow the event through illuminate – go to http://link.lkl.ac.uk/e-meeting for access to the live stream.

Thinking like a computer or computing like a thinker?

In my last post I finished with a comment about pop-11, a langauge designed to help novices learn how to program and to grapple with Artificial Intelligence. I also included an image of the Eliza programme an early example of natural language processing designed in the sixties by Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT. The computer user typed in questions and the ELIZA programme appeared to make human like responses. It worked on a script and when the user started to ask questions that were outside the script, ELIZA struggled. Probably the most famous example of the ELIZA programme was that of a psychotherapist, but my version of the ELIZA programme was one of the first pieces of code I ever produced in pop-11. I found pop-11 a good way into programming, it enabled me to get something up and running quickly, it helped me to start thinking in a particular way and it introduced me to the practical design and application of algorithms. My ELIZA program took on the personna of a politician, and it was surprisingly realistic and succeeding in writing a program that worked and produced a dialogue gave me a huge amount of pleasure. You know the sort of thing:

John: You don’t seem to be having a very good week

Teresa: Why do you think I am not having a very good week?

John: Well it looks as if your attempts to deport Abu Qatada have been stalled

Teresa: My attempts to deport Abu Qatada have not been stalled

John: But you acted too early and you have left him a days window to appeal

Teresa: I have not acted too early and I have not left him a days window to appeal

John: Do you not think that the three month deadline ended after you arrested him?

Teresa: I do not think that the three month deadline ended after I arrested him?

John: Are you sure that you have counted the days correctly?

Teresa: I am sure that I have counted the days correctly?

John: Is it not possible that you and your team have made a mistake?

Teresa: No, it is not possible that me and my team have made a mistake?

John: So have the European Court confirmed that you and your team have the correct deadline

Teresa: I have confirmed that me and my team have the correct deadline

John: But have the European Court confirmed this

Teresa: I don’t know why you are asking me if the European Court have confirmed this

John: Because the European Court will now decide if there is time for Abu Qatada  to appeal

Teresa: I don’t know why you are asking me if the European Court have confirmed this. I have confirmed that me and my team have the correct deadline

John: But we need to know if the deadline you used was correct

Teresa: I don’t know why you are asking me if the European Court have confirmed this. I have confirmed that me and my team have the correct deadline

John: We seem to be going around in circles here

Teresa: I have not gone around in a circle I travel in a Jaguar: a circle is a simple shape of Euclidean geometry consisting of those points in a plane that are equidistant from a given point, the centre

John: !

To code or not to code, if that is the question, what is the answer?

I was struck by the item on the R4 Today program this morning at 8.45 ‘ish when Rory Cellan-Jones told us about his day course at Decoded, through which he, as a complete novice, built an app. You can see his app and his story on the Today website, and as Rory points out “coding is cool – the government is listening to those calling for it to be taught in schools, and executives are signing up for courses.” This has prompted me to reflect on my own programming experiences and to make this the subject of a few posts over the next few days and running up to our next “What the Research Says” event on computing in schools.

I am a member of the BBC micro generation who first came across computing through using this delightfully frustrating device. However, I was not a member of the young audience at whom this machine was aimed, but the wife of a teacher who became intrigued by what her husband was up to in his office. Having secretly mastered the manoeuvre of disk swapping that got you started with the BBC micro my appetite was whet and I enrolled for a course at the local technical college. When I went to sign-up I said I wanted to learn about computers and I was asked what I meant by that. I had no clue why they were asking me this question, because the answer seemed obvious to me – I wanted to learn how the computer worked of course! However, I was offered a range of courses that would take me into the realms of managing a spreadsheet or learning to word process as well as learning how to write a program in basic – no brainer of a choice for me then. I duly arrived at my first evening class ready to build something, no idea what, but something. I loved it, even though my outputs were modest:  a greeting on the screen (you know the one), a date reminder, but I was hooked. I wanted more and much to the bafflement of my husband and to my children aged 5 and 3 I announced that I was going ‘back to school’ and was going to apply to read Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at University. I was a distinctly mature student and was a little afraid that I would be the ‘silly old woman at the back of the class’. My fears were unfounded – most of us felt silly when it came to programming, because for most of us it was very, very hard!

After my BBC basic baptism, I entered the heady world of pop-11 a langauge designed to help novices learn how to program and to grapple with AI.

 

To be continued….

Are we too disciplined to make ourselves understood?

One of the wonderful things about being an undergraduate in the School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences (COGS) at the University of Sussex was the interdisciplinary experience that was embedded within our studies. When I studied Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence I did so within a community of philosophers, psychologists, linguists and computer scientists and it was great. This has given me a particular perspective on all the work I have subsequently been involved with – all of which has sat on the ‘fault lines’ between disciplines. As I am currently pondering how best we might improve the way that we academics communicate what is valuable about the research that we have and are doing about technologies for learning I realise that the communication problem is more deeply rooted than the ‘external’ communication challenges of making our research relevant and impactful, we often don’t communicate effectively within academia across disciplines. So, if we can do better at engaging with each other outside of our disciplinary comfort zones, then maybe we can also set our minds to finding a way to help those outside academia understand the complex landscape of researchers whose work might really help to enable a step change in the quality of the technology and its use for learning.

If we take a quick look at the sorts of research that might be relevant to people working in industry to develop technologies to support learning, from smart phone apps to learning platforms and interactive whiteboards, and to practitioners and learners both within and without educational institutions, there are many different research communities who might feel they have something interesting to offer. For example, there are computer scientists who develop the algorithms that drive the software that makes a technology capable of particular behaviours and the engineers who build the hardware that enables features like touch sensitive interfaces, drag and drop icons and multimedia output. There are the interdisciplinary researchers in Human Computer interaction who understand how to design interfaces to support the optimal types of interaction whether on an interactive table top, a virtual reality or an ipad. There are research communities that use artificial intelligence methods and techniques to design computer models that can enable software to adapt to the particular learner or learners who are using it so that a game or a simulation can interact in a manner that is tailored to its users needs, whether teachers or learners. Then there are the psychologists who understand how people learn and the sociologists who understand about communities and social interactions, and the social scientists who understand about educational systems and human relationships. Here I am only scratching the surface and there will be as many research communities and disciplines I have omitted as those that I have named. These communities largely publish their work in separate journals and at separate conferences. There are attempts to develop interdisciplinary communities in order to try to encourage cross fertilisation of ideas and appreciation of the contribution that different expertise can make to shared problems, although the well documented demise of COGS illustrates the power of the bureaucratic penchant for administrative neatness. These interdisciplinary communities are not the norm and at times of austerity there is a tendency for funders to concentrate on their core disciplines, which has a knock on effect upon the extent to which researchers are able to work across the disciplinary boundaries.

Earth Hour 2012, Learning from our Teenagers to turn off the lights on Saturday

One of the pleasures of my job is that we work with learners and teachers through participatory research and design. Recently we have been working with teenagers at several different schools as part of a research project exploring teenagers’ understanding of energy and their consumption of it. With a view to motivating their curiosity to understand more and to want to be thoughtful about their own consumption and that of their peers, families and communities. The nature of the participatory approach helps the learning to work in all directions, so we learn a great deal through the process, not just about the teenagers and their energy lives, but about things like Earth Hour 2012. One of our groups of young people have taken the initiative at their school and organised local events to prompt people to think on Earth Hour. I didn’t know about Earth Hour until they enlightened me, which is a lovely demonstration that teenagers are not just key consumers of energy, they are also key communicators and I wil now be turning off my lights for an hour at 8.30 pm on Saturday

We know that despite the fact that we hear a lot about energy sustainability in political and popular rhetoric, energy consumption is rising. Teenagers are certainly important consumers now and in the future and yet little is known of their conceptions about energy.  There is growing evidence that they find it hard to translate their formal learning about energy  into an understanding of their personal energy consumption. We need to know more about: What energy consumption is relevant to teenagers? Why do teenagers think energy is an issue? Where do teenagers learn about energy? What would motivate teenagers to learn about energy consumption? And to know if they are they concerned.

It has been fascinating to find out more about teenage culture through the photo diaries, focus groups,  activities, questionnaires, and design work that we have completed.

And, there are clear ways in which technology can help, for example through:

  • linking science learning into everyday life,
  • motivating and supporting enquiry into personal energy consumption e.g. thorugh a mobile phone app,
  • linking resources in teenagers’ personal contexts to support enquiry,
  • and helping to communicate and activate their social networks about issues that spark their interest, such as Earth Hour

Let’s talk about what the research says: Industry, Academia, Learning: 7 days to go

Vanessa Pittard DfE, Richard Noss TEL Research Programme Director, BESA, Intellect, ALT, and Demos about research inspired technology enhanced learning to tackle challenges from teenagers’ energy consumption to social communication in a multimodal virtual environment for youngsters with Autism Spectrum Disorders. What the research says event at LKL now has a waiting list for places! Clearly people do want to talk.

Speak to Me

Industry, Academia, Educators and Learners: It’s good to talk, but why are we all ‘telephobic’?

In my last post I suggested that to improve learners’ experiences we need research, industry, practitioners and learners to work in harmony, and that this is hard to orchestrate. But why is this hard to orchestrate?

A large part of the reason is that each of these communities ‘speaks a slightly different language’, because whilst they are motivated by some common interests, such as finding ways to help people learn more effectively or enjoyably, they are also motivated by different and in some ways competing factors. To be honest they don’t have a great track record of talking to each other.

Practitioners and learners are the key players in the interactions that support learning, when they work in sync with the right support from technologies developed with and by industry and informed with and by research they can achieve their best. BUT this does not happen as often as it could in the area of Educational Technology and Technology Enhanced Learning.

Why? Perhaps it’s partly because industry works in quarterly cycles with an eye on the ‘bottom line’ and a need to maintain the competitive edge over rivals in order to hold on to or increase market share. It needs to know what will sell when it comes to developing technologies to support learning and what will help to keep employees in work and products on people’s shopping lists. It would often like to develop products informed by research, but with the exception of large industries that have their own research labs, may not know how and when to find the right people to offer that research advice. Researchers are concerned with rigour and clarity, and very rarely think about a year in quarters, more likely in semesters and terms. Their eye is rarely on the bottom line and the results of their endeavour often take a considerable length or time to mature and reach fruition. With a greater imperative to demonstrate the impact of their research as part of the next REF exercise (the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions), they may well very much like to find a way to work with industry to take their ideas into a wider community and see how they can be applied. However, who do they talk to and how do they communicate what they know? For most academics they have been well-trained in the art of writing journal articles for approval and acceptance by their peers. But, this type of output is rarely very accessible to people who don’t speak that same academic language.

So why does all this matter? It matters, because the problems we face when it comes to developing the kinds of technologies that can solve the really big educational problems and take advantage of the widespread ownership of powerful communities cannot be solved by any one community on their own, so we really do need to get together and talk about how each community can offer their own contribution to a shared endeavour. In order to do this we need to find a way to understand enough about how each other works to be able to build effective conversations.

As many a famous actor has once said on behalf of BT – “its good to talk”, but you need to know the right number to ring and the right shared language to speak if you are going to have any chance of communicating in any meaningful way. So how can we engineer the circumstances in which such vital communication can take place?

Understanding you, Understanding me: is this the best we can do?

The wide-spread ownership of sophisticated computing devices such as smart phones and ipads allows mass access to social media, augmented reality and 3D virtual world applications. BUT are we making the most of these technologies to help learners communicate using all their senses? These technologies make it technically possible for people to share information about themselves and their contexts using multiple media and multi-sensory communication. This ought to mean that learners who may struggle with traditional text and image can explore new ways to express themselves. New ways to communicate what they do and don’t understand and new ways to allow others to understand more about their particular context and perspective.

One of the essential ingredients for effective learning  where a more knowledgeable person, such as a teacher, is helping a less knowledgeable person (or people) to learn something is that both of them share some common understanding of what the less knowledgable person currently understands. The technical possibilities for multi modal communication offered by emerging technologies should provide new ways for people to share their understanding and misunderstanding and to communicate important aspects of their personal context that may help teachers, parents, and friends to  provide more effective support. But are we making enough of this potential?

I suspect we are not. To tackle challenges such as, developing a clearer understanding of how we make the most of such communication possibilities requires research rigour and energy. To develop technologies and applications that make these new formats for communication and interaction easier and effective we need industrial enterprise and innovation. To understand the needs of learners and teachers, we need to bring them into the research and design process. Most importantly of all, to improve learners’ experiences we will need research, industry, practitioners and learners to work in harmony, and that is hard to orchestrate.

More relevant than ever…Information plenty, but knowledge famine: are we succumbing to an illusion?

I am curious about knowledge, not in philosophical sense, but in a practical one. I worry about what it means to know something in a world that is increasingly complex, ill defined and interconnected: a world that demands that we develop, and that we ensure that our children develop, the knowledge capacity to solve the problems it manifests and those that we create.

The first recollections that I have of my own curiosity about knowledge date back to 1966 when I was eight years old and growing up in Manfred Mann’s semi-detached suburbia: dad, mum, older brother and me. My father was an aircraft engineer and my mother taught typing and shorthand to women whose working lives were about to be dramatically changed by the word processing power of the digital computer. My brother was 3 years older than me, and his lack of interest in formal education was causing my parents some concern. Their reaction was to invest in ‘knowledge books’, or at least that’s how they saw the children’s book of knowledge and the encyclopedia that now filled up the bureau bookshelf. To keep us up to date, there was also the weekly general knowledge magazine that plopped on the doormat with a reassuring thud: the weight of its knowledge there for all to hear.

I suspect that my parent’s reaction to their son’s educational malaise was not an unusual one amongst the aspiring middle class families of our neighbourhood. My brother’s reaction to the new literary arrivals was cool; he was far more concerned with exploring the world of the woodland around our housing estate, than with sitting at home and reading about it. My father however, became quite addicted to the weekly general knowledge magazine. He did not have a great deal of time to read, but each evening when he went to bed he would sit in his paisley pyjamas and thumb through the pages. The stock of copies soon grew on the nightstand as his pace of reading failed to match the frequency of their arrival. The corners became slightly curled as the months and years passed and the dust gathered in and around the pile that now extended from the nightstand to the floor. His interest never waned and I do believe there were a pile of old issues by his bedside when he died many years later.

Forty years on and it’s a sunny day and I’m walking along the Euston Road in London. I pass the entrance to the British Library and a sign catches my eye, the sign says: “Step inside – Knowledge freely available”. I dislike the suggestion that one can walk into the British Library and just pick up some knowledge like going into Tesco and buying some bananas. I can relatively quickly formulate an explanation for myself about why the sign irritates me, because I have a clear idea about what I believe knowledge to be. I have moved on from the conception of knowledge loved by my father and represented by the pages of his books and articles. I know that I have to construct knowledge from the evidence available to me, that it is not handed to me by others, though they can certainly help me along the way, and that I can aspire to continually increase my knowledge by weaving together the information resources distributed throughout my world.

This is not the case for many of the youngsters who attend our schools and colleges. For them knowledge is still to be found in the dusty concepts in the out of date magazines on my father’s nightstand or on the shelves of a library they never visit.

“But what of the internet and world wide web?” I hear you wonder. These technological masterpieces offer information resources wherever we are and whenever we need them. These must surely pave the way for us to become more knowledgeable, both personally and as a human community?

The sheer abundance of this information has thrown into sharp relief our understanding of the relationship between information and knowledge. It makes my modest collection of childhood encyclopedias and my father’s overflowing magazine collection look like a speck of dust on the library shelf. I fear however that our understanding of what knowledge is and what it means to know something has not progressed in tandem with this technological progress. This puts us at risk of succumbing to the illusion that we know more than we actually do, because the more information we have the more we become certain that we know something.

Without helping young people to develop an understanding of what knowledge is in a digital age they cannot progress beyond the well meaning, but limited conception of knowledge promoted by the books and magazines that appealed to my parents. Those of us who understand what we mean by knowledge can indulge ourselves, as my father did with his magazines. But, without actively engaging people in the excitement of connecting the knowledge construction process to their own particular context, we merely encourage them to pass the opportunity by in the same way as my brother did all those years ago.

In a time of information plenty we are at risk of a knowledge famine.

I wrote thsi piece originally for  Learning to Live – Creativity, Money and Love