June 23, 2017

Nine ideas for teaching Computing at School from the 2017 CAS conference


Delegates at the Computing at School conference 2017 #CASConf17 answering diagnostic questions, picture by Miles Berry.

The Computing At School (CAS) conference is an annual event for educators, mostly primary and secondary school teachers from the public and private sector in the UK. Now in its ninth year, it attracts over 300 delegates from across the UK and beyond to the University of Birmingham, see the brochure for details. One of the purposes of the conference is to give teachers new ideas to use in their classrooms to teach Computer Science and Computational Thinking. I went along for my first time (*blushes*) seeking ideas to use in an after school Code Club (ages 7-10) I’ve been running for a few years and also for approaches that undergraduate students in Computer Science (age 20+) at the University of Manchester could use in their final year Computer Science Education projects. So here are nine ideas (in random brain dump order) I’ll be putting to immediate use in clubs, classrooms, labs and lecture theatres:

  1. Linda Liukas demonstrated some intriguing ideas from her children’s books and HelloRuby.com that are based on Montessori education. I shall be trying some of these out (particularly the storytelling stuff) at code club to keep girls involved
  2. Sue Sentance and Neil Brown from King’s College London gave an overview of some current research in pedagogy.  They discussed research questions that can be tackled in the classroom like (for example) do learners make more progress using visual programming languages (like Scratch and Blockly) or traditional text-based languages (like Python and Java etc)? Many of these research questions would make good projects for undergraduate students to investigate in secondary schools, see research on frame based editors, for example.
  3. Michel Wermelinger from the Open University demonstrated using iPython notebooks for teaching data literacy at the Urban Data School. Although I’m familiar with iPython, it had never occurred to me to actually use iPython in school for teaching. It is a no-brainer, when you think about it, even for primary, because you have your code, inputs and outputs all in one window, and can step through code execution instead of (or as well as) using more conventional tools like Trinket, Thonny or IDLE. Data literacy is fun to teach.
  4. Miles Berry from the University of Roehampton demonstrated Diagnostic Questions in Project Quantum. These are a collection of high quality quizzes to use interactively for example as hinge questions, where teaching is adapted depending on answers given, like this multiple choice question:
    Consider the following Python code:
    a = 20
    b = 10
    a = b
    What are the values of a and b?
    A: a = 10, b = 10
    B: a = 20, b = 20
    C: a = 30, b = 10
    D: a = 10, b = 20

    You’ll have to try these five questions to check your answer. The useful thing here is that DiagnosticQuestions.com (the platform on which this is built) allows you to see lots of responses, for example each answer (A, B, C or D) above was selected by 25% of participants. You can also view explanations which illuminate common misconceptions (e.g. the classic mistake of confusing assignment with equality) as well as providing a bank of free questions for use in the classroom.

  5. Mark Guzdial from GeorgiaTech discussed using learning sciences to improve computing teaching. He demonstrated predictive questions (e.g. ask students What do you think will happen when we run this code? before actually executing it) alongside what he called subgoal labelling. These are simple ideas (with proven benefits) that can be put to use immediately. I’ll also be trying the Live Coding (with Sonic Pi) and Media Computation he demonstrated asap.
  6. Laurence Rogers demonstrated Insight: Mr. Bit  this looks like a good app for using BBC microbits in the classroom, connected to a range of sensors, provided you’ve got access to iPads.
  7. A copy of Hello World magazine was in the conference bag. The summer 2017 issue has an unusual article from Ian Benson from Kingston University and Jenny Cane describing their use of the Haskell programming language to teach 5-7 year olds to reason symbolically and learn algebra before arithmetic with help from Cuisenaire rods. The Scratch Maths project at University College London are doing similar things, building mathematical knowledge using Scratch, rather than Haskell. These are experimental ideas you could try out on unsuspecting (junior) family members.
  8. Lee Goss from Barefoot Computing, described the free CPD for primary school teachers on offer from BT. I’ve signed up and hope to plug some of the shortcomings in the Code Club Curriculum.
  9. Richard Jarvis demonstrated appJar, a handy Python library for teaching Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs). That’s Jar as in Jarvis and Jam, not JAR as in Java ARchive BTW. I’ve not tried GUIs at code club yet, but appJar looks like a good way to do it.

There were lots more people and projects at the conference not mentioned here including tonnes of workshops. If you’re interested in any of the above, the CAS conference will be back in 2018. Despite the challenging problems faced by Computer Science at GCSE level, it was reassuring and inspiring to meet some members of the vibrant, diverse and friendly community pushing the boundaries of computing in schools across the United Kingdom. Thanks again to everyone at CAS for putting on another great event, I will definitely consider attending next year and maybe you should too.

May 28, 2010

The University of Twitter, UK: A Quick Survey

Twitter icon for a fluid app by Miha  FilejMany people are still trying to work out exactly what twitter is good for [1] but with more than 100 million users worldwide making around 50 million tweets per day, the website is clearly popular with those who like to communicate via short “sound bites” of 140 characters or less.

Communication is an important part of what Universities are all about, so how many UK universities are on twitter? Knowing this could help us assess the use of the latest web technology in research where adoption has been rather limited so far, especially in Science  [2]. Rather than survey all the @UniversitiesUK, for a quick overview, let’s pick the twenty Russell Group Universities. According to their website, the Russell Group:

“represents the 20 leading UK universities which are committed to maintaining the very best research, an outstanding teaching and learning experience and unrivalled links with business and the public sector.”

So they are exactly the kind of places you would expect to be embracing and experimenting with new technology. The table below shows which of these institutions are on twitter:

@RussellGroup University @Twitter?
University of Birmingham @unibirmingham
University of Bristol @bristoluni
University of Cambridge @cambridge_uni
Cardiff University @cardiffuni
University of Edinburgh @uniofedinburgh
University of Glasgow @glasgowuni
Imperial College London @imperialcollege
King’s College London None as of May 2010*
University of Leeds @universityleeds
University of Liverpool @liverpoolfirst
London School of Economics None as of May 2010*
University of Manchester None as of May 2010*
Newcastle University None as of May 2010*
University of Nottingham @uniofnottingham
University of Oxford @uniofoxford
Queen’s University Belfast @queensubelfast
University of Sheffield @sheffielduni
University of Southampton @southamptonnews
University College London @uclnews
University of Warwick @warwickuni

There are plenty of important UK universities (@1994group, @UniAlliance@million_plus etc) excluded from this quick-and-dirty survey but it gives us an idea of what is going on. As of May 2010, 16 out of 20 Russell Group Universities are on twitter – perhaps this is another reason to love Higher Education because it is full of twittering twits?

But the last words on the United Kingdom of Twitter should go to the @number10gov Prime Minister David Cameron who has enlightening views on twitter including this quote below:

“We complain about the sound bite culture [3] but if you think about it and go back in history sound bites have always been used. Do to others as you would be done by, that is a fantastic sound bite … If you can’t convey what you’re trying to convey in a few short sentences you’ve got a problem and you have a particular problem in the media age. You have to work at communicating something complicated in a simple way or you’re not going to take people with you.”


  1. Haewoon Kwak, Changhyun Lee, Hosung Park, & Sue Moon (2010). What is Twitter, a social network or a news media? WWW ’10: Proceedings of the 19th international conference on World Wide Web, New York, NY, USA, 591-600 DOI: 10.1145/1772690.1772751
  2. Amy Maxmen (2010). Science Networking Gets Serious Cell, 141 (3), 387-389 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2010.04.019
  3. David Slayden and Rita Kirk Whillock (1998). Soundbite Culture: The Death of Discourse in a Wired World. Sage Publications, Inc. ISBN:0761908722

* These Universities had no central account that I could find in May 2010 but some have departmental accounts like  @kingsbiomed, @kingsmedicine, @lsepublicevents, @lse_recruitment, @mcrmuseum and @manunicareers etc which are not counted here because they don’t represent the whole University in question. The University of Manchester has an account @UoMRSSFeed but it isn’t official and hasn’t been updated recently. Dear beloved Alma mater, sort it out!

[Creative commons licensed picture of Twitter icon for a fluid app via Miha Filej.]

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