Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Nostradamus moment?

Just a couple of days back I wrote a blog post entitled MOOCs? where I also drew reference to a blog post I wrote a couple of years back where I discussed my worries that the current ICT curriculum in UK schools is not a substitute for learning Computer Science : ICT is not CS!  Which seems to have almost been prophetic when two directly related posts cropped up on the web yesterday.

The first web announcement was spotted on a website dedicated to development of software, games, and interactive media, which highlights the new government outlines for the new Computer Science course which is to replace ICT Which very much echos my thoughts and hopefully addresses the shortcomings of ICT as it is at present. The new curriculum  aims to deliver a structured introduction to computer science starting at KS1 and adding new concepts as well as building upon principles through to KS4.

           "The government has outlined the new curriculum for computer science in schools.

A program has been drawn up for Key stages one through four, which will mean students will begin learning computer science from early primary school and then throughout their education.

The statutory guidance states the aim of the national curriculum for computing is to ensure students can understand and apply the fundamental principles and concepts of computer science, including abstraction, logic, algorithms and data representation.

Pupils will also be taught to analyse problems in computational terms with practical experience of writing computer programs to solve them, to evaluate and apply information technology analytically to solve problems, and also ensure pupils are responsible, competent, confident and creative users of such information and communication technology.

The publication stated that such a “high quality education equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world”.
The new GSCE subject in computing will replace ICT from September 2014."

Reading through the key stage subject contents listed, this certainly looks like an improvement on the existing ICT syllabuses and will be welcomed I feel by both pupils and some educators.... 

....But there lies one of the problems...

With a course of this type, the educator - the person delivering the material will really make or break the learning experience that children have at all levels. The GCSE Computer Science syllabus really needs someone a little more "geeky" to deliver it well, someone who has a good understanding of the concepts to be delivered and an active interest in the area, as well as general teaching skills and the enthusiasm for the subject that can be passed to the pupils. I have no doubt that some - possibly many existing teachers of ICT will be more than capable of meeting the demands... But I am equally sure that many may struggle. Which sort of brings me round to my point...  How can these complex subjects be brought home to pupils when the teachers may not be fully up to speed themselves on the subject?    - MOOCs may be the answer... High quality interactive online learning material produced by the examining entities themselves. ??

...And this isnt perhaps out of the question...

The second web announcement yesterday is that Cambridge University Press announce that their GCSE Computing MOOC goes live at the end of the month (September 30th). This is a OCR accredited GCSE in computing course thats available and supported online right now, based around learning using the Raspberry PI platform. 

             "It's a GCSE, but not as you know it... Computing rules the world, or at least a large part of it. Cambridge GCSE Computing Online will provide free and open access to OCR’s GCSE in Computing, supported by resources from the Raspberry Pi Foundation and Cambridge University Press. Together we’re busy creating a ground-breaking site to help you make sense of the technologies and opportunities this amazing vehicle offers in industry, education and every aspect of our daily lives. Through a mixture of videos, animations and interactive exercises, the content is being designed to challenge and inspire you. We know that studying Computing is about using creativity and problem-solving to unlock opportunities all around you, inside the classroom and far beyond it."

This will be Freely available  (Free as in beer to use the linux analogy) to schools to help deliver this qualification and will provide a valuable resource, but more crucially is also available to students already in education worried that they have been disadvantaged by the current ICT curriculum. But they would have make their own arrangements to sit the exam - and it is important to stress that :  

             "No OCR GCSE Computing certificate will be available direct through the Cambridge GCSE Computing Online website but the content will help students prepare for the exam." 

So individuals interested in this qualification would need to see if a local school or college was  able to host the final examination.  Im sure that when this takes off a number of local groups will emerge, and due to the Raspberry Pi involvement it will be a hot topic in local Hackerspaces and groups, attracting interest from enthusiasts so finding enough people in a geographic area to make it worth while putting on an exam, or perhaps travelling to where one is running should not be out of the question.

In my opinion this has been a looooong time coming, and will be too late for some, but at least now there is light at the end of the tunnel for those students who are frustrated in their efforts to learn "Computing" rather than having "ICT" thrust upon them.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


Nearly two years back I wrote a blog post entitled ICT is not CS! where I wrote about some of the reasons why I feel that the UK (and some other countries too) are falling behind with education in computer science. An article which caused  discussion in some circles, and has indirectly lead to several projects that I have heard about where others with similar worries have stepped in to run various projects with schools in their own areas.  Thanks to everyone who gave feedback, and especially to those who went on to do something positive.

Thankfully the situation in the UK is improving now, despite resistance and scepticism from some. There are a number of initiatives that have featured in the national press which seem to be slowly filtering into place now. There are also a growing number of technology education based events throughout the country now, though some of them take a little finding out about unless you follow the right news feeds on twitter and facebook. But they are out there!

Sadly though, its still not true today throughout the world. There are still so many places where Science and technology education is scarce or non-existent...  But thanks to widespread availability of the internet, this may not always be the case. Even if there is no local source of science and technology education there have been for a year or so now a wide range of on-line education systems developed by some of the worlds leading universities delivered and  graded for free simply to benefit the world of education. I refer of course to MOOCs - (Massive Open Online Courses).

Today I read this:  which is what has prompted this post...  (credit to adafruit for the orignial tweet which drew it to my attention)

It describes the achievements of Battushig Myanganbayar from Mongolia, a country where "a third of the population is nomadic, living in round white felt tents called gers on the vast steppe". At the age of 15 "became one of 340 students out of 150,000 to earn a perfect score in Circuits and Electronics, a sophomore-level class at M.I.T. and the first Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC — a college course filmed and broadcast free or nearly free to anyone with an Internet connection — offered by the university."   The article also goes on to descibe how "Battushig’s success also showed that schools could use MOOCs to find exceptional students all over the globe. After the course, Kim and Zurgaanjin suggested that Battushig apply to M.I.T., and he has just started his freshman year — one of 88 international students in a freshman class of 1,116. Stuart Schmill, the dean of admissions, said Battushig’s perfect score proved that he could handle the work."

There can be little doubting therefore the value of these courses not only in developing countries, but the world over.

This has however raise some interesting questions about the future of education in some circles... Does this spell the beginning of the end of traditional education as some have suggested? Is it a "fad"?   Somehow I doubt that...  We have had the "Open University" Here in the UK for a number of years (albeit not for free), yet still see record attendance figures at our colleges and universities still.  I feel I should add that had it not been for the OU TV programs on the BBC back in the 70's and 80's I almost certainly would not have the interests in computing, science and technology I have now.  I tend to view these MOOCs courses in the same way - as a source of inspiration for the scientists and engineers of tomorrow.

A handful of UK colleges and universities are now offering a limited range of MOOCs, but  I think its time a lot more looked towards the production of their own MOOCs as not only a public service, but as a way of finding the brightest and best students who may otherwise not have found a way to their doors. And more importantly aiming them not only at school leavers - but at those in secondary education too... Especially if those courses had national accreditation comparable to the courses currently offered in the national curriculum.

It really is time the everyone started making education cheaper, more accessible and more meaningful to the future aspirations of our children - MOOCs may well be the means to do that.


Monday, September 02, 2013

Time to look at a balloon project again?

Just a quick blog post from my phone, more as a "note to self" as a future project than a full write up, but perhaps it may also serve as a starting point for others who follow my blog to begin their own research...

I've looked at and dismissed a high altitude balloon project several times in the past. There have been a number of reasons, but not least of these has been the costs involved - the latex balloon, large volume of helium required to fill it and the risk of losing an expensive payload all make for an expensive flight.
However a few news posts and blog entries on the web recently have found their way to my attention, suggesting that there is a lower cost entry route to this fascinating area of research.

I refer of course to "pico balloon projects".

Unlike the more frequently reported "high altitude" flights which carry complex payloads, usually equipped with cameras to "near space" heights of around 30km using a meteorological balloon and parachute recovery system, Pico balloon projects carry a very lightweight payload - typically just a few tens of grams - and are lifted using inexpensive foil "party" balloons (£3.95!!). They make a maximum altitude of just a few km, but can under ideal conditions make lengthy flights.

The weight restriction on the payload is governed by the very limited lift available from the balloon itself, but should not be viewed too negatively as with a little ingenuity a lot of technology can be packed into a 50g mass. It does also mean that the overall cost of the payload is lower, an advantage if recovery is uncertain.

From the little bit of research I've done, it seems there are some "off the shelf" boards available (pcb designs and firmware are open source). Personally, I would probably want to develop my own flight computer - probably using an arduino as the test platform, then building a cut down version using just the required components only (which looks to be the way others have gone too).
Bellow are a very few quick links to get you started...

edit (I forgot this one!) : (hardware)  (balloons)  (general info - not pico specific)