Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Science or Technology or ...

I can't seem to get off thinking about the nature, and the future, of Computing in schools, so here is yet another post on the subject... {I'll try to get back to more general educational computing themes soon.}

Danger, Will Robinson!
Originally uploaded by drp
We spent a good bit of yesterday morning wrestling with the Technologies outcomes for A Curriculum for Excellence and comparing them with the Science outcomes. It took us a long time and I'm not sure we're much closer to drafting a response. Once again, at least part of the problem was exploring the boundaries between ICT and Computing. We were trying to ensure that the ICT requirements, stuff that every pupil needs to know/do was covered but we were keen to see a good foundation for Computing Science courses too.

What prompted this post however, was a response to my Difficult teenager post by Rob Hill: Computing vs ICT. He says, "...I am not certain that Computing can ever be a science in that it does not have a body of fundamental knowledge independent of other sciences. It is a very important technology, perhaps the most important at the present time and thus deserves academic study."

I'll post my reply to him here as well because I'm still thinking it through and I'd be interested to see other people's views:
…I think it depends on how you define “science”. If you take a very strict interpretation of the definition you venture above, you wouldn’t be left with much! See for example the recent xkcd cartoon:

I would argue that all sciences have bodies of knowledge that overlap to a greater or lesser degree. As a new science (and I’m still going to claim its a science… so there!) Computing has yet to establish it’s identity and stake a claim to a clearly defined body of knowledge - hence my teenager analogy. However, Computing is not unique in arguing about what’s in and out… it’s just older sciences have more consensus about what’s in! (For example I heard a great programme on the multiverse where the experts admitted that many physicists think what they are doing is philosophy rather than physics.)

I suspect there is however a growing body of science knowledge that we can legitimately claim as our own. Some of it may have grown out of other sciences but Computing has stamped its identity on it and pushed it further in a particular direction that it may have gone otherwise.

… I think I need to think more on this though. Thank you for pushing me to think it through a bit more carefully.
Final thought is a poster I blogged about a while ago but got no response at the time. The poster said, "[Insert subject here] is the unequalled agent of mental discipline and the embodiment of constructive and inventive thinking." Anyone want to have a go now at guessing what subject is being described?

So, any comments? Computing - a science or a technology. Discuss. :-)

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Computing Science and Games Programming

I caught a report on the radio this morning about the UK computer games industry. Perhaps not surprisingly, they are finding the same recruitment problems as the rest of the Computing/IT sector and are complaining they can't get enough suitably qualified graduates.

BBC NEWS | Technology | UK games industry needs brains

Franci plays maze
Originally uploaded by nico.cavallotto
What the radio clip I heard included and what is absent from the video clip above was a conversation with a university person. The university lecturer said that applicants to the course needed a good A-Level Maths to get in. "You need maths to make computer games?", the reporter exclaimed with obvious shock and amazement! I then did my grumpy old man bit and shouted at the radio expressing my own surprise at the reporters surprise. :-)

At the risk of flogging a dead horse long after it is a greasy spot... I wonder if the reporter's incredulous response is caused in part by the confusion between ICT and Computing. If you see the two as equivalent, it could lead to the following wrong thinking:

Computing can't be all that hard, can it? I mean everyone can do it already. You just press a few buttons and the computer does it all for you. Why a three year old child could write a computer game! Now maths... maths is hard. Are you sure you need to be able to understand something as complicated as maths to produce a game?

Perhaps I'm being unfair to the reporter but the amazed response to the idea that you need to understand maths and physics and make use of a whole range of other complex disciplines seemed to show a lack of understanding of what computer game creation, and perhaps more generally what Computing Science is all about.

We really need to do a better job of explaining Computing Science. We need to make clear the complex, inter-disciplinary nature of Computing Science and the intellectual challenge and rigour that is needed to be successful in Computing. Also, we need to make clear the huge skills shortage that our Computing/IT industries are facing unless we get our act together soon.

What do you think? Have I misrepresented the reporter? Are most people clued up on the complexity and challenge of Computing? Or is schools ICT making Computing seem low-level, boring, unchallenging and unrewarding?

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Difficult teenager

I still find myself talking about the difference between Computing and ICT and the need to make the distinction in education. There is general consensus (I think) that the distinction has to be made but there is still uncertainty as to what Computing is. The best one line definition I've heard is:
Computing is the science of the digital world
This is OK for a sound bite but perhaps not hugely helpful in defining the core of the subject. However, at least it asserts that Computing is a science.

As we were talking about this the other day, I found myself describing Computing (well perhaps just school's Computing) as a difficult teenager. Not quite sure what it is yet. Growing out of what it was but not clear about what it will be. As Britney would put it: "I'm not a girl, not yet a woman".

The more I ranted about this, the more pleased I became about the metaphor.

It wasn't that long ago that Computing was the golden child - the cute baby that everyone wanted to cuddle. We were turning pupils away from Standard Grade classes and parents were writing to their MPs to demand that their child would get in!

Now we've turned into Kevin the teenager - all angst, acne and anger! We've fallen out with our siblings (ICT) and fallen in with the wrong crowd. Our parents are worried but don't know what to do. Our only hope is that we will be able to get through these troubled teenage times and Computing will take its place with the grown ups of Physics, Chemistry and Biology and make a positive contribution to society, science and schools. However, it could all to easily go wrong. We could skid off the tracks and end up marginalised, disenfranchised and in dispair.

I'm not much further forward in defining the essence of school Computing but at least I had fun pushing a metaphor until it squeaked. What do you think? Helpful analogy or stupid waste of time? :-)

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{I can't quite believe I quoted Britney Spears in this blog post... Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!}

Monday, June 16, 2008

SSciPod - Schools Science Podcasts from Strathclyde

I'm doing some research on podcasts for learning, teaching and assessment with a colleague. We worked with a small number of Biology students who were nearing the end of their teaching course and asked them to record podcasts for use with their pupils. It seemed to go well and we are now looking through their evaluations of the process.

Since the students have finished their analysis, I think I can share their work more widely. My colleague and I came up with all sorts of duff names for the project but one of the students suggested SSciPod and that's the one that everyone liked. However, I'm not sure we have reached a definitive decision on whether that stands for Strathclyde Science Podcasts for Schools or Schools Science Podcasts from Strathclyde. We also wanted to work Jordanhill in there somewhere too, but did not always remember. I suspect we should have been more careful to establish a consistent brand. :-)

Whatever it's called, I found it a really interesting project. The students covered a range of topics and used a variety of methods of presentation. I'm very impressed with what the produced. Our intention is to do it again next session but probably with more students and probably starting earlier with the pupil podcasts.

Although the students have finished their evaluation, we are still interested in getting feedback, so feel free to visit the SSciPod blog and leave your comments/suggestions - especially if you are a pupil or a teacher who uses the podcasts with pupils.

Finally, there is a fair bit of published research on using podcasts in Higher Education but most of it focusses on lecturers producing podcasts for students to listen to. There seems to be little published research on students producing their own podcasts. Also, while there is some research on podcasts to aid learning and teaching, there is less on podcasts as a means of assessment. (Instead of delivering a presentation of their research, our students recorded a podcast. They listened to each others podcasts and left left comments and questions for each other online. We then assessed their podcast and their online interactions.) Therefore, if you know of any research, school or HE based, on learner produced podcasts or podcasts for assessment, I'd love to see it.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

CALLing SickDog

I was at a meeting of the Scottish ICT Development Group today. (That is SICTDG - pronounced Sick Dog!) As always there were parts that were more relevant to me than others but almost all that was discussed was interesting.

158/366: Victoria Quay
Originally uploaded by DavidDMuir
SICTDG tours the country and pretty much every meeting is in a different Local Authority but Friday was a bit different because we met in the Scottish Government building situated at Victoria Quay in Leith, Edinburgh.

I hope to say something about the item I presented on the future of Computing as a discrete subject in schools later but here I am going to talk about some of the work of CALL Scotland. (CALL has recently changed the words in its acronym... I think - it now stands for Communication Aids for Language and Learning.)

First off, they provide a number of freebies. For example, they have developed a screen reader called WordTalk. It is a free plug-in for Microsoft Word (Windoze only I think), which can speak the text of the document highlighting stuff as it reads. And as I said at the start of this paragraph... it's free. The second freebie is a high quality Scottish accented computer voice known as Heather which, did I mention this already, can be downloaded free. It should work with any program that is SAPI 5 compliant.

Next, an interesting piece of news. CALL reported a change in the CLA licence that most (all?) schools have which allows them to make copies of material for educational purposes. For some time, the CLA licence has allowed greater freedom to copy for people who are "visually impaired" so that the material can be adapted and made accessible. However, recently the relevant phrase in the licence has been extended to "visually impaired or otherwise disabled". The CALL centre's understanding is that this will cover people with a range of print disabilities, for example dyslexia. It will allow schools to scan textbooks etc. and make them available to pupils electronically. CALL are setting up a national database that will enable schools to share scanned material so that many pupils can get the benefit of the legally scanned and electronically available texts without every school going through the pain of converting the text to electronic form.

Finally, and on a similar theme, CALL told us about how they have worked with the SQA to produce Adapted Digital Exams. This means that candidates who would have needed scribes or readers to help them access the exams, can now use screen readers to listen to the paper, or change the background colour of the paper, or enter their answers electronically - depending on their needs. CALL's research shows that the pupils benefit greatly from this approach because of the sense of independence that it gives them and that it can save schools time and money because they do not have the problems of arranging rooms and employing extra invigilators and scribes, etc. I think it is brilliant that such a facility exists but I must admit, I'd like to see the provision extended to every child that wants to make use of it, not just those with print disabilities.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

As my grandfather used to say...

I suspect most families have sayings that get passed down through the generations. Certainly, I find myself quoting my grandfather a fair bit. For example, "It's the auld dog for the hard road and the young pup for the pavement!", is one I use with my own children when I'm feeling a bit hard done to. "Better oot than in", is one my wife is not so keen on, and I still use his toast every New Year: "May the best you've seen in [previous year] be the worst you'll see in [coming year]".

My Grandparent's Wedding
Originally uploaded by DavidDMuir
If I stop to think about it, I'd have to admit that few of these sayings are entirely original but I was surprised recently by the source of one of my favourites: "The graveyards are full of indispensable men.", which my grandfather used to say when he felt my dad was doing something daft like struggling into work when he was clearly too ill to be upright never mind working! A recent discussion of these sayings prompted me to look up that last one up on Google. (Where did we get answers before Google?) It turns out to be a quote from Charles de Gaulle.

Clearly Charles de Gaulle was a great source of wisdom as one of the other quotes on the page Google found was: "How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?". :-)

So, how does your family wisdom shape up? Do you have any words of wisdom from your grandparents that you want to pass on?

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{Oh dear. And it was all going so well. I felt I had got back into the swing of blogging with two or three posts a week, and then, silence! I've been fairly busy but mostly it was just poor organisation. Hopefully things will be easier for the next couple of weeks but in the meantime, this was an off topic post to get me going again.}