Coding for Kids

While not every student might want to write their own software, understanding the big ideas of coding is a skill that all students would benefit from, even the very young ones. Understanding the key ideas of computational thinking – identifying patterns, thinking algorithmically, manipulating data, solving real problems, etc – is an important step in helping our students build mastery over their world.

This presentation aims to take you on a guided tour through some of the resources available to your students to help them learn the principles of creating code.  It starts by looking at a range of desktop and mobile apps suitable for teaching very young students to program, right through to tools and websites that can help your older students learn to hack code, and much more.

If you do actually try any of this stuff out, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

PS: This is my fourth contribution to the K12 Online Conference, and I think it’s a great format for an online event. I like how it drip feeds out a bunch of presentations over a 2 week period online, but continues to make them available as a permanent archive. There is quite a collection of presentations in there now. Check them out!

Making Conferences Worthwhile

Conference

Having just experienced an interesting juxtaposition of two quite different conference modes, I was struck by the following thoughts…

I spent most of last weekend putting a presentation together for the k12 online conference.  This virtual conference was started by a small group of teachers and has run every year since 2006. It is composed entirely of online video presentations of up to 20 minutes in length. These videos are presentation of ideas, best practice, classroom examples and big thinking submitted by educators from around the world. Presenters submit proposals just like a conventional conference, and these proposals are vetted by a selection panel for quality and relevance. Selected presenters then produce their 20 minute video and submit it and each year, over a 2 week period, these videos are released publicly.  There are a few live events and such to accompany them over the 2 weeks that the “conference” is running, but importantly these video presentations live on afterwards on the website for anyone to use and benefit from.  If you’ve never seen them, they are all available at www.k12onlineconference.org.  Go check them out.  The conference starts this year in about 2 weeks time and I recommend it to you.

 Alongside that, I spent the last two days at a real physical conference here in Sydney. It offered many excellent opportunities for networking and sharing. We heard from excellent keynotes, did a number of hands-on workshops, and best of all we had lots of student participation.  It was a great couple of days that I personally got a lot out of, and in my mind there is clearly still a place for this kind of face to face conference event.

However, what struck me was a couple of sessions I went to that could very well have been released as 20 minute videos and been just as effective.  These sessions were basically just someone presenting a set of slides and explaining them.  While I did get some useful information from these sessions, I could have just as easily got the same value from them if they were short video presentations, much like the k12 online experience.

It got me thinking about what types of experiences are best suited for real physical conference events.  Unless we get a chance to interact, ask questions, contribute to conversations, get hands on experience, and do things that require your actual physical presence, then perhaps those other things don’t belong in a real physical conference.  I feel a bit cheated when I go to an event (and pay good money to do so) only to feel as though what I experienced could have been just as well communicated virtually through video or some other means.  I feel a bit the same when I go to a real physical conference and find that one of the “keynotes” is being beaming in via satellite on a big screen that we all just sit and watch.  I expect better than that.

Just like we talk about the SAMR model of technology integration to do things with computers that are more than just a computerised version of what we currently do with pen and paper, perhaps we need to be thinking about what a modern physical conference should look like by making it into something more than that which can be experienced equally well virtually.  If I can get value out of a conference by simply following the twitter hashtag (and saving myself $1000 in travel expenses) then conferences are going to have to start offering a lot more than sitting in a room and hearing someone speak at me.  Prior to the rise of social networks, live streaming, blogging, etc, you basically HAD to turn up if you wanted to get value from the event.  That’s no longer the case.

I attend quite a few conference events each year, I’m guessing more than most people, and often the ONLY real benefit of attending is the networking and connections. And increasingly, real physical conferences are simply just a chance to meet people in “meetspace” that I’ve already known online for quite a while. I really enjoy the chance to meet people IRL that I’ve only known through the networks, but I don’t feel the need to pay huge amounts of money to do so if the rest of the conference doesn’t give back anything above what a virtual event could have given.

I’m not against real physical conference events – far from it – but I do think they need to morph into something that offers considerably more than the current format used by most of them. I don’t want to attend a conference to have someone show me PowerPoint slides or show me how to do something that I could have learned by watching a YouTube video. I want a compelling reason to attend (and those reasons do exist!) but I need something more to show for having attended the event than just a increase in the amount I owe on my credit card.  Conferences need to provide more than just information, because I can get that anywhere.  They need to provide experiences… moments that could not have happened any other way. Moment that change the way I think, teach or see the world.  (Do you think people go to events like SXSW or Burning Man for the information? I doubt it! It’s about having a peak experience)

I find it strangely odd to hear people talk about conferences as their big chance to get some PD. Sure, professional associations are important and I hope you all belong to one that suits you, but be aware that the chance to grow professionally is not something that happens annually or biannually.  PD in this day and age is a matter of being immersed in the right networks of people, and it’s an all the time thing that never stops.  Whether it’s something like Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn or Google+, or Scootle Community or listening to podcasts or reading blogs or watching YouTube or some other means… the point is that it is constant.  You CANNOT stay up to date anymore by attending an annual conference, or waiting for your state association to keep you informed.

PD is no longer something that is occasionally done TO you by an external third party. It is something you do FOR yourself, by yourself, constantly.  That’s just a professional responsibility.

Creative Commons photo by Zigazou76

A Little More Scratch

Towards the end of the 20 minute video I made for K12 Online, Teaching Kids To Think Using Scratch, I very briefly mentioned two other things that I would have liked to say more about but simply didn’t have enough time in the time allowed.

The first thing was the use of Scratch on the iPad and the iPhone.  I mentioned that there was a Scratch iOS app, but didn’t have time to elaborate.  Since then, a few people contacted me about this app and wanted to know more, telling me that the couldn’t find it in the Apple App Store.  The reason you can’t find it is unfortunately quite simple… it’s been removed from the App Store and is no longer available so unless you got a copy of it prior to it being removed, you’re out of luck I’m afraid.

So if you missed out, sorry… but if it’s any consolation, the Scratch app only allowed you to browse the Scratch website and then execute existing Scratch projects.  You couldn’t actually manipulate code or use it as a tool for creating programs, so all those schools implementing iPad programs and getting all excited about the possibility of doing Scratch on the iPads… sorry, it was never a possibility anyway.

But the main thing I wanted to follow up on was the PicoBoards.  I was put onto the PicoBoards by my buddy Martin Levins, and they are proving to be a fabulous extension to what you can do with Scratch. Essentially they are a circuit board  with a bunch of sensors on them that you connect to your computer via USB so that Scratch can directly address the sensors on the board.  With a rheostat (voltage slider), microphone, light sensor, button, and four resistance circuits, the Picoboards open up all sorts of possibilities for creating software based programs that interact directly with the real world.

Anyway, blah, blah, blah… there’s lots more I could say about them, but just watch the video. And then go buy a few.  Your kids will really like them.  Trust me.

Teaching Kids To Think Using Scratch

I’ve been teaching Scratch to my students lately, and it’s made me remember just how much I enjoy dabbling with programming.  I’m really not much of a code monkey, but I do enjoy writing programs, telling the computer what I want it to do, and then having that feeling of mastery when it actually does what I tell it to do!

I heard a lot about Scratch before I actually started using it myself… people kept telling me how good it was, but for some reason I never really got around to trying it myself.  When I finally did take a look at it, I couldn’t believe I waited so long to check it out!  It’s a GREAT piece of software that all kids should spend some time learning how to use.  I’d encourage you to NOT make the same mistake I did, and wait so long before looking at it.

I taught myself to write computer programs back in the 80s on a second hand Commodore Pet computer.  It used a form of BASIC, the same language used on the original Apple II computers, and I thought learning to program was the coolest thing ever. Being able to write instructions into a computer and get it to do stuff was a real buzz for me… a geeky buzz to be sure, but a buzz nonetheless.  🙂

Over the past 20 years I’ve taught quite a lot of programming to children and without fail it’s something they get a real kick out of.  They really seem to engage with the big ideas of programming – problem solving, thinking mathematically and using logic and reasoning. It’s the practical application of those ideas and the creative thinking required to solve authentic problems that forms the basis of a truly engaging learning experience.  While I don’t believe that everyone necessarily needs to become a computer programmer, I do think that everyone would benefit from learning the basic skills and mental gymnastics required to write simple computer programs.  I’ve found it to be an incredibly useful skill, and the underlying understanding it gives into computers and how they do what they do has come in really handy over the years.

Scratch takes all of the essential programming constructs like sequencing, conditional branching, control structures, data manipulations, etc, and wraps them in a very friendly, very easy to use environment that even the youngest students can use with just a little knowledge.  It’s quite intuitive to learn and you can do simple things fairly easily, yet there is really no limit as to how far you take it.  Don’t be like me and hear about it but do nothing… download a copy now, give it to your kids and watch the magic happen.

For this year’s K12 Online Conference I did a presentation about Scratch, called Teaching Kids To Think Using Scratch.  It’s trying to squeeze a lot of stuff into a small space, since the presentations are capped at 20 minutes, but I think it’s a reasonable introduction to some of the key ideas behind Scratch.

As you can see in the unscripted footage of the kids towards the end of the video, they talk about solving their own problems and figuring out how to work things out for themselves… to me this is what real learning should be all about.  Watch the clip of the two girls working out what the variables should be in order to make the sprite move exactly the way they want, the engagement on their faces, and the expression of triumph when it finally works the way they want… as Lexie says, “Scratch brings out your inner awesomeness!”  I think she’s right.

There was so much more I wanted to include in this video, but I simply couldn’t squeeze it all in.  Instead, I’m going to add some further resources at www.chrisbetcher.com/scratch, so drop by and take a peek at what’s there (It’s a bit of a work in progress, but it’s an open wiki so feel free to add anything you think might be useful!)

K12 Online 2010

Ways of Working

I hope you’ve all been following the K12 Online Conference this year. There have been some fabulous presentations coming out of this year’s event and, as usual, there has been a diverse collection of topics and ideas with something for everyone. You can check out the entire conference at k12online.ning.com

I had the privilege of being able to contribute to the conference again this year with a presentation called Ways of Working. I must admit that it deviated a bit from my original submission idea, which was to create a movie that followed the processes used by three different students as they responded to a task from their teacher. I was planning on looking how each of the three students used the web and social technologies to take a slightly different approach to dealing with the set task.

As so often happens, the intention of what I wanted to do was quickly drowned out by the time and resources I actually had to make it happen, so the presentation morphed into what you see above. It’s not exactly what I’d planned, but I’m still pretty happy with it… it still looks at most of the things I wanted to include, but just not in the way I’d originally envisioned.

It was an interested experience to hang all this stuff off a single focus point, in this case, the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition that takes place in Sydney each October/November. I particularly liked the idea of using SxS as the core for the presentation because I know of quite a few schools that do actually use it as the basis for a thematic unit of work for their students so I know that it really does have a “real world” use in education. I was also quite fascinated with the way that social media and web technologies have infiltrated and expanded the event over the last few years, and I think it offers a great example of how the web and the real world can collide in a good way. I also liked the notion that the use of technology in schools can (and should!) be used to support real live physical events, and that technology really can be used to enrich a real world experience. And finally, because K12 Online is such an international event, I wanted to take the opportunity to showcase a little bit of Sydney, this beautiful city in which I feel so lucky to live.

Hope you enjoy the presentation, and that you take the time to check out the other 79 or so presentations that have been part of the conference this year.

K12 Online Conference starts today

Of all the conferences and professional development events I’ve taken part in over the last few years, the K12 Online Conference is the one that I think has had the most impact.  Not surprisingly, because unlike many “one-hit” conferences that are over at the end of the weekend, K12 Online rolls out over an extended two week period, releasing several presentations each day on a wide range of topics.  These presentations are all in some multimedia format, usually a video, but they could be in whatever format the presenter chooses, and they live on permanently beyond the actual conference itself.  It really is, as they say, the conference that never ends.

The K12 Online Conference started in 2006 as the brainchild of a couple of North American teachers.  If you want the full story of the conference and how it started, you might like to listen to episode 16 of the Virtual Staffroom podcast where I got to interview those who started it.  Ever since that first year, I’ve looked forward to K12 Online each year.  There’s an incredible effort behind it… I can vouch for that, as I volunteered to be on one of the organising subcommittees in 2007 and 2008, and I’ve also contributed presentations in 2008 and 2009.  So I can tell you from first hand experience that there is a huge amount of work that takes place behind the scenes, from many passionate and committed educators, to make this all happen.

Anyway, the 2009 conference, with the theme “Bridging the Divide” was officially opened today with a pre conference keynote from the fabulous Kim Cofino.  Like everything Kim does, it’s full of passion and insight into what it means to be an effective teacher in the 21st century.  I’ll embed it here, but you should probably head over to the K12 Online site and check out all the other stuff going on there.

Once you’ve watched it, go check out the schedule of stuff that will be released over the next few weeks. There’s something for everyone.

Then once you have seen the schedule, make sure you grab some of the presentations for this year’s conference. Heck, why not subscribe to one of the RSS feeds and get them as they are released.  You won’t regret it.

Still Quite Delicious

The K12 Online Conference is well and truly over for another year (well, in as much as a virtual, permanently archived conference can ever be “over”), but I thought I’d re-post this presentation I made for it.  It’s called I Like Delicious Things and looks at how tagging works in systems like Flickr and Delicious, and how tags can accumulate into complete systems of organisation called folksonomies.

I know it’s already online at the K12 Online website, but I recently uploaded a slightly bigger, higher res version to Vimeo.  I’m guessing that there are still lots of people who never saw this on the original K12 Online site, so here it is again if you’re interested…


I Like Delicious Things from Chris Betcher on Vimeo.