ICT lessons used to start with learning to use a mouse! Photo by Stef Noble

This morning I woke up to the rather alarming headline that “dull” ICT was to be dropped from the school curriculum to be replaced by computing. The story coming on the back of a department of education press release summarising  a speech to be given later in the day by education minister Michael Gove.

I’ve learnt from experience to never judge a story by its headline, and the premise of the story that ICT would be dropped in favour of computing seems now a simplification if not a mistake. Nevertheless the speech did contain criticisms of the current ICT curriculum and described much ICT in schools as dull, this based on the recent OFSTED report similarly criticising much ICT teaching. But the speech did also mention excellent practice and teaching by some schools so it wasn’t all negative by any means. It is a fact that many schools spend inordinate amounts of time teaching students basic office software skills, not necessarily a waste of time but certainly not engaging for a large number of students. But contrary to Gove’s crticisms much of this isn’t necessarily down to the existing curriculum, which is fairly broad and flexible, it’s down as much to the play it safe attitude of schools and a lack of suitably qualified ICT and Computing teachers. ICT in many Secondary schools became a place to pick up league table points by offering GCSE level qualifications based on office skills and ticking boxes. Even in schools where this wasn’t the case the threat of Ofsted and school management lead many schools to feel uncomfortable innovating lest the inspectors or school review system should find out that that basics were not being covered. During my time as an ICT and Computing teacher I was lucky to be able to innovate and bring in new ideas but I was “told off” on more than one occasion for deviating too far from what the other teachers were teaching. This wasn’t a problem with what I was teaching but more a problem that we would find it harder to assess, compare or show we are meeting the same standards when different classes were not all learning the same stuff.

From my understanding, today’s announcement gives schools a much freer rein to teach ICT without worrying so much about ticking boxes or being checked up, it sounds like teachers will be given room for innovation… in a best case scenario. In a worst case scenario it could become a box ticking exercise of a different kind, where cross curricular ICT/Computing, both the dream and fear of every ICT teacher, is brought into schools. Cross curricular ICT is done successfully in some schools, where there are no or few discrete ICT lessons and students study different topics in different subjects, sometimes supported by ICT specialists. In reality it is very hard to get to work because in a traditional subject based school curriculum teachers tend to concentrate on teaching their own subject and any ICT would come second, and this is assuming the teachers have sufficient knowledge themselves.

The part of the speech today which I am very excited about is the promotion of computing in school. Computing isn’t a subject that every student will love or thrive at. But like many other subjects it’s important that students at least get to try it and learn some programming. The best coders who will truly bring about innovation and entrepreneurship in the future are not necessarily those who need teaching in detail, but at least giving them the chance to learn the basics could give many students a foundation to develop skills in their own time, ala the developers of the 1980s who graduated from the first generation of home computers to write software, games and create some of the household IT names we have today. The announcement by Gove promoting computing is some feat and a massive u-turn in many ways. Computing, always a niche subject, has gradually been dwindling over the last few years. A group, Computing at School was set up by teachers and industry just a few years ago to try and buck this trend and this group, along with industry pressure and pressure from a number of other interest groups they seem to have caught the ear of the government. It’s a major u-turn for many reasons, when the Conservatives came into power one of the first quangos they scrapped was Becta, the internationally renowned agency for technology in education. Not necessarily an anti technology move but it was easy to see it as such. Next was the promotion of traditional teaching and subjects such as latin. Not necessarily anti-technology but computers didn’t have a place in grammar school education of the past. Next was the e-bac, which included many subjects such as history or geography but not ICT or Computing. Finally last year Michael Gove didn’t even turn up at BETT (the UK based educational technology exhibition which draws people worldwide) a statement in itself.

Such a big u-turn should inspire extra confidence. But anyone who has been in state education knows that one government announcement doesn’t make real change. All teachers have had the experience of sitting in an INSET (compulsory teacher training) session learning about a new initiative to improve their teaching but in reality finding it another box ticking exercise or finding it scrapped or superceded a year later. A few years ago the government decided that ICT would be tested as a SAT exam in an onscreen test. I spent 3 days of training along with 2 other ICT colleagues preparing for this, as well as hours of classroom time running the test with students rather than teaching. Our network manager likewise spent hours configuring the software. Not long after we found that the “award winning” test had been scrapped, not just the cost of the project down the drain but all the teacher hours. Bringing computing into schools may also be a large financial investment but with support from industry and other organisations that is set to grow it may just work. There is already a scarcity of qualified ICT teachers in schools, teachers such as myself with a computer science degree are even rarer, but to teach computing to a certain level you don’t necessarily need a degree, you need patience, willpower, support, an abilility to learn but most importantly time to learn. It can happen and I hope it will happen but we’ll have to wait and see!

The truth of the program is in the compiling (or was it something with pudding and pies)

Certainly in the UK, and I know in many other countries we have problems getting girls and boys to study some subjects. As a Computer Science undergraduate at Edinburgh and Birmingham Universities it was hard not to notice the ratio of boys to girls, I would estimate at least 80% boys when I studied 10 years ago. Similar gender imbalances are common in subjects like physics, science in general and I know conversely some subjects struggle to recruit boys.

As a teacher I was always impressed by the efforts made by individual teachers to get a variety of students to take their subject. During one school fire drill, with all the kids streaming onto the field, it was unusual but great to see a boys PE class come out of the dance studio while a girls group were playing touch rugby on the field. Many national organisations have taken this up and I know in the world of ICT and Computing teaching E-skills UK were one group to take on the challenge especially with their creative CC4G programme which I led for 2 years in my own school.

Two recent events have reminded me of the problem of getting girls into certain fields.

First was the Royal Society’s Call for evidence on Computing in Schools. I made some small contributions to the Mirandanet response to this and received a copy of the BCS and Computing at School’s group response, (Computing at School CAS is a fantastic organisation that works to promote computing in UK schools). The CAS response showed the numbers of students taking Computing at A-level taken from the JCQ (Joint Council for Qualifications) website. I was astonished to learn that last year only 278 girls took A2 computing in whole of England. I taught 3 of them so actually taught over 1% of girls A2 Computing in 2009/2010. All rather depressing. But at least lots of good people are doing good things to try to slowly redress the balance.

That was the first shock I had, the second was a little more surprising. On a bored Sunday Tube (London Underground) journey I picked up a copy of the Toys R Us catalogue sitting on the seat next to me and had a flick through. I promise you I’m not a serial reader of children’s toy catalogues! I was rather surprised with some of the items they were selling and the pictures of each gender child next to the items.

First up the telescopes and sciencey toys

Science Toys

Boys like telescopes

As you can see it’s the boys who are enjoying playing with the telescopes though there is a girl enjoying an anatomy toy. Strike 1 for promoting physics to boys and not girls.

So let’s move to the next photo

Girls with shopping sweeping and ironing toys

Girls with shopping sweeping and ironing toys

Yes that’s right, the girls are not just playing with their ice-cream makers but shopping, sweeping and ironing. Hmm this is getting a little 1950s stereotypical now but it’s all innocent isn’t it. So let’s check on the next page.

Boy with DIY girl with the Cooking

Boy with DIY girl with the Cooking

When I saw these I had to look again, no not at the rather weird thought that a parent may buy their child a toy McDonalds kitchen, but by the other sterotypes. The boy doing his DIY, the girl playing in the kitchen. But wait what’s that in the bottom photo? Is it…

Girl serving boy a burger

Girl serving boy his dinner

…yes a little girl serving food to the little boy, how delightful.

I worry science and ICT teachers are fighting a losing battle.

About a month ago I was contacted by a PR agency working for the TDA on teacher recruitment. They were looking to make a Youtube film to attract people into ICT Teaching following a similar successful campaign around maths in everyday life. Amazingly they approached me after reading this blog and hearing my interview for the Edonis Project.

I had a long and fairly tiring day at Waterfall Studios in Shepherds Bush filming in front of a green screen and constantly forgetting my lines and having to do things again and again from different angles. The results are below and I’m in awe of the computer graphics that they have put around me to make a totally empty room look full.

Film 1

Film 2

I find both videos rather cringeworthy to watch (I did have a cold and a cough on the day of filming!) but I hope they have some effect. I know for sure London and the South East are short of qualified ICT teachers. After completing my Computer Science and Software Engineering degree the world of programming didn’t have much attraction to me and I went into teaching as it brought together two passions of mine, education and technology.

Technology continues to bring so much to education and it is so inspiring being part of online communities such as twitter, mirandanet and edtechroundup where practitioners actively share the most inspirational and creative uses of tech in the classroom.

In common with many other ICT teachers I sometimes find what we teach a little frustrating. Sometimes students are not challenged by the curriculum, you often hear tales of students being fed up with teachers who know far less than they do (not in my school!) and the numbers taking examinations in ICT and Computing continue to fall. Again there are a number of inspirational people working to rectify this including the recently formed computing at school group who are pushing forward new ideas for getting computing into school.

Being a teacher and an ICT teacher isn’t an easy job, you have to learn to manage all the distractions that computers and the internet offer to children, you have to constantly keep up with all the new software and technology that change every year, and you have to help your colleagues out with all their ICT problems. But you also get to use technology that can be inspiring, children love computers, and once you get over the hurdle of realising that you can’t know everything, learning a new trick from an 11 year old student is a real joy!

Often good things come at once. Sometimes they come at the same time and you can’t make them all – but yesterday the all worked out fine and I had a busy but fantastic day that I had to share on my blog!

On a normal day I’m in school all day, teaching classes, preparing for them or doing work around my e-learning responsibilities. Most of my CPD nowadays I tend to do in my own time, via twitter, online groups such as edtechroundup or evening meetings like Mirandamods. Occasionally I get to go to a course, in the daytime – a real old fashioned Inset!

This Thursday was one of those days – I headed over to the institute of education for a morning session on mentoring. This was the third installment of this course aimed at people like me who are mentoring participants in the graduate teacher programme (a method of teacher training in the UK). The course was useful and we learnt about different methods of mentoring most of which was new to me. By the time we had finished it was too late to head back into school so I’d arranged to try and teach my A-level computing class online.

I headed over to the British Library, a wonderful place to work, and it has free Wi-Fi. I sat myself down in the cafe and waited to see if any of my class would join me in an online flashmeeting. Almost on the dot the first students arrived – 3 joined from home and 3 from the school library. We had a 40 minute online lesson and it went okay. The main problem was the other fascinated year 13 students in the school library who kept on coming over to see what was going on. One even joined the lesson. Aside from these disruptions we actually got some work done. I talked the students through database normalisation using a hefty powerpoint presentation. It was hard working out if students were listening, participating or learning. I gauged this by asking questions and getting students to summarise what I had been saying. Based on the answers obviously something had got through! I did get a few strange looks from people in the library cafe.

No sooner had the online lesson finished when I got a skype call from Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano also known as @langwitches . Her 6th grade class interviewed me as part of their project on Jewish communities around the world. I’ve tried to help set them up with different friends of mine on different countries. Apparently Silvia has managed to cover every continent even Antartica! The girl who interviewed me asked great questions and I really enjoyed our 10 minute chat and meeting some of Silvia’s students. I’m very jealous of their project and look forward to seeing the results!

After an hour to kill in the British Library (which flies by when you have work to do) I headed over to the Moorgate offices of Oracle UK where I listened and joined in with the Owers Lecture 2009. The title of the lecture was “Can we reverse the decline of schools’ computing especially with girls”. The two main speakers were Kate Sims and Stephen Heppell who gave plenty of food for though. This was carried on through an audience discussion (we’d by then reformed into a circle) where we heard many points of view. I hope some of the lecture will soon be shared online by the people that were recording it. It’s well worth watching and I will add a link here if it arrives.

Overall a fantastic day – I like to think my school gets value for money when I pop out for an inset!

Today I rely on RSS feeds to provide me with the information I want when I want. I can’t believe that a year ago I didn’t really know what the point of an RSS feed was. RSS is an acronym for really simple syndication, it provides automatically updated feeds from websites, blogs and news sites which can be imported and read using a range of applications on the internet or on your PC. To use RSS feeds on your VLE is pretty simple.

On Moodle there are a couple of different RSS features. You can add RSS blocks to bring in external RSS feeds and you can add RSS funtionality to your site forums to allow others to subscribe to your feeds. It is the former that I use mostly because I’m still to work out how the second works especially with regard to privacy and security in schools (maybe a kind reader will explain the functionality to me).

So a few RSS examples from Rickypedia

1. The Frontpage
I’ve added three RSS feeds to our frontpage. A quote of the day, news from CBBC Newsround (child friendly news headlines) and a “This Day in History” feed. Each provides a little bit of wisdom or knowledge in one hyperlinked line. You can set how many items appear in each feed and how much information you want displayed, just the headlines or more. (the picture below has been edited). I may well remove some in the future to avoid the homepage becoming too cluttered.

Rickypedia RSS feeds
2. Subject Specific Feeds

You can also add RSS feeds in a block on a course page. For my A-level computing students I added links to Wired and Computing magazine newsfeeds to present a mix of internet and business ICT news.

A colleague who teaches Chemistry added links to New Scientist and Chemistry World feeds and picked specific feeds related to energy. She then took it a step further by setting students a homework using the feeds to research a topical news item. A great use of RSS feeds and a great way to get students to read literature relating to the course and gain a wider understanding of the issues.

Problems: One specific problem I have had is with graphics and in particular advertising on a particular feed. On Moodle you can choose to allow your feed to pull in graphics or not – graphics can sometimes mess up the layout of your site by stretching boxes and moving things around on a page. With one feed even when I turned graphics off it would sometimes pull in adverts from feedburner who provided the RSS subscription. Normally I would ditch a feed that put unsolicited adverts on a site but I really wanted this particular one so I found a rather elaborate way around it using yahoo pipes (ask if you want to know more – I don’t want to bore you with the details).

Let me know how you use RSS feeds in your classroom and I’d also love to hear from anyone who has experience turning on the extra RSS functionality in Moodle.