Sunday, 7 February 2016

Coding: what schools do...

...that libraries could take inspiration from.

Last week I got sent on a training organised by the North-East group of ASCEL, the Association of Senior Children's and Education Librarians. Now, I'm clearly not a children's librarian (my association wouldn't be ASCEL but more something like: ACGIFL, the Association of Copyright Geeks and Intellectual Freedom Librarians! If it existed, of course.) My colleague who was supposed to go had an emergency and basically the head of the Children's team came to me and said: "Aude, it's training about coding, robotics etc. - you're into those things, would you go so the place isn't wasted?"

So there I am the next day, at the Open Zone CLC in South Shields. The Open Zone CLC team help school teachers across South Tyneside with IT. They provide support and training on the technical side of things but also deliver computing lessons for pupils as young as 4 years old and up to 18.
Interestingly, Open Zone also runs some workshops for parents, specifically on e-safety - however, they found there was a very low take-up, as the vast majority of parents don't realise how important safety and privacy online are!

Our trainer started by telling us about the new computing curriculum for Key Stage 1 & 2 (primary school, 5 to 11 year-olds), which encompasses computer science, information technology and digital literacy including e-safety. The day was then spent trialling some of the tools and devices Open Zone use to teach what the national curriculum prescribes.

Screenshot from "Daisy the dinosaur"
We started by trying out some coding apps for younger children:
 Daisy the dinosaur (free iPad app; can be used by 3-year-olds)
 Kodable (didn't try that one)
 Hopscotch (free iPad app; good but I got confused by the categories)
 Scratch junior (the little brother of the MIT platform; free app available for Android, iOS and even Kindle)

Before moving on to tools for an older age range we got to play with Bee Bots - though to be correct the ones we used were Blue Bots (connecting to a tablet via Bluetooth). These bees are programmable floor robots - and they're really fun.

Other recommended educational coding platforms for an older age range:
 Scratch (obviously!)
 Kodu (Microsoft programme that works with Xbox controllers and apparently "a bit more exciting than Scratch")
 Codecademy (free online courses for different programming languages)
 Hour of Code (yay!)

Blue Bot programmed on iPad and raring to go

I got called "swotty" several times during the day, and the first was when the trainer started talking about the Hour of Code. I totally agree when she said it is brilliant to get people started with coding and can be used for both children and adults. Where I disagree is when she recommended the Star Wars Hour of Code (in her defense, she did admit it was partly because she is a Star Wars fan!) whereas I think the Minecraft one's the best (because the squares make it easier to program how far the character needs to go. Plus Minecraft is way cooler than Star Wars - right?!  Erm, let's move on...)

Next on the agenda was Lego. Open Zone use Lego WeDo with primary school pupils and Mindstorms with secondary. We got to try the Mindstorms EV3. The programming interface still uses "blocks" of sorts but the options on the EV3 are definitely more advanced: first of all you have to figure out which motors to use (the robot has 3!) to make it move, and then there are all sorts of options and sensors to play with.
Note: if you checked out the Blue Bots and thought they were expensive, don't look at the Legos or your eyes will water.

Below is a very short video of an EV3 I programmed to: move forward, wait 3sec, turn around, move forward.  

After that (and some lunch), the trainer took us through a lesson plan she uses to teach pupils enough coding to create a game using Scratch (in a one and a half hour session). I'd played with Scratch before but not in-depth so that was my favourite part of the day!
Open Zone use the Scratch 1 offline editor (they have it installed on all the computers) rather than the web-based version.
Idea: in a library setting Scratch could be used to re-create scenes from books, for example.

Finally, we talked about the BBC Micro:bit which every Year 7 school kid is supposed to receive... at some point this year of the next, and had a look at Raspberry Pi. Open Zone had just received some Raspberry Pi kits they'd bought from their counterparts in North Tyneside. I had seen the Build IT kits demonstrated at the last Maker Faire UK but getting my hands on one I was less impressed. I guess it's handy for schools because it comes with a breadboard and the Pi mounted on a card (so less risk of losing one) plus some cables, LEDs, resistors... It also comes with a project booklet, but when 4 librarians have a look at the very first project and all conclude that it's not clear what one is supposed to do, I feel like my library didn't miss anything not getting those.

All in all it was an interesting day where I got to try out several tools - a bit like a "try before you buy"! And now it's time for a think with my colleagues to decide what we actually can and want to do in terms of offering coding activities for our customers young and old to learn in libraries.