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Trying to find useful things to do with emerging technologies in open education

Different Speeches? Digital Skills Aren’t just About Coding…

Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, gave a speech yesterday on rethinking the ICT curriculum in UK schools. You can read a copy of the speech variously on the Department for Education website, or, err, on the Guardian website.

Seeing these two copies of what is apparently the same speech, I started wondering:

a) which is the “best” source to reference?
b) how come the Guardian doesn’t add a disclaimer about the provenance of, and link, to the DfE version? [Note the disclaimer in the DfE version - "Please note that the text below may not always reflect the exact words used by the speaker."]
c) is the Guardian version an actual transcript, maybe? That is, does the Guardian reprint the “exact words” used by the speaker?

And that made me think I should do a diff… About which, more below…

Before that, however, here’s a quick piece of reflection on how these two things – the reinvention of the the IT curriculum, and the provenance of, and value added to, content published on news and tech industry blog sites – collide in my mind…

So for example, I’ve been pondering what the role of journalism is, lately, in part because I’m trying to clarify in my own mind what I think the practice and role of data journalism are (maybe I should apply for a Nieman-Berkman Fellowship in Journalism Innovation to work on this properly?!). It seems to me that “communication” is one important part (raising awareness of particular issues, events, or decisions), and holding governments and companies to account is another. (Actually, I think Paul Bradshaw has called me out on that, before, suggesting it was more to do with providing an evidence base through verification and triangulation, as well as comment, against which governments and companies could be held to account (err, I think? As an unjournalist, I don’t have notes or a verbatim quote against which to check that statement, and I’m too lazy to email/DM/phone Paul to clarify what he may or may not have said…(The extent of my checking is typically limited to what I can find on the web or in personal archives…which appear to be lacking on this point…))

Another thing I’ve been mulling over recently in a couple of contexts relates to the notion of what are variously referred to as digital or information skills.

The first context is “data journalism”, and the extent to which data journalists need to be able to do programming (in the sense of identifying the steps in a process that can be automated and how they should be sequenced or organised) versus writing code. (I can’t write code for toffee, but I can read it well enough to copy, paste and change bits that other people have written. That is, I can appropriate and reuse other people’s code, but can’t write it from scratch very well… Partly because I can’t ever remember the syntax and low level function names. I can also use tools such as Yahoo Pipes and Google Refine to do coding like things…) Then there’s the question of what to call things like URL hacking or (search engine) query building?

The second context is geeky computer techie stuff in schools, the sort of thing covered by Michael Gove’s speech at the BETT show on the national ICT curriculum (or lack thereof), and about which the educational digerati were all over on Twitter yesterday. Over the weekend, houseclearing my way through various “archives”, I came across all manner of press clippings from 2000-2005 or so about the activities of the OU Robotics Outreach Group, of which I was a co-founder (the web presence has only recently been shut down, in part because of the retirement of the sys admin on whose server the websites resided.) This group ran an annual open meeting every November for several years hosting talks from the educational robotics community in the UK (from primary school to HE level). The group also co-ordinated the RoboCup Junior competition in the UK, ran outreach events, developed various support materials and activities for use with Lego Mindstorms, and led the EPSRC/AHRC Creative Robotics Research Network.

At every robotics event, we’d try to involve kids and/or adults in elements of problem solving, mechanical design, programming (not really coding…) based around some sort of themed challenge: a robot fashion show, for example, or a treasure hunt (both variants on edge following/line following;-) Or a robot rescue mission, as used in a day long activity in the “Engineering: An Active Introduction” (TXR120) OU residential school, or the 3 hour “Robot Theme Park” team building activity in the Masters level “Team Engineering” (T885) weekend school. [If you're interested, we may be able to take bookings to run these events at your institution. We can make them work at a variety of difficulty levels from KS3-4 and up;-)]

Given that working at the bits-atoms interface is where the a lot of the not-purely-theoretical-or-hardcore-engineering innovation and application development is likely to take place over the next few years, any mandate to drop the “boring” Windows training ICT stuff in favour of programming (which I suspect can be taught in not only a really tedious way, but a really confusing and badly delivered way too) is probably Not the Best Plan.

Slightly better, and something that I know is currently being mooted for reigniting interest in computing, is the Raspberry Pi, a cheap, self-contained, programmable computer on a board (good for British industry, just like the BBC Micro was…;-) that allows you to work at the interface between the real world of atoms and the virtual world of bits that exists inside the computer. (See also things like the OU Senseboard, as used on the OU course “My Digital Life” (TU100).)

If schools were actually being encouraged to make a financial investment on a par with the level of investment around the introduction of the BBC Micro, back in the day, I’d suggest a 3D printer would have more of the wow factor…(I’ll doodle more on the rationale behind this in another post…) The financial climate may not allow for that (but I bet budget will manage to get spent anyway…) but whatever the case, I think Gove needs to be wary about consigning kids to lessons of coding hell. And maybe take a look at programming in a wider creative context, such as robotics (the word “robotics” is one of the reason why I think it’s seen as a very specialised, niche subject; we need a better phrase, such as “Creative Technologies”, which could combine elements of robotics, games programming, photoshop, and, yex, Powerpoint too… Hmm… thinks.. the OU has a couple of courses that have just come to the end of their life that between them provide a couple of hundred hours of content and activity on robotics (T184) and games programming (T151), and that we delivered, in part, to 6th formers under the OU’s Young Applicants in Schools Scheme.

Anyway, that’s all as maybe… Because there are plenty of digital skills that let you do coding like things without having to write code. Such as finding out whether there are any differences between the text in the DfE copy of Gove’s BETT speech, and the Guardian copy.

Copy the text from each page into a separate text file, and save it. (You’ll need a text editor for that..) Then, if you haven’t already got one, find yourself a good text editor. I use Text Wrangler on a Mac. (Actually, I think MS Word may have a diff function?)

FInding diffs between txt doccs in Text Wrangler

The difference’s all tend to be in the characters used for quotation marks (character encodings are one of the things that can make all sorts of programmes fall over, or misbehave. Just being aware that they may cause a problem, as well as how and why, would be a great step in improving the baseline level understanding of folk IT. Some of the line breaks don’t quite match up either, but other than that, the text is the same.

Now, this may be because Gove was a good little minister and read out the words exactly as they had been prepared. Or it may be the case that the Guardian just reprinted the speech without mentioning provenance, or the disclaimer that he may not actually have read the words of that speech (I have vague memories of an episode of Yes, Minister, here…;-)

Whatever the case, if you know: a) that it’s even possible to compare two documents to see if they are different (a handy piece of folk IT knowledge); and b) know a tool that does it (or how to find a tool that does it, or a person that may have a tool that can do it), then you can compare the texts for yourself. And along the way, maybe learn that churnalism, in a variety of forms, is endemic in the media. Or maybe just demonstrate to yourself when the media is acting in a purely comms, rather than journalistic, role?

PS other phrases in the area: “computational thinking”. Hear, for example: A conversation with Jeannette Wing about computational thinking

PPS I just remembered – there’s a data journalism hook around this story too… from a tweet exchange last night that I was reminded of by an RT:

josiefraser: RT @grmcall: Of the 28,000 new teachers last year in the UK, 3 had a computer-related degree. Not 3000, just 3.
dlivingstone: @josiefraser Source??? Not found it yet. RT @grmcall: 28000 new UK teachers last year, 3 had a computer-related degree. Not 3000, just 3
josiefraser: That ICT qualification teacher stat RT @grmcall: Source is the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/jan/09/computer-studies-in-schools

I did a little digging and found the following document on the General Teaching Council of England website – Annual digest of statistics 2010–11 – Profiles of registered teachers in England [PDF] – that contains demographic stats, amongst others, for UK teachers. But no stats relating to subject areas of degree level qualifications held, which is presumably the data referred to in the tweet. So I’m thinking: this is partly where the role of data journalist comes in… They may not be able to verify the numbers by checking independent sources, but they may be able to shed some light on where the numbers came from and how they were arrived at, and maybe even secure their release (albeit as a single point source?)

Written by Tony Hirst

January 12, 2012 at 1:10 pm

4 Responses

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  1. The thing at the start of speeches is usually “Check against delivery”, which covers the Yes Minister-ism you mention. One imagines that the Guardian checked it against delivery and decided that it accurately reflected what was said, thus removing the disclaimer.

    They still should have linked to the DfE site thought. Naughty little scamps.

    David Kernohan (@dkernohan)

    January 12, 2012 at 1:43 pm

  2. @David I was just taking a literalist line…! Similar situations arise in meeting minutes where the minutes accurately reflect what was, in hindsight, intended to be said rather than what was actually discussed or decided at the time…;-)

    Tony Hirst

    January 12, 2012 at 1:57 pm


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