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

Time to Drop Calculators in Favour of Notebook Programming?

With the UK national curriculum for schools set to include a healthy dose of programming from September 2014 (Statutory guidance – National curriculum in England: computing programmes of study) I’m wondering what the diff will be on the school day (what gets dropped if computing is forced in?) and who’ll be teaching it?

A few years ago I spent way too much time engaged in robotics related school outreach activities. One of the driving ideas was that we could use practical and creative robotics as a hands-on platform in a variety of curriculum context: maths and robotics, for example, or science and robotics. We also ran some robot fashion shows – I particularly remember a two(?) day event at the Quay Arts Centre on the Isle of Wight where a couple of dozen or so kids put on a fashion show with tabletop robots – building and programming the robots, designing fashion dolls to sit on them, choosing the music, doing the lights, videoing the show, and then running the show itself in front of a live audience. Brilliant.

On the science side, we ran an extended intervention with the Pompey Study Centre, a study centre attached to the Portsmouth Football Club, that explored scientific principles in the context of robot football. As part of the ‘fitness training’ programme for the robot footballers, the kids had to run scientific experiments as they calibrated and configured their robots.

The robot platform – mechanical design, writing control programmes, working with sensors, understanding interactions with the real world, dealing with uncertainty – provided a medium for creative problem solving that could provide a context for, or be contextualised by, the academic principles being taught from a range of curriculum areas. The emphasis was very much on learning by doing, using an authentic problem solving context to motivate the learning of principles in order to be able to solve problems better or more easily. The idea was that kids should be able to see what the point was, and rehearse the ideas, strategies and techniques of informed problem solving inside the classroom that they might then be able to draw on outside the classroom, or in other classrooms. Needless to say, we were disrespectful of curriculum boundaries and felt free to draw on other curriculum areas when working within a particular curriculum area.

In many respects, robotics provides a great container for teaching pragmatic and practical computing. But robot kit is still pricey and if not used across curriculum areas can be hard for schools to afford. There are also issues of teacher skilling, and the set-up and tear-down time required when working with robot kits across several different classes over the same school day or week.

So how is the new computing curriculum teaching going to be delivered? One approach that I think could have promise if kids are expected to used text based programming languages (which they are required to do at KS3) is to use a notebook style programming environment. The first notebook style environment I came across was Mathematica, though expensive license fees mean I’ve never really used it (Using a Notebook Interface).

More recently, I’ve started playing with IPython Notebooks (“ipynb”; for example, Doodling With IPython Notebooks for Education).

(Start at 2 minutes 16 seconds in – I’m not sure that WordPress embeds respect the time anchor I set. Yet another piece of hosted WordPress crapness.)

For a history of IPython Notebooks, see The IPython notebook: a historical retrospective.

Whilst these can be used for teaching programming, they can also be used for doing simple arithmetic, calculator style, as well as simple graph plotting. If we’re going to teach kids to use calculators, then maybe:

1) we should be teaching them to use “found calculators”, such as on their phone, via the Google search box, in those two-dimensional programming surfaces we call spreadsheets, using tools such as WolframAlpha, etc;

2) maybe we shouldn’t be teaching them to use calculators at all? Maybe instead we should be teaching them to use “programmatic calculations”, as for example in Mathematica, or IPython Notebooks?

Maths is a tool and a language, and notebook environments, or other forms of (inter)active, executable worksheets that can be constructed and or annotated by learners, experimented with, and whose exercises can be repeated, provide a great environment for exploring how to use and work with that language. They’re also great for learning how the automated execution of mathematical statements can allow you to do mathematical work far more easily than you can do by hand. (This is something I think we often miss when teaching kids the mechanics of maths – they never get a chance to execute powerful mathematical ideas with computational tool support. One argument against using tools is that kids don’t learn to spot when a result a calculator gives is nonsense if they don’t also learn the mechanics by hand. I don’t think many people are that great at estimating numbers even across orders of magnitude even with the maths that they have learned to do by hand, so I don’t really rate that argument!)

Maybe it’s because I’m looking for signs of uptake of notebook ideas, or maybe it’s because it’s an emerging thing, but I noticed another example of notebook working again today, courtesy of @alexbilbie: reports written over Neo4J graph databases submitted to the Neo4j graph gist winter challenge. The GraphGist how to guide looks like they’re using a port of, or extensions to, an IPython Notebook, though I’ve not checked…

Note that IPython notebooks have access to the shell, so other languages can be used within them if appropriate support is provided. For example, we can use R code in the IPython notebook context.

Note that interactive, computationaal and data analysis notebooks are also starting to gain traction in certain areas of research under the moniker “reproducible research”. An example I came across just the other day was The Dataverse Network Project, and an R package that provides an interface to it: dvn – Sharing Reproducible Research from R.

In much the same way that I used to teach programming as a technique for working with robots, we can also teach programming in the context of data analysis. A major issue here is how we get data in to and out of a programming environment in an seamless way. Increasingly, data sources hosted online are presenting APIs (programmable interfaces) with wrappers that provide a nice interface to a particular programming language. This makes it easy to use a function call in the programming language to pull data into the programme context. Working with data, particularly when it comes to charting data, provides another authentic hook between maths and programming. Using them together allows us to present each as a tool that works with the other, helping answer the question “but why are learning this?” with the response “so now you can do this, see this, work with this, find this out”, etc. (I appreciate this is quite a utilitarian view of the value of knowledge…)

But how far can we go in terms of using “raw”, but very powerful, computational tools in school? The other day, I saw this preview of the Wolfram Language:

There is likely to be a cost barrier to using this language, but I wonder: why shouldn’t we use this style of language, or at least the notebook style of computing, in KS3 and 4? What are the barriers (aside from licensing cost and machine access) to using such a medium for teaching computing in context (in maths, in science, in geography, etc)?

Programming puritans might say that notebook style computing isn’t real programming… (I’m not sure why, but I could imagine they might… erm… anyone fancy arguing that line in the comments?!:-) But so what? We don’t want to teach everyone to be a programmer, but we do maybe want to help them realise what sorts of computational levers there are, even if they don’t become computational mechanics?

Written by Tony Hirst

February 26, 2014 at 12:38 pm

Posted in Infoskills, Thinkses

2 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on e-learning.

    mixmaxmin

    February 26, 2014 at 9:00 pm

  2. […] couldn’t get to sleep last night mulling over thoughts that had surfaced after posting Trying to find useful things to do with emerging technologies in open education Time to Drop Calcul…. This sort of thing: what goes on when you get someone to add three and […]


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