The Cool ICT Things Going On in Welsh Schools – 3 Interviews

( Post 17 of 25 )

ICT Steering Group report photoThe inspiration for this post comes from my last job. My boss at my last agency role was really passionate about improving the way that ICT (an extended synonym of IT to include Communications) is taught in the Welsh education sector, in primary and secondary schools. In fact, he co-chaired a Steering Group tasked with “[considering] the future of computer science and ICT in schools in Wales” – you can read their report here.

Inspired by this, I spoke to three sets of people who are closely involved with ICT in schools – two projects tasked with running workshops for pupils and a company that provides tech training for teachers. IT/ICT has come a long way since many of us reading this were in school, and some really cool things are going on these days…

Technocamps

Faron & Stewart of Technocamps photoTechnocamps is a project led by Swansea University – but also in partnership with Aberystwyth University, Bangor University and the University of South Wales – aimed at delivering workshops across Wales on programming, app development, games development, robotics and other computing-related subjects. I spoke to Professor Faron Moller (Director of Technocamps) and Stewart Powell (Workshop Developer) about the work that they do…

What is Technocamps?

Technocamps is a schools outreach programme based in the Computer Science Department at Swansea University. It was established in 2003, and through the years has received financial support from a variety of companies and organisations including Welsh Government (WG), European Social Fund (ESF), National Science Academy (NSA) and NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts). In 2010 Technocamps established hubs at Aberystwyth University, Bangor University and the University of South Wales Glamorgan; and in 2014 added hubs at Glyndŵr University Wrexham and Cardiff Metropolitan University.

When and why was it conceived?

In the early 1980s, the BBC Micro was introduced to schools throughout Britain, and before long they were in 80% of UK classrooms. By encouraging young learners to experiment with computers, a generation of creative talent was spawned. Applications to study computer science at university hit a peak, and computer science graduates changed the world as they helped computers come to dominate every aspect of our lives.

65% of IT teachers in the UK do not have a relevant qualification but have slipped into the role of IT teacher simply by being digitally literate.

Fast forward 30 years and the situation could not be any more different. The computer is no longer a novelty. Children spend more time at home in front of a computer screen than a TV screen, but like the TV, their interest is restricted to using the computer, not in experimenting with it. Digital literacy is rightly emphasised throughout the school curriculum, but computer studies itself has evolved into IT studies with an emphasis on office skills – much duller than the social networking and gaming for which the pupils use their home computers. 65% of IT teachers in the UK do not have a relevant qualification but have slipped into the role of IT teacher simply by being digitally literate. Applications to study computer science at university slumped – especially amongst females – with a 40% drop in applicants over the first five years of the 21st century, and many of those who start a university computer science course drop out during the first year as they are unaware of what computer science is.

To address this dire situation, Technocamps was started in 2003 at Swansea University as an outreach programme for schools and colleges, with a grand political ambition of getting computer studies in schools back on track. As an active voluntary activity, it enjoyed great success, but only on a very small and very local scale. In order to expand its operation in scale and reach, a European Social Fund (ESF) project was created in partnership with the Universities of Aberystwyth and Bangor and the University of South Wales in Glamorgan. (The ambition was to include all of Wales, with hubs also in Wrexham and Cardiff, but ESF funding restrictions meant that this project could only be delivered in the Convergence area of Wales, as well as only to secondary school children.) This 4-year project ended in September 2014, having engaged with some 10,000 young people. During this period, various other Technocamps initiatives were started through other funding bodies, including Playground Computing (for primary schools) and Technoteach (for teachers at all levels).

What does Technocamps do?

We have a wide variety of activities.

  • Technocamps robotics image 1Workshops – Typically one-day workshops offered to schools, colleges and other educational establishments to give the pupils an introduction to computing, particularly computational thinking and problem solving.
  • Technoclubs – Lunchtime clubs in schools where pupils develop their computational thinking and building skills.
  • Bootcamps – Two-day campus-based workshops held during school holidays.
  • After Schools Clubs – Two-hour late afternoon sessions held on campus or in the community.
  • Primary Engagement – Our Playground Computing programme is designed to teach the fundamentals of computer science to primary school pupils through playful activities that develop computational thinking and problem solving skills, but do not involve computers.
  • Teacher Engagement – Our Technoteach programme provides teachers with various opportunities for continuous professional development, mainly through training sessions held one evening per week over six weeks, but also through standalone twilight sessions and an annual teachers conference.
  • NEET Engagement – Week-long summer residential sessions run in partnership with the municipal youth services in which young people identified as NEETs carry out a variety of team-building exercises, learn app development and compete to design and build the best app.
  • Student Placements – Computer Science students are offered the opportunity to gain university course credits through placements – one day per week – as teaching assistants in school computing/ICT classes.

How many schools across South Wales are involved?

The ESF project has recorded engagements with 9,000 young people from 186 eligible secondary schools and organisations across West Wales and the Valleys, as well as any number of other individuals from numerous ineligible (and thus unrecorded) engagements. Our Playground Computing activity recorded engagements with some 5,000 children in 60 primary schools across South Wales.

What types of workshops do you run with the pupils? Can you give some examples please?

Technocamps robotics image 2Since its inception, Technocamps has always strived to deliver a wide variety of workshops to help inspire participants to study computer science. From 2011-2014 as part of the ESF funded project we have delivered a diverse range of workshops that vary from robotics to Python programming. The majority of the workshops that we have run have their resources available free online at www.technocamps.com/resources. This resource provide teachers, students and parents an opportunity to discover the content covered within the workshops as well as an outline on how the workshop can be run.

Here’s a video from our Robotics Competition 2014, which includes footage of the robot ‘penalty shootout’ (from the photo above):

What feedback have you received from pupils, teachers and parents?

The project has received fantastic feedback from pupils, teachers and parents alike. Students often comment on the fun, hands-on approach taken within the workshops and how this approach differentiates the workshop from a ‘normal’ school lesson. Teachers often comment on the Technocamp’s team ability to deliver complex topics in an accessible manner. From our feedback forms we have recorded over 92% of participants rating our workshops as ‘Great’.

Do you have any case studies and success stories to share that highlight the importance and impact of Technocamps’ work?

Here are a few PDFs that can be viewed and downloaded from our website:

What do you think needs to be done to take things further, in terms of ICT education in primary schools? Can more be done?

All of the activities currently being undertaken by Technocamps need to be continued, and increased in scale – both in amount provided to individuals, as well as broadened geographically. As this is now a popular area of intervention, very many organisations are vying for funding to deliver activities; but these are too often shallow taster sessions such as short inspirational talks for audiences of young learners in major metropolises which have no long-term effect.

What is particularly important is to provide more – and more meaningful – CPD opportunities for ICT/computing teachers, two-thirds of whom do not hold a qualification in either ICT or computing. This is important for embedding computing in schools, and crucial for competently teaching a future computing curriculum.

What type of workshops and events does Technocamps run for secondary schools? How do they differ from the primary school workshops?

Delivering computer science based workshops to students from primary schools and secondary schools differ in many different ways however one thing that is consistent is our hands-on approach to introducing complex topics in an accessible format. At the centre of our workshops is the fundamental link to computational thinking, which is covered within all of our workshops whether they are primary or secondary focused.

Given that Technocamps has been running for over a decade, I’m sure that many of your secondary school pupils were involved with Technocamps when they were in primary school, too. Do you find that they are more open to learning about ICT if they are involved with it at an earlier age?

Yes. Getting students involved with computer science at a young age makes a substantial differences when it comes to re-engaging with them at secondary school. We have found that students can (and will) have a much better conceptual understanding of the main concepts of computer science when they have been introduced to it within primary school.

What are your future plans for Technocamps?

We aim to continue all of the above activities, as far as they can be resourced.

Playground Computing

Sarah Lewis of Playground Computing photoAn off-shoot of Technocamps, Playground Computing is similar to its parent project but its particular aim is to deliver free computer science workshops to all primary schools in Wales – with a focus on “unplugged workshops,” intended to teach computer science topics without the aid of a computer. I spoke to Sarah Lewis, who is in charge of this very interesting project…

What is Playground Computing and what is your role within the project?

Playground Computing is an outreach project with a mission to promote Computer Science to primary school pupils. We wanted to plant the seed of computational thinking, so the children were given the roots to grow into the next generation of computer scientists.

Thanks to funding by NESTA, we were able to deliver free “unplugged” workshops that taught conceptual computer science principles through a variety of exciting activities, tasks and games without the use of a computer!

We were also able engage with pupils with our interactive robotics workshop where the pupils learnt the basics of simple programming and saw some interesting robots and what they can do.

My role within Playground Computing is to deliver these workshops and try and encourage young people to be creators and not just consumers of technology by opening their eyes to different aspects of computer science and making them aware that technology is where ever they go, and is constantly progressing and evolving.

How many schools do you work with in South Wales?

We were able to deliver free “unplugged” workshops that taught conceptual computer science principles through a variety of exciting activities, tasks and games without the use of a computer!

Since the start of the project in 2013 we have engaged with a number of schools from Cardiff, Barry, Bridgend, Neath, Swansea, Llandovery and Llanelli, these have included state and private schools. We have tried to engage with all schools who have taken up our offer of free workshops.

What types of workshops do you run with the pupils? Can you give some examples please?

Sure! Here are a few:

  • Unplugged workshop – This interactive workshop teaches fundamental computer science principles without the use of a computer. We look at binary, algorithms and how we give instructions to computers by pairing the pupils, one acts as a programmer and the other as a computer. The programmer needs to program their computer through an obstacle course by giving precise instructions.
  • Robotics workshop – As a class we navigate our robot through a maze, which teaches the idea of testing and programming and also leads on from the unplugged workshop, which taught the importance of giving precise instructions. We learn about if statements, loops and sensors, which are demonstrated by our robots. To keep in the unplugged theme, to teach if statements we say to the class:
    IF you are a boy act like a zombie,
    else dance like a robot.
    I understand that not all schools can afford to buy robotic kits however I like to encourage schools to continue to promote computer science by using alternative activities – many of which don’t need a computer or a robot.
  • ‘How computers work’ workshop – Pupils get the chance to see the different types of hardware found inside a computer, they learn about the roles of the different components and work in groups to figure out how they all fit together.

How do the pupils react to the activities and tasks? Do you think that they enjoy them more they would something actually involving a computer? And what about the teachers? What type of feedback do you get from them?

We give out questionnaires at the end of the session and feedback has been very positive from teachers as well as pupils. I often have the chance to re-engage with pupils who often remember my name and remember the content of the previous session.

The unplugged activities and tasks are well received by pupils and teachers. The workshops give the teachers a chance to see how they can introduce computer science into their classroom. You don’t need top of the range computers and technology to be able to teach computer science.

Most pupils are used to having computers or tablets in school or at home. Not having computers in the workshops shows them that computer science isn’t just about computers and technology – it is about technological thinking and understanding.

What do you think needs to be done to take things further, in terms of ICT education in primary schools? Can more be done?

We now have the first generation of children who are familiar with technology from a very early age and will grow up with technology as an every day thing. For them, it is the norm to do research in the internet rather than looking in a book, it is the norm to play apps rather than board games, and it is the norm to type rather than write.

What are Playground Computing’s future plans?

The funding for the Playground Computing project came to an end at the end of 2014, so workshops delivered in primary schools will be substantially reduced to partially service the long backlog of requests from primary schools across South Wales. As we have created such a huge demand, we are actively looking for funding to continue this fantastic project as a full-time activity, and to roll it out across all of Wales.

Sprink

Mike & Andy of Sprink imageBased in Caerphilly, Sprink offer technology training to teachers and schools. Just how Technocamps, Playground Computing and other similar projects are helping to get more pupils interested in IT, it’s important that teachers aren’t left behind and that they are able and equipped to teach pupils effectively. Together, Andy Tuite and Mike Rudge (Founders & Lead Trainers) took the time to answer some questions covering what they do…

What does Sprink do?

Sprink’s aim is to help teachers to use technology in their classrooms in creative ways. We want to see technology used to help improve the teacher-student experience in school. Here’s a video explaining more:

What services do you provide?

We provide a variety of services to schools and look to provide training and workshops that are tailored to the specific needs of the school or class. We work with the teachers before the actual workshop to get an idea of what topics/apps would be good to cover.

One of our favourite projects that we worked on was an interactive eBook project. Students created a non-fictional piece of writing from various classes and created an eBook using text, pictures, video and audio with the support of Sprink over a period of four months.

Sprink Love My iPad session image 1Some other examples of workshops that we have done include the Love My iPad workshops and augmented reality workshops as well as specific app workshops like iMovie, Keynote and Nearpod.

We have delivered these workshops in the form of inset day training, twilight sessions and long-term projects.

How many schools do you work with in South Wales?

We have working relationships with several schools in Caerphilly, Cardiff and Rhondda Cynon Taf.

From your view, how has IT affected education in schools – both in terms of IT being taught as a subject, but also in terms of its use in teaching (e.g. technology being used to help pupils learn other subjects, such as Maths and Science)?

I don’t think the way that IT is taught in most schools has changed very much over the last decade or so. The way that they use IT has definitely changed, but the teaching of IT still takes the form of learning how to use Microsoft Excel or Word. There are exceptions to this of course, but that usually comes down to the teachers in the school and how they decide to teach it.

Do you find that teachers struggle with the overwhelming technological options open to them?

We often find that they don’t have much time to explore new technological options. Teachers that we interact with keep telling us that they are so focused on getting through the material on the curriculum that they often revert to more traditional methods of teaching, just so that they can ensure that they cover the required topics.

How has the recently changing curriculum in Wales affected Sprink in its operations? Are your services needed more than ever?

There hasn’t been much change in the curriculum here in Wales in recent years… but change is on the horizon. England have introduced ‘coding’ into schools and this is due to make an appearance here in Wales soon, too. Some teachers that we’ve spoken to are a little apprehensive about this element and this is something that Sprink will look to help them with.

Do your services differ between primary and secondary schools? Do you find that you’re needed in one more than the other?

No, our services are pretty much the same for both primary and secondary schools – but what does differ is the content of our programs and workshops. These are tailored to suit the needs and wishes of the people that we are working with, so they often differ between departments even in the same school.

Do you have any case studies and success stories on how Sprink have helped teachers that you’d be happy to share?

Sprink Love My iPad session image 2We delivered an augmented reality workshop to teachers at a school in Cardiff at the beginning of the school year. This was a great experience for both the school and for Sprink. It was amazing to see the teachers creating the augmented reality content for their classes during the workshop. We went back to the school a few weeks later to do a Love My iPad session and we had a few teachers come and find us in order to show off their work – now that was a great feeling. We still get the odd email showing us some work and asking the odd question, which is great – something that we encourage!

Do you find that schools have improved their IT education offering over recent years, or does it still have a long way to go?

I think it’s great that schools are trying to improving their IT education but one thing that we often see is schools buying iPads and letting students use them in class and thinking that this is improving IT education, when in fact they are not really using it for more than a little research tool. Empowering students to create something using that iPad though is improving IT education. The eBook project that we run in schools does this, for example – students use several different types of technology from laptops, iPads, smartphones, cameras and video cameras to create a book that come to life for the reader.

Do you find that pupils who embrace IT at a younger age are more likely to want to willingly become involved with the subject when they’re older (e.g. when they secondary school)?

It’s wrong to say that if a child doesn’t embrace technology at a young age that they won’t develop an interest later in life.

To be honest, I think that in today’s world, it’s hard for young people to not be exposed to technology in some way or another… but yes, I think that some are more inclined to embrace it than others. There is a difference between just using technology and embracing it. Those that embrace it and push it to its limits will be more inclined to get more involved with the subject later in life. Having said that though, I think that it’s wrong to say that if a child doesn’t embrace technology at a young age that they won’t develop an interest later in life.

What do you think needs to be done to take things further, in terms of ICT education in primary and secondary schools? Can more be done?

More can always be done. For instance, not all schools have WiFi, or WiFi that can used during class time. Things like Bring Your Own Device policies need to be adopted. BYOD will also help schools to keep technology resource budgets under control. I understand that teachers are worried about students using their phones or tablets to go off-task and not engage in class, but there are provisions available to ensure that this is kept to a minimum. Schools are often given the wrong information regarding the use of things like Apple TVs and devices that they can have on school networks. The schools then revert to the ‘safe’ option and the learning experience suffers as a result.

What’s on the cards for Sprink? What are your future plans?

Sprink are working on some really exciting projects at the moment. The most exciting one is looking at how technology can help with the development of new teaching methods. We are working with some some schools and education authorities to run a study into these methods and see how they can impact the teacher and student experience in the classroom.

We’d like to say a big thank you to Faron, Stewart, Sarah, Andy and Mike for taking the time to answer our questions. We have plans to do a follow-up post (a “Part 2”, if you will) after CR 25, featuring similar interviews with Welsh primary and secondary school teachers as well as hopefully an interview with one of the co-chairs of the aforementioned Steering Group. Keep an eye out for it – if we do it then we’ll no doubt share it on Twitter: @ComputerRecruit!

[All images used with permission from Technocamps and Sprink]