Open source alternatives to “Junior Librarian v3”?

My partner is a teacher in a primary school and has special responsibility for teaching English – which also means she’s in charge of the school library.

I don’t have any personal experience of the library and Lorraine is not an IT or database expert, so what follows may be a bit sketchy…

…anyway, the library is managed using a piece of proprietary software called “Junior Librarian” (version 3). The company that makes/distributes this now says it is “no longer supported by Microsoft” (I don’t know whether that means it’s targeted at an older version of Windows or the underlying DBS is out of date, or whatever) and so needs to be “upgraded” to another piece of proprietary software that costs over £1000.

Given the state of school budgets in the UK that essentially means buying no new books next year. The vendor’s claim that the new software will support e-books is also of little to zero appeal to a teacher who wants children to spend less time at a screen.

So, my question(s) is/are this:

  • Is there a free software alternative to Junior Librarian out there that will allow the existing data to be imported?
  • If not, does anyone know anything more about this and would they be willing to at least explore developing such a thing? (I have some free time at the moment – unless you want to give me a job, that is.)

Was new maths really such a disaster?

English: Freeman Dyson
English: Freeman Dyson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On holiday now, so I fill my time – as you do – by reading books on maths.

One of these is Julian Havil’s Gamma: Exploring Euler’s Constant.

The book begins with a foreword by Freeman Dyson, in which he discusses the general failure, as he sees it (and I’d be inclined to agree), of mathematical education. He first dismisses learning by rote and then condemns “New Mathematics” as – despite its efforts to break free of the failures of learning by rote – an even greater disaster.

Now, I was taught a “new maths” curriculum up to the age of 16 and I wonder if it really was such a disaster. The one thing I can say is that it didn’t capture the beauty of maths in the way that the ‘A’ level (16 – 18) curriculum came close to doing. At times I really wondered what was it all about – at the age of 15 matrix maths seems excessively abstract.

But many years later I can see what all that was about and do think that my new maths education has given me quite a strong grounding in a lot of the fundamentals of computing and the applied maths that involves.

To the extent that this blog does have an audience I know that it is read by those with an interest in maths and computing and I would really welcome views on the strengths and weaknesses of the new maths approach.

Raspberry Pi ideas wanted

R, G, and B LEDs [7].
R, G, and B LEDs [7]. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Every week I teach a group of 9- and 10-year-olds some core programming skills using Scratch.

The children seem to love it and I certainly enjoy it – it’s good fun to see them tackle the problems and find solutions: it really reminds me of the reasons, ongoing C++ debugging slog not withstanding, that I enjoy programming as a pastime.

The school I work with have got some Raspberry Pis and I am wondering about ideas to show off how these can be used. I know there is a version of Scratch that allows access to the GPIO so that would be a good place to start.

What makes a good project? Is a calculator – with the results displayed on LEDs a viable idea – or is there something else people recommend? I think it would probably be best if this was a project two or three children could work on together – as I am not sure that all the other things needed to give each child a working Raspberry Pi – like screens and power supplies – are likely to be available in sufficient numbers.

Any ideas please add to the comments, thanks

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1 March 1971

English: St. Agnes' Church Andersonstown. Cele...
English: St. Agnes’ Church Andersonstown.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Forty-three years ago this day – in Belfast – was much like this day – in York (I am in the University library as I write this) – sunny and bright, not very warm but showing signs that winter was on the way out.

That morning, in school, our P1 teacher did as she always did – and asked us to suggest a topic for the “diary” we would write in our jotters.

My hand went up – and I suggested that we should write that it was the first day of Spring.

The suggestion was not a popular one. Most of the boys (it was an all boys class) lived in Lenadoon, and that weekend (1 March 1971 was a Monday) there had been serious rioting there. At that time Northern Ireland was on its headlong plunge into semi-civil war (the nadir was the following year) and Lenadoon was very much in the front line. As Ed Moloney details in A Secret History of the IRA, escalating the conflict through rioting was the central tactic of the Belfast leadership of the IRA at this time – and, of course, the British Army were more than happy to facilitate them in that.

The teacher picked my suggestion – and I am sure she was right to cling to the hope that the children might want to concentrate on something other than armed conflict – though some of the boys still wrote and drew about their weekend of CS gas, armoured personnel carriers and helicopters.

I was marked out as a teachers’ pet – a key moment in my education experience. And I suppose there is also the metaphor of me picking “science” over “politics” – a choice I have been making and remaking (with different answers at different times) ever since.

Things only got worse in Lenadoon. That summer the Northern Ireland government – in a further and more or less final demonstration of its fundamental ineptitude – introduced internment with out trial – managing to both inflame opinion by negating human rights and, in general, putting the wrong people in jail anyway.

Then, in early July 1972, Lenadoon was at the very centre of the conflict with the IRA and British Army exchanging gun fire along Lenadoon Avenue (see the video) while at the end of that month the British Army moved in with overwhelming force in “Operation Motorman” and occupied a number of buildings in the estate.

The displaced families then moved into the school – Blessed (now Saint) Oliver Plunkett – and, essentially, the school closed, and I moved to Holy Child in Andersonstown, joining the great Mrs McManus’s P3 class.

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Some more thoughts on @CodeClub

Title page to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning...
Title page to Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This year’s Code Club teaching is nearly at an end – I cannot do next Friday and the Friday after that is the last of the school year, so it seems like a good time to reflect further on the way it has gone – though I am sure I will have some more thoughts later.

This week was a strange one – as only one of the children attended (the last two weeks were cancelled because of an INSET day and a school residential trip and I think some of the children thought it was already over while others wanted to just get out into the sunshine).

All this term I have thought the children were struggling with the work – HTML seems very different from Scratch (certainly the tagging paradigm feels very different from the children’s perspective) and the resources to put HTML pages up on the web just are not available in the school (one lesson from all this is that primary schools are still shockingly under-resourced for this sort of work – for all the talk of educating a digitally-aware generation nobody seems to have put the deep infrastructure of high bandwidth connections and servers in place).

But the lovely thing was that the child who had turned up plainly had got it and took great pleasure in reversing roles and testing me on whether I knew how to construct a basic web page.


Nevile Gwynne talks grammatically correct cobblers

Nevile Gwynne is the sort of person the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph love. Descended from the nobility. Educated at Eton. Spouting prejudiced rubbish without reference to the facts.

This morning, on the BBC’s Today Programme, he claimed that when he was growing up “everyone” knew their grammar at the age of nine and that since this was the foundation of all thought and the most important of all subjects the implication was very clearly that we were better educated then. I suspect what he really meant was everybody knew their place. But he would have been wrong about that too.

Nevile Gwynne was 9 in November 1950. At that time we were all so brilliantly educated that about 5% of 18-year-olds managed to pass at least one ‘A’ level and perhaps 20,000 got a degree every year.

The idea that we were better educated then is plainly utter cobblers.

You would expect the BBC’s flagship news programme would have taken Mr Gwynne to task for talking such rubbish. You would be wrong. One presenter said he should be awarded a knighthood. Presumably for services to pub bore philosophy.

The Art of Scratch, Code Club and the ICT curriculum

Scratch Project

Regular readers will know I have something of a small obsession with Conway’s Game of Life – the classic “game for no players” based on cellular automata, and so, naturally enough, when I decided that I really had to write my own Scratch program from, err, scratch to sharpen up my skills for teaching children via Code Club, that is what I chose to write – the (not very sophisticated) results can be seen above.

My first conclusion is that Scratch is a truly awful tool for most programming tasks. I know it is not meant to be a general programming tool, but I quickly discovered that it is hobbled even when it comes to doing those things that one assumes, at first glance, it is set up to do – like drawing on the screen. Scratch actually has very, very limited functionality/expressive power when it comes to drawing graphics – being only able to handle pre-provided sprites (as first class objects) and using a pen which marks out one pixel at a time – thus one cannot (at least easily) find a way to draw anything beyond dots and lines on the screen in response to events.

If you run the above program using the Flash player provided by the Scratch site you will probably see one of the big downsides of that as outlines of the old crosses are left on the screen (the Java player does not have this problem but it is very slow in comparison).

From a teaching point of view I also find Scratch’s message-based system less helpful than an imperative GOSUB like approach: the children I work with, after many weeks, are still struggling with the idea that messages should drive actions (probably we should blame their instructor!) – I know this event-based style is more common in the real world, but I think teaching the idea of problem decomposition via subroutines or functions is probably more important educationally.

Yesterday I went to the first London Hackntalk and gave an impromptu (and so unprepared) and brief talk on my thoughts about teaching children to program – my experience with Code Club makes me rather less starry-eyed about mass programming education. There were a few responses from the audience which suggested I had not really got my point – that we would struggle to fully replace an ICT curriculum based on usage skills with one based on programming – as the audience continually suggested ways to get motivated and engaged kids into programming (rather than make it a mass participation thing), but one point that was made by a member of the audience was very acute – given what our children see computers do in games that cost many millions to develop, how realistic is it to expect all or many of them to put lots of effort into toy programs that chug out the sort of graphics you can see above? I think that is a really difficult issue we have to consider when overhauling the curriculum and I am not sure the enthusiasts of radical change (of which I was and still am one) have thought it through fully.

(I did also encourage them to be Code Club instructors and was a bit disappointed to see that I appeared to be the only one – we urgently need to teach more programming and so these problems of the early days of the overhaul should not obscure the need for change.)

Online translation a new way to learn a language fast?

Flags of Spain and MexicoThis week’s New Scientist reports (online link below- it’s a short piece in the physical edition on p. 19) that Duolingo – a free online service designed to help people learn a new language by translating web content is working very well.

To probe the site’s effectiveness, Roumen Vesselinov at the City University of New York used standard tests of language ability… he found that students needed an average of 34 hours to learn the equivalent of … the first semester of a university Spanish course.

I have just been over to Duolingo’s site myself – refreshing some French – and it is certainly easy to use. The site’s blog shows that this project has some strong values and has set itself some big targets – it looks well worth exploring.

Universities target plagiarism but maybe fraud should be the real worry

A simple graphic explaining the differences be...
A simple graphic explaining the differences between plagiarism and copyright issues (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first thing I had to do when I started work on my PhD course at York was to complete an online learning unit on plagiarism.

It was fairly tedious, as I had already had to sit through several hours worth of lectures at Birkbeck on the issue when preparing for my MSc project report.

Maybe plagiarism is the big issue with students – after all there are thousands of scientific papers out there and the temptation to “rip and paste” much be great for students struggling with deadlines.

In in my case I took no chances – this is the very first sentence of the report:

Multiprogramming computer systems face a fundamental problem of being able to run programs that, in sum, require more memory than is physically available (Tanenbaum, 2009, pp. 173 -174).

Is it over the top to cite for such a basic idea? Perhaps, but it didn’t harm anyone.

Yet it seems that plagiarism is not the real issue with researchers (and this presumably includes PhD students) – just 9.8% of biomedical paper retractions were for this reason. But 43.3% were for fraud.

And the proportion of crooked papers is rising – up by an order of magnitude between 1976 and 2007 – and that’s a rising proportion of a rising number too. But the better news is that this is an increase from 3 to 83 (out of 310,000 in 1976 and 868,000 in 2007).

Could I have fiddled my MSc report (I didn’t of course) – I suppose I could. Although I supplied all the software I used to conduct my experiments and plot their results (apart from some R used to draw pie charts and so on), I doubt that anyone would have had the time to actually replicate the results. Perhaps if my paper had broken new ground (as opposed to reconfirming some thirty year old findings that did not seem to have been validated for modern software before) then maybe somebody would have had to do that…

A (partial) reply to @pootblog

This has been sitting around for a few days now, because I don’t really want to have a flame war with someone I like, but here goes anyway…

Damian Counsell (@pootblog) objected to what I wrote about grammar schools, so I thought I’d do a proper reply. His comments in italics.

Those 75% of students—sorry: “victims”—”thrown on the scrapheap” in Northern Ireland still subsequently outperform their matched peers in comprehensive schools on the mainland. I’m tired of reading this cliché—this lie—every time the question of school education policy in these islands comes up for the usual evidence-lite discussion; though it’s understandable that it should proliferate as rigour and hard science have been drained from the secondary curriculum by the same ideologues who’ve brought us selection-by-house-price.

Firstly, if not directly related to the matter in hand, Britain is not “the mainland” – that begins at Calais.

The claim here is that it is a “lie” that those in Northern Ireland who failed the 11+ still did better at school than those in comprehensives (presumably Damian means the same three quartiles) in Britain. Now, I could simply say I was writing about Catholics in the mid-1970s (because I was) and say that it’s an open-and-shut case – Catholics who failed the 11+ did spectacularly badly at school (today the religious position is somewhat reversed, which is more evidence of how working class protestants are being systematically failed by their political ‘leaders’ – but that’s another story). But actually the problem was a more general one:

The final figure (figure 6.4) of this section looks at the relative extent of unqualified school leavers in both religious school systems. This is a particular problem in Northern Ireland where the proportion of pupils leaving school with no O Level or CSE qualifications, of any kind, has been and remains higher than in Britain as a whole: in 1986/7, for example, 21.9% of Northern Ireland school leavers had no GCE/CSE qualifications compared with 9.6% of leavers in England and 16.1% of leavers in Wales.

(From here. Sounds like being thrown on the scrapheap to me – if we assume all or almost all these school leavers were from “secondary schools” – as they are called in Northern Ireland – then that indicates around 30% of pupils entering those schools left with no CSEs or O levels at all.)

NB: A crucial change since then has been the “comprehensivisation” of the exam system. The old CSE/CGE divide essentially wrote off those who took CSEs even before they got started – for while a CSE Grade 1 was an equivalent of an ‘O’ level C grade (ie a pass), the mere fact that a pupil had been entered for a CSE was a signal that they were not seen as a strong performer.

Since that time Northern Ireland’s pupils have closed the gap significantly at the bottom end – though 21.7% of Northern Ireland’s workforce still had no qualifications, compared to 13.2% of England’s – and in 2005/6 3.1% of pupils in Northern Ireland got no graded results whereas the figure for England was 2.2% – figures from Regional Trends 2008.

Understandably, you still haven’t addressed my central point, which is that the claim that 75% of kids end up on the “scrapheap”, however generously you interpret that metaphor, is simply false. I’ll say it again: under the comprehensive system, kids from the same backgrounds do worse than they would do at secondary moderns. The dogma of comprehensivisation is up there with Lysenkoism in the pantheon of systematic, ideologically motivated establishment lying.

Damian did not produce any figures and I have: to repeat, I was writing about the mid-1970s when the figures were truly appalling. Even today the figures show that selective education is producing half as many again kids with no qualifications in Northern Ireland as in England (where comprehensive education dominates) and that the full cohort of adults in Northern Ireland includes a huge excess, in comparison to England, of people with no qualifications at all.

Obviously there’s no way to test the counterfactual, but I wouldn’t be even slightly surprised if the advent of the comprehensive school in system in England and Wales led to significant numbers of children who might otherwise have led happier lives growing up to be convicted criminals; but I’m not going to overplay my hand here; you’re right: unlike Lysenkoism, it’s unlikely anyone died of starvation. Let’s just say that—even if it resembled reality in any way at all—your talk of human beings being “thrown on a scrapheap” isn’t exactly measured language either. And that’s where I came in.

One thing that *isn’t* a counterfactual is my central contention. Again, you deliberately avoid the point. I’m not saying that kids “*would* do better at secondary moderns”; I’m saying that kids *do* do better. It’s the biggest side-by-side comparison in secondary education and ideologues deliberately ignore the overall result; just as they ignore the results when vouchers are shown to help poor and black pupils in the only randomised trials in education I’ve ever read about.

Kent is neither here nor there: it’s one artificial island of selection set in a sea of mixed-ability, LEA-controlled state schooling, so the effect of selection-by-house price is doubled down. Of course kids in secondary moderns there are going to do badly—if indeed they do: you haven’t actually cited a substantive result in that case either.

Well, where is the evidence that kids do better at secondary moderns then? I understand the point about black pupils – but no evidence has been offered here for the central claim. If Damian has some evidence to back up his point I’d love to see it. My point about Kent is that in that county – where selective education dominated until quite recently (thanks to the Labour government some of the secondary moderns have now become ‘academies’ and so the position is changing though maybe not that much), there is a high proportion of failing schools: look at this table, for instance. This blog and map suggests to me that Kent is also letting a lot of its kids down.

I freely concede that the religious divide in Northern Ireland had, and continues to have, terrible effects. Catholic kids are and have been simply worse-off on average. That’s a fact, and that wasn’t what I was engaging with either.

I was simply attacking one tired, hyperbolic, clichéd untruth that appears over and over again in such discussions. It keeps being trotted out because no right-thinking person dares to challenge it. The burden of proof here doesn’t lie with me; it has always rested with the social engineers. (If only they had a tiny fraction of the rigour of most actual engineers!) It’s a measure of how polluted the ground has become that you and others can repeat this outrageous myth and throw up chaff when asked to back it up with anything other than personal anecdote.

And, yet again, for the avoidance of doubt: I am not advocating a return to the grammar/secondary modern divide. I just want discussions about education to be based on evidence, not dogma and tribal boilerplate.

And, this is subjective so maybe will not pass Damian’s test, but the idea that the 11+ was in some way more “equitable” than “selection by house price” (which I freely concede is a big factor) is also nonsense. In the mid-1970s West Belfast was one of the most concentrated islands of deprivation in Northern Europe, but as is the way with ghettos, we middle class kids were in there with everybody else. Of my primary school class of about 28 (all boys), 5 of us passed the “qually”. Gary, Tony and I were from middle class backgrounds, Michael and Liam were not. Liam refused to go to a grammar school as all his brothers had gone to De La Salle school (on his street) and he was not going to be different: so three quarters of the grammar school boys were middle class from a cohort where I’d guess to close to 50% of the boys were on free school meals.