The missing link and closing schools

London, where I am writing this, is now perhaps the global centre of the covid19 pandemic, thanks to a mutation of the virus that has allowed it to spread more easily. This mutation may not have come into existence in the South East of England but it has certainly taken hold here, and about 2% of London’s population currently have symptomatic covid.

In response all primary and secondary schools, which were due to open tomorrow, will be effectively closed and teaching will go online.

Suddenly the availability of computing resources has become very important – because unlike the Spring lockdown, where online teaching was (generally) pretty limited, this time around the clear intention is to deliver a full curriculum – and means one terminal per pupil. But even now how many homes have multiple computers capable of handling this? If you have two children between the ages of 5 and 18, and two adults working from home it is going to be a struggle for many.

Thus this could have been the moment that low cost diskless client devices came into their own – but (unless we classify mobile phones as such) they essentially don’t exist. The conditions for their use have never been better – wireless connections are the default means of connecting to the internet and connections are fast (those of us who used to use X/Windows over 28kbit dial-up think so anyway).

Why did it not happen? Perhaps because of the fall in storage costs? If the screen and processor costs haven’t fallen as fast as RAM and disk then thin clients get proportionally more expensive. Or perhaps it’s that even the fat clients are thin these days? If you have a £115 Chrome book then it’s probably not able to act realistically as a server in the way a laptop costing six times as much might.

But it’s also down to software choices and legacies. We live in the Unix age now – Android mobile phones and Mac OSX machines as well as Linux devices are all running some version of an operating system that was born out of an explicit desire to create an effective means to share time and resources across multiple users. But we are also still living in the Microsoft Windows era too – and although Windows has been able to support multiple simultaneous users for many years now, few people recognise that, and even fewer know how to activate it (especially as it has been marketed as an add-on and not the build in feature we see with Unix). We (as in the public at large) just don’t think in terms of getting a single, more powerful, device and running client machines on top of it – indeed most users run away at the very idea of even invoking a command line terminal so encouraging experimentation is also difficult.

Could this ever be fixed? Well, of course, the Chrome books are sort of thin clients but they tie us to the external provider and don’t liberate us to use our own resources (well not easily – there is a Linux under the covers though). Given the low cost of the cheapest Chrome books its hard to see how a challenger could make a true thin-client model work – though maybe a few educational establishments could lead the way – given pupils/students thin clients that connect to both local and central resources from the moment they are switched on?

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…