Computing at home – how parents can help

We had a parent’s evening last week at our school. Lots of parents showed a real active interest in computing. A number of people asked me how they could help support learning at home, and which apps or websites to use. Here is a quick summary of the tools I use with the children in school. Where possible I like to use apps which are free, however there are some where there is a small charge.

Key Stage One:

We have a set of Bee-bots in Foundation Stage, so by the time the children get to year one they are familiar with these great little robots. There is an app which mirrors the physical robots and is a good introduction into how computers need algorithms (instructions) to function.
IOS Bee-bot app (free)

This is an extension to Bee-bot and lets you see the algorithm as a whole. We will shortly have a set of Blue-bots in school. They do the same as Bee-bots, but can be controlled from an iPad via Bluetooth.
IOS Blue-bot app (free)
Android Blue-bot app (free)

Another free app, which build on the skills learned in Bee-bot. A.L.E.X. is also based on controlling a robot, but with this app you can also build and design your own levels.
A.L.E.X IOS app (free)
A.L.E.X. Android app (free)

Scratch Jr
ScratchJr is a fantastic entry point for children to explore more open ended programming. It introduces characters, background, more movements, repeat loops and basic if/then routines and offers children the opportunity to experiment and play. There are lots of great ideas for projects on the ScratchJr website.
Scratch Jr IOS app (free)
Scratch Jr Android app (free)

Key Stage Two:

The logical next step from ScratchJr, Scratch is a brilliant platform for children to broaden their skills, and to become part of a wider community, sharing their own ideas and borrowing from others. It is a block based platform which all children in Key Stage two will use at Lowerplace. Please see this post for instructions on how to register a Scratch account and why it is a great project to be involved in.

Scratch is web based and needs to be run on a PC or Mac with flash player installed.

Available online, an IOS app or on Android, this is a great too for developing logical thinking and introducing processes into programming. Lightbot also shows that there can be more than one solution to a problem and that some are more efficient than others. There is a free version with a limited number of levels and then paid versions for more levels and challenges.

Lightbot is part of Microsoft’s Hour of Code project, have a look at their website for lots of other great games and activities.
Lightbot free (IOS)
Lightbot full version (IOS) £2.99
Lightbot free (Android)
Lightbot full version (Android) – £2.33

Another app to develop logic and reasoning, but more challenging than Lightbot. The aim is to move pallets around using a crane which you program with loops and repeats. Make sure you start with the easiest levels!
Cargobot IOS (free)
Cargobot Android (free)
Erase All Kittens
This is great fun. There is a free demo version, or for £4 you can buy the full version. Erase All Kittens is a good way of progressing from block based tools such as Scratch to coding using characters, in this case with HTML. It’s a great activity to do with your child, you’ll be surprised what you can learn too.

Swift Playgrounds
This is a new app which has been developed by Apple for iPads. It is based on the Swift programming language which is used to develop many populart iPad apps. It’s not one I have much experience of yet, but I will be introducing it to children in Key Stage two next term.

Physical Computing

In addition to all these great apps and online tools, you can also experience physical computing at home for a reasonably modest outlay.

Starting from about £10, codebugs are great little devices which you can program from a computer using a Scratch like interface. It has a set of LED lights which you can control from your computer as well as input and output ports for connecting peripheral devices.

BBC Microbit
Again starting from about £10 the Microbit is similar to the Codebug, but with more resources online.

Raspberry Pi
The Raspberry Pi is a fully functioning computer which fits in the palm of your hand. you can buy one with a Linux operating system for about £45. Once you have connected a monitor, keyboard and mouse you can do pretty much anything you can do on a £1000+ PC or laptop. There are masses of online resources and accessories which you can add to Raspberry Pis such as cameras, sensors and motors – the possibilities are endless.

Crumble Kit
The Crumble is another cheap microcomputer which can perform a variety of functions. The kit comes with the main motherboard, an LED light, a power supply, a servo motor and an ultrasonic sensor. It also has all the wires and connectors you need for basic projects. Once you get familiar with it, you can combine elements, so you could make the light illuminate when the ultrasonic sensor is triggered. This is also programmed through a simple Scratch type interface.

Computing at home – how parents can help

BETT 2017 – Where’s the Pedagogy?


My second visit to BETT and for the first time I visited the show for two days as I was fortunate enough to be released from teaching on Friday. A little bit of prior experience and a more intimate knowledge of the DLR made the journey down much more straightforward this year. It also helped that I didn’t lose my travelcard on the tube this time…

Having been before, I was a bit more focused in my aims this year – I wanted to see more of the speakers and more carefully target the stands. I guess less product, more pedagogy summed up my approach.

As soon as I got there two themes emerged very clearly – physical computing, mostly in the form of robotics and virtual reality, mostly in the form of Google. The sheer number and variety of robotics was mind boggling, the vast majority of it beyond the budget of a financially stretched (or not) primary school. I also thought there was a lot of product, but the links to learning were much less clear and in many cases non-existent. As is so often the case, you had to search carefully to find the pedagogy, and some of it came in a great little session –  ‘We are the droids’ in which Mic Hughes, Bill Harvey, Neil Rickus and Lucy Rogers shared their experiences of robotics in the classroom. This included the crumble bot, a low cost (£25ish) entry level robot which children can build and program themselves. When questioned on the key to success, the answer was watertight planning. It doesn’t matter what the tool is, you have to know what you’re doing and what the learning is. This shift towards physical computing is also blurring the lines between computing and DT which is both a challenge and opportunity for all schools.

I must, at this point give huge credit to the Raspberry Pi Foundation, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that no other organisation is doing more to promote computer science in education than they are. Not only were there a great variety of Pi themed stands and activities (real ones, with ideas you could try and touch), but they also launched the rather wonderful Hello World magazine, aimed specifically at educators. I have no idea have they can create such a quality publication and distribute it for free, but I’m very grateful they have.

The same themes were evident with VR – where’s the learning? I actually though Google might have made more of it on their stand, maybe they’re mindful it’s early days too. The number of VR suppliers out there surprised me. With Google offering a pretty strong option free of charge, I can’t see much space in the market. It’ll be interesting to see how many of them are around in three or four years time.

Other speakers I saw were Rajen Sheth, Senior Director of Product Management for Google for Education, who mercifully limited the hard sell and spent more time discussing Google’s principals for reimagining education. These hold true whether or not you are under the spell of the mighty G, and a couple of his phrases stuck with me. He discussed how learning should be personalised and measured, and that we should ‘ teach to the edges of the classroom’ meaning learning should be inclusive for everyone. He also highlighted that we should be equipping students with the skills to become life long learners. I’m writing this blog on a tool which didn’t exist before 2010, publishing it on a platform which was launched in 2003 which runs on the World Wide Web, which contrary to most children’s beliefs once didn’t exist. Enough said?

Another great session was Ashton Sixth Form College’s Digital Literacy Initiative by Brian Cooper and Dan Atkinson. You maybe wondering why I was at this one, being a primary practitioner, so time to declare a interest, it was recommended to me by my good mate Anton McGrath, who happens to be the Principal. I’m really glad for the tip off. The initiative is all about empowering teachers to use technology effectively by offering incentives and encouraging them to play to their strengths. We’ve all seen expensive, top down initiatives thrust on to over worked, under pressure teachers which are poorly implemented and supported and which probably get canned when the next big thing comes along. Ashton’s approach is the opposite, they encourage teacher led development, reward ideas (through an innovation of the month award,) support change through small, managed‪ and sustainable steps. It’s an approach that would work in any institution and is definitely something I will be pitching to our SLT.

Another theme which I noticed was the gradual move from up front to annual licensing costs. Three of the main apps I looked at – Explain Everything, Minecraft and Erase All Kittens, are all moving to annual licensing. Whether these are on a named or concurrent basis isn’t clear, neither is how they will enforce their licensing. In isolation the costs are not too prohibitive, but when combined they start to add up. If we were to licence all three it would come to around £10 per pupil. I can see why vendors we doing this, in a market where there are so many new tools emerging it makes sense to tie schools in to a longer term relationship. However, the reality is we’ll have to look at restricting some tools to narrower year groups, which is a shame when previously we could budget more easily with an up front cost.

I’ll leave the last word to a lad I sat next to on the DLR on my way out of the Excel. He was 17 or 18 years old and was discussing his career ambitions with his mum. First of all it was great to see a lad of that age actually communicating with his parent and there wasn’t a phone in sight. He recounted a meeting he had with his school careers advisor. He recounted how he told him that his goal was to become an investment banker, to which his advisor replied “I think you should focus on something more realistic.” At that point he described to his mum how he got up, turned around and left the room.

Maybe I learned more from that incidental exchange than I could at any conference. Keep the fire burning, son. We all should.

BETT 2017 – Where’s the Pedagogy?

BETT 2017 Hit List

I’m really looking forward to my second visit to BETT next week. Last year I went for the Saturday only, which was great, but not really long enough to get the full experience. I also found that many of the people I wanted to meet up with were only there during the week, so this year I’m there for a couple f days, with the bonus of meeting up with an old friend on Friday evening.

Having adopted a bit of a scattergun approach last year, this year I am going to plan which stands I would definitely like to visit:

AB Tutor – This is something I looked at last year at Bett. AB Tutor, and a number of similar offerings enable you to remotely manage students’ desktops. You can see from one console what they’re doing, freeze or takeover screens or push content out to screens. As a classroom management tool I can see the benefits, but I am concerned that it might be too administratively heavy.

BCS – Simply to keep across industry developments.

Bloodhound – I’ve been following the Bloodhound project for years. For those that haven’t, the BLoodhound SSC project is aiming to break the land speed record with a super sonic car (SSC) designed to top 1,000mph. They are using the project as a launchpad for a huge variety of STEM activities in partnership with schools and colleges throughout the country. I’m interested in seeing if there are any projects I could introduce to our school.

ClassVR – Having recently experienced Google Expeditions, this will be an opportunity to have a look at an alternative solution – quite how they can compete with the mighty Google’s free solution, I’m not sure, but they’re promising a free VR headset so I think I’ll see if I can find out…

Erase All Kittens – This is a must visit stand. Erase All Kittens (EAK) is the most bonkers coding site I’ve ever been on. It’s designed to bridge the gap between block and text based programming so children can smoothly into using ‘real’ code. It does using a fantasy based narrative which engages girls whilst not alienating boys – a clever trick. If the whole premise of the site isn’t mad enough the characters certainly are, how about a half mermaid, half unicorn with flowing blond hair called Tarquin? Behind the weirdness there’s some real substance – backers include gaming big-hitter Ian Livingstone and ex-Labour Schools Minister Lord Jim Knight.

I’ve used the demo versions in school for the last couple of years, but they have now released the first paid version. I’m looking forward to seeing what additional features they have included and how they will be pricing it for schools.

Explain Everything – This is one of my favourite iPad apps and, in my view is an essential app for primary schools. It’s unusual in that it can be equally useful for students and teachers. I will be looking to see what they are showing this year, and what plans they have for the future, particularly around licensing, where I understand they are making some significant changes.

GBM – A good chance to catch up with our preferred Apple reseller to see what they, and Apple have in the pipeline.

Google for Eduction – Not long after our extremely enjoyable session with Google Expeditions, I’m looking forward to seeing what Google will be showcasing. In particular I would like to see what scope there is for using Google Classroom for shared devices in a primary setting.

Internet Matters – Obvioulsy a massive issue for anyone who is involved in schools in any capacity, but in my role as ICT co-ordinator this is top of my priority list. I’m particularly looking for resources which will encourage and support greater parental engagements so messages from school are being re-enforced at home.

Kahoot – Another must have iPad app, Kahoot has been a huge success at our school, even amongst technically reluctant teachers. It will be good to see how they see Kahoot and what their future plans are.

Lego Education – Who doesn’t enjoy a bit of lego? However, this visit will be purely for professional reasons, you understand.

Makeblock – A bit left field, this one. I was lucky to get a Codeybot for christmas. This is a programmable robot which was developed through a crowd funded project. It’s now been on the market for about three months, but there is very little in terms of support materials online. I will be seeking assurances of their support and commitment to this product in the future.

Microbit – I’m keen to find out what’s happening with the Microbit. From what I’ve seen it’s got huge potential,  but the project has been beset with delays, to the extent where my duaghter, who was in year 7 last year didn’t get one. I think it’s something we could utilise in primary, so I’d like to see if they share my view.

Minecraft – One of my aims for this year is to start using Minecraft education throughout the curriculum, not just in computing. I would like to understand more about what the education version offers and how it could be used in the classroom. Last year I attended a brilliant session by Stephen Reid (@ImmersiveMind) – if he’s there again I will definitely try to see him.

Raspberry Pi Foundation – As a relatively newly qualified Raspberry Pi certified educator I’m looking forward to seeing what they have to show at Bett. I’m hoping to get a small suite of Raspberry Pis in school, so will be looking for some simple starter projects.

UKEdchat – I have had a number of blog posts re blogged on UKEdchat and have had an article published in their magazine as well as being a regular contributor to #UKEdchat but have never actually spoken to any of their team face to face. This will be a good opportunity to put some names to faces and look for opportunities for more collaboration in the future.

In addition to all the above stands, there are also some general areas I am interested in. I am particularly interested in how I can introduce more physical computing and robotics, but on a very limited budget, so will be looking for ideas and inspiration in that area. I am also keen to get a 3D printer into our school – I think this would be a great way to combine computing and DT.

BETT 2017 Hit List

Picademy day two – I’m a hacker (not a cracker)

If you ask a class of primary school children what risks they could encounter when using the internet, I guarantee a majority will say ‘you could get hacked’. The most concerning thing here is that there is a massive misconception about what ‘hacking’ actually means, and I include myself in that. The term has seriously bad reputation. Here are a few recent examples:

Talktalk security breach

UK teenager accused of hacking CIA chief

New International phone hacking scandal

Well, today I have spent the day hacking my new Raspberry Pi to take pictures, light LEDs, start motors and create things in Minecraft. Yes, my name’s Ben and I’m a hacker.

Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 22.33.00

Whilst I might have been having a bit of fun creating this, I was also ticking off huge chunks of the computing curriculum in my head. Hacking is problem solving, hacking is maths, hacking is creating things and above all hacking is being part of a community and helping others. These are all skills we’re delighted to see in our classrooms everyday,  skills which will help us bridge the digital skills gap. Tomorrow’s hackers will create the next Angry Birds, the next Facebook and the next Raspberry Pi, so now is the time for us to raise a new generation of hackers.

But wait, I hear you say, what about all that bad stuff… I’ll let the urban dictionary take care of that. They’re not hackers, they’re crackers.



Picademy day two – I’m a hacker (not a cracker)

Picademy Manchester – day one

You might remember there was a brief moment of hysteria when the official Raspberry Pi magazine had a free Pi Zero on the cover of one of their issues a few weeks ago. Websites were dedicated to finding shops with copies still in stock, and subscriptions rocketed, all for something which you can now pick up for about £4. Bargain, yes. Great marketing, absolutely. Whilst the magazine deal may not have been as amazing as it first seemed, what struck me was a tweet which pointed out that the original 1981 BBC micro, arguably a machine created with a similar ethos to the Raspberry Pi, cost at today’s prices about £700. So in 25 years the cost of entry into computing has fallen from £700 to, well, nothing. Let’s hope that continues for the next 25 years. At that rate I’ll be able to pick up a new computer and retire on the windfall that comes with it…

Raspberry Pi is something I’ve been looking to deploy in school for a while now, but not yet really got around to it. I’ve been looking for some quality CPD to help me along the way, and was alerted to Picademy by Kate Russell’s keynote at the RM seminar in Manchester last November. Therefore I was delighted to be accepted on the Manchester course this half term. The only brief was to arrive with an open mind, which was lucky for me, as I had that but sadly not a functioning voice.

The first day has proved to be a real eye opener. I thought I had a good idea of the capabilities of a Raspberry Pi, but needed help unlocking it. I was right on the latter point, but I’ve been amazed by the breadth of functionality you can get from it – to state the obvious, it’s a proper little computer.

The day’s activities ranged from creating a blinking LED light using Scratch, to making a working model of the phases of the moon (see video below). In between we were introduced to Python, a brilliant introduction to coding for upper KS2/KS3 children and Minecraft on the Pi, which I can just see children taking further than I can ever imagine. There was also an opportunity to play with some of the many peripherals that you can hook up to the Raspberry Pi, offering a fantastic introduction to the world of physical computing and robotics.

All in all, a brilliant first day. Tomorrow is all about creating our own ideas for lessons and activities based on what we’ve looked at today. Watch this space…

Picademy Manchester – day one