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:

Bee-bot
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)

Blue-bot
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)

A.L.E.X.
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:

Scratch
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.

Lightbot
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

CargoBot
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.

Codebug
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

Cross-curricular computing with Scratch Maths

Earlier this week I was privileged to take part in a joint twitter chat, with #caschat and #mathscpdchat joining forces. As a dedicated computing teacher it’s sometimes easy to forget how much the subject overlaps into other subjects, and chats like this are a great way to help you re-connect to other curriculum areas.

I was particularly pleased to be introduced to the Scratch Maths project. This is a research led project which develops Computing and Maths skills through Scratch. There are so many reasons why this is a good idea – it’s a great way of encouraging class based teachers to embrace computing by placing it in well planned and resourced units which also covers broad sections of the maths curriculum, or alternatively you could use computing sessions to re-enforce maths learning. Either way, what’s not to like?

If they are able to prove a link between this project and higher attainment in Maths, this could be the start of something special, not only in Maths, but in Computing too.

Cross-curricular computing with Scratch Maths

Scratch for the reluctant computing teacher

Before my I specialised in computing I was a year 4 teacher for 3 years, initially as an NQT. The 2014 computing curriculum emerged towards the end of my final year teaching year 4, shortly before I was to specialise. I don’t mind admitting that, at the time words like algorithm, debug and computational thinking intimidated me, a technology enthusiast. I imagine therefore, that to a huge number of teachers with interests and specialisms in other areas, these terms must have filled them with dread, and probably still do. I am also fully aware of the timetable pressures and how difficult it can be to fit in non-core subjects, when teachers’ accountability is based almost solely on progress in English and Maths. I lost count of the times something ‘more important’ cropped up than art, RE or MFL (other non-core subjects are available).

Since 2014 I have been lucky enough to teach computing as a dedicated subject. Consequently I have had the freedom and time to develop my own version of the curriculum and experiment with many of the great tools available to support the teaching and learning of computing. I have a passion for computing, and I like taking risks when teaching it. Sometimes these come off with great results, at other times it’s a case of moving on and reflecting on how it could be better next time.

Having learnt from these experiences, I would like to pass on some guidance for non-specialist teachers to help break down the barriers to accessing the computing curriculum, and in particular Scratch, with which you can deliver huge elements of the KS2 curriculum. The good news is there are loads of resources and there is lots of help out there.

Here are a few easy ways for you to get started…

1. Demystify the language
These are all the terms you need to get started:
algorithm = instructions for a computer
debugging = finding and fixing errors
computational thinking = problem solving

2. Try Scratch for yourself
Go to the first tutorial and follow the instructions. In a few minutes you will have coded your first Scratch project, and probably outlined a plan for your first lesson. This will teach you movement, repeats and sounds. if you’re still unsure, have a go at the iPad app aimed at KS1 children as a gateway to Scratch – Scratch Jr.

3. Use resources freely available to help with  planning
Have a look at Phil Bagge’s resources on code-it.co.uk They are all fully planned and resourced and very easy to follow. For beginners, the smoking car project is a good place to start. There are also great resources on Simon Haughton’s website, Twinkl and many more.

4. Start with an unplugged activity
A great place to start is Phil Bagge’s sandwich bot lesson (there won’t be many primary computing teachers who have not taught this lesson)… It introduces lots of the core concepts of coding and is a good way to familiarise children with the vocabulary they will need.

5. Remix it!
If your nervous about starting a project from scratch(!) then take something someone else has done and adapt it. You could deliberately break it, and challenge children to fix it. Virtually no knowledge of Scratch or programming is required.

6. Use digital leaders to help you
There will always be children who are one step ahead of you. This is an opportunity, not a threat. If you haven’t got any, google the term and see what you’re missing.

7. Embrace failure
You will get more wrong than you do right, but in coding more than any other area, every failure is a learning point. This is a great attitude and message to pass on to children.

8. Look for cross-curricular opportunities
Use two characters in Scratch to code a conversation between historical figures, create a quiz to fit in with your topic at the time or plan a game to help learn times tables. There are lots of easy way to fit computing into a busy timetable.

9. Evidence is easier than you think
It’s easy to evidence Scratch lessons. With a teacher account you can save all class work in one place and access it from one link. You can take quick photos or videos of screens, or use print screen. If you have a blog you can easily link to or embed projects.

10. Relate programming to the wider curriculum
This is easier than you think. The principal behind any programming or coding is a cycle of plan, code, test, improve. Does that sound familiar? You can easily relate this to the process of drafting in writing or problem solving in maths.

Scratch for the reluctant computing teacher

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

How to share and embed Scratch projects

Please note – parts of this post have been adapted from the Scratch community Parent / Carer letter posted on the excellent Somerset Learning Platform website.

I have been teaching programming using Scratch software which can be accessed online http://scratch.mit.edu. Programming has become an important part of learning about technology to meet expectations in the new curriculum. It also develops children’s thinking and problem solving skills. Using this site is a great way to add to the experience of learning to program and also to learn about e-Safety.

You can use Scratch without registering with the site. However, to enable you to be able share the programs and games they create you will need to register with the Scratch community. This allows children, their friends and their family to see what they make at school and at home. They can also view programs created by other people to see how they have been made and can make changes to adapt it to create a similar game of their own.

The site lets anyone in the world see what you have created. Anyone can leave comments about your work. This is fantastic way for children to get feedback and can be very encouraging. They may get suggestions of ways in which they could improve their game. There are many benefits but also the risk that someone might leave a comment you don’t like. The Scratch Team includes a group of moderators who work each day to manage activity on the site and respond to any reports of misuse. When logged in, your child can delete any comments they do not like and can report anyone who is not following the community guidelines. It is extremely rare to see an inappropriate comment but it is important to be aware that it can happen.

The website has guidelines for use which you agree to when you sign up:

* Be respectful. When sharing projects or posting comments, remember that people of many different ages and backgrounds will see what you’ve shared.
* Be constructive. When commenting on other’s projects, say something you like about it and offer suggestions.
* Share. You are free to remix projects, ideas, images, or anything else you find on Scratch – and anyone can use anything that you share. Be sure to give credit when you remix.
* Keep personal info private. For safety reasons, don’t use real names or post contact info like phone numbers or addresses.
* Help keep the site friendly. If you think a project or comment is mean, insulting, too violent, or otherwise inappropriate, click “Report” to let us know about it

The e-Safety aspects of being part of the Scratch Community is explained to children. I am encouraging children to sign up with the Scratch Community so they can further their computing learning at home, and share the great work they are doing.

Here are some useful e-Safety messages for children using Scratch (and other websites):

* Use a safe alias
* Keep password and personal information private
* Give positive feedback to others
* Recognise copyright in terms of acknowledging other people’s ideas
* Recognise inappropriate content – consider whether others would find a project or comment mean, insulting, too violent, or otherwise inappropriate
* Know how and when to report inappropriate content and when deleting a comment is the sensible action
* Consider appropriate length of time to spend online creating and playing games

I suggest you have a look at the website http://scratch.mit.edu to make sure you are aware of how it is used and that you are happy for your child to be part of the Scratch community. They have a page for parents which may answer any questions you have http://scratch.mit.edu/parents/.

Once you have created a Scratch project, it is easy to embed it into a blog post. Here is a quick guide to embedding a project into a wordpress blog.

How to share and embed Scratch projects