Friday, September 11, 2015

Techniques for Teaching the Technologies Curriculum in Australian Schools

The Technologies Curriculum for Foundation to Year 10 in Australian Schools is expected to be formally approved on 18 September 2015. On Thursday I attended the Information Technology Educators ACT (InTEACT) workshop on how to teach the new curriculum. I attended presentations by CISCO and Intel and then hands-on exercise with Grok Learning's programming teaching materials.

CISCO emphasized that the courses at their "CISCO Networking Academy" were not just for training network engineers. As an example they have a course on "Entrepreneurship". What was not clear was how applicable these courses are to the new Technologies Curriculum, given it is for younger students. Also it was not clear if these were aligned with Australian educational requirements.

The Intel presentation did not start well with some claims in the corporate slides at the start lacking credibility. As an example a claim that less than 10% of the world's population had Internet access (the Intel figure I think was 2%) did not seem to match estimates of 40%.

Also a description of the Arduino compatible  Intel Galileo single board computer was a little confusing. Also what was not clear was that a Teacher’s guide to  the Intel Galileo was developed with Macquarie University (and so should me more than just a sales brochure). The guide is designed for the Australian Curriculum, with projects which also suit other Arduino compatible hardware. Unfortunately the PDF version of the guide is 15 Mbytes (a bit big). What was good was that there were several Intel education kits to try out.

Lastly I took part in a workshop run with Australian company, Grok Learning. We ran through two of their one hour coding exercises on "Frozen Fractals" (Python Turtle and Blockly Turtle). These are designed for an iPad, although I used them on a laptop. The exercise was to use "turtle graphics" to draw a snowflake, to learn about geometry and iteration. The two versions of the exercise used a visual programming language (Blockly) and one using Python.

The programming environment used will be familiar to those who have done one of the newer introduction to programming exercises at a university, based on the "Snap!" programming environment and UC Berkeley's "Beauty and Joy of Computing" (Harvey, 2012). The use of turtle graphics for teaching extends much further back, at least to the mid 1970s (Solomon & Papert, 1976). It is interesting to see that it has taken more than 40 years for the hardware to catch up with teaching ideas.

Grok's lesson screen shows a progress bar along the top, with circles representing information for the students and diamonds for tasks. About half the screen is devoted to lesson content, the other half has a window for entering code at the top and a window for results below. When I started the lesson the code window was only large enough for one line, but I found I could drag to make it larger.

Tasks in the progress bar are gray at the start, then turn amber when attempted and green when completed successfully. One minor problem is that it would be difficult to distinguish green and amber if the user can't distinguish color (or has a monochrome screen). However, it would not be difficult for Grok to provide a non-color indicator, to meet accessibility requirements.

To see how they went, a student first runs their code and then submits it for marking. The system shows the required behavior of the turtle and then overlays what the student's code does. One problem is, as with any automated test, the student's result must be identical to the expected result, even for irrelevant details. As an example, when asked to draw a square I left the turtle pointing a different direction to the model answer and so this was not marked as correct by the system. Also there were no helpful hints as what to do next, if your result was not correct.

Grok's implementation is only a few weeks old and they were still making some improvements. Overall the exercises worked well for teaching programming fundamentals. However, these exercises would only really be useful where the student was able to obtain help from a human tutor, such as in a classroom. On its own, for a distance education student, the exercises would be very frustrating. Even a certified computer professional, such as myself, would find it difficult. ;-)

The workshop was held in the Inspire Centre at the University of Canberra. This building was purpose built to teach teachers how technology can be incorporated into education and is the best expression of the hight tech classroom I have seen, anywhere in the world. The event started with seating arranged in theater mode (rows of chairs facing the front). I went out for a coffee in the foyer and by the time I came back the room had been rearranged: a folding wall had divided the room in two and one half was changed to group work around tables.

The Inspire Centre illustrates the sort of investment which needs to be made by Australian governments (and the non-government schools sector) to implement the Technologies Curriculum in Australian schools. While InTEACT's initiative in holding this workshop (and the contribution by companies involved) is to be commended, an investment of many hundreds of millions of dollars is needed for teacher training, equipment and curriculum development. That may sound a lot of money, but is minor compared to that spent on the previous "Building the Education Revolution" and laptops for schools programs. Unfortunately while it is relatively easy to get money for tangible hardware and buildings, it is more difficult to resources the more useful teacher training and course content which is needed for a real education revolution.


Harvey, B. (2012). The Beauty and Joy of Computing: Computer Science for Everyone. Proceedings of Constructionism 2012, 33-39.
Solomon, C. J., & Papert, S. (1976, June). A case study of a young child doing Turtle Graphics in LOGO. In Proceedings of the June 7-10, 1976, national computer conference and exposition (pp. 1049-1056). ACM.

No comments:

Post a Comment