How I teach computing with Grok Learning + ACA and python (mostly)

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Grok Learning; it’s great that the Australian Computing Academy (ACA) is also using Grok as a platform to deliver some of their resources. My students have even asked me if I’m on Grok’s payroll 😀 (I’m not). This post aims to highlight how I use Grok in curricular and extra-curricular settings.

9 and 10 IST (Information and Software Technology)

NCSS Challenge – python + Intro to programming courses

I’ve been using NCSS Challenge since 2013 to teach the Software development and programming option. This python programming challenge runs in Term 3 (like, right now!) and goes for 5 weeks.

When I introduced this annual challenge to IST in 2013, I embedded it into the teaching and assessment program. In a nutshell, I allocated lesson times to complete the challenge and discuss syllabus topics. The associated assessment typically included engagement and achievement on the challenge and then application and/or reflection piece. The range of ability streams within the challenge facilitated differentiation. As students work independently, I monitor and track their progress such that when a student stays too long at a particular problem, I go over and offer to help. When there are 3 or more stuck, I hold a small-group teaching session. I get them to help those who need help later and I listen just in case.

Generally, I get students to do both Beginners and Intermediate streams in the first two weeks. By this time, students and I know which stream best suits their ability…as I kept saying, ‘Easy is boring.’ Occasionally, I got students to also attempt Advanced. So far, I’ve only had one student complete Advanced and that was last year.

This year, colleagues (yes, I have colleagues which is highly unusual for a computing teacher!!) and I agreed to exclude challenge achievement in the assessment. Assessments will instead look at application of what they learned through a coding project, reflection piece, and some problem-solving activities…on paper. I’m quite excited about this change. The Advanced stream this year is VERY different focusing on learning some AI concepts creating a card-playing bot. I hope to get ’round to sharing how I enthused students on another post (yeah, right).

Before or after the challenge, as well as during the challenge for early finishers, I get students to go through the Intro to Programming courses. Sure there’s repetition of concepts but that’s a good thing. The problems are different so students get to do more practice problem-solving with code.

web comp – html/css + new JS courses

Web comp runs at the start of the year. It’s a good way to learn web design as part of the internet and website development option topic. We’ve been using this for 2 years now and each time, the comp served as a platform for learning consequently applied in an assessment task… you guessed it – a website. The task was a ‘choose your problem to solve’ project which involved algorithm design (another story and resource worth sharing in its own right…eventually).

This year, I have some really keen programmers and I told them they could use JavaScript to enhance their sites. My students were clamoring for a JS tutorial in Grok…alas, it didn’t come till after the fact.

Anyway, after the task, I stumbled through teaching basic JS (I’m a beginner learning with the kids)! It’s like ‘where do you start teaching PhotoShop‘, right? I decided to set some JS programming challenges (thank you 101computing.net – this book is gold – no, it’s not Grok) because some kids can fly and they do. At some point, ACA released via Grok their Cookie Clicker JS course which I personally found helpful and really went a long way to help those who struggled to make sense of other online tutorials. Admittedly biased, there is a reason why my students and I love courses in Grok – the scope and sequence, language, pace, challenges, and whole delivery are very good. I’ve yet to check out the space invaders JS course by ACA, also in Grok.

SDD(Software Design AND Development)

I get students to complete Intro to Programming, and preferably also course 2. My main focus here is to strengthen their computational thinking as well as exposure to a range of problems that can be solved with code. There are risks as there are discrepancies between their programming experience and the syllabus. To name a few:

  • fixed length arrays
  • python has no built-in post-test repetition -> though conversion from pre to post is a good skill
  • python multiway selection means students often use ELIF in their pseudocode
  • array indices could start from one (1) in the syllabus, not the usual zero
  • dictionaries are not part of the syllabus

I’m like a broken record on discrepancies. On a good day, it means good discussions on evolution of hardware and software which are also syllabus content. On a bad day, we all just feel the syllabus needs updating (which, by the way, is in the works).

I love how python is easy to learn and has much to offer – or as we say in schools: low-floor/high-ceiling. I use it to demonstrate a lot of SDD concepts including precision in floating points (a series of division by 3s), boolean algebra, ASCII (ord and char), data types, control structures, standard algorithms.

During the NCSS Challenge, I allocate at least one lesson a week for students to participate. It’s a great opportunity to live and talk about the syllabus, i.e. error detection techniques, maintainability of code, internal and intrinsic documentation, test plans (what do you think the hidden test case is?). Fabulous!

extra-curricular

Grok has free courses, several thanks to ACA. Currently, we have a school subscription so everyone has access to all courses and comps. When we started the coding club, we got students to do the Intro to Programming courses. If a student is referred to me needing extension, I get them to Grok so I see how they think.

It would be nice to see coding as part of other curricular and extra-curricular activities. The above is what I’ve used it for.

 

Hmm, the above seems a bit broad-brush but I thought I’d just capture some thoughts and it’s been so long since I blogged I needed to start somewhere. Maybe I’ll add more in the future.

If you’ve come this far reading this, perhaps you care to comment and add ideas (please do, thanks).

Post has been updated 14Aug  to correctly attribute JS courses to ACA.

 

PBL to learn JavaScript

I’ve been meaning to learn JavaScript but always fall flat largely due to the good ol’ lack of time. Really though, I think it’s because learning a new programming language is overwhelming – there’s so much to learn and some resources can even make pros like Brad Post feel like an idiot. And yet, I normally send off my computing students to do tutorials. The irony!

Anyway, I decided that the best way for ME to learn JS is to force me to dive right in with a project. Not totally for selfish reasons, actually, as I think my students would benefit from learning it too. Many of my year 11 Software (SDD) students can program in python (thank you Grok Learning) and a few can do java (thank you FRC). While many can also write HTML/CSS (thank you again Grok Learning), none would own up to knowing JavasScript. We could all be beginners!!

So I launched a PBL with the driving question “Can we do better than the textbook?” (There are several PBL models but I love, love, love the Hewes’ version – check it out). My students and I will learn JS and SDD topics to create a website with topic pages and interactive review pages. There will be only one site for the two classes so the product – and code libraries – will be shared. Additionally, this PBL helps exercise effective learning strategies (The Learning Scientists), e.g. elaboration, concrete examples and dual coding for creating the topic pages and retrieval practice, interleaving, and spaced practice for completing the quizzes.

The plan is to learn/discover, create and share with purpose.

Model the system

Because the site is a software system in its own right, I modeled it using the systems modeling tools in the SDD syllabus. I believe modeling is a good teaching technique and certainly good experience for my students to use models generated by others.

Not only would they learn JS, they’re going to live the syllabus in an authentic way. Oh the questions! Rich as…as I showed them the models including the storyboard and structure chart below  (click to enlarge and thank you lucidchart)- these 2 diagrams on a recent assessment task gave many students grief.

Our site would start off with the Hardware and Software topics so I could allocate one each, with one to spare for me. It’s easy for them to research and there’s loads of multimedia resources as well. We have two weeks to do this.

 

Storyboard

Storyboard

Structure Chart

Structure Chart

Model the learning

When I launched this PBL to the class, I also showed my rather ugly login and menu screens – a student quipped, “I can see why you’re a computing teacher and not an art teacher“. Ha! I actually styled it better by next lesson. Also, the pseudo-login (no cookies just parameter passing via JS) did not work which I owned up to as something I was still working on (it sort of works now).

In fact, this was what I planned for students to do, i.e. focus first on their HTML content and then style later, insisting on a separate CSS file. And I also planned to introduce JS once they’ve handed in drafts of their topic pages.

Learning with the kids (Kids are awesome)

I was alone in settling for an ugly page initially because they soon went off playing with their CSS files. They went off exploring various HTML tags and CSS styles in ways I could not have predicted.

  • There’s this super-quiet kid who I gave a shout-out because he was doing gradients and image blurs via CSS (I didn’t know it could!) – while a couple was doing that in PhotoShop (what is it with kids and gradients????). Anyway, that opened the gates for wider sharing in the class…not something I anticipated, silly me.
  • And then there’s this kid who said he had no programming experience and there he was with JS script to load date and time. He wanted them to display on one line  but my CSS inline-block technique suggestion failed. I did know about string concatenation so we solved his problem via JS – will be sharing that with the rest of the class next week…it’s legit syllabus content.
  • There’s another kid who worked pretty quickly so I suggested animated asides. Rather than going for a CSS solution, he’s decided to do it via JS …with image blur to boot, because he’s found out from a peer. I’ll be sharing all that with the rest of the class next week.
  • There’s another kid who insisted on animating a shape so it ‘bounced’ left to right…whatever for, who knows?! This algorithm makes use of flags, functions and several control structures they have to learn – will be sharing that with the rest of the class next week.

In fact, several students have already incorporated JS into their code, problem-solving with me and peers as they went along.  Here I was with my contrived pseudo-login to provide a JS problem to solve yet they were soon busy finding/creating their own problems. I’ve got loads of examples from students now.

So yeah, I was learning with them.

It’s not an assessment

A week in and a week to go, the  task is not over and I’ve only got their draft HTML/CSS – reluctantly submitted as still being rough – or empty (but stylish). I can tell students are engaged. I can tell they’re keen to learn and are learning….together…with me.

This is not an assessment…at least not a formal one. It is a rich source of formative assessment  though, even for me.  Like Bianca Hewes said, PBLs are “a busy, complex, yet organised ecosystem of learning“.

I’m cool with that 🙂

 

Aside: I use my blog for my own reference and to help me remember, I often link to resources used as I’ve blogged them in context. I’m adding here a really useful resource Brad Frost (mentioned above) shared about writing kinder and more helpful technical documentation created by Jennifer Lyn Parsons. This’ll come in handy when we get to that part of the syllabus!

An algorithm for introducing algorithms

This was originally posted on Grok Learning’s blog – a site worth visiting!

Some years back I blogged about teaching coding, including how I introduced programming. Some months back I wrote about computational thinking (CT) and coding and the need to distinguish the two.

This time, I’d like to dive deeper into introducing algorithms as a product of computational thinking which may not necessarily lead into coding. In particular, I want to go into concepts involved with algorithms, and not just the mechanics of CT. Click back on links above to see some of my previous algorithms for introducing algorithms. These CT models via Conrad Wolfram and Grok Learning (printable PDF) are valuable resources as well.

Algorithms Essentials

When I was planning how to introduce algorithms to my 10 Information and Software Technology class, I listed concepts relevant to algorithms as essential learning. I wanted students to engage in active learning and, by deduction, realise that these are indeed essential aspects of algorithms.

  1. Representation/notation — how to encode the algorithm
  2. Granularity — level of detail of instructions
  3. Accuracy — correctness of the algorithm, does it solve the problem correctly?
  4. Efficiency — does the algorithm save /waste time and effort
  5. Interpretation — is it ambiguous or open to interpretation?

I could add more, such as scalability, variability and bias, but decided not to, at this stage.

Intro Lesson

I started by asking the students if they knew what algorithm meant knowing most if not all would have heard the term, quite likely in maths. True enough, we came down to ‘a set of instructions designed to achieve a task or solve a problem’.

I got everyone to count off 1 to 4 and based on their number would do one of the following:

  1. Draw the steps for making toast
  2. Draw movements for a favourite dance step/sequence
  3. Write how to get from the classroom to the train station
  4. Write how to perform ‘Happy birthday’ in instrument of choice

This was a no-talking activity. If they were drawing, they couldn’t use words and if they were writing, they couldn’t use symbols or drawing.

Those doing #3 took the longest but after about 15 minutes, I got everyone to move and look at another student’s work. I also asked those who were viewing #2 to attempt to do the dance sequence.

Ensuing class discussion raised some interesting points:

  • One student quoted “using your legs, walk to the door…” which raised the issue of granularity
  • When asked whether his dance sequence was interpreted correctly, the response of “open to interpretation” raised the issue of ambiguity and ‘limitations’ of interpreters
  • “Is that even a slice of bread?” raised the representation aspect
  • Representation and accuracy were problematic for the song and the student resorted to musical notation although admittedly unsure that the notes are in fact accurate
  • Another students toast’s drawing with power setting set to maximum raised the question of efficiency — possibly saves time but risks waste

The activity allowed students to see the challenges involved when designing algorithms; and, we had the language to talk about it.

Student work samples from the intro lesson.

Follow-up Lessons

I started the next lesson by getting 2 volunteers. The first one had to add 25 and 12 (2-digit addition with no carry). The next student had to add 275 and 38 (with carry). The plan was to focus on the process of abstraction for a fairly well-known algorithm and introduce various control structures.

We talked about the term ‘abstraction’ (pick out essence, general patterns) as we discussed the algorithm for solving each of the problems above. Much merriment ensued as the students struggled to articulate the steps, especially as they could not remember the term ‘place value’ (ha!). Once we got the first sequence right, the second one presented the opportunity to introduce selection control structure, i.e. if the sum exceeded 10 and there is a carry.

From here, it was not too much of a stretch to introduce the concept of repetition control structure. So, students were then challenged to abstract further and re-write our selection-sequence algorithm to handle addition of multiple digits and numbers. Those who’ve done IST previously and familiar with pseudocode, got straight into representation without worrying about ‘How do I say this?’ that the others struggled with. And thus, I no longer had to justify why they needed to learn the key words.

“Your algorithm is different from mine.” How wonderful to hear that!

On the third lesson, the focus was on ensuring the algorithm is correct. I taught them how to desk-check, a manual process of checking algorithm logic . I premised it on this was just like their table of values when doing Algebra — and that in fact, designing algorithms is like finding the equations given a table of values. A majority of my class like maths so this was a safe bet.

We are currently on deliberate practice, necessary to develop most new skills. A quick web search generated plenty of sites giving me a range of problems varying in terms of difficulty, complexity, context/interest. Grok Learning also has heaps.

Maybe I should ask them to dance the algorithms…

The bubble-sort algorithm expressed as a folk dance.

So then…

I’m really happy with how this turned out for me. I think the students have a deeper understanding of algorithm design plus they have the vocabulary to articulate this understanding. There’s more to learn but I believe the foundation is sound.

Please share your algorithm or perhaps thoughts on how mine could improve.

Delta X

I’ve been mulling about what to do with my year 11 software (SDD) students for their 2nd project/assessment task. Apart from the syllabus outcomes, I wanted one of the outcomes to be an appreciation of how technology can be transformative and that they themselves can create such technology.

Enter CS + X, except I inverted it to X + CS. While this may be irrelevant from a maths perspective (commutative property of addition), it captures better my pitch of “what is a problem (X) that can be ameliorated with the addition of computer science (CS) ?” In other words:

X + CS = Δ X

Another outcome I wanted is to highlight the importance of understanding the problem as a premise for designing solutions….way before coding/programming comes into the picture. This gave birth to the focus question for the next project, i.e.

Is your software design worth developing?

When planning out the details of this project-based learning unit, I found the book “Setting the Standard for PBL” invaluable.  In particular, Figure 5.3 (pp  118-119) Project Design: Student Learning Guide (Sample) was incredibly helpful. In a nutshell, here were my steps:

  1. List the outcomes for assessment (based on planned Assessment Grid)
  2. Outline the syllabus content (based on planned Scope & Sequence)
  3. Define the Final Products and marking/weighting
  4. Identify instructional strategies

Here’s what I’ve got (PDF)

Here’s a student-friendly version

2016 11SDD Project2

I also created a Project Calendar which will be the basis of my students’ Gannt charts for their own projects.

From here, creating the Assessment notification was fairly straightforward with only the rubric for the Final Products left to define.

As luck would have it, I scored us free entry (thank you Google) into The Sunrise Alpha conference. It will feature successful Australian startup founders. I’m hoping this excursion on Monday will inspire my students to see that they too can be part of this.

I’m also negotiating to have mentors from UNSW School of IT. (I am very lucky!)

Finally, I got several staff members to be part of the panel to whom my students will pitch their ideas. The panel will judge whether or not the problem is worth solving and if the recommended solution is indeed viable and worth developing….fodder for next project 🙂

Of course, this is just the beginning of the story.

Tomorrow, we start in earnest. I’ve told my students about the project and we’ve already started brainstorming about ideas on problems to solve. This will have to be bedded down more when I they meet their teams…tomorrow.

What’s the fuss with coding?

The fuss about coding has grown exponentially in the past year. Having watched this space for years, I’ve certainly noticed the increased interest to expose kids to coding. Industry has been pouring resources into it, with huge initiatives and funding coming from Google, Microsoft and more besides. There is a national curriculum for it and most Australian states have adopted it….not in NSW though, the state where I teach. Media, print and online, regularly features this, too; often, about having a shortage in IT skills.  I can also see the increase in teaching coding in many schools.

Hey, one could almost think teaching and  learning to code is trendy.

But, there is always the niggling question, “Is it for everyone?”

I wonder now whether everything in various school subject curricula was subjected to such scrutiny. And if not, why not?

Is it really for everyone?

Firstly, I’d like to make a distinction between computational thinking (CT) and coding. Google’s resources on CT are quite extensive and accessible. As a problem-solving process, it is easy to see why it could be adapted across all disciplines including humanities. Some could even argue it looks like critical thinking. Can you imagine asking “should we teach critical thinking in school?”

Further, algorithms – or step by step instructions – are present in every subject. Google is right to say it is relevant across all disciplines. Quite often, however, algorithms are taught as given, e.g. using formula. And why not? It is an efficient way of disseminating human knowledge developed over time. Standing on the shoulders of giants, so to speak.

Algorithms in the CT sense is less prescriptive. Creative thinking could be incorporated as well.  Can you imagine asking “should we teach creative thinking in school?”

I heard Dr James Curran refer to CT as a process for answering “What can we automate?”  I think this really promotes a mindset leaning towards efficiency as well as innovation, a premise that things could be better and we can use digital technologies to actually make it happen….and scale it, relatively quickly and cheaply. That’s incredibly empowering!  But, it’s the sort of thing that is best experienced vs merely talked about. This echoes elements of design thinking. Can you imagine asking “should we teach design thinking in school?”

Big jump there, i.e. I joined CT with coding – using digital technologies, software programming in particular, to create solutions.;  automation via giving computers detailed instruction.

Algorithms can be viewed as just an idea. It can be represented in many ways. As a teacher, making thinking visible – i.e. ascertain students are learning – is a challenge.  In Information Software & Technologies (IST), one of the subjects I teach, algorithms can be presented as pseudocode and flowcharts.

What of coding then?

Coding can actually help refine algorithms. Sometimes this is done via affordances of programming languages such as more sophisticated built-in functions and data structures.  Often, the refinements are done as one delves deeper into solving the problem and one thinks of more possibilities or cases or scenarios.

In a nutshell, CT promotes development of algorithms and with coding, it is made visible and refined.

Is it for everyone?

I am biased and I think everyone should experience what CT and coding are like. In the same way that I think everyone should experience what creative thinking, critical thinking, design thinking – and way many more ways of thinking like systems thinking, mathematical thinking, etc (see what it’s like in schools now?).  For me, it’s beyond being trendy or shortages in skills or future job opportunities or anything like that or being great at it or even being interested in it. How do you know unless you try?

If you’re a teacher, student, parent or really anyone just wondering what the fuss is about, it’s best to experience it.  Have a go. There are lots of resources out there. One of my favourites is the NCSS Challenge – and we’re a week in.  🙂

Here are some for starters:

Feel free to add your thoughts and resources in the comments below. Thanks.