I haven’t gone away, you know…

…but I did have a very long break.

Regular readers (who by now have probably given up this blog as having been abandoned) will have noticed my abrupt departure.  Without wanting to bore you with the details, I became rather ill, all of a sudden.

I intend to resume normal service in due course.  In the meantime, I would like to encourage you to support one of the charities/organisations who have helped me out recently.

The most pain-free method is to sign up to the Anthony Nolan Bone Marrow RegisterSome anonymous guy saved my life by giving me his bone marrow and I owe him a massive debt of gratitude.

Alternatively, you could give blood.  Check your local press for details of donation sessions, or Google for your local blood transfusion service.  After each course of chemotherapy, I stopped making my own blood for a while and between them, a bunch of anonymous dudes gave me around 50 units.  They also kept me alive.

If you prefer to avoid needles, and give money or get sponsored for something, you could give a few quid to Leukaemia and Lymphoma NI (or if you are in GB, Leuka, or the Irish Cancer Society) – they’ve all funded research that keeps me, and many others, alive.

Thanks for your time, and your help.

Google Analytics and Impromptu Scratch

If you run any sort of website, and don’t use Google Analytics – I suggest you try it out.

It tells me that, for this blog most people are looking at material on Greenfoot, Scratch or schools facing the looming prospect of Apple lock-in.  Most of those people are arriving because they have Googled for something, or followed a link on another blog or Twitter.  Nobody comes via Facebook and in all of November, three people arrived via Bing.

Today, the statistics went weird.  25 people all arrived at around 9am, from a machine with a C2k IP address (i.e. some school in Northern Ireland) and all were looking at one page: Some Impromptu Scratch.  They arrived via a Google search, for “Impromptu Scratch“.  A quarter of the class cannot spell “Impromptu”: some had Googled for “Impropmtu Scratch”, “Impromtu Scratch”, etc.  They all had machines that identify their language as “en-us”!!

Lessons to me:

  • Hardly anyone cares about what I say re. A-level.
  • People like my Greenfoot and Scratch stuff.  Someone likes Scratch so much they are using it instead of a worksheet (that’s OK, that’s what it’s there for).
  • A lot of computers in Northern Ireland think they are American.

If you send a class this way tomorrow, please ask them to leave a comment!


iPads, Kindles and Open Standards in Education

The following post is a follow-on from last night’s #edchatie, on whether iPads are the correct choice for schools.  The full chat is here.

Imagine the following scenario:

You open a letter from a friend, only to read inside: “Sorry, this was created with a Bic Biro. As you do not have a Bic Biro, you cannot read this letter.”  Because you love your friend dearly, you go out and purchase a Big Biro and, hey presto, you can now read their letter.  However, when you open your own notebook all the text you had written has been replaced with “Sorry, you are holding a Bic Biro.  This content was created with a Staedtler HB pencil, so you cannot currently access it.”

Crazy, isn’t it?

Later in the day, you arrive at work and lift an Oxford Dictionary off the shelf, as a reference.  It is 10 years old and your school has since started buying Collins’ dictionaries.  The pages of the Oxford Dictionary mysteriously contain no next, apart from “Sorry, you no longer have a contract with Oxford.  To access this data, please renew your licence”.

During the day, you plug your laptop into the wall, to recharge.  A message appears on-screen “This socket is licensed for Dell products only”.  You go off in a huff, looking for an HP branded socket.

Thankfully, the above-named companies have more sense than to work like this.  But, the following scenarios are all true:

  • In the 1990s, I created a lot of MS Word (v2) documents.  MS Word will not open these any more.  The decisions of some vendor has stopped me accessing my own data.
  • In the 1980s and 1990s, lots of schools bought Apple Mac ‘Classics’, based on advice.  By the year 2000, those schools had a room of Macs that nobody used, because the software they wanted to use was made for Windows only.  When those Macs were replaced by Windows PCs, a whole pile of new software had to be bought too.  The people who gave the advice had long since moved on.
  • Today, lots of schools are being advised to invest in iPads.  Lots of schools are buying resources that only work on iPads.  Lots of schools are creating content that only works on machines made by Apple.  Will lots of schools, in around 2016, decide they want to buy their hardware from someone else – and then find out that they will lose access to their own data?  The same goes for all those books you own for your Kindle – what happens if you decide to replace it with a Kobo or a Nook?

I’m not against tablet computers and e-readers.  I think they offer a number of advantages to schools.  Kids don’t have to carry so many heavy books and the WWW is easily available from them.  They can be used for creating stuff too, but who owns the content?  What happens if the school buys tablets from a different vendor next-time-round?

I’m not saying “Don’t buy iPads” – I am saying “Stop and think of the consequences of buying whatever device you will buy”.  If iOS was available from a multitude of vendors, without restriction, I might think otherwise.

I don’t know what device you are using to read this blog.  I don’t care either.  This web-site is built using HTML – which is an open standard.  An open standard is one which any software developer can write software to decode, without restriction.  Thanks to open standards, there are many web-browsers available and if you don’t like the one you are using, you can easily change.  Do you really want to live in a world where, in order to access this web-page, you needed certain software on a certain device?

I do most of my writing in LibreOffice.  Functionality aside, it uses Open Document Format (ODF) as its default method for storing data (MS Office and others support this too).  This is an open format – which means there are no hidden trade secrets.  Other people can make their own program to open ODF documents and I can share my data with anyone.  Programs that open ODF are available on all common platforms, either as pay-for or free software.  So, I can e-mail my ODF file to someone using MS Office, OpenOffice, NeoOffice, WordPerfect, Linux, Windows, OS X, Android et al,no problem.

Do you really want to live in a world where, in order to open an e-mail attachment someone sends you, you need to buy a piece of software you don’t already have?  Do you want to live in a world where, if the company who made your word-processor vanishes you lose access to your own data? I’ve experienced this – it’s not fun.

I had a conversation with a friend about iPad books recently.  It went like this:

  • Him – iPad books are great, etc, etc
  • Me – Can I open them on my Windows laptop?
  • Him – no, get an iPad
  • Me – Can I open them on my Ubuntu desktop?
  • Him – no, get an iPad.
  • Me – Can I open them on my Android phone?
  • Him – no, get an iPad.
  • Me – if your iPad dies, how will you be able to open them?
  • Him – I will get a new iPad…

Do we really want a world where our data – all the stuff we have made and all the stuff we have paid for – is locked into the decisions of any one vendor?

Like I said, I’m not anti-iPad as such.  They are great examples of modern engineering and I know they have lots of fans.  Well-built tablets are certainly more intuitive than a traditional Windows-type interface, for many people.  However, I am very wary about closed-standards. If I thought that school textbooks I bought for an iPad (or Kindle, for that matter) came in an open standard, that could be read on other people’s devices or with other people’s software, I might think differently.


PS, It’s not just me.  According to the EFF, some publishers in USA are trying to redefine a ‘sale’ of electronic goods as simply the purchase of a licence, which the publisher can revoke. The FSF are worried about e-books.  Richard Stallmann is worried about The Right to Read disappearing. Just to be even-handed, here’s a ZDNet article on the benefits of copyright-restricted formats.

First week back – some reflections

There are the Year 8s.  Hands hidden somewhere inside 4-sizes-too-big blazers.  Never mind son, you’ll grow into it by the time you are doing GCSEs.  Nervous little faces, scurrying round, tripping you up.  A year ago they were the big ones in school.  Now they are little fish in a very large pond.  Little, lost fish who ask the sharks in Year 12 for directions and are dropped off outside RE when they are supposed to be in Geography (only 500m away).  Little, lost fish who forget where they are and call you Mummy.  Little, lost fish whose eyes become big like saucers when they see all those shiny computers in one room, together.  Curious little fish, who have not yet realised the operating system is 11 years old!

The Year 11s seem so big now.  I hardly recognise some.  Growth spurts and manly jaws have appeared.  The little girls stopped looking like little girls long ago.  I run my usual survey, asking why they chose this subject.  I tell them to be honest – do you really, really, want to do GCSE ICT or do you really not want to do some other subject and ICT was the least-worst option?  I get lots of “I want to learn how computers work”.  I tell them what we’ll be doing, and watch frowns appear and jaws drop when I tell them the practical work includes PowerPoint.  “What’s the point?”, asks one.  I don’t know either, but let’s take it as easy marks, get through it and get on to the interesting stuff.  The interesting stuff – programming games (eventually) and learning a little bit of Java makes them perk up like I’ve just injected coffee into their veins.

The Year 13s were last year’s superstar class. They let me away with my silly gamble of using Greenfoot and Java.  They trusted me when I told them that the book’s suggestion of a ‘game’ in Excel or PowerPoint was just plain nuts. They got some of the best GCSE grades I have had in ages.  We have a laugh. They get depressed when they find out there’s more MS Office on the horizon, but perk up at the thought of A-level ICT projects in Greenfoot.  They love Greenfoot. They remember GCSE – get the easy stuff out of the way and then learn something really clever.  Work with me, I’ll do the best I can to make it interesting.  Easy stuff equals easy marks.  Work with me and we’ll go so far off-piste and so in-depth you’ll wonder why the specification makes it look boring.  The rebels of that group, who kept asking for A-level Computing have got their way.  Two afternoons per week, AS Computing, as an extra-curricular option.  I love their enthusiasm.

The Year 14s rewarded my gamble of moving to AQA for A-level ICT, with a ridiculous number of As and Bs at AS level.  I remind them that they complained when I told them they wouldn’t get to do CCEA’s 150-page coursework for AS.  Some want to build search engines, Amazon-type online sites and Android Apps for their A2 coursework.  The dreaded phrase “How will you do this within C2k?” is discussed, as it will be several times in the months ahead.  We may have changed board, but the spectre of MS Access (approved by C2k) remains.  Two former members of the class turn up to return books and inform me they are off to do Further Maths instead.  They leave to good-natured jeering from the rest of the class.  These people are good fun, though whether they are still laughing in November, with final coursework deadlines looming, is another matter.

During the week, I talk to a few of the people who are new to me, whether at GCSE or AS.  I ask them why they want to do ICT.  Of them all, the best response to “Why are you here?” is, “Because I know nothing about Computers and I want  to learn.”  Good.  If you want to learn, you are welcome in my classroom at any time.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics?

Teachers are often nervous when we hear school managers talk about using statistics to analyse performance.  Our worries are not without reason: we have all heard anecdotal stories of the teacher whose GCSE classes ‘only’ get C grades being pushed out of the school, while the teachers who get A grades find themselves rapidly promoted.  In these anecdotes, the Head ignores the fact that the ‘C’ teacher starts the course with a class of 24 who can barely read and write, and who go on to get E/F grades in everything else.  Meanwhile, the ‘A’ teacher is the Head of Dept who hand-picks 6 bright sparks for his own classes and cruises through the course.

Hence the title of this post.  Ultimately, you can abuse statistics to prove anything.  However, with clever use, we can properly use statistics to help our students – and show that the ‘C’ teacher has done a fine job also.

We’ve all been doing this for years.  We look at the Christmas exam papers and spot trends, don’t we?  Class A all score full marks in Question 5, while Class B barely manage a coherent sentence – so we try to figure out what went wrong for Class B, and why?  Are they a weak class, who are slow at getting through material, so this topic was missed?  Did the class teacher not realise the topic was on the paper?  Maybe the teacher just made a hash explaining of the topic?!  When I am the one who has taught both classes, and class A clearly know something class B do not, I have to figure out whether I blundered or whether half of class B were off one day and nobody asked about homework.  When we do this within our departments, it’s usually fine.  We want to help each other.  We want the kids to do as well as they can.  If I can help the teacher in the next room with a topic they don’t teach very well, or if they can help me teach the topic I simply do not understand, then…. great!  We’re all in it together.

In my worldview, of figuring out the topics you teach well and the topics that mess up the exam, there has been one piece missing (until now): exam board feedback.  Exam boards might simply give you a list of grades, or maybe a module-by-module breakdown.  They don’t tell you the questions your class messed up though.  You know your class came out of the hall in June thinking it was a horrible paper, or that is was easy, or that all was well until the final question, but you don’t know how other schools did.

Over the years, I have marked or moderated the work of around 5,000 students from other schools.  Even after one series, there are clear trends that examiners see: the topics that hardly anybody in the whole UK understands; the school where everyone is heading for an A until one particular topic trips the whole lot up; the schools where students have clearly rote-learned the standard textbook and not applied their knowledge to the scenario of the question; the schools that year-on-year produce fantastic work.  Confidentiality and contracts prevent me from doing what I want to do sometimes: phone the school and talk the teacher through the paper – help a fellow professional plug the hole that pulls everyone down a grade.

Sometimes I have wished someone would talk me through the offerings my own people delivered up.

So, unless you are afraid of statistics, help is at hand (depending on the exam board you use).  I do wish all boards would do this.  These come from e-AQA, from my own class’s exams last summer – I can’t comment on how other boards do or don’t make this data available.  For confidentiality of students, I am not identifying anyone, and removing anything that might let an individual’s details be worked out,

Firstly, we can look at how many of our people get a particular grade (there are none for ‘Our centre last year’ because we were with another board for this course):

grades A-C

Woohoo – all my people get A-C.  But I know that already.  It’s useful to know that we were miles ahead of ‘Similar centres’ and all of AQA.  The page I took this graph from also shows ‘A’, ‘A to B’, ‘A to C’, ‘A to D’ and ‘A to E’.

Let’s look a little closer – the total score for the paper (green) and per module (the two in blue):

Great! We’re still beating everyone.  So let’s look at the bottom module, per-question.  I press ‘View components’ and see this…

more stats

(it goes on for another 9 questions, but I won’t put it all here).

Questions 1 and 2 give more good news… but something has gone badly wrong on question 3.  Actually, it went wrong for the whole UK but we seem to have been worse-hit than others.  At this point I can ‘View marks’ and see how each student did.  I can see whether a handful of students’ poor marks dragged the class average down, or if the whole class made a mess of it.  From the set of graphs for all questions, I can see whether the terrific performance is as good as it looks.  Did they really outscore everyone on every question?  Did they do so well across the paper, that one poor question didn’t affect things?  Did they get away with poor knowledge of a third of the paper, through full marks in most other questions?  Did they fluke high grades because they got lucky on the topics that came up?

Data like this gives me an idea of the topics I have taught well, and the topics I might not have not taught well.  I can split the class into groups and see how the students who were in my GCSE class did in comparison to the people who only joined us for AS.  Some people may have sleepless nights, wondering if the topic they rushed cost anyone a grade – this is not a good idea, as I don’t know too many teachers who get every single topic right.  I don’t think I’ll have a sleepless night over this – but I will go to the paper, check the questions that gave problems, and figure out what happened.

One single mark is unlikely to affect the overall range of grades your class scores.  But, a mark or two here and there, over four modules, could be significant.  If I can figure out the topics that gave problems, and plug a hole or two, I can help someone’s future.  If I modify how I teach the topic they all messed up on, I can help a lot of people’s futures.