Introducing Blair McHugh – Teacher of Digital Technologies

Licensed under Creative Commons

Licensed under Creative Commons

Recently I took the opportunity to sit down with Mr Blair McHugh, our new teacher of Digital Technologies at St Andrew’s College and discuss his previous experiences and vision for the subject. What became apparent was Mr McHugh’s passion for the subject and how his approach to teaching programming aims to dispel the common misconception of a sole programmer working in a darkened room eating pizza!

Prior to joining the staff at St Andrew’s, he had taught for 9 years at Burnside High School and before that at Cashmere High School. Importantly, however, he has industry experience with Fujitsu NZ primarily in networking and infrastructure and it is these skills he aims to impart to students at the College.

A coding language is just a tool – if you’ve not solved the problem before you begin the actual coding,  then you’re probably not going to solve the problem.

Mr McHugh will be teaching students the Python coding language, however as the above quote suggests, there is significantly more to this subject than just learning one of the many programming languages that exist these days. The steps students are encouraged to follow are:

  • Plan – understand what the requirements of the job are, ask the right questions and formulate an approach to solving this before you start coding. Analysis like this early on helps to ensure future success in the project.
  • Code – once you have fully analysed the problem and planned an approach, only then attempt to write some code.
  • Test – execute the code and see if it works!
  • Review – check how it has all gone
  • Repeat – go back to the planning and analysis to see what may need to be improved, re-work the code accordingly, and test it out. Keep repeating this process until you have it working and the problem is solved and the key outcomes from the planning stage are met.

One of the key messages Mr McHugh has to remind students of is the need to avoid “programming on the go” as this almost invariably leads to wasted time:

Time is the biggest and most precious resource available to students. There is little cost in ‘real’ resources when churning out code, but time spent aimlessly coding is too important to waste

To achieve an Excellence in Level 3, students need to demonstrate real efficiencies in their code – there should be no “blind corners or dead ends” – and the easiest way to avoid this is effective planning and regular reviewing of the code.

To further enhance the students ability to plan efficiently, he promotes a very open, collaborative environment where students are not just expected to participate and inter-relate with each, they are required to. This is supported by the banning of headphones in class – students can not be an individual silo separated from the rest of the class. The rationale behind this is that increasingly in the workplace, programmers need to be talking to stakeholders, clients, fellow programmers and communicating effectively to all of these individuals.

Sec_T1

The Term 1 2016 DPR Value of “Honesty” works very well in Digital Technologies

Whilst discussing this, Mr McHugh pointed out how well the Term 1 DPR Value (Developing Positive Relationships) worked in his class. He expects students to be honest when they’ve struck a problem with their coding or analysis and be able to ask other students for input.

Key Competencies

The Key Competencies from the NZ Curriculum

 

Consequently, the Key Competencies from the NZ Curriculum play a major role in his classes, in particular  Participating and Contributing and Relating to Others as students interact and collaborate together. In the words of Mr McHugh:

 

No one codes alone in a silo in the real world – being part of a team and coding on a bigger project is a critical skill to learn in school.

To further support this, students practice sitting around a table, asking questions of each others’ projects. Asking the right sort of questions is an essential part of problem solving and developing critical thinking skills. Along with these skills is the continued importance of a strong mathematical foundation to be a successful programmer.

Too often, students do not think maths or physics are necessary in coding, however to start doing advanced 3D graphics a strong grasp of matrices and geometry is critical:

Students can still do 2D platform style games, Angry Birds etc, without strong maths. However, it’s the 3D graphics in games like Halo that really spins their wheels and attracts their attention … BUT you need great maths ability to do that sort of thing.

Following on from the work of Mr Phil Adams, Mr McHugh will continue the lunchtime Code Clubs for those students who are not taking Digital Technologies as a subject.

I’m really looking forward to seeing some of the projects that students will work on this year and hopefully writing about them on this blog.

Making It Easier To Read & Write with OneNote Learning Tools

Few would argue against the fact that technology should support teachers and learners in the classroom to achieve better learning outcomes and comprehension. Sadly, too often the technology is shoe-horned into learning environments simply to “tick the box” that eLearning is happening. By creating a role of eLearning Integrator that is filled by Mr Tom Adams, St Andrew’s College has committed to supporting our teachers maximise the benefits of the technology available.

Therefore, it is very pleasing to see that Microsoft have recently released some tools for OneNote to further support the literacy of students by making it easier to read content and improve their writing. The Learning Tools For OneNote, a free download, provide a set of extended features that will help improve learning outcomes for all students.

It’s a game changer.

Mr B. Clark (Head of Learning Support)

From the website:

  • English language learners can increase their fluency.
  • Emerging readers can feel confident when reading material at a higher level.
  • Students with learning differences like dyslexia can decode text more easily.

Learning Tools

Watch the above Office Mix Video to see Learning Tools in action.

Features

New features in the OneNote Learning Tools

The downside of this new tool set is that it is currently only available for Windows clients of MS OneNote, leaving Apple Mac users and OneNote Online web clients out in the cold. Nevertheless, when Mr Adams talked with St Andrew’s Head of Learning Support about this new feature, he replied “It’s a game changer.”  

As a result of this positive endorsement, which was echoed by our Head of English Ms Tam Yuill Proctor, the ICT services team will be deploying the OneNote Learning Tools (download directly here) to all laptops/desktops managed by St Andrew’s whilst also encouraging students to install it on their BYOD devices.

I look forward to hearing from students and teachers alike how these new tools are supporting positive literacy outcomes.

Microsoft Video Showcases Innovative Educators

On the 23rd November 2015 Microsoft NZ arranged for a TV crew to film and interview a number of staff and students at St Andrew’s College. The focus of the day was showcasing how the Surface Pro 3 and OneNote were being used creatively within the College. The three teaching staff interviewed were Mr Wilj Dekkers (Year 6 class teacher in the Preparatory School), Ms Tam Yuill Proctor (Assistant Head of English) and Mr Ben Hilliam (Assistant Head of Maths).

These three were chosen as they have been using the Surface Pro 3 since our initial trial group was formed in late 2014 and also because they have recently been named as Microsoft Innovative Educators for 2016:

St Andrew’s College’s three Microsoft Innovative Educators for 2016 from left to right: Mr Ben Hillian, Ms Tam Yuill Proctor and Mr Wilj Dekkers

All three have featured on this blog before, with some of my favourite posts about their teaching being:

What impresses me about these teachers is how natural the integration of technology and eLearning strategies are. As I noted on the post about Mr Hilliam above:

Whilst the phrase “ubiquitousness of technology” is over used, this lesson did demonstrate that when used effectively, the technology is not at the forefront of the lesson. It was not gimmicky or flashy, instead it provided functional improvement to what was already a great lesson.

Certainly, the technology available to achieve this integration is available and well supported at St Andrew’s, something that Ms Yuill Proctor noted in a blog post published today:

At StAC I count myself very lucky to have the technology, infrastructure and guidance available to try new tools to enhance the learning programs and assist with day to day teaching.

Having access to the tools and support increases the confidence of teachers to try new things – sometimes this is simply at a “Substitution” level on the SAMR scale of technology integration – but often it goes deeper into Modification and Redefinition:

SAMR Diving

These three teachers, recognised externally by Microsoft for the innovative work they’re doing in their classrooms, along with our eLearning Integrator Mr Tom Adams, need to function as change agents and ambassadors within the College in 2016, sharing their pedagogy and encouraging colleagues to follow their lead.

In 2014 St Andrew’s introduced the 1:1 Computing Programme to Year 9 students, making it compulsory for all students in that year group to bring a laptop. We have now successfully concluded the second year of this and, in 2016, are rolling back this requirement to Year 8 students in our Preparatory School as well.

Both Mr Dekkers and Mr Adams have been heavily involved in planning the rationale and support for the Year 8 programme. The result of this is that close to 700 students in Years 8-11 will be required to bring a laptop to school each day: clearly the need for eLearning leaders such as those recognised above is critical to ensure staff and students can maximise the value of this technology.

I am really pleased that this video, and the recognition from Microsoft of these three teachers, reflects the huge amount of effort and planning that goes into teaching with technology at St Andrew’s College.

Footnote: One of the happy outcomes from the day Microsoft spent filming was the chance to interview Toby, a budding game developer in Mr Dekkers’ class. This led to a followup Skype interview that I blogged about here

Toby 3

EPIC Adventure for Year 7 Students

The EPIC Centre the students visited

The EPIC Centre the students visited

Earlier this term a number of Year 7 students from St Andrew’s College were able to visit the EPIC facility in the central city, as part of a visit co-ordinated by Miss Briony Marks. EPIC stands for Enterprise Precinct Innovation Centre and is described on their website as:

EPIC connects New Zealand’s high-tech entrepreneurs with each other and their counterparts around the world

EPIC (Enterprise Precinct Innovation Centre) Christchurch serves as a bridge between innovation focussed companies of all sizes. Connecting business with investors, Governments and technology hubs around the world, whilst fostering a collaborative environment for Christchurch business and social communities to work together

The various inquiries that the students have participated in this year have shared a technology focus and so the opportunity to connect with the wider technology and innovation community was too good to pass up.

I asked whether the students who visited EPIC could write a few reflections for this blog and so they used Microsoft OneNote to brainstorm what they had seen. A number of similarities were identified between EPIC environment and that of St Andrew’s:

epic-brainstorm

Here are the reflections from the students:

Students arriving at EPIC

Students arriving at EPIC

On Thursday 5th November we took the bus and we went to EPIC. EPIC (Entrepreneurship Precinct Innovation Centre) is a large building in the centre of town, this building houses several different companies that work in high tech industries. When we got there we had a tour guide, Jalanda. We got taken to a little seating area to get talked to about the whole place of EPIC, the values and the ideas behind the building.

EPIC was set up because many tech businesses in Christchurch lost their buildings, hard drives and files because of the Earthquake. So they all were squished and cramped together in a small building close to the airport. This situation, although unfortunate, brought many of the companies together and soon after, they started collaborating and sharing their ideas with each other, to make their projects better. They all figured out that this was a better way to work, so 2 years ago they built EPIC, where more than 20 businesses now work. Even though now they have more space, the heads of the building have decided to build the toilets and kitchens in communal areas, so that people will bump into each other in the hallways and share ideas. Even Google was in on the idea and donated a coffee machine to the building because everybody needs a coffee break at one point during the day so you’ll meet new people who you may not work with directly.

Getting creative at EPIC

Getting creative at EPIC

We visited four different companies; they were called SLI Systems, Cerebral Fix, Red Seed and Meta Digital. All of the companies were downstairs except SLI Systems which is upstairs. All the companies are based on technology, and web or game designing and one had a green screen.

SLI Systems

These guys worked to get your website on the front page of Google. They worked with searches and helping people navigate your website easily.

SLI was the biggest company that we visited and it had a lot of work space. Each group of employees had their own office. The offices were really personalised and someone was even doing work whilst on a treadmill. SLI had a lot of fun; there was a competition where they got an old chair and they had to redesign it. The winning chair, a Darlek was in the corner of the office. We noticed that the people working there all had Nerf guns, they had Nerf wars and they planned raids against other companies.

SLI has offices in Japan, London, Australia and the USA. There are also heaps of people from different companies that work there. They had all their flags up on the wall and they celebrated all the different national holidays to make their staff feel welcomed. When we went they had just had a Halloween party. There was an iPad that was on a skateboard Segway that could move around the office. This was controlled by people in the offices abroad so that they could talk “face to face” via Skype.

Red Seed

RedSeed help people get better at their job. Red Seed are an online training provider, this means they run training for lots of big shops like the Warehouse. Their clients sign up to courses online and can learn on the go by watching videos at home or on their mobile phones. The bosses can see who has watched what.

The lady who set up the company used to go to different companies and help train the staff in sales and customer services, but this was not very efficient as staff changed over a lot. So she decided to try to record some of the videos online. This became really popular and is how Red Seed was born.

It was cool to see the green screen and see people teaching and learning outside of school.

Cerebral Fix

EPIC_3Cerebral Fix make video games and they were the coolest company! They are a video game designer for Disney and DreamWorks and have made games for lots of films. They make apps and other mini games as well as some larger ones. There were lots of people working there on Macs and Windows systems; they chose which they preferred or sometimes had to design for a certain platform (iPhones, Android etc).

Cerebral Fix were really interesting. It was great to see a game company for real and to talk about how long it takes to make a game. It was great to see the process involved in making a game, from ideas to the coding and testing. Sometimes they can get 95% through making a game and then it doesn’t work. They just have to start over and try again.

To get their ideas they play lots of games and talk about what they like and what they don’t like. They don’t just play video games; sometimes they play board games and use the ideas out of them to help design video games.

Meta Digital

EPIC_4Meta Digital were web-site designers. This was a very small company and office but they all seemed to work together and get it done. Each person had their job to do and they were able to speak and work together because of their smaller office. They had a maximum workload of 4 projects at one time, when we visited they were doing 3.

Clients would ask the people at Meta to design them a web-site. Meta have a “look” to their designs meaning they look similar, people would come to them because they like their look and then the designers talk to the clients and ask heaps of questions to make sure they get it right. Then once it’s been designed they start to program it and hope the clients like it!

EPIC and School

EPIC was quite like school because the building had lots of open corridors and places to work together. They shared their kitchens like we share our lunch space and the donut seating areas. This means that people get to chat in a less formal environment and you don’t just have to hang out in your office or classroom. These small businesses are a bit like all our different classes; they were all working together well. They could use their space to collaborate or shut themselves in to focus and work on their own. We bump into other people in different classes in the corridors and on the way to the toilets and get to know each other in the same way. Also, EPIC and School both have coffee machines for people to meet at. Teachers and parents have coffees in our café and the workers meet at the machines too.

Open break out spaces similar to what is available at St Andrew's College Preparatory School

Open break out spaces similar to what is available at St Andrew’s College Preparatory School

Working at EPIC

I would like to work at the EPIC building because they were very relaxed and it didn’t look stressed. The working environment was really fun. People had lots of Nerf gun wars, dress up days, design a chair and competitions to see whose eye was whose. It’s not very normal…. we think that they did these things to meet each other and have fun within the building. People concentrate better when they have fun and get break time to recharge. Meeting other people means having more ideas and getting to share your thoughts with others.

All these businesses needed creativity, all over the building there are artworks from Weta and video game landscapes. In the offices, employees brought in items from home that they loved (statues, toys, games, pictures and stuff like that). They had their personal things in their offices and dogs could come to work.  This made people feel at home and inspired to be creative. Without creativity work would be boring and they would make lame products, but if you are creative it means your work would be unique.

 

Integrating Student Data Into Moodle

moodleMoodle is the Learning Management System (LMS) used by St Andrew’s College at all year levels and is renowned for being very customisable due to it’s Open Source code base. Recently, we partnered with Catalyst NZ, experts in Open Source Software (OSS), on an integration project to extract data from the College’s MS-SQL based Student Management System (SMS) called Synergetic and display this to students directly in Moodle.

The project started with a request from the Deputy Rector, Mr Roland Burrows, for students to be able to see their Fortnightly Notes scores directly. This form of reporting is new in 2015 and the rationale behind these Fortnightly Notes is explained by Mr Burrows:

They provide the opportunity for teachers to regularly report to parents on the contribution that their son/daughter is making to his/her own learning through their attitude and effort

Parents can log into the Parent Portal to see a PDF summary of these scores that looks something like this:

A redacted example of a student's Fortnightly Notes score

A redacted example of a student’s Fortnightly Notes score

As the name implies, the Parent Portal is not available to students directly, so choosing Moodle was an obvious choice to display this data to students. Whilst considering the possible layout options of this data, we decided against replicating the table view that parents see above and instead decided to present a line graph to students that would visually reflect their attitude and effort in each subject across the entire year. Additionally, displaying Student Attendance information on a per-class basis, along with NCEA results-to-date would add real value for students at St Andrew’s so these features were added to the scope of the project.

CONFIGURATION:

To achieve these outcomes, we needed to partner with Catalyst for the Moodle configuration, and they proceeded to write a custom plugin that would extract data from the MS-SQL database powering Synergetic, import it into Moodle’s mySQL database and then present it to the students. To achieve this, three custom SQL views were created that collated only the information to be displayed in Moodle: NCEA summaries, Attendance percentages and Fortnightly Notes scores. A sample of this data can be seen in this gallery:

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New navigation options under Site Pages

New navigation options under Site Pages

Lastly, the Moodle theme used on the St Andrew’s College Moodle site was modified to include new navigation for students to access this information. Extensive testing was then completed on our development Moodle site to iron out bugs and ensure that the information was being displayed correctly.

DISPLAYING THE DATA:

It was decided to graph a student’s Fortnightly Notes score and Attendance information at the top of each course page in Moodle, so they could immediately see their effort and attendance on a per-class basis. This can be seen in the following animated GIF image as the graphs are generated in real time:

Gif1

An animated image showing the Fortnightly Notes line graph and Attendance pie chart being generated on a student’s course page

However, to also replicate the Parent Portal summary view, a student could see the scores for all classes on a new page added under the “Site Pages” navigation menu:

Summary

Summary view of Fortnightly Notes scores and Class Attendance

For students working towards NCEA they can now see their recorded grades directly in their Moodle account:

A Yr11 Student's NCEA resutls

A Yr11 Student’s NCEA results

FINAL THOUGHTS:

Working on this project was exciting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was our initial attempt to extract meaningful student data from our SMS and display it elsewhere. Secondly, we believe that providing this information to students visually, and displaying it to them every single time they log into their Moodle course pages, will encourage them with their effort and attitude in class. Lastly, it represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is possible to present to students in Moodle.

In many ways, this was a proof of concept: could we extract data and present it meaningfully to students in one of our primary learning platforms? Thanks to the customisation options within Moodle, we were able to achieve this and with other recent testing of Microsoft’s new Business Intelligence platform called PowerBI, we anticipate being able to add even more visual information to students in this way (for those interested, the animated graphs are powered by the open source rGraph tool).

Teacher Perspectives On The Surface Pro 3

Six SurfacePro3 for use in classrooms at St Andrew's College

Six SurfacePro3 for use in classrooms at St Andrew’s College

As we approach the first anniversary of the Surface Pro 3 release in New Zealand, I’ve been reflecting on the fact that we now have 26 staff members using them across the school. An earlier update on how how teachers have been using the Pro 3 in their classes remains one of the more popular posts on this blog and in anticipation of teacher demand for tablets in 2016, I have surveyed those staff members who use a Surface Pro 3.

The overall satisfaction rates of teachers with the Surface Pro 3 is very high

The overall satisfaction rates of teachers with the Surface Pro 3 is very high

Using SurveyMonkey I have collated some interesting feedback from teachers and share it here for the benefit of other schools that may be interested in exploring the tablets for their teachers.

Whilst it is not always easy to ask the “right” questions when it comes to getting useful feedback I have tried to get staff to compare the key features and functionality of a Surface Pro 3 with a traditional laptop that the College has issued to teaching staff:

Laptop v SP3

An interesting comment to the above responses from a teacher was:

What is not mentioned above is the functionality – the Surface is far more functional than a laptop as it doubles as a tablet, when needed. This is the huge advantage of a Surface over a laptop.

It is important to acknowledge some of those “niggles” that teachers have experienced because no device is perfect. Here is some feedback from staff highlighting some of the challenges of the device:

The keyboard needs to be taken off and reattached to remedy glitches. The keyboard is small and I often hit the caps button. Consider body posture when using the Surface Pro 3 so that you are not hunched. Before putting a plastic box on the desk and under the tablet, I would wonder why I had a sore neck/back/eyestrain.

The thing I really don’t like is a cheapie-feeling keyboard and how I keen hitting two keys at once … lack of USB ports is really annoying too

Some issues with it freezing when in sleep mode. Need to force a restart when this happens

We have done a significant amount of experimentation with wireless projection at St Andrew’s College and a future post will cover what we have settled on, however currently only 41% of our teachers with Surface Pro 3 tablets are using wireless projection (this number is skewed as well because the majority of our SP3 users are in our Preparatory School because of where their lease renewal occurred). However, 96% of the teachers said they would use wireless projection if it was available in their class, with the following breakdown showing how significant it is to their teaching style:

Wireless Projection

Clearly, the ability to roam a classroom “untethered” from the front and a data projector cable is a big drawcard for teachers and a trend I see only growing as the technology becomes more reliable.

One of the key features of the Surface Pro 3 is the great accuracy of the pen and the ability to “write” into OneNote very easily; a feature that is consistently praised by our teachers. This question specifically asked about the usefulness of the pen:

SP3 Pen

Some departments at St Andrew’s College would love to change the requirement for students that all devices must support “inking” in some format, and it’s easy to see why: subjects that involve diagrams, formula and equations would be significantly easier for students if they could simply handwrite directly into OneNote.

Whilst the Surface Pro 3 is experiencing favourable feedback from teachers, we are also looking at “convertible laptops” that allow for the handwriting on the screen such as the HP Spectre x360 that folds back into a tablet. Historically, our testing of units like this have been disappointing as the accuracy of the inking on these hybrids just could not compete with genuine tablets like the Pro 3. That said, the attraction of a proper keyboard and a larger screen appeals to some of our teachers:

Laptop v Tablet

Ultimately, the value of any device to a teacher can be measured in whether they would recommend it to their colleagues: on this point, the teachers were almost unanimous.

Recommendation

One interesting comment from a teacher in the Preparatory School reflects the uptake of tablets in their class by students, purely based on what they have seen from teachers using the devices:

A number of staff in the Prep School who opted for laptops now regret their choice and given the opportunity would switch to a surface. 8 students in my class now use surface tablets – 2 having switched from Mac.

How has the practice of our teachers changed with the Surface Pro 3?

This is a difficult question to get answers to in some ways but a critical one to understand what, if any, impact on pedagogy a technology shift has had for our teachers. Up until the introduction of the Surface Pro 3 the teachers at St Andrew’s were all given identical laptops. By introducing some limited choice it has increased the support costs of maintenance and spares, therefore it was hoped there would be some positive changes or improvements in teaching practice. Here is a selection of some replies from teachers:

My practice has not changed, but the mobility of the Surface and the fact that will do all I ask of it has adapted my style. I am able to work with the students annotating a piece of writing or work through maths problems using the stylus and each child is able to revisit this learning through OneNote. The mobility, wireless projector connectivity and stylus allow me to get away from the desk and be with the students when teaching. Most importantly – the students use of the Surface to share with others is powerful. They take my surface and use it to explain concepts to a group when linked to the projector and when used in conjunction with OneNote, students collaborate in real time on a piece of learning using their stylus on their own Surface tablets.

Maths Teacher

A reply from a Preparatory School teacher suggests it can lead to MORE work:

I probably end up doing more work from home as it is much more portable [than a laptop]

Preparatory School Teacher

It has not changed my practice, but has complemented it very well. I already used my own Surface in conjunction with a school laptop. Before the Surface, I used my phone to do many of the same functions, complemented by a laptop. Having a Surface provided by school has meant operating fewer devices for the same outcomes, making it easier when you don’t have your own classroom.

Science Teacher

More movement around the class, use of pen and writing has enhanced the annotation ability, marking and so forth, integration of technology, ease of OneNote and working 1 on 1 with students. light, easy to move around with especially when wirelessly not connected to data projector

English Teacher

I don’t write on whiteboard anymore – I write directly onto my OneNote page so students can access this

Science Teacher

Much easier to use in PE settings ie with pen and tablet. Therefore I am more likely to use it, and complete observation style tasks more frequently. Easier to mark / use OneNote – I can mark and make comments quickly using the pen

PE Teacher

Less time at my desk and more time with students. Ability to take teaching outside the classroom, faster and with more resources. Being able to show examples of preferred practices with ease and ability to document past/current teaching and interactions with the students has been key. Students are assisted by this to become more reflective learners. (ability to revisit work via OneNote).

Preparatory School Teacher

A recurring theme comes through in these responses in terms of how a tablet, with the ability to ink, enhances the value of Microsoft OneNote, a key tool that is being used at our College.

The above information is important for the ICT team to understand. Like many schools, we lease our teacher laptops/devices and renew these every three years. The teaching staff leases are split into three, so each year we replace 1/3 of the devices (around 45-50), and I anticipate that the majority of our teachers who are up for a new device in 2016 will want something they can write on. The above information will be disseminated to those teachers to help them make informed decisions and also assist the ICT department in providing the best support possible.

Preparatory School Racing Ahead with Robotics

During Term One and Two this year Miss Bryony Marks, among a number of other projects, initiated a Robotics club at Year 5 in the Preparatory School. Initially the club was open to 15 students, using Lego Mindstorm EV3 to build and program in groups of 3. The purpose of the club was to introduce Year 5 students to Robotics, thus setting the groundwork for future expansion of robotics as these students progress through the college.

IMG_4672In response to overwhelming demand and interest form other year groups, it was immediately obvious that an expansion of resources was needed. The extremely supportive College PTA was approached for support in this area, and generously responded with $5000 funding for a further 8 sets – allowing whole class robotics for the first time. This now allows all children in the Preparatory school the opportunity to engage with this exciting technology, and to authentically apply their basic block programming skills to robotics.

The next logical progression in this rapidly evolving programme was to enter teams in the Canterbury Regional 2015 RoboCup Junior competition. This national competition requires students to use their programming, engineering, and creative skills to entertain, delight, and thrill an audience. They must design up to three robots that are used in a 1 to 2 minute themed performance based around either robot theatre, or rescue. robotics2At Year 5 and Year 7, all interested children were given the opportunity to ‘trial’ for these competition teams, with Miss Marks looking for children with a range of skills such as organisation, programing, robot building and creativity.

The two Year 5 teams were chosen after a ‘Loop Walk’ challenge which required them to self-teach and apply their new knowledge in small groups to program a robot to walk a square course in the style of their choosing.

Year 7 teams were chosen through a Little Red Riding Hood Challenge, which required them to program a Robot to navigate from Grandma’s house to Red Riding Hood’s garage, while stopping to look for cars. and then reversing into their garage.

The final team is a two person Year 8 team that was selected based on previous experience. James has an interest and experience in programming, while Ethan has a passion for Robotics.

On Friday all five teams spent the day preparing for the competition. Over the course of the day they conceptualised, built and programmed their robots. The room was a busy hive of activity throughout the day, as student groups worked independently on the numerous challenges involved in such a task.

IMG_4673James and Ethan are entered in the Research and Rescue Challenge which requires their robot to follow a black line across the performance area, sensing and responding to green squares. Finally, it must grab a tin can from the center of the area, eventually returning it to the beginning of the course.  James noted that his biggest challenge of the day was applying his previous block programming experience through Scratch into the new platform; EV3 Mindstorm. Ethan’s main challenge was trouble-shooting the challenges that the colour senses proved, as they initially struggled to perform as expected.

Ethan and James' robot

Ethan and James’ robot

It is challenges like this that prove the relevance and importance of robotics. Miss Marks noted that “Children are required to self-manage, problem solve and think logically as they respond to various challenges throughout the build. Competitive Robotics combines creative writing, engineering, arts and crafts, DIY, coding and programming – everything that our students love!”

Click below to see a short video of an early prototype from the day! We wish all St Andrew’s College Teams well as they continue to prepare for the regional competition on August 16th!

 

 

Using Online Simulation Gaming to Improve Student Literacy

The Year 12 Business Studies course at St Andrew’s College aims to introduce students to entrepreneurship, and help develop their knowledge and skill in running a business. The course is deliberately designed to be very hands-on and students work in small groups to run all aspects of their own small businesses. While many students taking the course have strong entrepreneurial skills, those who do not supplement the Business Studies course with Year 12 Accounting have often struggled to understand the financial impacts of decision making within a business, and the flow-on effects of this decision making in a business context.

Upon reflection by the Commerce Department, it was identified that a number of Business Studies students were struggling with the financial literacy requirements of Business Studies; particularly in the area of question terminology such as ‘Fully Explain’.

In an attempt to remedy this, Business Studies students were tasked with running a small online business. The Small Business Game is a free online simulation that provides the experience of running a small business. In the gam, students experience the start-up and management of a business, learning both from their mistakes and from their successes. The game uses the platform of running a merchandise business for a club from NZ’s ASB Premiership – the highest level of domestic football in NZ.

Students choose one of the Premierships teams and then they manage all aspects of the team’s off-field performance such as staffing, pricing, and advertising.

Small Business GameBusiness Studies teacher Steve Aldhamland has seen high levels of engagement in the game from his students. Students played the game during one class period a week in Term One, though Steve notes that

“Most students played the game in their own time too; some even completed the whole 52 week simulation in a couple of weeks!”

Success in the game is principally measured in the financial surplus that the player manages to generate, but there are other indicators such as worker well-being and health.

In conversations with educators I have heard many skeptics of the value of games in classrooms comment that improved engagement is all well and good, but is it enough? This is where this Business Studies task excels.

workbook

Building on the high levels of engagement that he saw with the game, Steve created a workbook that combines examples from the game with examination style questions and exemplar answers. The booklet reinforces students’ understanding by modeling correct responses, and analysing the structure of these answers. By combining the game with literacy tasks, students can take content that they have engaged with throughout the game, and use that content to deliberately improve the complexity of their written responses.

It is always pleasing to find teachers who are willing to engage with a new technique in the classroom. What I particularly like to celebrate is when this new technique is directly in response to student need – leading to authentic student learning.

Old Collegian Shares Google Internship Experience

internshipsFormer student Claudia Pottinger (class of 2013) returned this week to share her experiences of being a Google Internee with Mr Phil Adams’ Year 13 Digital Technologies class. I was fortunate to be able to listen in on this session and record a few reflections.

Claudia attended St Andrew’s College for five years and during that time never studied programming or computer science, instead focusing on the ‘two Science, two Maths and English’ approach. When she started at Auckland University it was to studying for a degree in Engineering and a BA in Logic and Computation. It was in Computer Science 101 that she was introduced to the language of Python – something that was going to prove very helpful when it came to apply for the Google Internship.

Having seen a link online offering Google Internships for “under-represented groups in the technology industry”, Claudia applied, sending off a CV. She was eventually contacted and went through two different phone interviews to see her suitability for this role before being hired for the summer of late November 2014 through to February 2015.

MAIN ROLE AT GOOGLE:

The project Claudia was assigned to for her internship was to work in the Network Operations Corp and she worked on creating visualisation tools showing availability, packet loss and latency between Google offices and data centres. Her primary role was to retrieve this data from existing systems in place at Google, organise it into a useful format and then another internee helped to present this with web coding in HTML and JavaScript.

Licensed under Creative Commons

Licensed under Creative Commons

Google allowed time for the interns to become familiar with the environment and understand how work happens within Google (took about 3 weeks) and the project was completed before the end of the 12 week internship. In responding to questions from students in the room, Claudia noted:

  • The work environment was terrific – she was provided her own desktop (running a Google customised version of Ubuntu) and was also given a ChromeBook so she could work away from her desk.
  • There was flexibility in terms of what application she coded in e.g. she could use eMacs if she liked or other software platforms if she preferred.
  • Security was very tight – she was given an ID badge to enter/exit doors and also USB devices to authenticate onto computers.
  • The security around customer information was very tight, however she could browse code from different projects if she wanted to.

GOOGLE LIFE – THE PERKS!

The students at St Andrew’s were amazed to hear of all the perks Google employees had access to and even Claudia was impressed that as an internee she was also given full access to these. These included:

  • Gaming rooms – a wide range of consoles from various versions of Playstations, X-Boxes, Pinball Machines and even an old Nintendo 64!
  • Micro Kitchens – located usually no less than 50metres away from any workspace, these had snacks, candy and other food and drinks.
  • Four different restaurants each with unique menus and a smoothie bar
  • Rock climbing wall, pool tables, table tennis tables etc for recreation.

All of this was provided free for the employees and interns.

Click the image to go through to a gallery of photos from the Sydney Google offices.

Click the image to go through to a gallery of photos from the Sydney Google offices.

A typical day for Claudia was described as walking 40minutes to work from the provided accommodation, having breakfast and grabbing a smoothie for her desk before signing into work and checking her emails and then getting down to coding.

Whilst not required, Google encouraged the various teams to lunch together regularly, after which she might relax in one of the games rooms and then return to code till around 6pm. One of the four restaurants was open for dinner for staff.

In response to a question on whether there was close monitoring of work hours / effort, Claudia said that provided staff were delivering the outcomes required for their projects in the time frames set there was no questions asked about long lunches or breaks to play games etc.

KEY MESSAGES FOR STUDENTS:

Throughout the internship there was a lot to learn and some of the key messages that were passed on to current students at St Andrew’s College included:

  • Other people must be able to read your code – keep it clear, clean and use lots of comments in your code.
    • All code she produced had to be signed off by a colleague before it could be committed and for this to be accepted the code had to be readable.
  • Use the Coding Style Guides provided by Google to assist with this
  • Document what you’re coding about as well – be as clear as possible.
  • When applying for internships, include information on your interests and involvement in life outside of just programming.
    • Mr Adams reinforced this as well after his visit to Google in Mountain View and New York last year. He mentioned that so many of the applicants are simply brilliant academically that one way to stand out is to show what you’re passionate about and involved in outside of work.

CONCLUSION:

It was great to have an Old Collegian return to share with our students about the possibilities of internships and how to go about applying. To round out her experience, Claudia is likely to return to Google in Sydney at the end of 2015, but is also considering internships at alternative companies such as Microsoft.

This experience has also helped to shape her future career ambitions, focusing in on possible jobs in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. Her final message to the students was that you don’t need to have everything decided right now and that by being a life long learner you can change direction within your degree and even into your career.

Guest Post: Digital Disruption – A Millennial’s Perspective

This guest post first appeared on iStart – Technology in Business (please click through to read the preface by Ben Kepes) and features an insightful summary by Year 10 student Yonni Kepes on the impact of technology in society today.

Yonni

Yonni Kepes

“As the world goes through a digital transformation and disruption, we must remember what will actually be changing. For me digital transformation means changing from an old manual way of doing things to a new system that uses technology to do business in new ways. Jobs will be replaced by new, different applications of technology and it will be my generation that will be filling many of these posts.

“I think the biggest challenge for us will be understanding the extent of the transformation. For example, we weren’t around when taxis were one of the main types of transport for hire, so we never saw the industry fully function with no Uber to challenge it. And although we are in this transformation we will never see the end result – it is part of an unprecedented, continual and rapid change. I believe that makes it a lot harder for my generation to understand the changes and to know where they should look for and find good jobs which are secure. A good company attracts good employees to enjoyable jobs. Employees who are flexible and like learning new skills, and employers that support them are what make a good place to work. If my generation wants to still be employed in jobs like these, then we need to learn these new technology-based skills and use them as best we can. It is also important that customers get to have a say when looking at business. Since my generation is the future consumer, we can offer great advice that will help shape the future of businesses.

Future-technology-300x200“I also believe that as we slowly transition in to a digital world of some sort we will have our lives changed a lot by digital innovation. People now have too many “devices” in their homes, with the average number per person at nearly five. It’s a worry that more household items will be swapped for more devices with some sort of transmitter in them. The reason for my concern is because the devices will ‘take over’ people’s lives. Although having more devices per person is, in my opinion, a bad thing, they do have their benefits. These devices can now stay in contact with their owners and tell them, for example, when dinner is ready, what’s happening with the washing, or the temperature of the bath; little things in isolation, but with the potential to completely change our lives when combined. If this is happening now, then what will be happening in 20 years’ time?

“I think the biggest challenge for us will be understanding the extent of the transformation.”
Yonni Keeps, 15-year-old millennial

“It’s interesting that my generation is so fixated on what sort of phone we have but we don’t even stop to consider what digital disruption is doing to some businesses and what this could mean in terms of the way we live our lives. I believe that when my generation does see what digital disruption is doing they will simply pull a weird face, as they don’t understand it or what it is doing to the world since we will be viewing it from inside the middle of the transition. Then again, digital disruption will offer opportunities for us to look at companies and say ‘I think I can do better than them’. From there we will be able to build businesses taking advantage of other people’s lack of technological understanding. This will help to build a better system for future business.

Yonni & his father Ben Kepes who chaired the conference in Melbourne on Digital Disruption

Yonni & his father Ben Kepes who chaired the conference in Melbourne on Digital Disruption

“I believe that once my generation actually sees what is transforming then this world could turn in to a place where lots of different concepts will be used to make our life a lot easier.

“I’m very excited as this will offer many new opportunities which weren’t afforded to the generation before. I believe that with a good mindset my generation can use digital disruption to our advantage and make the world a much better place.”