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.

The Power Of Data

PowerBIIncreasingly, most organisations are seeking to “do more” with the data they collect and store and in this respect, St Andrew’s College is no different. For the last two years I have been looking at a number of tools that would allow us to easily collect, analyse, display and share critical information amongst key stakeholders.

As part of this investigation we have looked at tools such as Crystal Reports, Tableau and Microsoft Excel connected via MS-Query to our MS-SQL server and outputting pivot tables for analysis. Here are some examples of this:

In the end, we decided to progress with Microsoft’s PowerBI solution, which is described on their website as:

Power BI transforms your company’s data into rich visuals for you to collect and organize so you can focus on what matters to you. Stay in the know, spot trends as they happen, and push your business further.

Some of the reasons we selected this solution include:

  • It’s browser based – you can access it from “anywhere” and see live data. You can also bookmark certain reports in your browser for near instant access.
  • There is also an app available (iPhone/iPad/Android/Windows10) so the data is accessible anytime / anywhere
  • We can tweak reports / visuals quickly and easily, based off feedback from stakeholders
  • Being browser based, you don’t need a local file on your computer that is “out of date” once a new version with improved features is built. What you see is always the “latest version”
  • It’s part of our existing Office365 Suite, so our existing username/password logs you into the reports.
  • Security permissions are centrally managed based off AD users and role based groups.
  • It connects to our on-premise MS-SQL Server, allowing for scheduled data updates (hourly / daily).

To best demonstrate the power of this tool, we built a proof of concept based around analysing NCEA student achievement, in particular University Entrance requirements and course/subject endorsement. Here is a screencast walking through the tool:

Note: identifiable data such as student names / ID numbers have been blurred out in this video.

To accelerate the development of some of this reporting, we have:

  • Partnered with DataCom New Zealand and are getting expert advice from their Business Intelligence team in terms of configuring the ETL process via Microsoft SSIS, building a tabular data model and connecting to PowerBI in the cloud for presenting the data to staff.
  • Hired a new staff member to join the ICT Services team in the role of Business Intelligence Report Writer. The responsibilities for this role will be to interface with the various business units in the College (e.g. Academic Data, Enrolments, Development, Communications etc), understand their reporting requirements and then build the reports in PowerBI.

The key with any Business Intelligence project is to help inform the decision making process and not just be contented with pretty visualisations. To that end, a robust conversation and scoping of what is required to be seen by the stakeholder needs to be established. However, with a wide range of visualisations being added regularly to PowerBI, there is a number of ways to present data in an easily comprehensible format. One of my favourites in a 3D, interactive globe that significantly improves on the PowerMap in Excel (see above):

This visualisation could be very useful in mapping where our current students or Old Collegians live or identifying where donations are coming from globally mapped either by volume or value for example.

We are in the very early stages of this project, yet the potential is very obvious to the leadership teams at St Andrew’s. The focus over the next few weeks will be configuring the backend infrastructure: the ETL processes (Extraction, Transformation, Loading), the Data Warehouse and the connectivity into PowerBI. Subsequently, the rapid development of reporting dashboards will proceed.

If this interests you, please do check back regularly on the blog for updates or drop a comment below to discuss further.

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).

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.

Code Clubs @ StAC

2015 has seen two Code Clubs start at St Andrew’s College with Mr Phil Adams running one in the Secondary School since the start of the year and Mrs Vicki Pettit alongside Mr Wilj Dekkers starting one in the Preparatory School during Term 2.

Preparatory School:

CodeClub_LogoThe Preparatory school are using the resources provided via Code Club Aotearoa and there are around 20 students that attend regularly, within which there is a reasonably even break down of beginners and intermediate coders with 2-3 advanced coders.

The resources on the Code Club Aotearoa website are perfect for beginning and intermediate students however, Mrs Pettit is exploring options for the more advanced students and in what areas they can possibly start to apply their skills e.g. robotics, Raspberry Pi projects and possibly entering them into the Canterbury Core Education Digi Awards. The other pathway recently made available to these Prep students is Monday lunchtimes with Mr Adams in the secondary school code club.

Secondary School:

In Term 1 2015 Mr Adams started the Code Club for students that were interested in learning more about programming and were prepared to attend during their lunchtimes. His motivation was twofold:

  1. There was currently no option in the Junior curriculum (Years 9-10) for programming which means when students can take this at Year 11 they are often being introduced to the concepts for the very first time.
  2. There were a number of very keen students who did not have an avenue for support in their coding unless they persevered by themselves and were essentially self-taught from online.

Whilst there was an initial surge of enthusiasm from students, this settled into those that were committed, keen and prepared to give up a lunchtime to learn more. Having looked at the formal code clubs that existed (such as Code Club Aotearoa above), Mr Adams also reviewed online offerings such as Code Academy and Code Avengers which were useful, particularly Code Avengers which aligns with the New Zealand NCEA standards. Ultimately, however, he decided that students could continue to access these in their own time and that the focus of the Code Clubs at StAC would be slightly different.

python-logoThis alternative was to focus on teaching the students the very basics of Python so that they could create their own scripts and taste success early on. The reason for Python was quite simple as Mr Adams explains:

As a text based language the syntax is not complicated and it is very logical. Therefore, the learning curve would not be too steep for our new students. An alternative language such as C or C# would be too challenging for them to start with.

As students learnt the basics, Mr Adams focused on creating a team culture where students could learn from each other: the beginners seeking help from more advanced students, who in turn could reinforce and demonstrate their understanding of Python by teaching the beginners. Through this approach, it is hoped the Code Club will become self-perpetuating and independent with a positive and interactive culture.

With a few weeks of the basics out of the way, the goal became to progress students with the introduction of logic into their coding e.g. a basic guessing game such as this one:

An example of a number guessing game from Hana

An example of a number guessing game from Hana (click to download the Python script)

Hana, who created the above script, had the following to say about Code Club @ StAC:

I used to do coding at my old school, Selwyn House. There, it was a big thing and we did robotics and Hour of Code. The code club at StAC is super fun. Mr Adams is a really good teacher and he always lets us figure out why our code hasn’t worked. 

Coding a basic guessing game is not too difficult and yet it can easily be extended with the introduction of more logic that would require students to be able to calculate the average number of guesses it takes people to correctly guess the number each time. To support this extension, Mr Adams has created numerous tutorial videos on his YouTube channel that students can access, such as this one on how to create a list within a list using Python:

Paper, Scissors, Rock by Louis (click to download the code)

Paper, Scissors, Rock by Louis (click to download the code)

Louis, who also attends the Code Club @ StAC, created a game of Paper, Scissors, Rock in Python. Like Hana, he is also enjoying attending:

I am attending the Code Club because I enjoy coding in my own time (I also have done some robotics coding and other things) … 

I have learned things with Mr Adams (We are doing python at the moment, I have many other languages including: HTML, CSS, PHP, UNIX Terminal, Command Prompt, and JavaScript)

Next Steps:

Mr Adams has some clear next steps identified for the students in the Code Club, with the ultimate aim getting them to work collaboratively on a project together, all contributing code to a repository such as GitHub. This would enable replicating a “real world environment” where multiple people all work on much larger projects. This mirrors the message from Old Collegian Claudia Pottinger, who shared her experience as a Google Intern writing code in Python last summer. It is apparent that some of the students in the club are already thinking that far ahead, such as Jack who is in Year 9:

I go to code club because it is something I feel will benefit me in the future, and it is my intended career path. Computer programming is one of my passions, it is something that I enjoy doing in my own time.

It is extremely fun, learning new things and being able to help others who do not know so much.

A project I just finished recently was the year 12 internal exam, where you make a program in python that allows a user to select, order and store different pizzas with a range of flavours and prices.

I feel that in the future Programming will be a large part of nearly every job.

Jack's Pizza Ordering script (click to download)

Jack’s Pizza Ordering script (click to download)

Another idea to extend the students is to introduce activities from Project Euler – a website that describes its motivation as being:

The motivation for starting Project Euler, and its continuation, is to provide a platform for the inquiring mind to delve into unfamiliar areas and learn new concepts in a fun and recreational context.

To complete the activities on the website, students will need strong mathematical ability but also programming skills. One example from this website that Mr Hilliam, Maths and Statistics teacher at St Andrew’s, has used with his students is to write code that identifies the sum total of all prime numbers under 1000.

With keen students in the secondary school, along with increasing numbers of students coming through from the Preparatory and other feeder schools, providing an avenue for students to learn coding at St Andrew’s College is essential.

Guest Post: Collaborative Composition In Music

This guest post today comes from Mr Duncan Ferguson, Head of Department of Music here at St Andrew’s College. Previous posts have featured his work integrating technology in his practice that you can read here and here. Today’s post looks at his Project Based Learning (PBL) with his Year 10 Music Options class. You can read the original blog post here.

Over the last five weeks I’ve been trying a new way of running collaborative composition in my year 10 Option Music class.

This year I’ve been blessed to have a large class of highly motivated and talented students, so they were the perfect class to take a risk and jump into what is for me a new way of teaching composition.

The basic summary of what we did is that I divided the class into five groups.  In the first week each group had to start writing and recording a song (in a rough demo format).  In the 2nd week the groups swapped songs and continued on with what another group had started the previous week.  We did this for five weeks so that in the end, every group had been involved in the composition process on each of the five songs.

Initially the students were very nervous about this process as I’d done very little in terms of how to actually write songs.  However, that didn’t worry me as within each group of five members I knew that there were people with various strengths that when combined would make the process go smoothly.

Prior to this we had done a little work on what makes a good chord progression (mainly analysing four chord songs) and an effective melody but within the context of their own personal compositions, which they recorded/sequenced in either Garageband or Studio One Free.  It wasn’t much, but it proved to be enough to get the students on the way with the process.  What was critical to the process though (which I didn’t realise until we got a few weeks into the process) was that a strong knowledge of how to use technology and specifically MIDI keyboards/guitars with software sequencers made all the difference to the success of students being able to pass on their work to the next group (only a few students in the class had strong notation/theory skills so technology bridged the gap very effectively).

Here is a little video where I show one of the songs and how each group contributed towards it week by week:

And here some of the songs created by the students (please keep in mind that these are only supposed to be at ‘demo’ quality… we still intend to record them properly at a later date):

This whole process has been an incredibly empowering experience for the students and is a great demonstration of the high end of the SAMR model:

SAMR Diving

Software like Garageband and Studio One has enabled students to achieved a huge amount in a very short time and made it possible for this separate group collaborative thing to happen.  Students that recorded audio onto iPhones or wrote down music with traditional notation were no where near as effective in the sharing of their music with others.  By far the best way for this process to succeed was for students to compose using MIDI for the instruments and microphones/audio for the vocals… all along with a click so the music could be easily edited and rearranged by different groups.

Here are a couple of short videos watching students in action as they were creating their songs:

For other teachers who are wanting to run this sort of unit I’ve found that the following will make the process go very well:

  • Ensure that each group has at least one person who plays the following instruments: piano, guitar, drums, voice.  Often drummers don’t have a huge amount to do in the first week or two but as the weeks went by I discovered they were increasingly taking charge of the projects… running the technology (i.e. the computer DAW/sequencer)… which was critical when it came to restructuring ideas previous groups had come up with into coherent song structure of intros, verses, choruses, etc
  • Try and have a computer with a MIDI keyboard and a microphone setup in each room.  If you are using student laptops instead make sure you have a dedicated USB drive that holds the files that they work off… minimise copying of files between computers.  We ended up a losing a complete work from one room that students were working in as they mistakingly copied the wrong files then deleted the proper one.  The most successful songs were those that came out of rooms that had dedicated computers that students used each week.
  • Use the note pad facilities of your DAW (like Garageband or Logic) for writing down chord progressions, lyrics, ideas, etc  Don’t have things on scraps of paper as they may get lost.  Keeping everything with the DAW file is an elegant solution for keeping everything in the same place.
  • Don’t record piano/guitar ideas as audio… try to record them as MIDI.  This will enable successive groups to edit what was recorded.  If it’s audio, they’re stuck with it and are unable to improve upon it.

For me this process has been such an eye opener.  The students surprised themselves with what they could come up with.  The loved the process (they always arrived early from lunch so they could start as quickly as they could) and they grew so much as the weeks went by.

I will be making sure that this way of composing will be incorporated to NCEA composition at our school.  It will grow the numbers of students taking music and will help to break down the perception that you must be an orchestral musician who has been learning since you’re seven years old to be able to succeed in NCEA (even after five years at my school I’m still trying to destroy this myth!).

But overall… it was a heck of a lot of fun.  And that is what teaching and learning should be… shouldn’t it?

Combining OneNote & Moodle For Assessment Submissions

OneNoteOne of the great things about Microsoft OneNote is the ease with which teachers can provide feedback to students on their work, helping them to develop their ideas towards the submission of assessment. This was explained in detail by Ms Helaina Coote, our Head of Department for English, in this earlier blog post.

moodleHowever, as the internal assessment season ramps up in 2015 a number of teachers have approached Tom Adams and I about how to “lock” OneNote notebooks to prevent students modifying content after the submission date. Whilst there are some work arounds, such as password protecting sections or moving them to a “read only” section in a teacher’s OneNote notebook, these are not always easy or intuitive as I explained in this post comparing the strengths and weaknesses of Moodle and OneNote.

Together, Tom and I thought about a better workflow for teachers and students to use and settled on the following simple process:

  1. The teacher creates an “Assignment” task in Moodle setting the due date to be when all students need to have the assessment completed and handed in by.
    1. The option to allow “late” submissions exists within Moodle too, clearly showing to the teacher in red how many hours/days overdue the submission was. This could be useful in scenarios where students were away for legitimate reasons.
  2. The student exports either their page, section or entire OneNote Notebook into a PDF file on their local computer.
  3. The student goes to their Moodle course, clicks on the assignment and then drag ‘n’ drops the PDF file for upload and submission.
    1. The teacher can optionally include to have all students “sign” the authenticity agreement by clicking the “accept” each time they submit an assessment.
  4. Once the due date is reached, the teacher can bulk download all of the submissions for offline marking, moderation storage purposes or printing and returning.

The ease of this process is outlined in this six minute video showing all of the above:

By using this process, a number of things can happen:

  • There can be no dispute about when the assignment was submitted
  • There can be no “losing” the submission because it’s stored on Moodle
  • All assignments are stored in one place with a single click to download all assignments into a folder for marking / moderation.
    • This also reduces the need for the Teacher to “harvest” the submissions from a variety of sources that students may have submitted by e.g. email, printed and left at the teacher’s desk or office etc.
  • Students can be required to “sign” the authenticity statement for every assessment they submit within Moodle.
  • Moodle supports the use of http://turnitin.com/ – an online tool for verifying the authenticity and originality of a submission. Whilst this costs, it would allow students to improve their work before a final submission and also support teachers in ensuring the submission is the original work of the student.

turnitinTransBack400pxOn the St Andrew’s College website we share a number of reasons why we use technology in our classrooms, with one of them being preparing students for tertiary study and the workforce. The vast majority of tertiary institutes now require students to submit assessment online – by teaching our students to manage their time and to become accustomed to this form of assessment submission, they are being prepared for life beyond St Andrew’s.

At this stage, there is no formal requirement for students to only submit their assessment via Moodle in this way. However, with the obvious benefits outlined above, along with the potential to include Turn It In to further assist in the originality and authenticity of student work, it is an idea that we presented to the combined Heads of Department meeting this week. There will be further discussion over the coming weeks and it may be something that we trial later this year.