A few days ago the Guardian published an article stating that "the UK's attitude to computer education needs a reboot" lamenting the lack of computing education in schools and saying that if this is not urgently corrected then the UK will suffer economically in the future. The article was not unique as many other similar articles and blog posts have been written along the same lines but sometimes I feel that such articles just feed into fears about the standards in the education system and the UK's place in the world and offer little in the way of practical direction. Yet there is hope - if we confront the issues and acknowledge the vital role of lifelong learning as well as computing education in schools.
Yesterday I finally received my Raspberry Pi (model B), a small computer designed for educational use that retails at about the £25 mark. I had had mine on order since March and had been reading a lot about it in that time so was looking forward to getting it. The first thing that strikes you about this device is its size, or rather lack of it. The Pi arrived in a box and a padded envelope and yet still fitted through my letter box! So that was the first computer delivery I've had where I didn't need to wait in or find some delivery office to pick it up from. The second thing that struck me is just how raw this machine is. No case, screen, input device or operating system supplied. You need to find these items for yourself. The device is also designed to be plugged into a TV, which might momentarily give it an 80s retro feel. In a time when manufacturers spend so long on polishing products and interfaces and where devices such as mobiles and tablets are starting to bring computing more into a consumer appliance mode of thinking this is quite a shock. This could prove to be a double edged sword.
One of the most interesting features about the Ubuntu's Unity desktop is that it takes the focus away from just applications and files and moves it towards discovering content. It does this through an interface (called the Dash) that is largely driven by a search window. To enable this system to focus on different content (e.g. to primarily look for music files instead of applications) different tabs appear on the Dash called Lenses. These can aggregate in to a general lens that allow searching across local and remote items in one go. What if this idea could be extended slightly to enable the discovery of Open Educational Resources (OERs)? The user might not have even heard about OERs, so might not think to go looking for them, but having OER discovery built into the operating system gets around this issue and makes every search a chance to learn. So I had a go at building such a Lens.
I meant to post this a bit sooner, but anyway here is a link to a talk I did last week about Google App Inventor for Android for the Vital programme. It was my first time giving a presentation online so forgive my possibly frequent use of the words "um" and "err"! It was a great experience and I enjoyed giving the presentation to a great bunch of people.
Extracting data from the web to use in our computer programs has always been a challenge. Many developers will be familiar with techniques such as Web Scraping, trying to parse a human readable web page and extract data and might dream of more reliable ways to query different sources for data in a standardised way. Linked Data is a proposed answer to this issue that seems to be gaining some momentum with data being exposed in this format by organisations such as the British Govenment and my own employer The Open University. So how do we query these resources and get the data into our PHP scripts?
The notification bubble is a well known feature of Ubuntu, gently informing us when we are online, when we get tweets and new email and so on. It has an interesting feature that it commands attention for a few moments, but doesn't get in the way and the user can return to what they were doing without really stopping. At the moment I am trying to learn a bit of Swedish and wondered if these attributes might help when learning new words. What if I could use the notification bubble to show me words at random intervals so grab my attention momentarily while using my computer?
If you are ready to make that move to Linux, but don't know where to start, the Open University's new ten week short course Linux: An Introduction might have caught your eye. First though, a bit of disclosure, my day job is with the Open University (but don't take my views and comments as representing them) and I'm an open source enthusiast. I met up with Andrew Smith of the Maths, Computers and Technology Faculty, who is the academic behind the course, to find out more. I had many questions for him, including some from colleagues and those of you who follow me on Twitter.
Programming a computer is actually quite an intellectually stimulating way to spend time, you also usually end up with something to show for your labour. Getting into programming now though can be very confusing, there are so many computer languages out there, where would you start? An additional problem is that this is not the 1980s anymore, printing out “Hello World” ad infinitum is not going to impress anyone. This is where “Quickly" comes in, a new template based programming system making its first appearance in Ubuntu 9.10. It is designed to be easy and fun and is there to help you from getting an initial program together right through to distributing it.
From the olnet.org site:
The aim of OLnet is to tackle gathering evidence and methods about how we can research and understand ways to learn in a more open world, particularly linked to Open Educational Resources (OER) but also looking at other influences. We want to gather evidence together but also spot the ideas that people see emerging from the opportunities.
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is supporting The Open University to work with Carnegie Mellon University to develop OLnet.
Today is a big day, we find out tonight how well the Open University entry has done in the Boxee App Development challenge. A small team of us had been thinking about big screen (web experiences designed for interactive television to be viewed at about ten feet away) web sites and what an OU experience might be like in such a setting. When the challenge was announced it was a fantastic opportunity to quickly develop something to get ourselves started in this exciting area, so we decided to go for it and in about four weeks went from having nothing to having a fully working application, complete with full user interface and graphic design by Dave Winter, client and server side code by me and communications, testing and creative input by Stuart Brown and Matt Rawlinson. It was hard work which gobbled up a few evenings and weekends but it was worth it.