2013
06/10

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Computing

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RaspBMC FTW!

I already loved my little RaspberryPi – so far, I’ve

  • played classic games on it
  • brushed up my bash-scripting and general Linux-y knowledge
  • and of course used it in school as an extra-curricular programming environment (Python against MinecraftPi, anyone?).

But it’s also had a fair amount of use as a media player (I use the rather fabulous, IMO, RaspBMC distro) – from videos on our NAS box, to catch-up TV (thanks to a minimal amount of Googling) and then using tvcatchup.com’s plugin to watch live TV. This evening, I’ve also managed to get Google Music to play flawlessly, playing (and occasionally paused) happily for several hours.

I am a happy geeky-bunny!

2013
05/24

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Computing

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Programming on an iPad

Just a quick jotting to mark the occasion of my first real programming success in an iPad. Rather chuffed, really, that it all worked out as hoped and seriously impressed with the software involved.

So, then, to details – what have I achieved? Nothing too spectacular in terms of visible results, but I’ve managed to get the Minecraft Pi Python API into the Pythonista app (by means of copy/paste as there seems to be no way to import code from, say, DropBox) and then quickly code a simple class that uses the API, connects to a running instance and posts a chat message.

Like I said, nothing too glamorous, but it proved the idea – now on to some more exciting ideas. I’m going to aim for the tried-and-tested platform that follows the player around, so you can never fall. Then, who knows? The sky is, as ever, the limit 🙂

2013
04/24

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Computing
Teaching

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After-school MinecraftPi sitrep

So I’ve have a few weeks of running the RaspberryPi after-school programming club and I have to say it’s been an interesting ride. In a way I’m a little disappointed with the lack of programming we’ve managed to achieve. But, on the other hand, the amount of Linux experience they’ve gained (to say nothing of the un-spoken appreciation – there’s been little to no grumbling – they’ve developed for the smoothness of systems like Windows and OSX) has been incredible.

So far, then, we’ve managed to set up and boot a RasPi. We then added configuration to try and work through the school proxy (more on that, later) and then managed to grab MinecraftPi (the “hook” I’m using to get them thinking about coding). This last week we finally managed to get a sample program working (this sample, actually, which draws an analogue clock in the sky) against a couple of the pupil’s MCPi instances.

From here, then, I hope to draw out the programming aspects of the club (using Geany to code Python against their own Minecraft instance, initially, although I hope to work up to running mini-competitions, eg building races, in one world) starting from more simple coding challenges like building a cube of a given material, working up to pyramids (well, ziggurats I s’pose, which I’m thinking must be possible with recursive calls).

So, what have I learned?

Well, it’s mostly been about what I’d do differently next time

Like, having a proxy-configured system image and working from there, instead of having to think on the hoof and get them to change configurations as we go. I could still get them to startup, update and install packages, run X and then shutdown… but I could do it from a position of strength, knowing that the proxy side of things will simply work!

Or, about double-checking the amount of background knowledge required, in order to be able to follow instructions I carefully set out, on how to set up the environment to use the proxy.

Finally, there’s a lesson in terms of not testing, testing and then re-testing (just to test that the testing was working) ideas, configuration and systems before blithely assuming that they would “all work okay” when put in front of pupils; no matter how keen and self-motivated they are, they’re only KS3 and don’t have my 13+ years of programming experience to fall back on when it doesn’t quite work first time because they mis-spelt “Aquire” or didn’t match case in a function definition.

So, one final thing about the proxy. We’re in one of the ex-EMBC counties that stuck with the Capita solution, which means we’re now using the WebShield proxy solution (albeit with custom certificates so I can now actually access Twitter across the school network) – this has been a right royal pain to work around, but for those interested, the answer seems to have been to actually put the proxy login in the configuration, as well as the proxy address.

So, for example, environment variables need to be set like http_proxy=http://user:password@webshield.embc.uk.com:80/ or, for apt-get to function, settings like Acquire::http::proxy "http://user:password@webshield.embc.uk.com:80/"; in the apt.conf file.

Anyone needing fuller details on any of this, don’t hesitate to comment/tweet me – I’m happy to answer questions.

2013
03/21

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Teaching

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Victory!

Small beans, but our STEM czar ( @RedmoorSTEM ) has been running a wind power engineering challenge all week, and WE WON!

My intrepid team of 4 Y7s plus myself built the most successful wind powered crane – wish I’d taken photos now (actually, they did, as it turns out) – lifting a whopping 38ml of water!

I’m going to stick with the day job for now, I reckon 🙂

2013
03/19

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Computing
Teaching

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My first after-school club

So I ran my first proper computing after-school club, this afternoon. This is my third year at the school, having transferred up from primary teaching, and I guess it’s fair to say that it’s taken me this long to feel ready and able to take it on and give it the attention I deserves. Nevertheless, it was a busy session, but one that I found rewarding… once I got my breath back!

As a school we had bought some Raspberry Pi computers to use at a poetry exhibition the school had put on at a local gallery (the Atkins Building gallery), to play recordings of the pupils reading their own poems. The clever gent who helped out it together had carefully popped them in a large plastic casing with buttons, wired onto the GPIO port, so that when you pressed one of the buttons the recording was played through the headphones.

Challenge one for us this afternoon, then, was to get into the cases and “liberate” the Pi’s. Running alongside that, I was busy imaging the pupils’s SD cards that they’d brought in (it seemed fair; we supply the Pi’s, they supply the SD cards – which, after all, they can then take home and use if they feel sufficiently inspired to buy one of these fabulous devices).

After that, it was “merely” a question of hooking them all up (we’re based in my normal ICT suite, so that involves connecting to the PC monitors with a HDMI-to-DVI cable, cannibalising the various PC that have USB keyboards and mice, plus swiping their network cables for the duration) and watching them all switch on… And they all worked! Yippee!

We then briefly talked about the concept of the console shell, X-windows, the superuser and access rights before it was time to show them how to shutdown again and put the lab back to normal, ready for tomorrow.

Next time, I’m hoping to get as far as configuring them to go through the school proxy, updating and then downloading and getting MinecraftPi up and running. The ultimate aim is to be teaching Python programming to these dedicated, geeky, few (I have had interest from about 12 pupils, 7 of whom turned up tonight).

Watch this space…

2013
03/18

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Computing
Teaching

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Inspiration from within

So we have an incredibly dedicated Science teacher here in school. So much so that her efforts in the STEM area have just borne the most incredible fruit:

  • The Broadcom Masters Place
  • NSEC Junior Science and Maths Runner Up
  • NSEC Intermediate Science and Maths Runner Up (former pupil)
  • and recognition for the club itself

  • Young Engineers award for the “diversity of projects”

Massive congratulations to staff and pupils alike for all their hard work.

But now, us other STEM-related teachers are wondering what we should be doing, too? Me, I think I’m going to be trying out some programming-related activities on the Raspberry Pi, but I know the Maths department are also looking to get some projects going.

Time to share the spotlight around a bit, maybe?

2013
03/17

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Computing

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First!

So here’s the first post on the new host (I’m with HippieHosting for the record, who, aside from a minor glitch in the PayPal process, have been seamless in letting me “get things done” on my shiny new site) and all looks good. I’m very happy with the facilities, the responsiveness seems excellent, now all I need to worry about is the bandwidth 😉

More anon.

2013
03/02

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Teaching

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When they don’t do what you expect… #tmmk

Last night I attended TeachMeet Milton Keynes (#tmmk – I’ve tried to Storify the experience into a useful form here) and had a fabulous time; fabulous ideas, fantastic people, inspiring all-round.

I also tried to deliver a 2 minute nano-presentation but found that despite some rehearsing, on the evening I significantly over-ran and had to stop short (next time I’ll bite the bullet and put in for a full 7 minute slot, even if I finish short).

So below are the full ramblings and ideas I was trying to get across: the talk was titled as above and sub-titled “or how I learned to get over myself” and the slides I was using to accompany the talk are here on Google.

My background is in computers. I remember my Dad soldered together a Sinclair ZX80 as our first home computer when I was 9 or so, and it grew from there. After 13 years or so as a programmer, I feel I know my way around systems pretty well and being (as my sixth-form wrote me up as) suicidally pedantic, I make sure I know what I’m doing in software as best I can.

Which does mean I get a little exasperated with pupils who will insist on assuming that PowerPoint is the answer to everything:

  • Need a poster?
    • I’ll fire up PowerPoint.
  • Making a mind-map?
    • Hey, here’s PowerPoint.
  • Design a menu?
    • Ooooh, I could use PowerPoint.

Aargh!

So, I’ve got my year 9 groups working collaboratively on a project to “help” the owners to a flesh out a new cafe in town, producing such things as colour schemes, posters, booking systems, interior models, customer service training and the like. And, while I have had to beat off the odd inappropriate PowerPoint file, I’ve actually had to admit that there have been times when the pupils have made appropriate choices for software for tasks THAT I HADN’T EXPECTED.

Oopsie!

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For me, the learning actually starts slightly earlier this academic year, when a set 5 pupil asked whether he really had to use Publisher for the task (I think it was a poster, I was trying to get them thinking about backgrounds, page sizes, good colour schemes, etc – basic stuff, I know) or whether he could use Paint.NET (which, if you haven’t tried, you should). I hummed and hawed – he isn’t the best worker, and I was concerned he would just scribble something and call it quits.

How wrong could I be?

20 minutes later I was sat down next to him having a high-speed master class on best use of transparency in colours, on layers, Gaussian blurs and the like. It was from this encounter that I took home the lesson that I don’t actually know everything there is to know about computers (ouch!) and made a mental note to listen more carefully when pupils asked to use alternative software.

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Fast-forward a term or so and we are back in our cafe task.

Only now, where I asked for a 3d interior model, I naively assumed they would all turn to SketchUp (which we studied last year). Hah! I have a handful of groups using Minecraft. And using it WELL. One group have completely finished that part, then videoed themselves flying around their model giving me a guided tour. Some of the building tricks that I’ve seen in other groups have been, for me, breath-takingly fabulous. They know their onions, in that world, no doubt about it.

And finally, where I had asked for a “customer service training package” carefully trying to slant the task to get them thinking in terms of animations of customers entering the coffee shop to be grilled mercilessly about what they wanted, whether they wanted the cake of the day, etc (we’ve done animated nursery rhymes in Scratch, too) I instead get one group of girls recording themselves in a drama performance which they have then used iMovie to edit into a suitable training video!

I’m pleased, don’t get me wrong. Very pleased that for 9 out of 10 students, PowerPoint isn’t the default. But oh boy, was I wrong to try and assume that I knew what the “most appropriate” choice of tool for them.

Hopefully I won’t make that mistake again. Hopefully…

2013
02/14

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Computing

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Feeding from Twitter into Evernote again

So, after talking with @IanYorston at BETT2013, I was once again determined to see whether I could get my workflow of posting my favourited tweets into EverNote. The problem being Twitter having shut off the part of their API that easily allowed such things to happen.

After only a short time Googling, I discovered this page which talked about using RSS feeds from your Twitter account. It also (if you read it) goes on to mention about Twitter shutting off their support for RSS feeds in favour of JSON by the end of this month.

Further research led to this article which posited the idea of creating a mini-app on the Twitter side to allow easy access to your account feeds and even gave a simple PHP script to access them.

“Aha,” thought I, “that should be easy!” You would have thought after 13 years of commercial development experience that I would have learned not to assume such things…

After much muttering, I do have a solution working, for free. I probably made things a little harder for myself by only working from my iPad, but I’m kind’f deliberately seeing how much I can actually get done without a laptop just by way of an experiment.

So here’s what I learned:

    • not all free hosts support curl, even though they support PHP scripting

    • online documentation is invaluable

    • once a developer, always a developer – even though I’ve never used PHP before (I was a JSP boy) I found I could follow things enough to get by

    In short, I now have a simple Twitter app registered for my web-site which allows the script to connect using OAuth, then GET my most recent favourites using the 1.1 API, converting the returned JSON to RSS so that my IFTTT recipe can trigger and store those ideas in EverNote.

    Any questions, you know where to find me 🙂

    2013
    02/10

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    Teaching

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    Same pastures, new challenges

    So I’m still here, still teaching ICT to pretty much the whole school pus a little maths too, now. Still looking for ways to expand and improve the curriculum I teach, using coding wherever I can. But I’m now facing up to (well, more than just that now, I’m quite the convert – not to Apple wholesale, but to the opportunities that iPads bring to the classroom, computing excepted) the fact that our school is looking likely to adopt an iPad 1:1 stance from next academic year (we’re in the midst of a trial, with 45 Y8 pupils) and I’m beginning to question just now appropriate the ICT side of my lessons are, to be delivered in the way they currently are.

    With this in mind, I approached my head of department and expressed concerns about the validity of the current approach, touting ideas of breaking ICT out of the lab and into other subject (either defraying my classroom time completely, or making me a “department for hire” to the subject that needed me most at that point). These ideas seemed well-received in that the next icing I know is I’m to put the thoughts down in writing for the head to consider. The passed, and when we came back in January, the head asked to speak to me about the ideas and essentially said that he agreed and now he needed me to figure out how that would work in terms of our current timetable regimen.

    Hmm… still working on that one – any ideas, folks?

    Our timetable is organised around fortnightly blocks of lessons, apparently, with subjects pairing up to make chunks of 10 lessons a fortnight, so if ICT were to need less of the allocation, in terms of computing lab time, how would the system balance? Eep! At this point in the conversation with the deputy in charge of time tabling, my brain started melting and I’ve yet to make and inroads into how this more “itinerant” approach might work in practice.

    The way I see it, though, particularly in an iPad environment, rather than yet another ICT “research this topic and then create some kind of document to present your findings” whether Word, PowerPoint or Publisher project we need to be fully embedding the creation/communicating/presenting side of the equation with core subjects where there are more “real world” topics to be studied.

    This is not to say that there aren’t some topics that bear investigation from a computing perspective – the history of cryptography is a great topic I’ve done before, which gives a real chance to bring in the work of “greats” like Turing – but too many times I’ve tried standing in front of a class, saying how important it is that they now use these skills whenever they think of doing a presentation, only to see the output from other subjects and think “ugh!”; now I’d like to take the opportunity to embed that teaching at the point where they’re doing the work, make it much more of a case of the ICT supporting the learning rather than the ICT being the learning.

    And, regarding the computing side I’m mindful of the CAS curriculum recommendations, but I have to say that even as an ex-developer there is some stuff in there that would question the usefulness of, for the majority of pupils, especially if we’re trying to convince them how much fun there is to be had in programming. Things like sorting algorithms, for example, strike me as a suitable topic for perhaps maths – structured logical thinking is just as much a part of that discipline as it is computing.

    What say you all?