Entries in education (2)


Young Rewired State - 2011

Last week at Osmosoft we hosted the Westminster arm of Young Rewired State, a week long mulit-site event for 14-17 year olds to build amazing things with open Government data. It was an awesome, though throughly exhausting week!

This is 3rd year of Young Rewired State and 2011's event was the biggest yet with 14 centres, 100 coders and over 40 hacks being produced.

At Osmosoft we hosted seven YRSers; Kush Depala, Alex Hill, Joshusa Allwood, Isabell Long, Joe O'Dell, Daniel Saul and Priyesh Patel. Throughout this blog I'll collectively refer to them as coders – as that is what they are, everything else sounds a bit too patronising!

At the start of the week there were varying level of abilities in the room ranging from those having only done a little bit of coding through to others being pretty proficient in a number of programming languages. We were also joined by two mentors, James Marwood, a business consultant and Robert Young, a back end programmer and expert data wrangler!

We started the week with a group session where we discussed our motivations behind attending the event and what we wanted to get from it, this discussion included everyone. Reasons for attending ranged from previous attendance at a Young Rewired State event through to wanting to get more involved in coding. A common comment however was that opportunities to get involved with and learn about coding whilst at school were few and far between – without exception everyone was self-taught and it was through events such as this one that they got to learn.

Day one idea boardAfter finding out why everyone was here we moved onto what everyone wanted to get from the week, ideas they had for potential hacks and problem areas which needed addressing. At first the discussion here was a little quiet, but not surprising given that there were a lot of new faces and the environment of a hot, air condition-less Telephone Exchange somewhat different to usual surroundings! But it didn't take long to get ideas going and we discussed the merits of each, the feasibility of coding something up in a week and other data sets, tools and open source projects that could be used to help. At the end of the session we had a number of ideas for potential hacks and the coders broke into pairs to discuss further, gather data and get to work on building something.

Throughout the week the involvement of the Osmosoft folk and mentors was fairly low touch, we gave some pointers as to different ways of tackling problems, ensured that focus was being given across all the required areas, but the code was written entirely by the YRS coders. Where there were gaps in knowledge we were able to get them started but very quickly they took full control of the reins – for example Kush had never done any CSS before, I spent 5mins showing a couple of things and when I came back 30mins later he'd styled a page including some pretty funky looking Webfonts!

Jon Robson of Osmosoft w/ Joe O'Dell

Judging by the quality of all the presentations from Friday across all the centres I'm not sure that this is needed, but I thought I'd highlight a few of the things which worked especially well for us and are worth considering next year:

  • Spending enough time planning as a group – encouraging discussion with everyone led to a number of initial ideas being adapted into potentially stronger ideas following inputs from everyone and not just those who wanted to build it. Don't be tempted to break away from the group too early as holding off getting into the code for just a little bit will pay dividends
  • Pairing up coders – there is a lot of be said about pair programming and it was certainly beneficial during the YRS week. By pairing up ideas were constantly bounced off of each other and it definitely helped to keep momentum going over the short but intense period of time.
  • Having ICR on screen – this year we made good use of the IRC channel where we had it set up on a large screen in the centre of the room. Not only was it a quick and fruitful place to ask questions it was also reassuring to see what others centres were working on (plus a reminder to stop for lunch when there was talk of pizza and donuts)!
  • Regular stand ups and show & tells – each day we ran and recorded a daily stand up at 12noon and a daily show & tell at 4pm. There were no excuses, everyone had to participate. The noon stand up was, as you'd expect, a quick 30 seconds per person on what they're currently working on, their next steps and any potential road blockers. The 4pm show & tells were slightly longer and were geared towards preparing everyone for being able to relay and demo what its was they were working on in 2 minutes (as per the rules for the end of week presentations).
  • Supply of food and drinks – sounds like an obvious one but having a good supply of food and drinks available is a tremendous help. Last year everyone had to go outside the building if they wanted to get soft drinks or snacks, this led to a lot of stopping and starting but having them on hands in the room kept things flowing nicely ...although next year I'll remember to get Coke Zero rather than diet!
  • Having lunch together – everyday we made a point of stopping and having lunch together. It was directly after the noon stand-up so followed on nicely for those who wanted extend discussions about their hacks, but more often than not it was an opportunity to talk about something other than YRS. It was great for getting to know everyone and a healthy break away from the screen! 

YRS coder: Josh, Kush and Alex

By the end of the week the YRS coders based at Omsosoft had produced five working hacks;

On the final day of the week all the YRS coders from across all the centres got together at Microsoft's London office for an afternoon of presentations. There were some incredible hacks produced and its probably safe to say that everyone left in awe of what had been done in just a week. The YRSers from Osmosoft did a great job in showcasing there efforts and with slightly shaky hands (I think I was more nervous than they were) I recorded their presentation:

It was a fantastic week and I'll definitely be taking part again next year, although that seems so far away – hopefully there be an opportunity to do something similar in between?


Improving Digital Education

On June 23rd 2010 Osmosoft hosted a workshop at the Osmoplex where we brought together a group of school pupils and their teachers.  The purpose of the workshop was to try and tackle the problem faced in many schools where the IT knowledge of the pupils often exceeds that of their teachers.
Our approach for the day was to first try to understand the root causes to the problem, and then splitting into small groups each come up with a proposal, and where applicable a prototype, to demonstrate a potential solution.
The level of knowledge in the room was of varying nature.  On the side of the pupils it ranged from someone who was confident hacking their way around XHTML, CSS, and PHP through to others who were comfortable with the basics of using a computer.  The teachers in the room ranged someone who taught ICT to someone who was happy to admit that technology baffled them.  On the Osmosoft side our gaps in knowledge were around understanding the education syllabus as well as infrastructure & processes currently in place within schools.   
What's the problem?
The day started with a roundtable session with particular focus on listening to what the pupils had to say.  I have admit that I had an initial concern that this discussion would be dominated by the adults in the room, but expert facilitation by Jeremy Ruston and a willingness from the teachers to hear-it-like-it-is [for which they should be applauded] led to some frank and open discussions.
One of the key issues that surfaced early on in the discussion was ''slow network connectivity'' - this caused by a combination of poor bandwidth coming into the schools as well as heavily locked down and constantly policed computer builds restricting any optimisation for performance.  From switching on a computer to being logged into the schools network was typically a 25minute wait [now, where have I seen this before?] - not great when you're in a 50minute lesson.
"School computers are too slow and locked down. If I need to find something out I just whip out my Blackberry"
The ''availability of home computers and internet'' was also raised, and although all the pupils attending the workshop had access to home computers - and better access than they have in school -there were a handful of their peers who weren't so fortunate.  For them it meant that completing homework, which in many cases was mandatory to be done on a PC, had to be complete in school after classes had finished.
Something that I was rather expecting, although shocked to the extent, was the ''filtering of websites'' allowed to be accessed via the school network.  Valuable sources of information such as Wikipedia, Flickr, YouTube are all blocked.  And just recently one of the schools reported that Google search had also been added to the blocked list!  On this point the teachers commented that many of the pupils were well enough versed in the creation of proxies [and other things which baffled me] to work their way around the firewall - although the most common catalyst for this was to access Facebook and other social networking sites.
Something that I found particularly encouraging was that a number of pupils recognised the value to be gained in having access to information from across the blocked sites and rather than hacking their way around the school network, or simply waiting until they returned home there was a growing trend of pupils bringing in netbooks and accessing the internet via 3G.  And whilst it'd be a stretch to say the teachers actively encouraged this it did appear that it wasn't being discouraged.
On discussing the content of ICT lessons this is where we got to some of the core, and seemingly most easily addressable problems.  There was a general consensus that ''ICT lessons were boring and repetitive''.  Lessons were often scripted from worksheets and focused on learning how to use basic functionality of applications rather than applying the application to achieve something cool.  There was a feeling that the lesson plans all too often catered for the lowest level of understanding, which unfortunately in many cases was the understanding of the class teacher.  Of the teachers in the room they freely admitted that they struggle keeping up to date with the latest technology and their lessons are written by 'oldies' [their choice of word and not mine] based on their understanding from 2, 3, 5 years ago.  Not exactly cutting edge.
"ICT is all about using Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, Spreadsheets. Over and over again. Boring!"
''Compatibility between applications used in school and applications used at home'' was a major problem for most students.  The school syllabus is predominantly built around Microsoft Office applications - even to the extent of using Powerpoint to build websites! But with expensive license costs most of the pupils opted to use open source equivalents at home.  When bringing homework back into school there were frequent compatibility issues.
"We were asked to design a website and we were told to use Powerpoint.  I tried to handcode the website using HTML and my ICT teacher told me I had to use Powerpoint!"
As we went through the discussion it became apparent that many of the issues faced in ICT education weren't too dissimilar to those faced within the enterprise.  
The breakout sessions
After the roundtable we split into three teams.  My team consisted of two pupils, Vicky and Becky; an assistant Head Teacher, Jonathan; and fellow Osmosoftonians Martin and Simon.
As a group we explored some of the problems raised during the roundtable and started to play around with some idea's about what a good ICT lesson might consist of.  There were certain themes that were prominent in both Vicky and Becky's minds, especially when it came to sharing and collaborative working. When asked to pull together a wish list for what they'd like to see fixed the following came out as top priorities:
  • Better compatibility between tools used at home and those in the school
  • Increased network speed with better reliability
  • Access to modern software
  • Access social networking sites to help collaboration
  • Online schedules which are easier to be kept up to date
  • A list of trusted resources that can be used for research
  • An archive of achievements and qualifications gained throughout time at the school 
Aside from perhaps network speed and reliability all of these priorities could seemingly be addressed via the web and it was at this point we began discussing what a potential solution might look like.
What we ended up sketching on paper was a scaled down version of Facebook for the school - kind of back to where it started from then!  The idea being that the following functionality would be available; 
  • An interactive website that could be accessed both at home and in the classroom
  • A place to allow chat with classmates whilst in school and friends outside of school whilst at home
  • Video chat to ensure the person you are talking with is really who they say they are
  • An online diary containing details of school activities such as study groups and social events
  • A place to create and edit and share documents online
  • A list of trusted resources to help with research whilst at home
  • A place to capture any achievements and qualifications which can be added to my CV when I leave school
The idea was that the platform could provide functionality across the internet so that the same toolset was available in and out of school.  Certain functionality would be restricted when the site was accessed via the school network - for example the chat functionality might only be available outside of class times.
Based upon the sketches produced Simon and Martin hacked together a quick prototype to demonstrate how the site my look, whilst Vicky, Becky and I pulled together the notes for the end of day presentations... 
The presentations
The day ended with the pupils presenting their proposed solution back to the rest of the group - a daunting task for most people, but by this point in the day there was a great sense of camaraderie amongst the room and everyone handled the task extremely well.
Each of the solutions followed a slightly different theme but all addressed key problems.  It is worth pointing out the prototypes were the result of around an hour or two's hacking.
First up were Sam and Marley with DUCK, Dynamic Understanding Communications Konnections which provided a way of getting the syllabus onto the web in such a way that pupils and teachers could view the syllabus and explore the topics being covered, as well as provide a place to collaborate on the syllabus to help improve upon it.


Next up were Vicky and Becky [my team] MyBook which was about how we can use the web to bring communities together to share information and learning parties in a Facebook for the school type of fashion as discussed above.
And finally, we had Issy, Alwyn and Harriet presenting How IT Works which provided a bill of rights which people could get behind to help drive the approach for ICT education.
Overall the day was a tremendous success and I for one learnt a huge amount.  I was blown away by the enthusiasm of the pupils and their ability to integrate into what I'd assume is a totally alien environment for them.  However, like all prototypes they are only as good as the output which becomes reality so with that in mind it'll be interesting to watch what happens in this space, hopefully we've at the very least planted the seed for some change in a very important area.