Friday, June 30, 2006

formatting images

I'm working with new arrivals from Africa, teaching them computer skills. Many of them have had very limited contact with computers.

It's very difficult teaching some of these students to format images or use the draw tools in MSWord or MSPublisher

The student has to have this knowledge:
  • click on (select) the image before you can manipulate it
  • be aware that when you move the mouse over the image then the icon changes
  • 4 headed arrow means you can move the image
  • 2 headed arrow means you can resize the image
  • to move or resize requires clicking in correct place with left button and dragging mouse
  • it requires manual dexterity to resize the image in the way that might be required
  • some images (draw tools) have other icons, eg. green circles for rotation and yellow diamonds for shape alteration
  • at other times to format the shape you need to click with right button
Much of this is very hard for students who have not grown up with computers. I have watched some student trying to rotate and resize a shape and they can be painfully slow at achieving success.

It's a combination of skills that is required to achieve success, eg. I need a two headed arrow, I need to click on this particular circle and I need to drag the mouse in order to make this rectangle wider - using the left mouse button for these features

I initially posted this to Paul Chandler's wiki about probing conceptual understandings of computer concepts on the 10th June.

the boy in the baseball cap

A boy in baseball cap in his bedroom playing his electric guitar: Pachelbel's Canon. He rarely lifts his head. The sun streams into the room making it hard to see his face.

Watch his fingers strum, listen to the awesome music. He is completely focused on the task. This is beautiful.

"Plyed by funtwo"
(6 million views!)

Monday, June 26, 2006

teaching programming skills using game maker and blogging

I have designed a game making / multimedia course for Year 11 students. This article describes the theory and practice of a part of that course. The full course can be found at

  1. game making – for motivation, engagement initially but also for worthwhile objects to think with blogging – for opening up new channels of communication in the classroom
  2. explicit instruction about programming, just in time approach
  3. educational game design (instructional design) – designing and teaching for learning, going beyond a technical programming challenge to also include an instructional design challenge.


In developing this course I have been influenced by the learning theories of Seymour Papert (constructionism, mathetics), the Instructional Software Design Project (Harel and Papert) and the more recent Connectivism of George Siemens. These theories have helped to guide the course I have designed and implemented.


Constructionism is Seymour Papert’s word which is made up from the Piaget’s word constructivism (children develop their own internal structures of mind) with the word construction. Papert’s idea was to accelerate learning by working with objects like the logo programming language and LEGO TClogo robotics

Papert and Harel argued for the importance of learners discovering good objects to think with, with these characeristics:
  • appropriability – some things lend themselves better than others to being made one’s own
  • evocativeness – some materials are more apt than others to precipitate personal thought
  • integration – some materials are better carriers of multiple meanings and multiple concepts

Papert Mathetics
One of Papert’s learning principles is that a good conversation is an important part of learning. How do we set up good conversations in IT class?

Instructional Software Design Project
Idit Harel integrated the theories of Piaget, Papert, Vygotsky and Perkins (“Knowledge as Design”) to develop a project where children designed and built educational software, using logo, for other children to learn with.

She reported improvement in a wide variety of areas such as collaboration, design skills, self management skills, programming language fluency, expressive writing about mathematics and technology, cognitive resilience (learning not to give up), time management, faith in one’s own thinking, teaching skills and empathy with younger students.

Marc Prensky has put forward the slogan “Engage me or Enrage me” (motivation is central to learning).

Struggle – A theory of struggle in education has been advanced by Garth Boomer, that education is mainly about struggle and design. McGee has theorized the struggle which takes place between assimilation and accommodation and has theorized that play has an important role in this process


George Siemens has observed that the relevant life or half life of knowledge or content is shrinking and that informal learning experiences are becoming more important, that 80% of our learning arises informally

In this relatively new situation, the capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known, that nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning and that rather than have a knowledge silo it is often better to be well connected and have the ability to learn knowledge in Just In Time fashion


Why choose Game Maker as the programming language?

Game Maker has a free version (but not open source), has a great drag and drop interface, low entry and high ceiling programming capabilities, extensive support materials and a large, active community (Game Maker forum). Since the software is free it was included on a CD with other free and open source software which was made available for students to take home.

Game making challenges – the focus on challenges rather than demonstrations or tutorials

The initial part of the course consists of skill building in the use of Game Maker through solving a series of challenges that are accompanied by hints. By solving the challenges students learn some of the basic skills of game programming such as:
  • what Events mean (Create, Step, Alarm, Collision, etc.)
  • how to link Events to Actions
  • the coordinate system (x, y space) and direction
  • how to use the random() function to vary motion
  • how to make characters shoot and targets explode
  • how to turn actions of temporarily using Boolean T/F variables and Alarm clocks
  • how to make one character follow another character
  • how to control game flow using conditionals
  • how to draw text on the screen
  • how to push things around a room

All of the challenges are available at this URL:

In general, I think challenges are more effective than either Demonstrations or Tutorials for teaching and learning. Why? Challenges involve both construction and struggle!

Challenges – student has to struggle for mastery, the teacher is a guide on the side providing hints or direct guidance occasionally.
Demonstrations – teacher shows how to do it, student is relatively passive at first, construction is optional.
Tutorials – Step by step instruction provided by teacher, student follows. This can be too passive, not enough exploration or struggle is required.

I think you need the full range of tutorials, demonstrations (which are more show and tell) as well as the challenges / hints (explore, think, do, ask questions) but overall I'm trying to push my students towards the latter mode.

Why blogging?

As well as the curiosity and appeal of a new technology I was motivated by other reasons to incorporate blogging into the course.

Writing and documentation is an important part of programming (including comments within code) and improves the employability of a programmer. The method of writing every day is a good one because writing improves with regular practice.

The teacher ability to communicate with students is quite limited in a face to face setting with a class size of 20. Opening up another regular written communication channel vastly improves teacher-student communication. This can be used extensively for feedback and also enables students to share off topic thoughts with the teacher.

Once students have setup blogrolls of other students on their blogs then student-student communication increases as well. This can be used for both fun and learning.

Explicit instruction – why favour a just in time approach?

I'm always on the lookout to minimise the amount of time I spend out the front giving instructions to students. Although sometimes desirable and essential in my experience too much broadcast does not work very well. Many students just don't seem to listen.

Design: why ask students to design an educational game (rather than a free choice)?

The issue is to avoid design of a clone of game they already know. In that situation, the design component becomes a non creative activity.

One possible answer to this is to require students to design an educational game. This part of the course has yet to be implemented.

- written during week 9 (30th March 2006) of an 18 week course

The blogroll of all students in the class can be found here on the teachers blog:

The initial setting up of blogs did take some time but in the longer term it was time well spent.

Some students adapted quickly to both game making and blogging, others took several weeks to become productive and a few did not engage sufficiently in one or the other parts of the course.

The teachers marking scheme gave 5 marks for each game maker challenge. Students had to complete the challenge (they could ask anyone for help), blog about how they solved the problem (3 marks), about who helped them (1 mark) and include a screen shot of their solution (1 mark). The teacher kept an up to date open marks book which students could look at to monitor their progress at any time. Assigning percentages and grades two weeks before assessment period was a powerful motivator for some students who were behind to catchup.

Students could also get marks for off topic blogging (limited to one mark per week), writing how to tips about game maker, game maker problems and setting up their blog expertly (theme, blogroll, leaving comments on other blogs).

Writing about how a problem was solved does help to reinforce the learning process.

Quite a few students did read the blogs of more advanced students, who had detailed descriptions, for tips about how to solve problems. Pikmik and JRB01 were two favourites for this. (plan to do a survey about this)

The teacher setup an RSS feed at bloglines which collected all student blogs in one place and informed him when their blog had been updated. This was very convenient and make it possible for the teacher to give more regular feedback than in previous years. It was also possible for the teacher to obtain a more rounded picture of student interests through their off topic posts. This built rapport and lifted morale.

Some students obviously enjoyed leaving comments on each others blogs, this was seen as a fun activity.


Harel, Idit. Software Design for Learning: Children’s Construction of Meaning for
Fractions and Logo Programming. June, 1988.

Harel, Idit and Papert, Seymour. Software Design as a Learning Environment. MIT, January 1990

Kerr, Bill. Invitation to Immersion. April 1997

Kerr, Bill. Papert’s Ideas: Mainly from Mindstorms. October, 1991

Siemens, George. Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. December, 2004

blogger tags revisited

Thanks to ecmanaut (Johan), JavaScript wizard, and John at Freshblog for their ongoing help to make tags available through blogger.

I originally wrote about this in December 2005. In setting up tags on this new blog I found those original reflections helpful, especially the update at the bottom about having to delete and rewrite the tag URLs. Thanks to Paul for originally working that out.

The 2006 ecmanaut update here and Freshblog update here were also useful.

Maybe now I can get on with blogging.

the instruments of torture

WRT, students learning computer skills at School.

In summarising the discussion at slashdot (will publish later) about computer literacy it became clear that as well as the skills of literacy there is also an attitude and also an environment that promotes literacy.

Some users have the attitude of mastering the machine, of looking behind the screen, of exploring it more deeply. One tiny example, I've noticed how much more proficient those who learn and become fluent with keyboard shortcuts are over those who just rely on the mouse. (but of course there is far more to it than that)

Environment is so important IMO. Brian Harvey used to give his students the key to the computer lab. Read his great article about this. The trend increasingly on my patch is to lock everything down and to restrict options rather than expand them.

1. Censor-ware
2. MS Agreement is bad in a number of ways. The MS UI is dumbing down (eg. hide file extensions), also the agreement restricts the uptake of Open Source, which is far more compatible with an educational philosophy (sharing stuff)
3. Copyright Law (getting worse)
4. DRM (restrict ability to copy to prop up ageing business models)
5. Locally many schools are obsessed with security (they have their reasons)

I call these things the instruments of torture, analogous to the instruments of torture shown to Galileo to restrict his freedom of thought. Increasingly, I spend my days being annoyed / frustrated / angry about the instruments of torture.

Taken as a group: skills, attitudes, environment - how are we going in Schools at the moment?

Not very well, I would suggest.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

the wiki advantage

My Year 11 class this term are using wikis for their documentation.

I have written a mid term report on my wiki about the advantages of using wikis for students to record their problem solving, progress, screen shots and making game downloads available.

To summarise the advantages:
  • students are more likely to keep game documentation up to date (with some nagging required from teacher)
  • student games can be posted to wiki for easy download (far more convenient than other methods)
  • students are learning to work in teams, the wiki facilitates this, they each learn to document their contribution - patchy but it is working, some of the wikis are now starting to reflect real teamwork
  • wiki features (Recent Changes and history of each page) makes it easy for teacher to keep track of week by week progress and to observe which students improve their work by editing
  • as well as game making student are learning a useful modern Read / Write native web application

technology as more than meddler

I left this comment at artichoke in response to his technology as meddler entry. I am a thorough going materialist. Human = Technology. Warm and fuzzy? Not yet.

Yes, the tool analogy is hopeless but that doesn't stop School from attempting to lobotomise the computer, dumb it down to the extent that it starts to look like a mere tool. That is the sociological drama going on in School. Curriculum is the vehicle through which Departments attempt to control teachers.

Papert actually conceptualised the computer as a rival to the curriculum, in his book, 'The Childrens Machine'.

Extract from an essay I wrote about this a long time ago:

"Non logical metaphors of the computer create a tension between the computer and the curriculum whereby the computer becomes the medium that carries the quality and the curriculum becomes the technical instrument. The computers becomes an evocative, flexible medium that invites immersion. Computer games are addictive and fun (as the neo-Luddites point out). It needs to be added, however, that some of the best computing software is an invitation to immerse yourself into a microworld where significant learning is likely to occur, provided you have a teacher who understands how the software is meant to be used. Counterposed to the neo-Luddite critique of mindless play is the constructionist idea of hard play."

"Meddler in the middle" slogan reminds me of "Technology as Trickster" in an essay by Jermey Price.

The fundamental question is, "What is technology". I discuss this here.


"My point is that you have to ask the more fundamental, structural question, "What is technology?" first in order to answer the sociologists question, "Is technology progressive?" The latter question is the wrong question because it immediately encourages people to separate humans from technology whereas in reality we are just two different variants of an evolutionary process."

Sunday, June 18, 2006

new blog

Self reference, catch up entry.

My old blog died. Gory details here, for those interested in blog death. I don't know anyway to direct visitors from my old blog to this one, since any new entry I post to my old blog is hidden.

There was another important entry that is hidden. It is a summary of the instructional software design project. Full article is on my website, which has also moved. I've changed my ISP from TPG to internode, since internode offers 50MB free web space and is better value for money anyway.

I haven't blogged for a month but am resuming mainly because I find it helps me develop a sense of myself and where I am headed. Identity. We all crave recognition of course, lots of visits and comments. But I think identity, defining self, is more important. Writing down and reflecting does alter who you are.

Some would argue that it is through the process of discussing and interaction in the blogosphere that development occurs. Maybe but I'm not convinced. There is not enough time and too much superficial crap. This sounds arrogant but I find it a problem. How can anyone find time to think deeply if they are reading hundreds of blogs, trawling through the dross to find an occasional gold nugget?

I have been writing in a pen and paper journal. I've always done that. The advantage there is that I can be more frank and personal about what I write. That is OK but not machine searchable, it is hard to find past entries. It is easier to connect the dots (integrate ideas) through blogging.

But then wikis might be even better for integrating ideas. I have been writing in these wikis recently:

africagame, where we are creating computer games about africa.

gamelearning, set up by Tony Forster, in preparation for a submission he made to the Victorian Parliament about curriculum reform - I was more interested in discussing the ideas than the actual submission

Paul Chandler's wiki about probing into naive conceptualisations of the computer, with a view to improving computer instruction

gamedesign11 where I have been keeping track of the computer games that my Year 11 class have been developing

So, my recommendation is blog for yourself, wiki for others. Cute.