A comparison of browsers from a parental perspective

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I’m a big fan of Windows 10 under certain conditions. I’ve just deployed it in our corporate environment on over 14000 machines in 55 countries. I have big designs on implementing Azure AD and EMS in the coming months, but this post it about it, and more specifically browsers running within it from a parental perspective.

I remain platform agnostic personally, and I have several different OS running in my house across a wide variety of devices. However I’m a huge Lenovo fan and my whole family runs X or T series machines (often second hand ones from ebay, to ensure that they are 220 or 420 etc and have the nice form factor and quality keyboard and are maintainable by me – but I digress) and so all of these machines now run Windows 10. I’m not going to get into a debate about auto upgrades and all that Jazz either, I ran Windows 7 for many years, I worked at Microsoft when Vista was pretending to be a decent OS (still painful memories) and I completely avoided W8. But I went all in on 10 at home, and all in all everyone’s fairly happy. The offer of free licencing was good enough for me, and I was happy to dogfood the OS before rolling it out at work as well. But then we come to parental control……

One of the main reason that I upgraded my daughters PC to W10 was to get the full Microsoft Family features, link it into my main MS account, and be able to see in detail what she was up to. In doing so MS encourage you heavily to use Edge. Unfortunately my experiences over this period have not been good. My daughter had a fairly common usage pattern, based around youtube in a browser, minecraft as a local install, and a few other browser based activities, mostly games. In simple terms the Microsoft Family reporting about this just simply doesn’t work. I’ve been through all the troubleshooters, I’ve reset and cleared all the caches and I’ve done a bit of private digging beyond that around file access and internals, but it just simply doesn’t work. The reports that turn up each week of activity are less than useless. It seems unable to even pick up Minecraft as a process (let alone other processes) and the browser reporting is even worse than that. I could be forgiving (although not that much) if there was some difficulty in picking up browser based activities with the amount of scripting going on, but not being able to record a simple process and the executable time seems beyond belief! Which brings me to scripting……

As a natural geek, and a volunteer teacher of programming to children through the Code Club charity, I’m often to be found using browser based development environments such as scratch and today I was testing the new BBC Microbit site as that’s what I plan to be teaching next term. Obviously all of these sites are quite complex JS sites with drag and drop UIs aimed at children. I’m afraid to say that Edge has let me down on continued occasions in this area as well, despite giving it fair chance on very mainstream sites over the past few months. Today I was testing MicroBit and it just wasn’t up to it, hangs, crashes, blank screens, it was driving myself and my daughter mad. So we switched back to chrome……

I’m a chrome user personally at work and at home, but I’d been prepared to give it up for the offer of all in control that Edge and Windows 10 offered. However 2 hours after switching back, I’ve got a full run down of every site and every correct time that my daughter has browsed for, and the JS IDEs are simply just working. I’ve got her running at a supervised user through my main google account, and all the information I need is accurate and simply accessible. Yes I have no monitoring of the minecraft process but I’ll have to live with that. Playing minecraft locally is still a lot less scary that the open web anyway for a parent of relatively young children, as there’s no online option. I’ll continue to monitor and see how things develop, but I’m afraid to say that I’m seriously disappointed with the Windows 10 and Edge offering, when MS had a good opportunity to make a serious statement in this space. It simply doesn’t work yet.

The next step – well maybe a Koala router in the long term so I can control traffic at the point of entry into the house. In the meantime I’ll be relying on chrome for reports of what’s going on.

3 years of teaching programming to primary school children

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scratch makey makey

I’ve been teaching programming to primary school children (aged 9 to 11) through an after school club for nearly 3 years now and this post details some thoughts in review, some lessons learnt and things you might want to consider if you’re thinking about doing the same thing. You can read my thoughts about starting out here.

For the majority of this time I’ve been teaching scratch using the curriculum supplied by Code Club. In the past 4 months I’ve switched to teaching python (still using a Code Club curriculum), as the level of scratch skills throughout the school has grown significantly.

  1. At the beginning I was scared that I wasn’t going to be a good enough developer to teach children. My tech background was based around databases and infrastructure and I only ever wrote very average code as a sideline. This was unfounded, as the entry level required was fairly simple, especially with scratch. Don’t let this put you off.
  2. I also worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to prepare properly for the lessons (1 hour a week after school). Again this was unfounded as using the prepared curriculum from Code Club meant that I only needed a brief walk through of the project I was going to teach the night before. (This has changed a little now I’m teaching python though).
  3. I’ve been very lucky to have an extremely good teacher work with me for most of the classes I’ve run. This makes a huge difference and gives me the ability to cover more children. Our club is massively oversubscribed at school and covering as many children as possible is a big thing for us. The maximum we’ve managed is 17 students at once, but this was definitely a struggle and I felt that I couldn’t give everyone enough time. It just makes you realise what an extraordinary job teachers do, managing a class of 30 children every day.
  4. I think 10 children is an ideal number for python (last week I had only 7 due to sickness and this worked really well as I was able to really spend some time with each child and focus on them)
  5. I don’t teach any of the children python until they’ve done at least one term of scratch to get the basic theories under their belts.
  6. The difference between years 5 and 6 are really noticeable. Maybe this is obvious but at that age an extra year of age makes a huge difference in their ability to grasp the concepts, particularly in python where there is less immediacy of return on their time. In scratch we can usually get a half decent game running in the 2nd week of the first term, having started with zero knowledge. In this day and age when the children have high expectations of what represents a game, especially compared to when I was growing up in the 80’s and using ZX Spectrums, some have trouble with the text based games and routines in the early days of learning python.
  7. When teaching python, the first class is often based around teaching the children the basics of desktop management. Scratch has a very friendly IDE, but when we run python (we use IDLE) we often spend much time in the first week sizing and moving windows, switching between the lesson plans (in a browser) and getting them used to the basics of a full desktop environment. Many will consider themselves computer literate, but will often be flummoxed by moving files around the OS or running multiple windows. This is a reflection of the the devices they’ve grown up using in the past 5-7 years, and also the nature of the UK computing curriculum previously (which is now getting much better). That said I think this is very valuable learning as well
  8. As mentioned above this term I’ve switched to trying to follow the lesson plans in browser. Previously I’ve printed them all off on paper and given them to the children where they can tick off each task. This worked really well but I became dismayed using up so much paper and colour toner (even if I did recycle it at the end of the lessons), so I switched to browser based plans this term. The children have great difficulty focusing so well on instructions that are in a browser window.
  9. The speed at which the faster to learn children and the slower to learn children diverge in terms of their progress appears to be dramatically larger in python. Those that get it, really push on even after week 1 or 2, and hoover up more knowledge, searching for way to translate skills they’ve learnt in scratch, into python equivalents. Those that need more close coaching to get through the lessons can easily fall behind and become a lot more frustrated than when the equivalent situation comes up in scratch, as scratch is much easier to just play around in and get something to happen. Another reason to keep the class sizes smaller for python if you can.
  10. Running the club remains a highlight of my week just as it was when it was fresh and new at the beginning.
  11. We still get about a 50-50 mix of girls and boys as we have had all along. Very different to all my teams at work, and a good sign that things are changing. It’ll certainly take a while yet for this ratio to pass into the workplace though.


Let the children convince you to volunteer for code club

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It’s happy Thursday today, as it’s code club day! I’m well into the Autumn term of code club at Ridgeway Primary in Croydon, but you can never talk about code club too much (as my friends who I went to dinner with last night would probably confirm!)

I’m reminded today that there are many schools both in Croydon and throughout the country that are desperate for volunteers. If you’re still wondering whether you ought to volunteer and whether you’d get something out of it, read the following feedback which are all direct quotes from the children who were in my summer class last term.

“I liked making the fish game because you can change their speed and size”

“Code club has helped me to learn to make different games and also to learn collaboratively with others”

“I like the fact that we all make a similar game but there’s loads of things you can change about how it looks”

“I learned how to make games and how they work”

“I just enjoy being on the computer. I’ve learned about how to use variables”

“I’ve enjoyed using variables in the code and making multiplayer games. It’s also been good to share on the scratch website and see everyone else’s games”

“I’ve enjoyed learning how to use the code and I’ll keep using it at home”

“I like bring able to paint new sprites, making the games using code and playing the games on the website at home with my brothers. I’m following in my father’s footsteps because he’s a programmer”

“I’ve enjoyed seeing how you make a game and how it all works”

Hopefully these comments will leave you motivated to want to get involved. The other main blocker that I find potential volunteers worried about is the technical requirements needed to be a code club volunteer. These are never as high as some people expect. I spent no more than an hour a week in preparation time and you don’t need to be a developer to teach a code club.

So get over to www.codeclub.org.uk now and sign up. Stop thinking, just do it, you’ll never look back.

Ridgeway Primary School Code Club 2013/14

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I’ll be running the code club at Ridgeway Primary school Croydon again this year and we’re starting on the week after half term. Parents of year 6 have received an email this week inviting children to join the beginners level class. Hopefully later in the year we’ll also be running intermediate classes for children who have already completed term 1 with us. This will be great if we can then get multiple development level tracks started.

This is the text that the school use to advertise the class, i think it’s really well and succinctly put:

We are running a Ridgeway Code Club. Behind every app on a SmartPhone, every game that you play and every website you view, someone has spent time programming it. Code Club teaches children the basics of computer programming through fun and creative projects that also encourages problem solving skills. You can find out more at www.codeclub.org.uk

I can’t wait to get started again. Apparently the school have upgraded their IT suite during the summer, which should prove interesting. As for any event I run I’ll be sure to go into the suite beforehand to check out the equipment and ensure it all still works. It’ll be interesting to see whether they’ve upgraded to Windows 7 or not, as they were running XP when I was there before the summer.

I think I’ll probably be running with the old scratch as well again this term, depending on how the browser performance is with the new kit, and also how their new security settings are configured. I think this will be a choice for many clubs this year. I certainly love the new browser based scratch, and the web cam interaction, but many schools will either not have the hardware to support this, or would purposefully block it for security reasons.

Code club at Ridgeway Primary Croydon – feedback from weeks 3 and 4

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It’s 48 hours until week 5 of my first term of code club and I’m just printing and collating the lesson plans. Now seems a good time to write some feedback about weeks 3 and 4 as I learned a lot (as hopefully did the children!)

First off it’s important to note that if you’re doing the fireworks project as week 3, you’ll need to ensure that you can upload some additional sprites and sounds from the scratch resources that you’ve been given. Depending on how you’ve had scratch installed at your school this could be a problem and one you should try to tackle in advance! I realised on the Wednesday night before the club and was a little unprepared. I took the extra files into the school on a USB stick but the way that scratch was installed stopped it from seeing certain network drives as browsable folders, which meant that we had to do a 2 stage copy, which involved getting all the children to copy files manually using windows explorer from a network UNC location to a scratch folder on their roaming profiles. Obviously each school will be different in terms of configuration, but this is definitely worth checking out. I’ve also just noted that this is required for week 5 as well.

In terms of the week 3 and 4 projects (fireworks and fruit machine) the classes ran very differently to the initial weeks. There’s a definite learning curve, and some of the children started to have trouble following the instructions explicitly to get the projects to work. None of the problems were unusual, but due to the increased complexity, a lot more compelx questions came up. Since I’ve got 17 children in my class, I started to fall behind with all the questions, as sometimes it was taking me a minute or so to debug or sort out each issue. This just goes to prove the theory that code club promote of looking to have a number of children under 12 in the club, to keep it manageable and give everyone a fair go. I’m lucky as I have a great teacher in the club to help me, but it’s still harder to keep up now.

What this has also meant in practice is that I’m having to be more creative in my plans, and last week I split the children into 2 groups, one group were left to code on their own for a few minutes with the project notes and the others did some coding with me collaboratively on the computer / projector at the front of the class. This allowed me to maintain 2 separate tracks and hopefully everyone still got something out of the club. As the weeks have progressed less and less children have managed to finish the projects. In itself this is not a problem, as obviously everyone learns at different speeds, but it means you need to think more creatively about how to give each child a sense of accomplishment at the end of the hour.

Code Club at Ridgeway School Croydon – week 3 updates

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I was preparing for week 3 of my first term in code club, knowing that last week I’d given out a shared login for our club on the scratch website. I thought I’d have a check to see if there were people commenting or looking at the projects that we uploaded last week, wondering if the children were showing them to their friends and families for example.

There were some comments and this was great to see, but what was far more satisfying to see was that the children had obviously been using the login to browse other projects and some had been uploading completely new ones that they’d written in their own time during the week, some of which were using different techniques to those which we’ve already covered in code club! Now that was really fantastic news, as it means they’re developing the coding bug and experimenting and trying new stuff.

Once this type of attitude starts to permeate through the club then there’s going to be no stopping us! As ever I can’t wait for tomorrow to come round so I can get back in the classroom!

Code Club at Ridgeway School Croydon – feedback from first 2 weeks

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As I wrote about last month, following an initial presentation about code club to the year 5 assembly at Ridgeway primary school in Croydon, we’ve now started our first term of teaching and we’re 2 weeks into the course. I wanted to share some feedback about lessons learnt to date.

1. The assembly was a great idea, it enthused the children and got us lots of sign ups for the club. We offered 17 places (the total number of machines in the IT suite) and we got 35 applicants from about 90 or so children in year 5 (we only did the assembly for this year group).

2. 17 is a slightly higher number than code club recommend as ideal, but we thought we’d give it a go. I have one of the children’s teachers with me in the class, able to help out with questions, and this makes a real difference. We do get a lot of questions when we’re doing the exercises, but not more than we can handle. If I was on my own though, or if I didn’t have the teacher with me, this would probably prove difficult.

3. The children absolutely love the badges and the club signs. Just like they say on the website, it gives them an identity with the club. I made up all the badges with conference style laminated clips and they all love clipping these to different areas of their clothing! The signs are much the same and other children have been going past the room saying “oooh, what’s that, code club, wonder what that is”, which can’t be a bad thing either.

4. I have a perfect 50/50 split of girls to boys (OK I have an off number of children but as close to 50/50 as you can do with such). As a father of 2 girls I’m especially happy about this. All we need to do now is get this ratio up in the IT industry!

5. My classes are one hour long and I make sure I get there 20 minutes before to set up and confirm all the machines are OK and the projector for my machine is OK. I also make sure I do all the printing and collating of materials the night before and am completely ready to go as soon as the children arrive. The hour feels short and there’s no time to waste with admin!

6. In the first class I did an intro about scratch generally as per the code club materials and did some initial demos. This worked well and took about 30 minutes. I then let the children try the first project “Felix and Herbert”. This went OK, but we ran out of time before many of the children could finish. With hindsight, I’d have done more demos and interactive teaching with the children in the first class and then started the full project in the second week.

7. I use a generic school account on the scratch website so that all the children upload their work to the same place (prefixing their names on the projects). Although they’re welcome to have their own accounts, and some already have done so, it provides a nice view to the school of what we’ve achieved, all in one place. Check out what’s up there from week 2 projects

8. I let the children experiment. Straight away from minute 1 on the first class they were trying their own things, making  all sorts of sounds and little mini programs and sprites and laughing and joking. I think this is a great thing! I’ve heard others say that you shouldn’t allow this and that you should make them stick exactly to the project lists and not let them deviate. I personally strongly disagree with this and I think the children like the freedom. I do ensure that when I’ve a key point to make I get them to gather round on the carpet do a demo, for example yesterday I talked alot about variables and why they were so important and key to the project.

9. Despite point 8 above, I do encourage them to use the code club project materials. They are fantastically well designed, and with the tick boxes allow the children to keep good progress notes of how far they’ve gone with the project. What I observed yesterday in week 2 was that although some deviated to do their own thing slightly (I actually told them they could) by the end everyone was really focuses on following the project notes anyway.

10. In week 2 I had a much better timed lesson. I did a 5 minute recap of week 1, then I did a chat about variables as they were a key point to learn from week 2, and we did some collaborative coding with the children using my teaching / projector machine to do the first page or 2 of that weeks’ project. Then I gave them all 40 minutes to do the project themselves. Myself and the teacher then just answered questions as they came up and everything went really well. 5 minutes before the end  I made sure that everyone had saved and uploaded something to the website to ensure that they have something to show to friends and parents.

All in all I can already say that this is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in many years, and if you’re thinking about volunteering you need to do so immediately! It’s completely fantastic and the quality of the code club materials is fantastic. I can’t wait for next week!

Code Club demo to year 5 children at Ridgeway – questions I was asked

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I did a talk this morning on code club at Ridgeway Primary school in Croydon where I’ll be starting up a new code club next term. The talk was a 15 minute intro to the principles of the after school club, with a demo of scratch and an opportunity for the children to ask questions. The talk went well I  think and the children seemed keen. Here’s a selection of some of the questions that I was asked:

Will the games work on my ipod?

(good question and I actually had to check! Obviously the flash version of the browser one won’t due to the well documented no flash policy in iOS, but I had to check whether the java one would either. Initial experiments with a number of devices would appear to show that out of the box the answer is no, but maybe with a non-default browser you could get this to work. The same appear to go for Android devices as well)

Will I be able to write games as good as Modern Warfare?

(good question again – although as a 9 year old – should you actually be playing Modern Warfare? that’s another story obviously – my actual answer – not quite as complex as Modern Warfare no, but if you start to learn to program here then you can move up to other languages in future which allow you to do just about anything)

How long will the club last for?

simple one this – 6 weeks for one hour a week on Thursdays initially – we’ll do another run after that if anyone wants, in the Autumn term

Will I be able to do 3D graphics?

Interesting question – not directly no, but you’ll be able to do some pretty advanced graphics if you put the time and effort into it – again one for the future if you learn how to program generally I think.

So there we go. Now it’s time for me to do some prep before next month and see if I can get scratch to do games as good as an x-box , in 3D and work across all platforms. Or maybe I’ll just stick to whack a witch for the moment!

Code Club in Croydon at Ridgeway Primary School

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Following on from my previous post, I’ve had a meeting with Ridgeway Primary School and we’re planning to start up our after school code club in the first week of summer term, running on Thursday afternoons for an initial 6 week trial period. I am crazily excited and enthused about this and can’t wait to get started. I’m going into the year 5 assembly next week to meet the children and introduce the idea of the code club, before letters go home to parents offering the chance for them to sign up their children. Roll on April 🙂 I’d better start practising my scratch skills.

Code club in Croydon

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I’ve signed up to run a code club at Ridgeway Primary school in Croydon (where my daughter goes) as part of a larger volunteer program which my current employer dotDigital are starting up in association with the guys at Croydon tech city. Hopefully this will start in the summer term. Watch this space for more updates and check out the main code club site if you’re interested…