Beyond consumer based ICT

There is a change taking place in how schools approach ICT, one that has been coming for some time but is at the point of moving into the mainstream. A subtle but powerful shift that sees ICT build connections with the Maker Movement as a tool for solving what Bronwyn Moreton speaking at the ICT Educators of NSW conference describes as the ‘I wish it would . . .’ moment where a learner discovers that their technology doesn’t do everything they wished it would.

For a long time, ICT in the classroom was a mix of internet based information tools, some desktop publishing and for the adventuresome multimedia design, video and photo editing. This placed the user for the most part as a consumer of content or a user of software packages and more recently Apps. The skills required of these users would be found in user manuals and tutorials and revolved around learning the particular idiosyncrasies of various pieces of software. Skill with Microsoft Office, internet browser and Apples iLife suite of tools for video and photo management would suffice for the majority of users. With the rise of tablet computers such as iPad, Android tablet and Microsoft Surface the App economy has driven the required skill set down further as ICT moves firmly into the consumer device market.

This was not always the case. In computing’s early days when Steve Wozniak was a member of the ‘Homebrew’ computing club it was about problem solving to get the hardware and software to do what you wanted it to. Computer Geeks blended the skills of electrical engineers with software developers to get the early machines to power on. Computing at this time involved manipulating the core components of breadboards, processors, inputs and outputs all of which is well hidden from view in modern machines which are tightly focused on a pleasing 'out of box' experience. But as attendees at the ICTE NSW conference saw repeatedly a change is coming, we are moving back to tinkering with the hardware. Coding and electrical engineering are opening new opportunities.

Recognising the need for young people to understand computer coding and seeing a gap in the available software MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) developed Scratch. The aim is to provide a simple coding environment that allows students to literally assemble blocks of code in a digital environment in much the same way that they would assemble wooden blocks in the physical world. The drag and drop nature and friendly block design makes coding readily accessible and the user gets immediate feedback on their designs. Many students have been introduced to coding thanks to Scratch and others have followed a similar path with tools becoming available for all major platforms. The trouble with Scratch is that at some point learners will need something more and traditional response is to move on to more involved coding solutions such as Python.

There is an alternative route however. Move the students on from Scratch to using it to programme physical devices that they create using Arduino. The beauty of Arduino is that it allows low cost access to hardware that encourages user developed code. Arduino boards are a system on a chip meaning that the whole computer is on one board and to this you can connect other components such as lights, sensors, motors and speakers to give the system additional functionality. With Arduino the students are not just using a computer they are making and programming it. Arduino is just one of the ways that physical computing is making a come back. Other players include Raspberry Pi which was one of the first system on a chip type computers to grab the attention of the mainstream thanks to its low price point and functionality that matches many computers from as little as five years ago. Raspberry Pi gives its users access to fully functioning operating systems from the Linux environment and the latest versions will run Windows 10. The low cost and bare bones nature of the Raspberry Pi encourages tinkering in ways that laptops and desktops don’t.

Another way into this world of physical computing is through robotics. This is an area where the benefits are coming from increased consumerisation of robots and the availability of ready to go robots. This removes barriers to entry and allows younger users to experience what is possible with a programmable robot. Children in Prep Schools can use Apps like Scratch and Blockly to programme a robot and see immediately the effects that their code has on the robot’s movement. At more advanced levels students are able to design complex code that integrates feedback from the robot’s sensors with logical operators. As student expertise moves beyond the capabilities of consumer robots there is cope for them to use combinations of Arduino and Raspberry Pi type computers with sensors and motors to create bespoke robots of their own design.

As is the case with the whole Maker Movement the spirit of sharing and collaboration ensure that a rich support network has evolved. For those with a passion for tinkering with computers this support network is bound to answer your questions. Having spent a Sunday learning with some of the ICT educators of NSW this willingness to share expertise and learn collaboratively was most evident in everyone I spoke with. For teacher and learners beginning their journey into physical computing and coding there is no need to be alone.


By Nigel Coutts