Computing with iPad

Ever since the arrival of the National Curriculum subject ‘computing’ in 2014, figuring out how exactly to teach computer science and coding in a Primary school has become a hot issue. Using a Mac or PC (or even a Raspberry Pi), there are some obvious contenders: ‘Scratch’ from MIT, maybe a bit of ‘LOGO’ or even some ‘Python’ for the more adventurous. But what about the iPad? Can computational thinking and an understanding of algorithms be taught using Apple’s intuitive and easy-to-use touch screen device?

There has been a range of coding apps for iPad right from the start, but only recently has the iPad started to really shine when it comes to learning to code. Here are three strong contenders.

codeSpark Academy with The Foos

This paid-for app (with free access for educators) aims to teach the basics of computational thinking to children aged 4+ with a fun, visual and no-words approach. It’s based around five different characters, called ‘The Foos’, who all have different skills and abilities that can be used to solve problems to try and catch the elusive ‘Glitch’. Using an intuitive interface and attractive 3D graphics, it quickly teaches children about sequencing, loops, events and conditions. There is also a curriculum that teachers can download, including ‘off-line’ activities to help explore coding concepts further.

We tried out using codeSpark Academy with our Year 1 children as part of the Hour of Code in December, and are now using the full app this half term as part of their computing lessons. I really like how it uses puzzles to really get children to think and increasingly harder levels to teach new concepts and consolidate learning. Definitely worth taking a look!

LEGO Education WeDo 2.0

Version 1.0 of LEGO WeDo was first released in 2009 and offered a simple way to teach robotics and coding to 7-11s using LEGO bricks. A USB hub connected various sensors to a computer, such as distance and tilt, as well as a motor. Following the onscreen building instructions in the software, children could construct various models and then use block-based coding to program them, e.g. making a crocodile shut its mouth when something is put inside it. We’ve been using these kits for several years and children love them: it’s accessible computing and you get to build with LEGO!

In 2016, LEGO announced WeDo 2.0, with brand-new models and parts and a Bluetooth hub to connect the updated sensors with iPads and Chromebooks, as well as PCs and Macs. The new WeDo 2.0 is a free download (obviously requiring the paid-for LEGO kits) and includes all the build instructions and a range of ‘Guided Projects’, both for science and for computing.

Version 2.0 is a really strong upgrade, both in terms of the hardware and iPad compatibility, but also in terms of the pedagogy; it requires problem-solving skills and creativity from children to both build and extend models as well as design the code required to complete the different projects.

Swift Playgrounds

Debuting at WWDC in June 2016 and launched last Autumn, Swift Playgrounds is a truly remarkable piece of software. It aims to teach children (Year 7+, but definitely accessible at the start for those in Years 5 and 6) the foundations of computational thinking whilst using real Swift code – a programming language Apple created that is used today by professional developers in many popular apps. Many other computing apps take a ‘block-based coding’ approach, where students can drag and drop pre-defined blocks of code and combine them to create a program. This is great for teaching the concepts of computer science, but leaves a chasm of confusion when students try and code using a typed language. Swift Playgrounds overcomes this by using written code from the start, but code that can be selected from smart autocorrect suggestions above the keyboard and then can be dragged around as if it were a ‘block’ of code.

The app is also really fun to play! On the right of the screen is a 3D world that you navigate to solve puzzles, entering code on the left of the screen. The puzzles can be quite challenging, requiring student to think carefully, spot patterns and apply the skills they have learned in a variety of ways. As you progress through the levels, it really does teach you how to think like a programmer through crafting efficient, reusable and readable code.

Accompanying each of the ‘Learn to Code’ books in Swift Playground is a multi-touch book that teachers can download. These provide a full curriculum to help with teaching using Swift Playground, complete with Keynote slides for each lesson.

All three of these apps show how iPad has really grown up as a platform for learning computational thinking.

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Quicker and Easier on iPad

At the end of last year, we did some monitoring about how Showbie was being used in our school. One of the insights from that was all of the work that was done in Computing could be done quicker and easier on iPad rather than using an iMac.  In our school, children have a timetabled ‘Computing’ slot when they get to go and use the iMac suite.  The children do enjoy it, but in this increasingly mobile age, children are just not as familiar with using a mouse and keyboard, let alone using an arguably more complex desktop operating system that is OSX. Perhaps they just need the practice, but actually the iPad allows children to achieve remarkably complex things (visual programming, video creation and editing etc.) with relative ease.  If we add in the simple but powerful e-portfolio workflow that Showbie offers for iOS, iPad increasingly comes up tops when compared to Mac.

So, what apps do we use for Computing on Mac and how can iPad replace/improve them?  Is it possible to go ‘iPad Only’ with Computing?

Email

We use LGfL’s London Mail to provide safe and restricted access to email for students during certain Computing units. It’s hosted by Microsoft and is accessed via a web browser.  It works fine on Mac as well as iPad, but on iPad it’s super easy to screenshot learning and add it into Showbie.

Visual Programming

We already use Hopscotch, Kodable, A.L.E.X. and Daisy the Dinosaur on iPad to teach coding using pre-programmed blocks.  On the Mac, we use Scratch, a great coding environment created by MIT. There is a (literally) junior version of it called Scratch Jnr, which is suitable for younger children but unfortunately they haven’t released a full iPad version yet.  However, there are other alternatives out there, such as Tynker.

Typed Coding

When we developed our Computing curriculum a few years ago, we included a strand which focused on getting children to type in computer code, starting with learning to type, then moving onto languages such as LOGO and Python. You can get typing apps for iPad, and even ones for LOGO and Python. Fun as it has been to introduce these to children, I think that they might be just a bit too tricky for Primary aged kids, so instead we’re going to introduce some more fun iPad coding apps.  Like Floors (which allows you to design your own platform games…)!

iWork

Pages, Numbers and Keynote are as fully-featured on iOS as a Primary school kid would need, so no contest there.  And are arguably easier to use.

iLife

iMovie on OSX is powerful, but it does add so many steps to the movie-making process: capture video on another camera, then import into Mac, then edit. iMovie for iPad is so simple and easy to use to use, with the advantage of being able to do everything on one device.

LEGO WeDo

The only sticking point was LEGO WeDo, a simple programmable LEGO kit.  WeDo 1.0 runs of a wired USB hub to connect the motor/tilt sensor/motion sensor.  However, LEGO have recently announced WeDo 2.0, which connects via Bluetooth to an iPad…yay!  I recently had a play with it at BETT and it was really great.

So, I think that going all-in on iPad for Computing can work!

Coding Evening

Last Thursday, I had the privilege of attending and briefly speaking at a Coding Evening at the Mozilla HQ in London. The event was run by my fellow ADE Cat Lamin, who started these events a year or so ago to provide an informal and relaxed atmosphere to learn about how to teach ‘coding’ in primary school and to try out different kit. The new ‘Computing‘ curriculum in the UK is ambitious and probably a really good idea, but I think it does terrify a lot of teachers and I’m not sure all teachers are suitably trained or equipped to deliver it. Hence providing a space for teachers to learn a bit more!

The evening run regularly in Peterborough and Twickenham, but the central London one was a one-off special event, complete with free drinks and pizza thanks to sponsors! It was pretty cool to hang out in what was basically the Mozilla staff room (they have what is quite possibly the largest TV screen I have ever seen), but it was also great to meet new people and learn new things.

As part of the evening, there was a string of ‘lightning talks’ from different people about how they’ve done interesting and cool stuff with coding in schools. I got the chance to share briefly about how we use LEGO WeDo, which I think went down well.  There was also different companies representing their wares, which was interesting:

  • A guy called Marc Grossman was there, demoing Scratch, Kodu and Code Club. Scratch is a great visual programming tool designed by MIT, and Kodu is a cool 3D game designer from Microsoft.  But what really impressed me was the resources he shared from Code Club.  Code Club is a not-for-profit organisation that gets volunteers to run coding clubs in primary schools. What is really handy is that you can download the worksheets etc. that they use and deliver it yourself. I shall be making use of that!
  • A plucky upstart company called Pi-Top were demoing their product, which was essentially a green laptop that runs off a Raspberry Pi. It did seem pretty cool, and reminded me of my childhood days playing with a ZX Spectrum and figuring out how to make things work.
  • There was also a company called FUZE there, who make a computer for schools that is basically a robust keyboard case that houses a Raspberry Pi.  What is unique about them is that they include their own version of BASIC for children to use, claiming that introducing more complex languages like Python to children just puts them off coding, rather than hooking them in. This was an interesting challenge to me, as we have included Python in our Computing curriculum at school, which admittedly is hard for teachers and children to get their heads around. I’m not sure I’d want to introduce a set of computers that would need to be plugged in and set up each week just to teach Computing lessons once a week.

It was a really excellent evening and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to get their head around how to teach Computing in school.