After exploring some alternatives to Scratch for introducing digital technologies concepts in the classroom I selected one for further work. I undertook a series of independent projects, focusing on how my learning might be applied in a primary classroom, using Mozilla.
To begin I explored X-ray Goggles. I started by watching a short clip on how to use the program (link). Next I recreated a short news item from news.com. This could be utilized in English to engage students with report writing, either to rewrite the story or extend upon it, while at the same time developing their HTML skills. X-ray Goggles was an easy and entertaining introduction to HTML, next I wanted to explore how I could use Mozilla for deeper programming knowledge and understanding.
I decided to create my own simple website page using Mozilla Thimble. This activity widened my knowledge of paragraphing and headings as well as inserting links using HTML. The support Mozilla provided encouraged self learning and engagement. To begin I found the intricacies of HTML frustrating because if I missed a command, such as a semi-colon, my programming would not work. I also would have found it handy to have a HTML dictionary nearby. I believe this medium for learning programming language is better suited to the later stages of primary education. I would introduce programming using Scratch then slowly graduate to more complex programs such as Mozilla.
Finally I explored Mozilla Popcorn Maker where I overlayed editing to a previous animation I had created. This was similar to Moviemaker but I was able to insert Twitter, images and annotations over the clip. Students could use this as a way to annotate their own clips for assignments while at the same time practice more advanced editing skills.
Mozilla state “Mozillians are people who make things. Moving people from consumption to creation is Mozilla’s goal.” I believe this site will develop students programming skills to move them from consumers to creators.
My next task involved exploring alternatives to Scratch. First I looked at programs similar to Scratch such as ‘Snap’, ‘Blockly’ and ‘Panther’ that are based on Scratch. They all could be applied the same as Scratch, although I felt they did not perform as well as Scratch. For example Snap did not show coordinates or have access to backgrounds or other sprites though it did not require downloading.
Next I explored programs that could be used on my iPhone, one of them, ‘Infinite Monkeys’, enables you to design your own apps. This looked fun and would be engaging for students although I will explore this further another time.
Thirdly I explored Games development programs. Since I had already created a game in Scratch I immediately thought one of these sites would be interesting to use. I began exploring ‘Alice’ but for some reason it kept creating errors and would not work properly on my computer. This was very annoying and I had to delete it from my computer.
Mozilla Webmaker Tools includes Popcorn maker, Thimble and X-ray goggles. X-ray Goggles appealed to me as it allows you ‘to see and mess around with the building blocks that make up the web’. Similar to pulling an old television apart to see how it works; I felt I was being let in on a secret, although it would not open in Chrome so I used Mozilla. It is very easy to access and program and when you want to stop using it, just press escape! I could imagine students having lots of fun with this and to extend some students there is access to advanced HTML where students can explore more commands, though it would have to be taught alongside ethical behaviour as hacking is dangerous if done incorrectly.
I would use this exploration activity of alternatives to Scratch in a Primary classroom as a Jigsaw learning activity. Students would break into groups and within each group a student would focus on a subject area, for example Maths or English. The main group would be given a selection of programming websites to explore and each student would decide if a site would be relevant for their subject area. Once the programs have been explored by each main group the students would divide into subject area groups and give a summary of what programs they had explored and how they could be relevant to the subject area. The secondary groups would then decide on a program and develop a program from a site relevant to their subject area.
This is a link to further research into coding for children http://venturebeat.com/2013/04/12/why-your-8-year-old-should-be-coding/
My next experience with Scratch involved an extension project where I extended my knowledge of Scratch and computer programming by engaging in a self-directed exploration of programming with Scratch. I was required to use some of the facilities that I had not yet explored in depth. I was reasonably confident in editing backgrounds and sprites for their appearance but not for their movement. I wanted to practice using motion/sensing to create a game to extend my thinking. I used supplied backgrounds and Sprites but had to design explicit algorithms to make my game work. ACARA include Specification, algorithms and implementation within ‘Digital Technologies’, defining an algorithm as a precise description of the steps and decisions needed to solve a problem.
Creating the game was long and tedious; once again I had to refer back to the help screen and websites often until I began to remember the command sequences for particular movements. I found it frustrating that I could not copy and paste commands for separate sprites. After a while my thinking processes began to align with the program, this was a turning point for me and I realized why it is important for students to practice computational thinking skills until both knowledge and understanding as well as skills of programming become a natural way of thinking and working. ACARA state that ‘the development of knowledge, understanding and skills that support the integration of human thinking with the capabilities of digital systems is the core of Digital Technologies curriculum’. I have finished the project but just like many other technological programs, there are still improvements or modifications that could be made.
When teaching we need to be aware of the diverse learning needs of students. Here is an example of a student that dreams in code: Click here
When I saw the picture of the cat I thought the cat’s name was Scratch. I began to wonder how this connected to programming. I quickly realized the name referred to any icon that followed commands for programming that moved around a background. They were referred to as ‘Sprites’ and you could have multiple Sprites on the screen. For students this would engage them, as to begin they would have fun manipulating and moving the Sprite around the background, after a while they could replace the image of the cat with any icon and change the background. Initially Scratch was fun, I easily programmed the Sprite to move, change colours and make a sound, and though simplistic it was enjoyable watching what I had created.
With all learning there are challenges and as I have never been exposed to programming before, this was a very new experience. I started to feel the program did not support me enough from graduating from drawing squares to other polygons, such as triangles. I managed to create a rectangle and pentagon but could not draw a triangle. I did get very close but the last angle would not meet up correctly. I called for help from my PLN members. Thankfully they assisted.
I realized that when teaching programming, although students can construct learning themselves, you also need to have a knowledgeable expert to call on. Once I gained experience and confidence with the program I once again enjoyed programming. Creating the simple car racing game and pong game was relatively easy since I had support from the directions.
ACARA’s Draft Australian Curriculum Technologies has been separated into two subject areas. One of the two subjects is ‘Digital Technologies’, this includes the strands ‘Digital Technologies knowledge and understanding’ and ‘Digital Technologies processes and production skills’. There is a current need for programmers both in industry and as teachers which is maybe why ACARA have introduced programming in Years F-2. To begin students play with data and follow, describe and represent a sequence of steps and decisions required to solve simple problems (ACARA). Scratch could be utilized here using the simple operations that I explored in ‘Scratch One’ with support from the teacher. The benefit of introducing this program at this early stage is that students ‘develop knowledge and skills about abstraction and algorithms as a result of personal experiences and express these using simple digital systems’ (ACARA) while also becoming familiar with Scratch, thus when they are in Years 3-4 they can begin to ‘design and implement visual programs with user input and branching’ (ACARA). Students will build upon both strands until in ‘in the later years they can create complex and innovative interactive digital solutions’ (ACARA).
Some of the challenges required me to do further research. I began to collect websites that had helped me solve some of the algorithms for challenges. Other problems I solved by a process of elimination or by playing around with the sequencing of different commands. When applying this in a primary classroom I would first of all show the students the program and let them investigate it before teaching any structured activities. Next I would introduce simple commands by modelling on a smartboard, followed by simple command sequences. Some of these introductory commands could be used in maths for creating 2D or 3D shapes or in Art by programming a etch a sketch then creating artistic images.