From code literacy to robotics

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KLCC, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Digital Education Show Asia
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
18-19 April, 2016

It was good to be back at the Digital Education Show Asia in KL for the second year running, especially given the heavy focus of this year’s event, the fourth in the series, on 21st century skills and digital literacies, including computational thinking and coding. Robotics, perhaps unsurprisingly, was also high on the agenda.

In my own paper on the first morning, Mapping the pathway from m-learning to digital literacies for ASEAN educators, I argued that in order for our students to get the most out of mobile learning, it is important for educators to help them develop their mobile literacy, and the individual literacies of which it is composed, including code literacy.

In his paper, Learning beyond boundaries – How coding shapes systematic problem solvers, Felix Lee suggested that coding and robotics have a role to play within the current context where we have to break down boundaries between subjects, develop creativity through problem-based learning, and let the students determine their learning paths through an interactive technology-enhanced curriculum.

In her talk, Advocacy of STEM education – Introducing computational thinking as the new literacy of the 21st century, Ng Puay San emphasised the importance of applied STEM education to support innovation in a global conceptual economy. She stressed the need for an integrated curriculum where different subjects like science, technology, engineering and maths connect with each other. She talked about computational thinking – which she described as a new literacy – as a framework within which students learn to reason about systems and problems, and which goes well beyond issues of hardware and software. She showcased the 3-year initiative Code for Change under Singapore’s Smart Nation Vision, designed to improve students’ skills in this area, and gave the example of a 4-year-old girl coding with Scratch. She wrapped up with an overview of the need for a quality and integrated curriculum, authentic assessment, leveraging of educational technology, continuous professional development for teachers, and partnership with the community, industries and home.

In a talk focusing on the Malaysian context, Digital.Tech@Schools: Empowering students to become digital innovators, Sumitra Nair opened by noting that 90% of all future jobs will require digital competencies, according to the EU Skills Report 2013. She indicated that there are currently initiatives to encourage digital innovation in Malaysia, but that these exist at the fringes of the formal curriculum; young people, she suggested, need to move from being consumers to creators of technology. The Digital.Tech@Schools initiative, piloted in 24 schools in December 2015, involves revising the ICT curriculum and training teachers; introducing co-curricular clubs; and running national-level competitions. The new curriculum focus is to be on algorithms, decomposition and debugging; coding and sequencing; and digital literacy – searching, analysing and curating content. The approach will involve thematic, activity- and project-based learning (combining unplugged and device-based learning). Co-curricular activities in the pilot included app development, Arduino and Scratch programming, and 3D printing. The initiative has now been endorsed by key decision makers. The focus in 2016 is on educator readiness for the curriculum roll-out.

In the follow-up panel, How do education leaders need to adapt according to a new technology-driven education system?, chaired by Eric Lam, a number of key points were raised, notably about the need to place pedagogy before technology; the centrality of the teacher’s role even within technology-enhanced education; the need to remember the human dimension of education; the importance of teachers employing creativity and design thinking to repurpose technological tools appropriately for learning; the advantages of having students sharing through online platforms; the need to have students use technology for communication and creation rather than just consumption, but to use more traditional tools when appropriate; and the key role played by the surrounding culture and context.

In his presentation, Visual  learning and emerging technologies – Rethinking 21st century literacy for a visual world, Emory Craig indicated, following Ron Bleed, that being visually literate is a must in the contemporary era. He noted the enormous potential of augmented reality (AR) in education, as well as of virtual reality (VR); at 90 frames per second, as in current high-end VR displays, he says, you cannot tell the difference between reality and visual media. He also described Facebook’s experiments in social VR, as well as Microsoft’s Hololens, which allows holographic teleportation. He concluded with some questions:

  • What new tools/vocabulary do we need to analyse visual media?
  • Can new media and VR create new ways of knowing? Can it create empathy? (And is this the final form of media, now that it has become immersive?)
  • What happens when media becomes as ‘real’ as the real world? (And how do we keep our critical distance?)
  • Will it foster new forms of collaborative learning?
  • How should current educational practices and institutions change in a highly visual and virtual world?

He also referred participants to the Digital Bodies site where he and his colleagues write about these kinds of new developments.

The roundtable discussion, Understanding how mobile and ubiquitous access technology can help to enable blended learning in your schools, led by Ian Pittman, began with a discussion of the wide range of possible definitions and interpretations of blended learning.  The topic of learning design arose quickly, as did the issue of the socioeconomic context and how the available technology impacts on learning designs, which always need to be customised to particular groups of learners in particular contexts.

Reflecting on less well-provisioned contexts in his paper, The burden of technology in education: Is there a more painless way?, Eric Lam mentioned that a key infrastructure  challenge is how to achieve e-learning with only short periods of stable internet access. He talked about the importance of downloading materials from the cloud when there is an internet connection, so they can later be used without a connection. E-learning should be afforded, he suggested, without the constant presence of the internet. While this problem may cease to exist in the future, it is a very real problem now. He showed a platform called PageWerkz designed to work under these conditions.

In his presentation, Outlining best practices on how to develop MOOC content, David Asirvatham suggested that the advantage of MOOCs is that they allow for on-demand and networked learning. It is important to begin by deciding whether to set up a cognitive-behaviourist xMOOC or a connectivist cMOOC, or to try to combine the two. MOOCs can be fully online, or used to support blended and/or flipped approaches. Creating a MOOC is a chance to explore new pedagogical approaches as well as new business models. He suggested that it would take 6-12 months to develop a MOOC from scratch, and that the cost might be around US $50,000. Ultimately it is a team effort involving the following roles: subject matter expert, instructional designer, script editor, graphic designer, camera operator, audio/video editor, and reviewer. He noted that learning objects, in the form of videos within a MOOC, should ideally be under 5 minutes long. It’s also important to consider how you will address the typical drop-out rate from MOOCs, which may be up to 80-90%.

In between the many papers, it was interesting to see how many companies are offering robotics hardware and associated programming software for education. Providers included Arduino Robotics (Malaysia), rero (Malaysia) and Pitsco Tetrix (USA), whose products can for example be used in robotics lessons and clubs in schools. There is also a push for the integration of robotics with STEM, such as by Abilix (China) and in the STEM with Robotics programme by CM Asia (Singapore). Meanwhile, the company Robotics Learning (Malaysia) was showcasing its programmes to help children learn to create robots in a problem-solving environment, combining elements of STEM and coding in an integrated learning context (see Figure 1). It was also interesting to learn about Malaysia’s annual National Robotics Competition for school students.

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Figure 1: Robots from Robotics Learning, Malaysia (2016)

My strongest impression of this conference is that, within a broader recognition of the importance of 21st century skills and digital literacies, there is a growing appreciation of the need to foreground computational thinking and code literacy, and to understand the role that can be played by robotics and programming in an integrated, STEM-oriented, problem-based approach to the curriculum. It will be interesting to see how these intersecting trends continue to evolve over coming years.

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