Friday, 14 February 2014

Coding in Context

Puzzled? Read on...
One of the things that drives me a bit bonkers about the new Government orders for Computer Science is the language. As a primary teacher myself, reading this stuff made me panic and suppress the desire to shout "OMG! All this by September - Now I know we'll be inspected the first week back..." (sobs quietly)
But, once I had my desire under control, I went back, contextualized what was being said and realized it was a deal less frightening than it sounds...

Now I suspect the Government were well aware how the document would be received as they 'launched' their Year of Code some days ago, to howls of derision and well-deserved irritation at the 'seasy-I-can-learn-it-in-a-day shtick.

So what's missing from the document? Much sense of audience, purpose, meaning and cultural context that's what. Oh, and maybe fun too... Once those ingredients are added we can see that coding, like media, really is a form of literacy and, as John Potter points out in this excellent post

In the years to come, I think it will be important that coding is connected to 
wider media culture and to media production

I'm reminded of a story from an old college mate who was working for an online content provider. He asked a young programmer to make a little app that allowed 5-year-olds to pick up multi-spotted ladybirds and drop them in a numbered box. He was more than a little exasperated when he vetted the final version, as the leaves he had asked for as a background for ladybirds to crawl around on, were those of cannabis sativa. Now I'm sure this was meant as a joke, but had my friend been ignorant, given the version the nod, the app could have gone live...
The programmer was working to a brief and, willfully or otherwise, failed to notice that this was to help young children learn (audience and purpose) in school and at home, via his employer's systems (cultural context).

Green Flag re/starts. Arrow keys navigate. 2 levels.
Opens new tab
So, take a look at the maze game here   - go on you know you want to. It was created with Scratch, an introductory coding program from MIT. I made the backgrounds and sprites (using and saved as PNG files) and it was 'coded' by me because no other application, familiar to my students, offered that level of personalisation.
Part of a transmedia mystery story - click the link to "Who am I?" in the sidebar - the narrative was intended to teach 9-13 ICT students (audience) some of the principles of online safety; especially secure passwords (purpose).
The protagonist has just had a threatening email and a puzzling phone message. Upset, he goes out into the garden to calm down and think what to do. The game leads him through two mazes, in the first he cannot control his speed and in the second he must negotiate a winding path without stepping on the grass. He is rewarded, when successful, by a clue which will take him to the next part of the story. The maze game was intended as an analogue for his state of mind. His increasing self-control leads him to the next stage (meaning). The maze format is familiar to students as a problem to be overcome (cultural context). The over-arching, though not explicit theme, was that stories can be told across a range of media.

Paintball Gove.  Flag starts. Mouse moves.Space shoots. 
My last example...
I was working with Year Eights (13-ish) to develop their skills using variables I gave them some basic code for a shoot'em up game with a scoring system. To demonstrate the way that the code could be remixed I'd put an image of my head 'inside' a computer. I'd added paint splats and sound effects and called the game Brookvirus. A fellow teacher dropped in and, after watching my demonstration, suggested Michael Gove (the UK Education Secretary) would make a better subject - Gove had made one of his exasperating pronouncements that day (don't ask, I've lost count).
May I suggest, that if playing this gives you not a single scintilla of satisfaction, try sharing the game with a UK teacher friend.
At least they'll understand the cultural context OK.
For a more rigorous, but very readable, exploration of issues raised in this post do see: