Monday, 29 September 2014

Something Different

This year I have a Level 3 tutorial group.  Much of what we need to do in tutorials is admin based or building up personal skills - not something many IT students are particularly enthusiastic about.

As something completely different today, I decided to do a general knowledge quiz.  I thought it might be good on a number of levels:

  • getting the learners thinking early (ish) on a Monday morning
  • giving me a better understanding of their existing general knowledge
  • encouraging them to start thinking beyond assignments and criteria based learning and into news (both technology and general news), common sense and life skills
Questions included one capital city, one cooking, one health, several news (politics and sport) and a few other IT based questions.  Learners were asked to work independently, and I tried to generate a bit of a sense of competition to encourage them to do better than their friends.  At the end of the quiz, learners swapped papers for marking, and scores were given by way of hands raised in score boundaries.

The learners all took part, and all engaged really well.  It was fun, but with some serious elements in - after all we should really all know at what temperature water boils, and how long to cook dried pasta. 

Personally, I also really enjoyed it as it seemed to bring about a good, friendly banter in the classroom, and I awarded a Merit badge to the learner with the best score at the end.  It felt like a good activity to bring the group together and to get everyone focussed, and it is something I will definitely do again.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

The importance of preparation

A few weeks ago I had an interview for a new job. The interview consisted of a 15 minute presentation, topic given well in advance, a task and a meeting.

I worked very hard on the presentation.  Coming up with an idea in the middle of the night just after being told I'd got the interview, I rehearsed well, brought a prop and even practised delivering it to my very patient husband.  All good.

Before the interview, I read through the job spec and my application several times.  I took a little time to think about my own strengths and weaknesses as that tends to be a classic interview question.

But on the day, when I'd done the task, delivered my presentation and was asked the first question 'what can you bring to the post?' my mind turned to mush and I rambled about something not particularly relevant. I failed to mention all the things that I do day in day out, perhaps because I take them for granted.  I didn't talk about quality, or breadth of experience, I failed to tell them how I keep abreast of current thinking via social networking and other online resources.  I didn't comment on my wider reading and research done during my dissertation.

This theme continued throughout the next hour.  I got a few useful bits of information out, but afterwards I kicked myself for missing out the obvious things that they would have been looking for.
Interviews are not unlike teaching - an opportunity to share what I know with others, but because the topic was me, and I thought I'd just be able to answer those questions on the fly, I fell a bit flat. I floundered to find the right words.

The lesson I have learned here is that everthing needs prep.  Often it's just because being succinct is tricky, but it's essential for effective information giving. Despite how well you think you know something, saying it clearly and concisely can take practise and skill.

Needless to say I didn't get the job, but it was a valuable experience that served as a good reminder of some fundamental principles - not least the importance of preparation.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Raspberry Pi Projects

This year I was successful in obtaining a bid for a set of Raspberry Pi computers for our Foundation Degree students to make use of.  Today they delivered their end of year presentations about what they had done with their Pis.

We started the year with a bit of programming.  This included a few sessions to introduce them to Python, and then half a dozen sessions on using Scratch to create some simple games and interactive programs.

There was a clear divide within the class - those who felt comfortable dabbling with programming, and those who didn't.  The students were put into groups to work on the Pi - these were based on friendship rather than ability - possibly something I would avoid next time, as those who were comfortable with programming often took the lion's share of the work leaving the less confident students floundering and eventually backing off from the project.

Today each group delivered a short presentation on their project and what they had achieved.  Several of the groups had achieved some or all of their intended project, others had got stuck along the way and did not have a finished product.

Of the successful projects we had a covert surveillance system, by way of a Pi placed inside an air freshener container with an HD camera to stream video to a remote monitor if the motion or door sensors were triggered.  Another group created a server running Apache for a custom built website.  Other projects started but not completed included a morse code LED lamp, a remote controlled car controlled by a wii remote, a flashing LED cube and another video surveillance system.

Although not all the groups achieved their goals, it was very clear from the presentations that almost everyone had taken something away from their projects.  Here are some of the things that the students have learnt about - often without even realising it:

  • A first introduction to Linux
  • GPIO (General Purpose Input Outputs)
  • Some basic electronics - capacitors, resistors, breadboards and other connecting devices
  • Downloading and installing operating system distributions
  • Basic connectivity - attaching monitors, keyboards and other peripherals
  • Basic programming skills
  • Shell programming
  • Project planning skills

In addition, all the students learned that sometimes the smallest hitch in building a fully functioning programme can have a huge impact on progress, and I think we all learned that a step by step approach, tackling each tiny element one at a time is the only way to build up to a successful outcome.

I asked the students at the end if they would like to continue working on the Pis next year.  Some said no, but on the whole, the project seems to have piqued their interest in programming and I have absolutely no doubt that what they have done this year will stand them in good stead for the programming, scripting and IT security challenges that they will take on next year.