Saturday saw the 7th annual CAS conference. In the time that it has been running (i.e. the lifetime of CAS), some pretty dramatic changes have occurred to Computing in schools [in England]. Computing has gone from a niche A-Level (ages 16–18) subject to having GCSEs (ages 14–16) to being in the national curriculum (ages 5–14), as of last September. It’s hard to gauge the mood from the generally-eager attendees, but there seemed to be a feeling that this was something of a crisitunity: lots of panic and problems (especially lack of teachers and lack of training), but also a very exiting time with a chance to shape the discipline in schools for years to come.
Paul Curzon’s opening keynote was excellent. He talked about how many bits it takes to encode letters of the alphabet. Sounds exciting, huh? But the key was how he motivated and contextualised it. He began by talking about locked-in syndrome, a terrible condition where people are almost entirely paralysed (e.g. by a stroke), retain their cognitive faculties, but are only able to perform tiny pieces of motor control, such as blinking their eyelid. Curzon looked at how you could communicate at all if you are only able to blink, and then looked at how you could optimise this communication (essentially, binary decision trees for the alphabet). A fairly dull information encoding task became a realistic and relevant issue which could make a difference to someone’s life. (Features that research has suggested help computing appeal to girls.) I’m sure many people in the room wanted to turn round and give the same talk to their pupils, which is a good sign.
An interesting new feature this year was the research stream, which looked at how teachers might engage with computing education research — by doing research themselves. I was taken with the high attendance and interest; Sue Sentance and others are doing a great job of driving this forward. I see some good opportunity there: teachers generally have very good questions and easy access to [pupil] participants, but perhaps lack the skills that researchers that can bring. It seems like a pairing of the two could potentially bring some interesting results. Especially in primary school: it’s worth remembering that England is one of the very few places worldwide that is delivering computing education nationally to all pupils at young ages, so we should make use of the opportunity to learn as much as we can (see also Sally Fincher’s recent article on the topic).
I came away energised by the conference, as I do every time. It was nice for us to be able to show our work on Greenfoot 3 and frame-based editing and get some feedback. I was also amused to hear an esteemed computer scientist who took part in a Scratch activity bemoaning that its data model was poor, as you couldn’t easily perform the perfectly straightforward task of run-length encoding. It was suggested that they perhaps should have stuck to running cats around the screen. But it’s one of the great things about the conference that it brings together academics, teachers, teacher trainers, awarding bodies, professional software developers and more besides. I’m looking forward to more of the same at the CAS Scotland conference in November.