Monthly Archives: October 2012

Bath withdraws from the 1994 Group

This afternoon, Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bath* made the following announcement (emphasis mine):

I have today informed the Chair of the 1994 Group of universities, Professor Michael Farthing, of our decision to withdraw from membership of the group.

We have been an active member of the group of 15 research intensive universities since its formation in 1994, helping to promote our common interests in higher education and to share best methods and practice.

However, following a period of reflection and consultation with colleagues, we have concluded that continuing our membership of the 1994 Group does not reflect the type of University we are, nor sit well with the future direction of the University’s strategy.

Where appropriate, we will continue to be involved in existing collaboration initiatives with other leading universities (such as the SETSquared initiative) and are actively exploring future opportunities to work together with colleagues regionally, nationally and internationally in support of our mission to deliver world class research and teaching.

This is a bold statement. Bath see themselves as one of the “research-intensive” universities (with some justification, especially in light of recent league performance), but are not members of the “elite” Russell Group of 24 institutions. Furthermore, this is another snub for the 1994 Group, following four of its members joining the Russell Group in March.

Maybe being unaligned is the new ethos; but thinking more broadly for the UK HE sector, this calls into question the value of the other university groups (1994 Group, Million+ and University Alliance) if the only thing that counts (especially from the UK government’s perspective) is being a member of the Russell Group. Has the Russell Group now moved from being a lobby group to a “badge of honour” (or perhaps morphed back into the old CVCP)?

Finally, with increasing divergence in higher education policy in the devolved nations, will the Russell Group inherently become more Anglo-centric?

* my alma mater

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Codecademy Cymru

codecademy logo

Fancy joining Mike Bloomberg (Mayor of New York), New York University and millions of people across the world (including the people of Colombia) in learning how to code? While learning how to program should be the start, not the end, 2012 seems like a pretty good year to do this.

Codecademy, one of the largest online interactive platforms for learning how to code, think the same way as Computing At School: everyone should be exposed to programming and computer science — especially kids. Codecademy can help you learn how to program, create your own courses and support programming in schools. And this is where Codecademy is partnering with CAS Wales: Codecademy Cymru — to create a bespoke and adaptable environment to support the teaching of Computer Science and ICT in schools across Wales — the first official Codecademy collaboration in Western Europe!

Codecademy is really excited to partner with teachers in Wales to make the learning and teaching of coding easier than it has ever been before. It is fantastic that the Computing At School teachers have embraced Codecademy, and we look forward to seeing the results from the students!

Zach Sims, CEO and co-founder of Codecademy

We are looking for teachers across Wales who would like to join the Codecademy Cymru trial phase to see how it can best be used to support your students. For example, the Web Fundamentals and Javascript Fundamentals courses could be used to support Key Stages 2-3, leading into the Python course for supporting the new GCSEs in Computer Science. However, there is flexibility to find how we can best support your school and your students (as well as helping Codecademy to develop the necessary support functionality and processes) — we need your help!

Interested? Please complete the Codecademy Cymru expression of interest form.

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The problem of distinguishing prime numbers from composite numbers and of resolving the latter into their prime factors is known to be one of the most important and useful in arithmetic. It has engaged the industry and wisdom of ancient and modern geometers to such an extent that it would be superfluous to discuss the problem at length…Further, the dignity of the science itself seems to require that every possible means be explored for the solution of a problem so elegant and so celebrated.

Disquisitiones Arithmeticae (1801)
Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855)

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Homeopathic A&E

(from That Mitchell and Webb Look, Series 3 Episode 4)

Homeopathy is a type of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) that has been shown to be no more effective than placebo (a.k.a. the nocebo effect). Worryingly, it is available on the NHS (for reasons of “patient choice” rather than efficacy) and Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health, has recently publicly supported homeopathy.

While some people think that homeopathy can cure cancer, I would recommend having a look at some of these sources: Ben Goldacre, David Colquhoun, Simon Singh and James Randi.

And then ask yourself: how does homeopathy work?

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Programming is the start not the end: let’s develop computational thinking and problem solving skills

(N.B. This is the original unedited version of an article published online today in The Telegraph)

I wholeheartedly support the high-profile initiatives to get more children programming, especially as part of the rethinking of the ICT curriculum in UK schools. The publication of the Royal Society’s report Shut down or restart? in January highlighted the unsatisfactory state of ICT education in the UK, recommending that every child should have the opportunity to study the rigorous academic discipline of computer science. With the disapplication of the existing ICT Programmes of Study and the development of a new programme of study as part of the National Curriculum Review in England, we are at an exciting crossroads, with a real opportunity to make computing and technology a key focus of our education system. But if there’s one lesson we should take away from the problems of the past 15 years it is that we must not focus on transient and superficial technology skills. Computer science is not programming (and vice versa) and we should be wary of teaching programming just for the sake of teaching programming, without thinking about why we want to get kids to program.


When Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City, tweeted in January that he was going to learn how to program, there were strong opinions expressed implying that programming is not for everyone. This is untrue. One of the reasons that programming is increasingly perceived to be a 21st century literacy in our technology-dependent society is because it is ultimately empowering, developing the ability to manipulate and control your digital world. But the key message is that learning how to program is not the endpoint, but part of the journey of equipping children with the necessary digital skills to solve problems. Our high-level aim should be to develop technology-independent skills and techniques, such as data literacy and computational thinking.

Computational thinking is a way of solving problems, designing systems and understanding human behavior that draws on concepts fundamental to computer science. Computational thinking includes a range of mental tools that reflect the breadth of the field of computer science. Computational thinking means creating and making use of different levels of abstraction, to understand and solve problems more effectively; it means thinking algorithmically and with the ability to apply mathematical concepts to develop more efficient, fair, and secure solutions; it means understanding the consequences of scale, not only for reasons of efficiency but also for economic and social reasons. And this is why it is important to teach computer science in schools: we need to embed principles and theory to develop a deeper conceptual understanding of how technology works and how it can be leveraged to solve problems. There is a quote commonly misattributed to Edsger Dijkstra: “Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.” — this is where computational thinking fits in, abstracting away the technology.

Hence, there is an important balance to strike between focusing on developing practical programming skills (i.e. being able to write code for a specific task) and embedding a deeper understanding of languages and constructs: principles of programming. We know technology changes quickly, so we need to make sure that when “Technology X” appears, we have transferable knowledge and a deeper conceptual understanding of how it works and how it can be used.

But there are significant challenges ahead in changing the status quo and enthusing and engaging children in schools. Programming is a creative endeavour and offers a tangible way for children to express themselves by hacking, making and sharing. We now have the hooks to use in schools e.g. Raspberry Pi, Arduino, .NET Gadgeteer, LEGO Mindstorms, etc, offering opportunities for embedding computing across the curriculum. But we also have to recognise the importance of developing this deeper conceptual understanding, the problem solving and analytical skills, as well as knowledge of the underpinning theoretical foundations of computing.

So let’s change the focus from just writing code to developing the crucial thinking skills and the ability to solve problems. To quote Jeannette M. Wing, Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University: “Computational thinking is a fundamental skill for everyone, not just for computer scientists. To reading, writing and arithmetic, we should add computational thinking to every child’s analytical ability.

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Welsh Government’s National Digital Learning Council

In September 2011, Leighton Andrews AM, the Welsh Government’s Minister for Education and Skills, set up an external task and finish group to consider “which digital classroom delivery aspects should be adopted to
transform learning and teaching
” for those aged 3–19. The Digital Classroom Teaching Task and Finish Group report (Find it, make it, use it, share it: learning in digital Wales) was published in March, with ten headline recommendations. Prior to the Minister giving a keynote talk at the 2012 CAS Wales/Technocamps conference in June, a Written Statement was released outlining the plan of action to improve performance in Wales’ schools through the use of digital technology; namely:

  • The launch of a new bilingual learning platform for Wales, called Hwb, which will provide a platform for learners and teachers to share resources, knowledge and experience across the whole of Wales.
  • The creation of a National Digital Collection which will include a repository for thousands of curriculum and good practice resources for teachers and learners to upload, share and use.
  • Encouraging the use of iTunes U to showcase the best educational resources and activities in Wales.
  • The sponsorship of an annual National Digital Event to raise the profile of digital technology in education and of Welsh achievements in this field.
  • Additional professional development for teachers and other education staff to support the teaching of computer science and IT, building on the new enthusiasm around the development of products such as the Raspberry Pi and .NET Gadgeteer to encourage young people into future studies and careers in computing.
  • The establishment of Digital Leaders, who will be drawn from the best practitioners using digital technology in Wales.
  • The creation of a new National Digital Learning Council to provide expert guidance on the use of digital technology in teaching and learning in Wales.

With regards to the National Digital Learning Council (as per the Minister’s Written Statement):

I am establishing a National Digital Learning Council to provide expert and strategic guidance on the use of digital technology in teaching and learning in Wales. The remit of the Council will be to guide the implementation of the learning in digital Wales programme and to promote and support the use of digital resources and technologies by learners and teachers. The Council will work closely with the School Practitioner Panel which I announced in March 2012.

The Council will start work in September 2012. The membership of the Council will be drawn from schools, further education and the skills sector in Wales. In order to ensure that there is a strong learner voice in the Council, I have also agreed that a pool of associate members will be established, comprised of learners from primary schools, secondary schools and further education colleges.

In addition, the work of the Council will be supported by a number of professional advisors from higher education and industry.

In the Learning in Digital Wales Update in Issue 305 of the Welsh Government’s Dysg eNewsletter (Monday 10th September), the members of the Council were announced:

  • Chair: Janet Hayward (Headteacher, Cadoxton Primary School, Vale of Glamorgan)
  • Dr Tom Crick (Senior Lecturer in Computer Science, Cardiff Metropolitan University and Chair in Wales, Computing At School)
  • Robert Newsome OBE (Headteacher, Dyffryn Taf School, Carmarthenshire)
  • Sue Burnett (University of Glamorgan)
  • Maldwyn Pryse (Estyn)
  • Geraint James (ADEW ICT, Director of Education, Conwy)
  • Simon Pridham (Headteacher, Casllwchwr Primary School, Swansea)
  • Hannah Mathias (St David’s Catholic College, Cardiff)
  • Peter Sishton (Director for Wales, e-skills UK)
  • Chris Britten (Headteacher, Ashgrove Special School, Vale of Glamorgan)

Supported by the following expert advisors:

  • Professor Stephen Molyneux (Apple Education)
  • Professor Gary Beauchamp (Cardiff Metropolitan University)
  • Professor Iram Siraj-Blatchford (University of London)
  • Professor Faron Moller (Swansea University)

A team of eight Digital Leaders will start in January 2013, acting as online champions of digital technology in teaching and learning:

  • Jane Altham-Watkins (Cardiff Education Advisory Service)
  • Martin Austin (Ysgol Sant Elfod, Abergele)
  • Alex Clewett (Flint High School, Flint)
  • Matthew Geary (NGfL Cymru)
  • Sonia McLaughlin (Vale of Glamorgan Council)
  • Dilwyn Owen (Ysgol Gyfun Bro Morgannwg, Barry)
  • Glyn Rogers (Ysgol Gyfun Gwynllyw, Pontypool)
  • Peter Thomas (St John Baptist CIW High School, Aberdare)

The first meeting of the National Digital Learning Council is tomorrow in Llandrindnod Wells; I look forward to serving on the Council (with a priority focus for me being CPD funding for ICT teachers to teach computer science) and blogging about its activities over the next few months.

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We need a scientifically literate citizenry

Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.

Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

Brian Cox said something similar (even directly referring to Sagan) during his acceptance speech on receiving the Institute of Physics President’s Medal last night.

The key message is: if you’re scientifically literate the world looks very different to you.

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Sunday Times University Guide 2013: Computer Science

Yesterday saw the publication of the Sunday Times University Guide 2013 (£), one of the many university ranking guides in the UK (in fact, we are very much in university ranking season, with the news that UK universities are slipping down the world rankings).

As with the 2012 Guide (£), as well as the Guardian University Guide 2013 published in May and The Times Good University Guide 2013 published in June, there were some familiar institutions in the top 10 for Computer Science:

Ranking 2012
1. University of Oxford (1st)
2. University of Cambridge (2nd)
3. Imperial College London (4th)
4. University of Birmingham (12th)
5. University of Bristol (3rd)
6. University of Bath (6th)
7. University of Sheffield (14th)
8. University of York (7th)
9. University of Warwick (9th)
10. University of Glasgow (15th)


As always, the rankings for Computer Science in Wales were of particular interest:

Ranking 2012
28. Cardiff University (21st)
41. Swansea University (33rd)
52. Aberystwyth University (58th)
63. Cardiff Metropolitan University (50th)
73. Bangor University (41st)
74. University of Glamorgan (81st)
94. University of Wales, Newport (40th)
103. Glyndŵr University (68th)
104. University of Wales Trinity Saint David (88th)

(N.B. no data was available for Swansea Metropolitan University)

The Sunday Times’ methodology differs somewhat from the Guardian’s methodology (and even The Times‘!), especially with respect to research, but with less focus on academic services and student facilities.

However, this clearly highlights the quirks of having three newspapers publishing university league tables (as well as The Complete University Guide, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and the QS World University Rankings) with widely different metrics and weightings. It begs the question: does all of this information help prospective students make more informed choices about where to study Computer Science in the UK?

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