Guest post by Gerald Haigh. Gerald is a freelance education writer for Microsoft.

A couple of weeks before Bett 2013, I visited Dunstall Hill Primary in Wolverhampton to see Year Five children using ‘Kodu’ on their Intel ‘Classmates’, creating their own games. We all, by now, surely get the idea that children should be learning to program. What teachers want to know, though, particularly in primary, is how to tackle it. And that, at least in Wolverhampton, is where the Local Authority support team comes in. They’ve been working with Dunstall Hill as a pioneer school for programming in the authority, and also for an associated project to develop a Programming Module launched at BETT by digital learning provider ‘Espresso Education’.

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The school visit was a great experience. It was good to see a class of cheerful, well-behaved, completely engaged youngsters working in pairs to explore the possibilities of Kodu, pushing forward to create more adventurous and challenging games as they grew more confident. All were eager to show their games to me on their ‘Classmates’ and also on the classroom’s interactive whiteboard. They had lost no time in finding all the possibilities of the software, creating a wide variety of challenges. One impressive and ferocious game that I saw allowed the player one minute to navigate a course filled with scary hazards.

‘It’s called “Mission Impossible” said a child, smiling ruefully, ‘Because that’s what it is.’

I particularly enjoyed sitting with the children as they told me how they plan their games carefully on A3 paper – a crucial part of the process, and the move on to coding on the ‘Classmate’. As pupils Zak and Brwa said

‘You can make anything you want, any objective. So it’s easy at first, and then it becomes more advanced and gets harder.’

They explained, too, how they could load their games on the school’s LP+4 learning platform and either continue coding or spend some time playing – and rating – each other’s games.

Their Year Five class teacher Helen-Marie Navratil, who is Dunstall Hill’s ICT coordinator is really pleased with their progress,

‘The children were very quick to learn, and excited to be in control of their games. They’ve quickly learned to save earlier versions of their games as they go along so they, and the teacher, can follow the process and pick up errors.’

She’s enthusiastic about being an important part of this Wolverhampton project, which will eventually see programming rolled out across the City’s schools under the leadership of the Learning Technologies team.

‘We were approached by the authority to help us embrace programming,’ says Helen-Marie. ‘So we were the first school in Wolverhampton to take it on. I was doubtful to begin with -- it’s something that people don’t feel confident teaching, but I spent a few sessions working out how to use Kodu and really it was very easy in the end.’

If you keep up with these blogs, you’ve met Wolverhampton’s Learning Technologies Team before, with their head teacher consultant David Whyley. On 24 July Tim Bush posted on the Schools Blog my account of how David and his colleagues had led the installation of the SharePoint based LP+ learning platform in all 80 Wolverhampton primary schools and a growing number of secondaries.

Now, the introduction of programming with Kodu looks set to follow a similar course.

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David Whyley tells the story,

‘We got our heads together to see how we could support our schools in implementing the programming aspects of the new curriculum. We looked at ‘Scratch’ and then

went to see Mark Reynolds and Stuart Ball at Microsoft who showed me Kodu. That looked absolutely ideal, and we wondered if it could be used in primary.’

Initial tryouts with schools last Summer looked promising. The team established that Kodu would run successfully on the Intel ‘Classmate’ and went on to develop a very comprehensive, very teacher and child-friendly set of support material. This includes a ‘Kodu Notebook’ explaining the game-building process step by step, graphics for the main Kodu characters, and a planning sheet both for the teacher to use on the interactive whiteboard and the children on their devices. There’s also a guide on managing the introduction of programming in terms of class management and relating the work to the curriculum

At the same time the Woleverhampton team was approached by ‘Espresso Education’ with a view to developing a programming module. As Dave Whyley explains,

‘Espresso Education is subscribed to by all primary schools in the LA with a co-ordinated LA deal. We have a past track record with Espresso for producing content and they asked us to partner with them in the production of this resource.’

As a result, the implementation of Kodu in Wolverhampton primaries, and the creation of the Espresso module have gone hand-in-hand. Both are now reaching fruition. The extensive pilot work at Dunstall Hill is about to be followed by phased rollout to other schools, and the new Espresso Computer Programming Module will be launched on the Espresso stand at BETT. David Whyley and the team are clearly delighted with the way Kodu has taken hold with the Dunstall Hill children.

‘The children love Kodu because the finished game looks like any game the children would expect to see,’ says David.

‘When they made their first games they uploaded them to the learning platform and the first night they all downloaded each others’ games.’

He gave me a glimpse of the Espresso module, which covers ‘Scratch’ as well as Kodu, and has a number of lively videos for children and for teachers as well as planning and peer assessment materials. (Dave sees Scratch, Kodu and other programming resources such as Alice, all working together to cover a range of abilities and ages.)

It’s an engaging project, and should be welcomed with open arms by teachers looking for a way of tackling programming with upper primary children.

Wolverhampton’s Learning Technologies Team is really something special. They’ve demonstrated so often how well they’ve kept the trust and support of their schools at a time when tight budgets might have affected that relationship. We’ve seen, too, how they can build useful links – last year with schools, Microsoft and Learning Possibilities (for LP+4) and now with Microsoft, Espresso Education, and, once again, forward looking primary schools.

The schools certainly recognise this. Dunstall Hill staff and children are very aware of, and grateful for, their pioneering role, and Head Bethan Francis said,

‘It’s a privilege to take on this project as the first school in Wolverhampton to be involved. When I come into the classroom it’s wonderful to see the children all engaged and enjoy their comments, and I’m grateful for the support of the local authority.’

Espresso Education’s Computer Programming Module ‘Produced in partership with Wolverhampton City Council’, was launched on the Espresso Education Stand (D90) at BETT 2013 – did you catch it?

http://www.espresso.co.uk/

Details of the module here

http://www.espresso.co.uk/misc/detail/item241715)