The forthcoming issue of the Digital Education ezine features 9 interesting articles. This article gives you the lowdown on three of the topics covered, and how to sign up to it.

Click here to read this mailing online.

Your email updates, powered by FeedBlitz

Here is a sample subscription for you. Click here to start your FREE subscription

  1. What's in the next issue of Digital Education?
  2. A Visual Basic School Calculator
  3. Technology-Authorised Madness
  4. A cornucopia of comic-making applications
  5. Robots, artificial intelligence and all that
  6. More Recent Articles

What's in the next issue of Digital Education?

Learn something new, and have a good laugh, with Digital Education! Photo from Stencil. Licence: CC0

Learn something new, and have a good laugh, with Digital Education! Photo from Stencil. Licence: CC0

The new issue of my ezine, Digital Education, is just about to be published. As well as the heads-up about a book for teachers of Computing and Computer Science, it features 9 articles covering such topics as free photos for your blog or website, encouraging girls to go into Computing and Digital Badges.

The ezine has been going for a long time: it's now in its 17th year. If you'd like to subscribe, please go to the newsletter page on this website.



A Visual Basic School Calculator

A screenshot of a print-out of a screenshot

A screenshot of a print-out of a screenshot

I came across a print-out of one of my first forays into programming with Visual Basic, circa 1994. I was already familiar with Basic, which I had taught for a number of years, and Visual Basic for Applications, which I employed to add some rocket fuel to Word and Excel. However, I thought it was time I learnt VB so I couldcreate stand-alone programs, and also teach it in school.

The screenshot above shows one of my first applications. It was a calculator which took account of value-added tax (VAT) semi-automatically, and held running totals. I used the Running Totals to help me keep an eye on whether I was going over budget. I also added a 'Lock' feature, to prevent myself or someone else accidentally resetting it.

It worked really well. The only thing is, I am now rather embarrassed by the code. Although it was efficient, and worked, it includes lines line Sub Command8_Click(). The next program I wrote, and subsequent ones, named items properly (eg cmdVAT for the Command button to add VAT).

Still, not bad for a first attempt methinks!



Technology-Authorised Madness


I offer this rant partly to get things off my chest -- I think I now officially qualify for the title "grumpy old man", even though I don't much care for the "old" part -- but even more so as a topic which teachers may like to raise with their students. The basic question is, I think, is technology being used inappropriately, or intrusively or even, ultimately, ridiculously?

I visited my local supermarket yesterday and decided to use the self-service check-out. This is a very advanced service which seems to require there to be at least two members of staff on hand at all times in order to sort out the problems it comes up with. If I tell you that I, of all people, have developed what amounts to a phobia about using it you may get a sense of how awful I think it is most of the time.

It isn't that the problems which arise are terrible in themselves, just that it's so embarrassing when a line of people is building up behind you. And that's another thing: it works perfectly when nobody else is around....

Just to put the positive side to the equation, I will admit to having found it much faster, sometimes, than the normal check-out, and it is undoubtedly more fun. There is a video game-type display showing you what to do, and a voice which guides you though the process.  That voice is female and was chosen, I am certain, to sooth the nerves of people such as myself and thereby prevent acts of vandalism directed towards the machinery.

But yesterday even I was floored by a message that appeared on the screen.

Before going any further, I have to inform non-UK residents that we in England have reached the point where anyone who sells anything is scared to death of being sued. Thus it is that if you buy a drink from a fast food outlet you'll see a notice on the cup informing you that the contents may be hot -- even if you've purchased an iced tea. On foodstuffs, just about everything contains the warning, "May contain nuts". Bizarrely, bags of nuts do not come with such a warning. I must contact my attorney....

Even food which could not possibly contain anything even resembling a nut comes with the caution that it may contain traces of nuts, or that it was processed on machinery that may once have been used to process nuts.

Medicine packets list every single possible side effect of the contents therein. So, if 3 years ago someone took one of these tablets and then 2 weeks later his left leg dropped off, one of the possible side effects listed will be "May cause leg to drop off."

Back to the supermarket. The way it works is that you scan the item, then drop it into a plastic bag. The item shows up on the screen, then you're ready to put the next one on. One of the items last night was a box of painkillers. I scanned it, dropped it in the bag, and then had a warning message appear reading something like: "You have bought painkillers. You cannot buy any more unless you are authorised to do so. Are you authorised to do so? Yes/No"

Authorised? By whom? My mother? The store manager? I pressed "Yes" and it let me continue. In discussion with my wife we decided that it must be the store's way of protecting itself against prosecution by the families of people who decide to end it all by taking an overdose of painkillers. Presumably such people are too depressed to think about buying one huge box, buying several small boxes in several shops, or just to press "Yes". Perhaps there is some law that states that nobody is allowed to sell anyone more than one box of painkillers at a time.

Perhaps this idea could be extended to other areas of modern life? How about this: when you press the button on a traffic light, suppose a message came up: "Crossing the road is dangerous. Have you been authorised to do so?"

Homes could be fitted with such a system, so that as you go out of the house you're warned that "There are muggers and drunk drivers out there. Don't do it!" And when you put your key in the door to come in: "You do realise, I hope, that most accidents happen in the home? Do yourself a favour and head to the nearest hotel. Here's a list of the nearest ones which have vacancies..."

And by the way, I do hope you've printed this out to read. Computers use electricity, and electricity is dangerous. Make sure you've been authorised.

Originally published in 2009



A cornucopia of comic-making applications

This is an image I created using Thanks to Julian Wood for drawing my attention to this application in one of his talks.

This is an image I created using Thanks to Julian Wood for drawing my attention to this application in one of his talks.

A short while before the summer 2017 break, Nick Jeans, Senior Consultant in Learning Technology at Sero Consulting, enquired in the Association for Learning Technology discussion list whether anyone had any recommendations for free comic-making software. I've collated the responses here. (Nobody in the discussion list has objected to my plan to do so.)

You'll need to check for yourself whether all of them are still working or free, but even if one or two have gone the way of all flesh, there is still a lot to choose from! 

20 free tools for making comics and cartoons for teaching and learning, by David Walsh

Teaching with Comics, by Shelly Terrell

The best ways to make comic strips online, by Larry Ferlazzo

Review of Comic Strip Creator, by Terry Freedman

100 ways to use a VLE – #89: Embedding a Comic Strip, by James Clay

Comic Life: iPad app of the week, by James Clay

James Clay has also reviewed various free and non-free comic apps at – definitely worth a rummage!

The following were collated by Oriel Kelly:

Canva Comic Strips

Comic Smart Panels

Comic Smart Panels application

Stripwise Comic Creation Suite

Krita (Digital painting software)

Synfig Studio (An animation software but can easily export as still comic frames)



Robots, artificial intelligence and all that

Robot, by Terry. OK, so I'm useless at drawing. Get over it!

Robot, by Terry. OK, so I'm useless at drawing. Get over it!

The next issue of my newsletter, Digital Education, will be a short one focused on robots and AI. (I'm still writing the one concerned with the question, "Is educational research worth the paper it's written on?")

I think a lot of nonsense has been written about AI, about how a 'bot' will take over the teaching, differentiation and assessment functions. I suppose that could be the case, but where I think the potential lies is in taking away the drudgery, leaving the teacher to be discerning and creative. I'll give a couple of examples.

Many moons ago, there was a big deal made about Learning Management Systems. That is software that can test a pupil, in Mathematics, say, set them tasks at an appropriate level, generate a report, and test again and then set the next task, and so on. It was found that the best results were gained by putting puipils on the automated system for around 15 or 20 minutes. The software was good in saving the teacher a lot of time and grunt work, and generating reports that the teacher could use as the basis for being more creative and innovative.

Now, I realise that AI is much more intelligent than that software of the late 1990s, and maybe could ask the right questions and be creative. But a good teacher will pick up a fleeting expression on a pupil's face when she says "Oh I get it" when what she really means is "I'd better say that I understand because otherwise my classmates will think I'm stupid and the teacher will lose patience with me." When there's a bot or a robot that can detect that, I may start to become concerned. However, call me an optimist, but I think we're some way off from that despite the strides made in developing apparently emotionally intelligent bots. That's why the article I wrote for Teach Secondary about AI was fairly upbeat (see Robots Aren’t Replacing Teachers, But The Rise Of Artificial Intelligence Could Make Our Lives Easier And Improve Education).

Another example of where a computer can do the hack work, leaving the teacher to focus on essentials, is when you use a spreadsheet for grading. I suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that you could set up a spreadsheet to generate randon grades for all your pupils -- See 6 ways to respond to requests for pointless data.

Yet there's a serious point there. If you use the 'rand between' function (sorry to get technical), you can have the spreadsheet generate randm grades between certain numbers or letters, such as between 1 and 7 or between A and G. Because of the law of averages, there's a pretty good chance that most of the randomly-generated grades would turn out to be the ones you'd have assigned to the pupils anyway. That means that you could quickly go through the list of names and grades, and alter the ones that are quite obviously wrong.

If this smacks of too much reliance on chance, here's a more sensible version of the same thing, minus the random element. Use a look-up table to say what grades or levels pupils have attained or are likely to attain, given their marks in an exam.

The alternative would be to go through the same process yourself, looking at each pupil's mark, and then reading a table to see what grade that equates to. That takes ages (I know, I've done it), while a spreadsheet takes no time at all. It's daft not to use it in my opinion.

You could go further. If you then use conditional formatting to highlight the ones that are very high and those which are very low, the highlights will enable you to very quickly focus on the 'outliers' and explore further if needs be.

In each of these scenarios the computer has been used to crunch through a load of data and highlighted the entries that seem to need further scrutiny. You would still need to look at all the data in each case, but the conputer would save you a lot of time.

If this all sounds like taking away the teacher's integrity, I don't see it like that. I'll give an example from the world of writing. There is software that can analyse sports results and then generate a news report from them. The number-crunching is brilliant; the reports I've read that have been generated automatically are as dull as ditchwater.  A mention of the weather, for example, would probably say:

"It was minus 5 degrees Celcius, and the wind chill factor made it feel like minus 10."

You would be very unlikely to get the sort of line used by Hugh McIlvanney:

“It was the kind of wind that seemed to peel the flesh off your bones and come back for the marrow.”

(Quoted in Hugh McIlvanney remains the matchless Master, by Norman Giller.)

Nevertheless, the writing software could be used to generate a lot of the sentences from the data, leaving the writer more time to do the creative stuff. To be honest, I'm not entirely convinced myself, but I'd love to try something like this. I'm still waiting for someone to invent a computer program featured in the 1960s series The Avengers. In one episode, it showed romance novels being churned out automatically by playing the piano! The soft passages were translated into slushy passages in the book, while the dramatic bits were interpreted as the hero's obstacles and cliffhangers. Sounds logical to me, and a lot easier than sitting down staring at a blank sheet of paper!

Anyway, more of AI etc in my newsletter, Digital Education, which you can sign up for here: Newsletter. It's free, it's been going for 17 years, and you won't get spammed -- so what are you waiting for?




More Recent Articles

You Might Like

Click here to safely unsubscribe from "Blog - ICT & Computing in Education."
Click here to view mailing archives, here to change your preferences, or here to subscribePrivacy