Pieces of 8 – learning with ‘Kodu’ tops Microsoft prizes by Tony Parkin

Originally posted on Merlin John Online

Working with an expert teacher was icing on the cake for prizewinning primary pupils. Tony Parkin sat in…


Happy 8in8 winners pick up their prizes from Microsoft's offices in Victoria, London

“Can you just imagine that business meeting? We have this great idea… there are some birds who have had their eggs stolen by some pigs, and now they are out to get their own back.”

And a room full of primary children at Microsoft’s Victoria offices burst into laughter as they realised that sometime, somewhere, maybe in smart offices just like these, there must have been just such a meeting. Mark Reynolds, education officer at Microsoft, had their attention.

The start of the journey to Victoria for these schools began last October when, on the launch day of Windows 8 in the UK, a team from Microsoft and RM toured eight schools in one day, running competitions and awarding a Windows 8 device to one lucky pupil in each school to promote the companies' joint ‘Shape the Future’ initiative. Now groups of pupils and staff from seven of the eight schools were getting a chance to have a fun day learning to use Kodu, and see the working environments that people from the IT sector enjoy.

One of the aims was to raise pupils' aspirations

The schools had originally been chosen from among those in the less affluent areas of London, and one of the aims of the ‘8 in a Day’ initiative (known as '8 in 8' after the number of schools) had been to help raise pupil aspirations, and realise that they could maybe get jobs in the burgeoning IT sector. I had the good fortune to meet the exhausted but clearly moved ‘8 in a Day’ team at their final event back in October 2012, the official education launch of Windows 8 at Loftus Road, home to Queens Park Rangers Football Club. “We must get these children a chance to see the type of future that they could have in IT,” Mark had said passionately on that day, “it isn’t just about access to resources, but access to possibilities.”

And now, by getting them into Microsoft's Victoria offices, he had helped this happen. Alongside the prize-winners from each school, proudly carrying their Acer devices, were nine other students and two staff members, bearing a range of assorted school laptops and set on having a fun day in central London.

 Mandeep Atwal (2)Alongside Mark Reynolds the day was led by Mandeep Atwal, a “scary secondary teacher” as she introduced herself. Though she then proceeded to prove that she was anything but scary as she set the students off on group activities. Mandeep herself had been a prize-winner in an earlier Microsoft competition. As a Shirelands Collegiate Academy RE teacher she had won first the UK, then the European and finally the Global Innovative Teacher Award with Microsoft (see "UK teachers shine at Innovative Education Forum"), and a role with the Taking It Global project. Now she is on secondment with Microsoft and helping develop its education offer in the UK, and in particular enthusing this group of 80 excited primary pupils.

Getting with the program

The focus of the day was on games development with Kodu, which none of the teachers or students had encountered before. Hence Mark’s opening remarks about 'Angry Birds’, which of course they all knew, to help them realise that computer games were not only fun, but a possible career. Making the schools aware of the Kodu Kup, Microsoft's competition for students, was one of the aims of the day (see "Programmed to please – the Kodu Kup"). Parallel aims of getting them to meet students from other schools, and to develop their entrepreneurial awareness, were to be met by Mark's novelty 'Crisp Trading' programme. “At lunch”, he warned all the pupils, “you are going to get a bagged lunch with a packet of crisps. You may get salt and vinegar, but prefer cheese and onion. The solution – you will need to negotiate a crisp trade with someone from another school!” More of this later.

Mandeep outlined the rules of the Kodu Kup, asking each team to develop the outline for a game involving space exploration, water resources or a retro-game, Mark gave a demo of Kodu, and they were off.

Also on hand to help were Caroline Monaghan of RM, alongside other colleagues from both Microsoft and RM who were involved in the '8 in a Day' and the 'Shape the Future' initiatives. But as the day proceeded it became clear that the pupils had entirely taken ownership of the Kodu challenge, and we adults, including the teachers, could relax into facilitating and encouraging their exciting ideas.

Excited clusters of pupils huddled around assorted devices, tried out various ideas, argued about scenarios and were clearly having a great time. As I walked among the groups I was struck by how little technical support they needed. They taught themselves the Kodu system as they went, and the staff readily adopted the facilitating rather than instructional role that was required.

'It's lovely that they are teaching me – I didn’t have a Scooby-doo'

Kodu, Mark Reynolds

Mark Reynolds works with '8in8' pupils on 'Kodu' creations

“I'd love them to be able to use this in their Golden Time,” said Elaine Atkins, assistant from Greenslade Primary School, “ and it's lovely that they are teaching me how to do this, as before I didn't have a scooby-doo!” Teacher Anne Desir from Greenslade was also enjoying helping the team with their ideas. “On the 8 in 8 Day all the pupils had to describe what it would mean to them to have their own 1:1 device, and how they thought it would impact their learning. There were lots of good ideas from many of the pupils, and Leograce was the winner at our school.” Leograce was a tall, somewhat reserved girl who was proud and delighted to have won the Acer W510 device, complete with Office 2010 software, but who quite rightly was now far more interested in working with her school team on Kodu than chatting about her prize.

So instead I talked to Caroline Monaghan from RM about the day's activities, the earlier 8 in 8 Day, and the Shape the Future programme. “We believe getting devices into the hands of every student is an ideal way to transform teaching and learning,” said Caroline. “'8 in 8' was based around launching Windows 8, but also, importantly, about the impact 1:1 computer ownership can have. We gave eight students their own device to use between home and school and already we can see the difference this has made to their lives. Today it is brilliant to see how far they have come…”

After lunch, and the Crisp Trading opportunity, the original winners of the devices had the opportunity to present back what they had done with them to date, and the school teams had the chance to say what they had done so far with their game ideas. The Greenslade team's game, "Pollution Problems", had humans (as ever the villains of the piece) moving across the world, dumping garbage, while Kodu's job was to try to catch and clear it up.

The more garbage was dropped and missed, the lower the water level fell on the planet until it ended in disaster. Each school had come up with at least one such idea. One or two even had rough working Kodu demos already.

The only minor fail of the day was the Crisp Trading... aiming to get the pupils' entrepreneurial spirit moving. But Mark hadn't accounted for the native cunning of London schoolchildren, who quickly realised that they could have a quick look in the lunch bags and grab their favourite crisps from the start. Mark smiled ruefully: “Not quite how I imagined it, but it certainly showed they aren't short of that entrepreneurial approach we need!”

You can find out more about the range of programmes Microsoft Education has to offer teachers through our Partners in Learning Network. Join for free at www.pil-network.com

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