Guest post from Gerald Haigh. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft series of education blogs.
On Thursday 17th July I was again at Microsoft’s campus at Thames Valley Park for the final of the UK Kodu Kup competition. The success of last year’s event was evidently enough to secure a repeat, and there seems no reason why it would not become a regular fixture, growing and extending in its reach. UK 2014 winners, in fact will be invited to the first Kodu Kup Europe.
This year there were twelve finalists from ten schools (schools can, and do, enter more than one team) competing for four awards -- primary, secondary, ‘Queen of Kodu’ (for supporting women in technology) and the judges’ award for an imaginative presentation. In the event, as we shall see, there was also a fifth award created specially on the day.
What follows is my own personal impression of the event.
Microsoft’s Kodu is a hugely popular introduction to programming, used across the world -- and, as UK Senior Sales Director Steve Beswick told us in his introduction to the KoduKup final, UK schools and teachers are leading the way.
‘We have 380,000 students using Kodu and 8,000 teachers, more than any other country in the world, including the USA.’
That being so, teams who make it to the Final have every reason to be proud.
‘It is a competition, and someone will win,’ said Steve. ‘But you have all won because you are here.’
Being among the competitors was enough to confirm the truth of that. Everywhere you looked there were excited faces.
‘This is it as far as they’re concerned,’ said teacher Jay Stansfield, teacher of the finalists from Marsden Community Primary. ‘They’re just pleased to be here.’
(Although, as we shall see, there were even bigger smiles to come for these Marsden coders.)
After pre-event mingling, and breakfast, which included good bacon rolls (great student-friendly food is an inspired feature of these events) we all gathered in one of Microsoft’s presentation theatres. Steve Beswick and Kodu Kup organiser, Stuart Ball, did their introductions and off we went.
Each finalist team of three had to give a fifteen minute presentation to the judges – effectively a sales pitch. It’s a cleverly chosen device. The quality of the game has been the route to the final, but now that’s combined with the presentation skills of the coding team, providing an opportunity to show how well they communicate, and also to tell us something of the background and development of their games. This is an area where some teams do noticeably better than others.
The best ones gave us excerpts from their game, with a commentary, filled in the back story, described the allocation of skills among their team, talked about the feedback they’d had from users and summed up what they had learned along the way – teamwork, patience, stickability, and lots more besides coding. All this, ideally, done without reading from a script or a monitor, in relaxed style with some touches of humour and team banter.
One of the best teams at this was ‘Klan Kodu’ from Cardross Primary, winners of the Scottish final. A well-rehearsed presentation of the their game’s back story, using home made puppets drew us into the game itself which was highly inventive, featuring two kinds of maze, one of them underwater.
It was great to see Cardross, because Scottish entrants come up against not only distance (about 450 miles for Cardross, involving a 5 am start and a flight to Gatwick, itself 70 miles from TVP) but the earlier Scottish summer break, which probably poses even more problems. Their Judges’ Award was well deserved.
The same level of thought went into the presentation from ‘Gryphon Games’ from Primary winners Exmoor Coast Federation ( a group of seven primaries including some very small rural schools). They showed their business zeal by producing a range of merchandise intended to accompany their game – ‘Zacks Amazing Adventure’. Presenting them with their award, Judge Sandra Fitzgerald, of Kodu training partner ‘ComputerXplorers’ said,
‘We work with children in primary schools all the time, but I was totally unprepared for the level of expertise, creativity and dedication shown here today.’
My happiest memories of primary school teaching involve fun, laughter and a sense of (largely) controlled mayhem. That’s why I have to confess that the day was made for me by Marsden Primary from Nelson in Lancashire.
They started by explaining, as did others, that it would be necessary to fill in the ‘back story’ of the game.
‘We could act this out, but instead we’re going to use this little theatre.’
They proceeded to perform, in a small proscenium, a quite elaborate story, using tiny puppets mounted on sticks involving a king, a princess, a queen, and at least one octopus (most Kodu games have an octopus) There were, I think, goodies and baddies. Not that it seemed to matter.
The whole thing was cheerful, slightly chaotic, and carried out with breezy and confident aplomb and an unscripted commentary that rode gaily over any mishap. Above all, it was almost painfully funny to watch. At one point, two judges were called up (reluctantly, I have to say) to take part, one, apparently because he’d been seen to point. ‘And it’s very rude to point.’
All of which was pure vaudeville, but, of course, the game was well up to the mark – inventive, absorbing and excellent in its own right. Nobody was in the least surprised when Marsden won a special ‘Show Stopper’ award. The judges certainly got that one right. We’d have felt cheated if Marsden had gone home empty handed.
The secondary award winners – ‘Mad Hatt Games’ from Uppingham Community College, whose teacher Ray Chambers @Lanky_Boi_Ray is well known for his work with ‘TouchDevelop’ – were also commended for working in a relaxed and informative style with no script. According to the judges they were.
‘…on point with their messaging, no autocue, word perfect, working as a team, passionate, showing great understanding and well tutored by their teachers.’
Their game, ‘Confined’ – a series of tests leading to the defeat of an evil robot, is subtle, challenging and expertly planned.
Not content with one award, Uppingham went on to be given the overall ‘Kodu Kup’, an accolade which, as last year’s winners, the girls of Afon Taf High School told us in a short opening presentation, opens many doors.
One more award – nicknamed ‘Queen of Kodu’, perhaps after judge Nicki Cooper @GeekyNicky – went to Haverstock Girls’ Gamers.
Their presentation was memorable, moving and conscience-stirring. It began with an in-your face collage of anti-immigration tabloid front pages. The three girls Tirion, Bahkan and Noemi then went on to point out that all three are from different parts of the world, well accustomed to meeting malice and ignorance. Their game ‘Mission Saviour’ is an allegory about –
‘The fears of people in our society , the malicious programmes that are spreading fear and are themselves confused. We want to make our society better through games.’
They finished with a long list of all that they’ve learned through building their game, social skills as well as technical and with a continuing theme that challenges the concept of ‘Like a girl’.
Those, then, were the ‘winners’. I use quotes here because, to repeat Steve Beswick – all are winners simply by having made it to Microsoft HQ on that day – and the quality of the Microsoft welcome, thanks to Stuart Ball and the team, underlined that.
All the entries had something memorable and often astonishing to offer. Hitherfield Primary’s game offered the rather scary prospect of being trapped inside your own mind. Hampden Gurney primary had a game based on the human body, with scary looking bacteria battling with white blood cells, with a side-order of healthy living advice. It was noticeable, in fact, that given their heads children will choose themes that teachers would sometimes hesitate to put before them for fear of causing nightmares.
But that is the strength of Kodu, and the challenge for teachers, because once children have got the hang of Kodu, they will make the running. Stuart Ball said to me, at the end of the event, only half jokingly,
‘We should just leave the whole thing to the students.’
That doesn’t make the teacher redundant though – teachers were rightly praised by the judges, and there’s no doubt that in the ten schools represented here, a fine compromise had been achieved between coaching, mentoring and simply letting students fly. In that way, Kodu models the Microsoft approach to technology generally – good teaching, and good technology together achieve great learning.