AI computing general teaching and learning tech

ChatGPT will change everything. No, not like that.

A lot of column-inches and a bazillion frantic tweets have been bashed out recently about the AI tool ChatGPT: the public, text interface to a Large Language Model (LLM) created by the OpenAI consortium. Originally a not-for-profit body which boasted Elon Musk as one of its original investors, OpenAI is now unashamedly for-profit and in November 2022 launched ChatGPT, a language model built on GPT3, the third iteration of their “generative, pre-trained transformer” software. This tool can process natural language text and respond with natural-sounding text back. It also remembers conversations, hence the “chat” element, and this is what makes it more powerful than previous iterations: you can refine your query over several inputs to get better results.


AI services like ChatGPT join a long line of technologies to have been described as both “dangerous”, downsides from its use as a class cheat’s superpower, to a phishing and identity fraud weapon. it’s “the end of assessment as we know it’ because “many of the problems we set in secondary school can now be solved by apps… It is not a good sign that we still teach and test mathematical material in such a routine way that free off-the-shelf systems like these can handle lots of it with ease’ – economist Daniel Susskind in his book A World Without Work.

Image taken from Washington Post website. Shows a chatbot conversation. First speech bubble says "Rephrase: Laura is you in Wednesday - got pics for you - ben" and chatbot speech bubble shows a well-formatted, semi-formal letter style message that begins "Dear Laura, Hope you're doing well. I wanted to check if you'll be in on Wednesday as I have some photos... Best Regards, Ben".

But we’ve been here before. The internet was going to spell the end of academic assessment in the 90s. In truth it didn’t change much, except for democratising information so you didn’t need to be in school to learn. If we’re honest with ourselves, outside of controlled conditions such as the exam hall, there are a myriad ways to cheat already: copying from others, searching online or using an online service to do your homework for you, sometimes called an essay mill. If a piece of work is important (such as assessed coursework or “controlled assessment” work) then the teacher should already have some skill in plagiarism-checking. Online services such as Turnitin are widely used, but I’ve always found simply asking a student to explain their work, called a “viva voce” interview in academia, does the trick. You may not need to do this with 100% of submissions, just a 10% check might be sufficient to deter serious plagiarism.

And if you absolutely must have confidence the submission is the students own work, then conduct a test in controlled conditions with no devices allowed. But only a small number of pieces of work (often just a summative test of required knowledge to progress to the next stage, e.g. the GCSE’s and A-levels in the UK or the college-entrance-assisting AP tests in the US, and the final exams of a degree course) over a student’s lifetime should require this level of scrutiny. Everything else should be treated as formative and afforded a lesser degree of validity and therefore require less strict control.

Most of my students work is either self- or peer-assessed. A mixture of online self-assessment using platforms like Quizlet (most subjects) or SmartRevise (Computing and Business only at the moment) get the bulk of the feedback done cost-free, and the rest is largely done by the students with lots of guidance from me. I’m glad the UK never adopted the American high-school system of grade-point average (GPA) scoring, not least because it penalises poor early performance which is unfair to immigrants and those with health issues, and is linked with self-esteem issues, but because it makes every piece of work high-stakes and high-cost to the teacher. When both teacher and student are stretched to the max by tests every semester, there is no space to relax and enjoy the journey. And pity the student who gets a C during the grief of a bereavement which prevents them getting the required GPA for their college of choice no matter what they do next. (If you’re in the UK, thinking “glad we don’t have the GPA system here”, count how many controlled tests and data drops you must do each year, and ponder a moment).


Let’s remember the purpose of assessing work. All assessment is a surrogate for what we want to know: what is in their heads. Assessment is not an end in itself, the mark should reflect some measure of achievement that helps both teacher and student understand how to make progress. Let’s not forget that what we want to achieve is an improvement in learning, what’s in their head when they leave school, not what they wrote in a paper when they were eleven or fifteen. As Tom Sherrington writes:

If testing is going to have an effect on the learning process, it needs to have an outcome that will help students to develop a sense of themselves as learners and an awareness of what else there is left to learn. 

Tom Sherrington’s TeacherHead blog, link

As Daisy Christodoulou writes, the struggle, not the end product, is the point:

If a student struggles for an hour over an extended piece of writing and then finds that a computer has surpassed it in seconds, it is entirely possible they will feel demotivated. What they need to hear from adults is don’t worry, your work is of value, you’re on a journey and you are developing your own writing skills. 

Daisy Christodoulou’s No More Marking blog, link

Design your assessments so they create actionable feedback, not just test scores. Furnish the students with marking rubrics ahead of the assignment, and get them to mark themselves against the rubrics before handing in. If they’re using ChatGPT at home to write essays, they might be short-circuiting part of the process, so have the class critique each-others essays in class afterwards. Create model answers or “what a good one looks like” WAGOLLs they can mark themselves against, or choose a student’s answer that is high quality and work with the class to determine what makes it so. Joe Kirby’s seminal 2015 blog post “Marking is a Hornet, Feedback is a Butterfly” is still my go-to article for in-class feedback ideas that can be re-purposed in the ChatGPT age, even to make the most of so-called “plagiarised” work.

Back to ChatGPT and the “plagiarism panic”. Too often we forget the upsides of a new technology in all the swirling panic about its dangers. For LLMs like ChatGPT these include levelling the playing-field for people with disabilities or assisting people for whom English is an additional language. Make sure your EAL students have access to it and know how to use it. Discuss with your SENCO how students might use it to overcome learning difficulties like dyslexia and dyspraxia. As this article explains, it’s already helping a landscaper with low literacy write professional-sounding emails to customers (see image above), and writing assertive letters to a landlord on behalf of a shy tenant regarding a water leak (the leak was fixed in 3 days). We demonise this technology at our peril.

And with any luck, ChatGPT might bring down the GPA system and its pale imitations in the UK, with all the inequities those systems perpetuate. Which can’t be a bad thing.

If you enjoy my blog, why not buy me a coffee? And I talk much more about AI in the context of the Computer Science GCSE in my book.

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computing physical teaching and learning tech

Physical Computing Intro

Physical Computing provides engaging, relevant, and inclusive learning experiences and helps develop programming skills while being creative and collaborative. Code makes something happen in the real-world, not just on a screen. Learners (particularly girls) find physical computing engaging.

Two Year 9 girls are, sitting near a wooden rectangular arena containing a BitBot microbit buggy. They are in a classroom. One is smiling while wears a facemask but is making "jazz hands"!
The Bit:Bot buggy allows code to make something happen.

Physical computing devices take some time to set up, and can add complexity and behaviour challenges to a lesson, so take some time to think through these before using them in class.

Getting Started

  • Start small. Focus on a small cohort, maybe an after-school club, until you get up to speed.
  • Use the training and support available, there are physical computing courses on and help is available from your hub
  • Choose a device and activity based on context, setting and need.

There are five main categories of device, and the most common are listed below:

Close up of a Crumble - a small white circuit board - with crocodile clips connecting it to a Sparkle - a smaller board with a neopixel LED on it. The LED is lit up red.
Crumble is an “Embedded Board”
  1. Packaged Electronics such as “Snap Circuits” – these require a lot of electronics knowledge and are best suited to DT projects.
  2. Packaged programmable products: Sphero, Bee-Bot, Lego WeDo/Mindstorms and VEX are simple to set up and get you straight to the programming, good for Primary settings.
  3. Peripheral boards such as the MaKey MaKey connect to a computer to add interactivity, but cannot be unplugged and run standalone. Simple and fun!
  4. Embedded boards like the Micro:Bit, Crumble and Raspberry Pi Pico have a microprocessor onboard that you program via a computer, but they then run the program independently, so can be disconnected. Use these to control buggies, create musical instruments, name badges and weather stations…
  5. General purpose boards like the Raspberry Pi 3, 4, Zero W and W2 are actually whole computers that run a full Linux-based GUI operating system. You connect one to a monitor, mouse and keyboard and use it like a computer, but it has lots of interfaces for connecting electronic equipment. You can do almost anything with a Pi, but the learning curve is steeper than the above devices. They run Scratch, Sonic Pi and Minecraft with a Python interface, so you can write “mods”, or connect a camera to make a digital photobooth, the possibilities are limitless!
Screenshot of Raspberry Pi showing a Python window on the left and Minecraft on the right. The code says "mc.PostToChat("Hello World") and in the Minecraft world the chat message "Hello World" is visible.
Minecraft Pi comes with a Python interface where students can write their own Mods!

Next steps

  1. Book onto some Physical Computing CPD at
  2. Choose a device and an activity – see the or the Raspberry Pi projects website:
  3. Contact a nearby Computing Hub to request a loan of a physical computing kit
  4. Try it out in a small group like your own after-school club, a Code Club or Coder Dojo, then introduce to your classes!

This blog was based on material from the NCCE. Visit to find out more about physical computing, or read the other principles at And subscribe to Hello World to read much more about computing pedagogy every two months:

And if you like this post, remember to thank me with a coffee, and then go and buy one of my books, “How to Teach Computer Science” is packed with teaching ideas like this. Thanks!

If you are grateful for my blog, please buy me a coffee at, thanks!
tech Uncategorized

Mastodon: Into the Fediverse… a Tootorial.

As author of “How to Teach Computer Science” (see how early I got the plug in?) it’s probably right that I post about my foray into Mastodon, the “Twitter alternative” that everyone is talking about (again, more on that later). I will try to keep this post updated over the next few weeks so check back often. If you like this post, consider bunging me a coffee or buying my book. Also forgive the occasional ads on the page, this is not my day job. Thanks!

Screenshot of the Mastodon web interface showing the author's profile and a post below giving the look and feel of the website.

What is Mastodon?

It’s microblogging software, running on thousands of separate servers. You sign up and can share posts or “toots”, that others can see. You can follow people and use hashtags, much like Twitter (and also very much not like Twitter in all the right ways, which you will understand soon).

In short, it’s software. It’s not a service/website/platform/publisher like Twitter. It has no teams of content moderators. This vital distinction is of utmost importance, because it’s underlies many complaints made by new users, who have made the switch from the birdsite. Essentially, Mastodon is software that runs on a server and provides a microblogging platform to its users. A technical person called a “sysadmin” has installed the software on a server and made it available to you via the WWW. That sysadmin is wholly responsible for the server “instance” they have created. Users sign up on the web interface through a normal browser, or on a mobile device can download the Mastodon app, or alternative apps like Tusky.

Note: I will use the terms “server”, “instance” and “domain” interchangeably in this post because if you’re new to the service the distinctions are really not important.

Each instance exists independently of the others and should be considered a separate community, with its own rules and etiquette, although they do talk to each other (see later). Take the time to learn those rules because the premise of a Mastodon instance is that it is a collaborative, supportive community of like-minded people, with no agenda, no ads and no algorithms pushing content. Just like the early internet servers were, on Fidonet, Usenet, IRC and everything else that used this model long ago! (Aside: I was sending emails and using Usenet in 1986 at Sheffield Uni. I’ve seen these services come and go a few times. More on that later).


Which server do I choose?

You’re probably here because someone you know has suggested you join mastodon. So maybe join the server they are on. If they have shared their full mastodon username, the server is the bit after the username, i.e. my full username is so my server is available on the web at If that server is closed to new signups (the number of people signed up across the “fediverse” has doubled in the last week) then go with a similar one, and you can start looking here.

I am on whose server rules can be found at the “about” page here and you can see the rules listed as follows:

  1. Sexually explicit or violent media must be marked as sensitive when posting.
  2. No spam or advertising.
  3. No racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, or casteism.
  4. No incitement of violence or promotion of violent ideologies.
  5. No harassment, dogpiling or doxxing of other users.
  6. No illegal content.

That all sounds great, but even more information is below the rules. I can see over 100 other instances that are banned from connecting to this instance, and read the reasons for doing so. “Racism”, “illegal content”, “harassing trans people” and “conspiracy theories” are some of the reasons listed by @stux, my sysadmin for preventing other servers from connecting to this one. Stux is a good guy who runs this site for a living, so I have PayPalled him some money. Your server admin can be found on your server’s “about” page, and you should consider helping because they usually run the site purely on voluntary donations.

Browsing the about page will make the culture of this instance clear to you, and reveal the outlook of the sysadmin(s) which is kind of important, so you can decide whether you want to join the community.


What’s “federation”?

So each instance behaves like a community, but that’s no good if your friends are all on other instances, right? OK that’s where federation comes in. Each instance will “federate” with all other instances: you can follow others and your posts will be seen by others on other instances and vice versa, within certain parameters. We saw above that a sysadmin will judiciously block other servers based on their federation policies, and that’s great to keep this instance reasonably safe. But generally speaking, your instance will seamlessly talk to all other instances where your friends are. Here is a handy flowchart to show how federation works, courtesy of user :

Diagram showing "public toot by @Foo" at the top and a flowchart below explaining which timeline a toot will appear.

How do I find people to follow?

Start with someone you know, and browse to their profile. I am here: . If you click “following” and “followers” you can see who I follow, and quickly follow them using the little “add person” icon to the right of their names:

Icon of person and plus sign overlaid

You can also search hashtags, and if you’re reading this because you are in my UK teaching network, you probably want to click here and follow some people posting with the #EduTooter hashtag. Just type #EduTooter into the search box on the site or app, and then follow some of the tooters that come up! (Sorry about the word “toot”, I thought “tweet” was silly, but here we are…)

Trying hashtags like #medicine, #grungemusic #crossstitch usually comes up with some people to follow, but this process may be slow and take a few weeks before your timeline is as busy as the birdsite was. Bear with it, this is because there is no algorithm pushing content to you, which is why you came here, right? To be free of the corporate firehose of questionable information? Right?

Note: Mastodon has a “Lists” feature just like the birdsite, so check that out, when I have any useful lists of EduTooters to share I’ll share them here, come back often!

Can I use an app?

Yes. I recommend signing up through the web browser interface, it’s just much easier to get started that way. Some features are not available on the app and the screen real-estate needed to get set up easily is substantial. But once signed up, there is an “official” (i.e. provided by the not-for-profit German company that looks after the Mastodon open-source software) app called Mastodon but also some “unofficial” ones. I’m trying Tusky now and running both apps to check them out. Others may be available.

How do I stay safe?

You have checked the moderation policies of your server instance, right? So you know what content is allowed and what isn’t. Firstly, be a good member of the community and follow those rules yourself. Be careful, many server rules require Content Warnings for certain things, e.g. requires a CW before mentioning violence. Just add a CW in the app or on the web by clicking “CW” below the text box. Follow all the other rules as well, to be a good community member. (This is how the early internet was, let’s recreate the good times of community!)

If you get harassed, attacked or any trouble, you need to know how to block a user, block a domain or report to the admin. Click the 3-dots on the right of the action icons below the toot. In the pop-up menu, choose an action from Mute, Block user, or Block domain. Obviously “block domain” will be greyed out on your own domain.

Screenshot of Mastodon timeline after clicking on the 3 dots, showing the pop-up menu with Mute and BLock options highlighted.

(I’m grateful to Alex for the image – follow him here).

How do I support my sysadmin?

Remember, Mastodon is run by volunteers. I’ve written about my host above and explained that I have sent a donation by PayPal to @Stux, many of you may be on which is run by the lead developer of the Mastodon software, Eugen aka @Gargron. Whichever server you are on, you should definitely support your admin with a small payment: whatever you can afford, as this ensures the platform remains usable, and stays out of the hands of the big corporations. Click the “About” page on your server home page to find out how to help.

Where can I find out more?

In writing this blog I am grateful to Max Eddy for his article in PCMag How to Leave Twitter for Mastodon which is great further reading.

Wired has some tips in this article: “How to find your friends on Mastodon”

Mashable has an article here also “How to Switch Mastodon for Twitter”.

If you enjoyed this blog or found it useful, remember I too rely on donations! I wrote two books called “How to Teach Computer Science” and “How to Learn Computer Science” available here, if you have a child aged 14-21 learning computer science, why not get them a copy of the latter? Or you can buy me a coffee below. See you on Mastodon!

If you are grateful for my blog, please buy me a coffee at, thanks!