Sites Inria

Version française

Computational thinking training

Mediathena – A.A. - 30/10/2019

Final Curtain for the Digital Ambassador Training Project (Project FAN)

From left to right: Anne-Catherine Klarer, Sandrine Ferster and Charles Thomassin

From November 2018 to June 2019, the Inria Nancy – Grand Est centre, along with the Les Petits Débrouillards association, coordinated the Digital Ambassador Training project (known as Project FAN – Formation d’Ambassadeurs au Numérique). Its objective was to train regional representatives to introduce both the young and not-so-young to computational thinking. The training format used, comprising five online themed modules combined with theme-based training days, was an innovative approach in France. Trainers and participants give their feedback for Inria.

Laure Digonnet, director of the Les Petits Débrouillards Grand Est association’s development centre, member of its national steering group on the challenges of digital education and one of the two project coordinators, puts it perfectly:“To be able to make informed choices and be active citizens, it is important to understand the world around us.” And in this world,“digital tools are at the heart of both our personal and professional lives”with huge societal challenges“that affect an incredible number of areas in our lives”.That is why it is so important to“train educators in [facilitating the dissemination of] computational thinking”, adds Marie Duflot-Kremer, a research professor at the University of Lorraine and researcher working in the Mosel-Veridis team, a joint undertaking involving Inria and Loria. And Marie has been convinced of this from the very beginning, since she regularly develops digital culture activities which involve conveying varied and sometimes complex computer concepts through fun activities.

This is what led to Project FAN. Because it is physically impossible for Inria’s staff and their partners to directly reach all audiences affected by the digital world in all areas of life, the challenge was how to scale this up. The solution was to create a network of people in direct contact with the public and make them the first nodes in a close network of geographical areas. This positioning has enabled FAN to be 60% financed by the Grand Est region.

Making digital technology accessible to all

To understand the digital tools used in everyday life, it is essential to have a scientific foundation in computer science ”, says Erwan Kerrien, Inria research fellow, medical imaging expert and also scientific outreach officer at the Inria Nancy-Grand Est centre. It is this awareness that “led to the introduction of computer science into secondary education curricula, and teachers are now being trained ”. This shift will “necessarily extend to educators who must respond to an ever-increasing demand for learning activities using digital technology ”.

Project FAN’s challenge was to remove computational thinking from the stereotype of its dependence on technological tools. To “make the digital world less frightening and more accessible to all citizens ”, FAN facilitators proposed computer science... without a computer. This allows the “technological aspects to be set aside in order to focus, through very educational but fun activities, on the science and therefore the concepts that form the basis of computational thinking ”, explains Erwan Kerrien.

Because, despite its name, this thinking “is by no means limited to the field of computer science ”, adds Marie Duflot-Kremer, who continues:“Adapting a recipe, explaining to a friend how to get to your house bearing in mind her starting point and knowledge of the area [...], all these activities involve different aspects of computational thinking. ” The trainees were therefore able to take part in entertaining, disconnected exercises, such as categorising and sorting circles of different sizes and colours, by determining the sequence of specific instructions to be carried out in a defined order to achieve the stated objective. In other words, a series of simple and unambiguous instructions that can be executed by a computer.

Building on what already exists to improve on it…

Project FAN was based on Class'Code, an innovative training platform designed to introduce digital thinking supported by the Future Investment Programme (PIA – Programme d’Investissement d’Avenir), which is led by Inria and licensed under Creative Commons CC BY. Project FAN provided the five online modules in MOOC format, designed for Class’Code by digital science experts, and complemented these with face-to-face theme-based training days. These days provided an opportunity to “clarify any remaining grey areas or explore certain aspects in greater depth ”, emphasises Charles Thomassin, facilitator for The Digital Travelers (Les Voyageurs du Numérique), who had been working “on the issue of digital technology and digital culture for several years, but in a predominantly empirical way without having ever received any real training ”. For him, FAN was “an opportunity to provide structure and gain a solid grounding in ‘theory’ alongside practical experience ”. The same sentiment is echoed by Sandrine Ferster, a secondary school mathematics teacher: “I learned everything on the job by ‘tinkering’, and my students often had more knowledge than I did. I needed to understand, to delve deeper, so that I could introduce new things to them and help them by being able to answer their questions.
On the menu for the 14 training participants: creative programming using Scratch, manipulating information, network connectivity, introduction to robotics with Thymio – the small robot developed by EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Lausanne) – and finally IT project management. For Anne-Catherine Klarer, director of a “third place” (in other words, a shared space aimed at promoting collaborative projects and co-creation – such as co-working spaces, FabLabs, HackerSpaces or Repair’Cafés), this comprehensive and in-depth programme has allowed her to expand her skills “especially in robotics and programming ”. This is a real asset because she is responsible for managing and providing training on the FabLab’s digital tools at this third place!

… and developing innovative scientific outreach projects

Each participant was also invited to present the scientific outreach project they wanted to implement in their organisation, based on what they had learned during their training. This experience was enriched by the great diversity of students, both in terms of their level of knowledge and the environments in which they work and plan to implement their projects (state education, further education, third places, etc.).
The aim of some projects, such as Anne-Catherine’s, is to directly apply the skills acquired to set up robotics workshops for their customers. Others, such as Charles, who works for a programme run by Libraries Without Borders, have fully embraced their future role as ambassadors by planning projects that focus on training facilitators. The idea behind Charles’ project is to create a disconnected activity based on cryptology, taking as an entry point “its use in literature (Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Dan Brown, etc.) in order to understand not only the idea behind it and how it works, but also – and more importantly – to explain its everyday use in computing today ”. After putting it into practice over the course of a day at the Nilvange media library, this initiative will be documented through a series of free sheets for librarians, facilitators, students’ parents, etc. 

A success?

Although the quality of the projects demonstrates the satisfaction and commitment of the participants who devised them, only 8 of the 14 trainees submitted a project. This is because “a very significant commitment is required from the participants, both in terms of upstream work monitoring the Class'Code MOOCs and in terms of face-to-face availability. Especially since, because of the need for geographical coverage, the training days, while appealing in terms of their diversity and relevance to the specific themes, were held at locations remote from each other, resulting in long travel times ”, explains Véronique Poirel, scientific outreach officer and project coordinator on the Inria side.

There are therefore no plans to repeat Project FAN in the same format. Its initiators do, however, intend to capitalise on the work accomplished. “We are thinking about ‘flash’ formats, possibly at the request of participants, structured in a way that works well for one day face-to-face ”, continues Véronique Poirel. The aim will be to continue to cover the entire country, because, concludes Marie Duflot-Kremer, “in the long term, training educators means providing tools to all those with whom they work, whether young or not-so-young, so they can understand and embrace the digital world in which we live.

Keywords: Class'Code Training Véronique Poirel Erwan Kerrien Laure Digonnet FAN Marie Duflot-Kremer Computational thinking