Getting Started with Programming using Hopscotch

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We’re lucky that the recent drive to increase the exposure our students get to programming has coincided with the release of a plethora of coding apps and programs designed to be user-friendly for young coders.  I’ve mentioned Scratch 2.0 and Raspberry Pi in previous posts, but for younger children it is difficult to overpraise the designers of Hopscotch for having pulled off that difficult balancing act of simplicity, engagement and effectiveness.

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Hopscotch allows even young children to get started with programming.  My 5-year-old son shown here could genuinely contribute to our shared dabbling in the app as we whiled away a six-hour ferry journey (above) by writing codes that made the cartoon figures on the screen trace numbers and shapes.  It sounds simple, but essentially, Hopscotch gets its users working on all the basic aspects of coding that professionals utilise: drafting, experimenting, checking, modifying, redrafting. Or, as my son puts it, “getting it wrong and never mind we can trying again”.

The app allows users to choose between a collective of robotic and monster-like characters who can be required to move, rotate and leave a trail behind them as they traverse the iPad screen.  They can, therefore, spell out letters and numbers or trace geometric shapes.  The users need to take into account the direction of travel, angle of rotation and when to begin and stop leaving a trace.  The width and colour of the trail can also be programmed.  It’s simple but beguilingly engaging.

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This morning my son decided he wanted to make a café in the kitchen to serve the family toast.  We used Hopscotch to create the logo for his restaurant (Thomas’ Toast Café).  This simple logo is shown below (along with pictures of Thomas’ first draft and his reaction to seeing the code work for the first time). Also shown below is the code we used. Admittedly, Thomas needed help with this; I doubt any pre-kindergarteners can understand concepts like reflex angles and 180 degree rotation, but his eleven-year-old sister can – and this brings in all kinds of opportunities for collaboration.

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Hopscotch is set to develop from its simple origins. We haven’t yet begun to experiment much with using multiple characters on screen at the same time but this is certainly possible – and a new collision detection feature means the characters can even interact with one another to a degree. For a free app, this is an excellent way to use iPads to introduce primary age children to computer programming. Hopscotch Technologies is clearly one to watch.

 

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Consumer Technology and Understanding the Nature of Tablets

Education has a long history of adapting innovations intended for other uses to its own purposes. In the last forty years, examples have included language lab technologies, business management practices and solution-focused therapy to name but three. Schools have had to adapt to the notion that they fulfil multiple roles in communities, and school heads and school compliance officers have had to become knowledgeable about fields of expertise that would have been regarded as far removed from the traditional business of schooling just a few decades ago (environmental policy, employment law, action research, data protection and so forth).

Against this general background the notion of consumer technology has steadily nosed its way into school administrators’ consciousnesses. Gartner, undoubtedly one of the world’s leading technology research and advisory think-tanks, describes consumer technology as digital services and products that have their origin in home or home-related activities (satellite navigation systems in cars would be included in the category of “home-related”). For educators, the notion of consumer technologies has become an important one to understand. Not only are we teaching students who are using in their homes sophisticated digital technologies to perform or enhance everyday tasks – a situation that has important ramifications for how we use technology in our classrooms, but the demand for such technologies is driving prices down to the point where it becomes viable to consider the sort of purchases that would have been out of reach of school or local authority budgets two or three years ago.

For example, consider how the market for interactive whiteboards has been threatened by the development of flat screen television technologies in recent years. Where teachers are given a say in what goes into their classrooms the choice of whether to have an IWB or a flat screen television (supported by Apple TV, AirView or some similar service) will be determined by, among other considerations, ease of use. It is easy to see why in an overwhelming majority of the schools I have spoken to over the past two years, IWBs are slowly being replaced. The only sticking point appears to be the fact that IWBs typically offer larger screen sizes, but as larger flat screens hit the market at competitive prices this objection is likely to lose its potency. Certainly, from their experience in their own homes teachers and students are likely to be more familiar with using a flat screen television than they are an IWB. In twenty years of international education I have met only two educators who have IWBs in their homes – and one of them is selling hers!

The iPad fits into this general picture very well. Designed for the consumer marketplace on a hunch that there existed a gap between the laptop and the smartphone markets, Apple’s iPas was launched in March 2010 with the company later admitting it didn’t really know how it would be used. School-based educators were among the first professionals to realise the iPad had potential as a learning tool, and it was noticeable that by the time of the release of the iPad 2, less than a year after the original launch, the iPad’s role in education settings took up a significant portion of the publicity accompanying that release. We saw, for example Chicago Public Schools’ director of technology, John Connolly, crediting the iPad for improvements in maths and literacy scores across the district. More plausibly perhaps, we saw practical demonstrations of how third party apps were helping children in kindergarten and special needs classes develop literacy and social skills. Tellingly, much of the footage accompanying these claims was taken in students’ homes.

Classroom teachers are, of course, reporting a number of things they are seeing from their students once they get their hands on an iPad, and engagement was one of the most conspicuously common findings in the first year or two that iPads appeared in schools. Our own experience at ACS suggests that even when students have their own iPads at home the engagement levels remain high in classrooms (albeit this observation comes from elementary classrooms where engagement is typically high anyway). Measuring engagement is not straightforward, and there are many variables to consider such as which apps are permitted in school and which are preferred at home, or how much control is ceded to the students over decisions such as turn-taking, content creation versus content consumption, game playing and so forth. Nonetheless, even a non-scientific measuring device such as informal observation supports the contention that students enjoy lessons that include the use of iPads. Other metrics must be used to determine how worthwhile those lessons are from a learning perspective.

The consumer technology research conducted by Gartner also addresses what technology companies need to do to preserve or increase their market share. Crucially, Gartner observes that technological maturity alone does not ensure market success. Timing, anticipating change (or driving it), tracking margins and reinventing all play key roles in keeping a technology company healthy and ensuring given products remain desirable in the consumer marketplace. However, Gartner also contends that there is an “inflection point” on the horizon that will cause companies like Apple to evolve their business models. Those that do this well will fuel the next wave of growth and innovation. Those that manage it badly will fall by the wayside.

Schools have traditionally been nervous about putting all their funds into devices that run single systems for fear of being caught out if that system becomes obsolete. An argument I have heard frequently over the past two years is how do we know if Android or iOS will win out in the operating system wars? The implication is that schools are delaying whether to invest in iPads or Galaxy tablets (or Chrome-books, Nexus or Surfaces for that matter) because they are afraid of backing the 21st Century’s equivalent of Betamax. The concept of interoperability has gone a long way towards quiet ending those fears but we still hear teachers saying they want to run Flash on iPads or needing to run web-based programs because there are no Android apps for the activities they have seen in other schools’ iPad classrooms.

Obviously on this page I’m an advocate of iPads in the classroom, but I have greatly enjoyed my visits to both Google’s and Microsoft’s seminars at which educators have been given a chance to look at the competition. What all these devices share is a domestic target market. Not one of the commercially available tablets was designed specifically for the classroom – or even for the workplace. It makes sense, therefore, to have a clear understanding of the nature of tablets. I recently spent an enjoyable afternoon in the company of two engaging, knowledgeable and extremely articulate educators at my old university who addressed precisely this question in the preamble to their workshop on education apps. Tom Preskett is Learning Technologist at the London Centre for Leadership in Learning. His partner at that workshop was Gavin Calnan, an ICT teacher from Bentley Wood High School. They summarised a number of concepts iPads enable and what follows below to conclude this blog entry is largely their conclusions.

1. The iPad enables “seamless learning” in that it is easy for the learner to switch between contexts. This in turn enables what Andrew Goodgame has described as app workflows (or work appflows) in which students create content in one app, import it into another for further work or refinement and then continue to work on it in a third or fourth app until it is ready for publication or presentation – which may be done in yet another app.
2. The iPad enables Multimodality. Students don’t need five or six separate pieces of kit: the iPad is it. For example, it is a video camera, a TelePrompt, an editing suite, a sound studio, a timer and so forth.
3. The iPad’s finger-driven interface motivates and engages students
4. The iPad enables collaboration. Two or three students can productively share one device (filming each other, assigning different rôles etc.) and it also enables cloud file sharing.
5. The iPad has spurred the creation (mostly by third party developers and for the most part free of charge at the consumer end) of a huge variety of creative apps for project work etc.
6. The iPad enables enhanced learner control. This is especially so in one-to-one environments, and it is easy to put iPads into any classroom set up (although Tom Preskett thinks a café set up is the best).