Category: In Class
Run, Jump, Code. Everyone Can Do It?
by Chris Penny, Ph.D.
We haven’t seen a smash hit app like “Pokémon GO” in a long time. When it was released the smartphone game from Niantic immediately topped the app charts, caused Nintendo’s stock to skyrocket, and sent people scurrying outside in search of mythical Pokémon creatures. But how easy is it to develop apps? Can anybody really code? And, what impact does coding have on other aspects of teaching and learning?
Organizations like Code.org and CodeAcademy.com are promoting the idea that everyone should, and can, learn to code. Tech companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple are working hard to actively encourage a new generation of coders. Apple CEO Tim Cook argued at Startup Fest Europe that coding should be a “second language” taught to all children. Cook went as far to say “I think we’re doing our kids a disservice if we’re not teaching them [to code].” It’s a rally cry that’s even becoming part of the political lexicon in the United States with former House Majority leader Eric Cantor declaring, “becoming literate in code is as essential to being literate in language and math.”
However, a study carried out in 2015 paints a bleak picture in U.S. schools, showing that currently, only one in four offer computer programming or coding classes. Consequently, nine out of ten parents want their kids to learn how to code.
So tech companies are taking coding into their own hands. Literally. For instance, Google operates an extensive education program. Code Gym makes it easier for teachers to incorporate technology into lessons with an abundance of computer science resources. And, Microsoft has Imagine, its own coding school with online tuition through the Virtual Academy while also funding government schemes around the world, including libraries of material used by U.K. educators teaching the latest computer science curriculum.
Apple is all in with coding with their Swift Playgrounds app and their recent implementation of the idea that everyone can—and should—learn to code. Announced at WWDC 2016 in San Francisco, the free iPad app is based on the open-source Swift programming language. Apple has labeled Swift code as “interactive and fun” so it’s easy to see why the folks in Cupertino thought it would be a natural platform to teach budding young coders. By leveraging the keywords “budding” and “young” Swift Playgrounds are obviously marketed towards school-aged children in pretty much every way possible; from the emphasis on “playgrounds” to the avatars that guide users on fanciful coding journeys.
Swift Playgrounds includes Apple-developed programming lessons where students write code to guide onscreen characters through an immersive graphical world, solving puzzles and mastering challenges as they learn core coding concepts. The app is built around minilessons; kids will learn how to issue commands, create functions, perform loops, and use variables. They’re guided by onscreen characters who serve up puzzles, quests, and challenges to master. For example, the very first lesson asks the programmer to help an alien-like cartoon character collect a shiny gemstone by using simple commands like “run”, “jump”, and “get gem” which appear at the bottom of the display window and mimic the style of predictive texts in Messages in iOS. Tap a few of them, and your alien is soon walking forward to collect his prize.
Did Apple just launch the best way to teach anyone to code? Is the coding revolution afoot? Can everyone really code? We are a diverse team of humanities and education professors at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, interested in helping prepare current and future teachers for the classroom of the future which will most likely include elements of coding. So using the Swift Playgrounds app, and the accompanying lessons, we have designed a study that asks questions about coding and literacy, and at SXSW Edu 2017 we shared a first glimpse of the results from this study.
Chris is an Educational Technology Professor, Apple Distinguished Educator and Google Certified Teacher.