Gary Stager posted some questions in response to my TechLearning post on Friday, “Mobile web applications.” Gary asked:

What do Alice, Storytelling Alice, and Scratch have to do with mobile computing?

Why should computer science be relegated to club status?

This was my response.


The link I see here is that developers with programming skills are creating these applications for mobile computing. Of course developers can create all sorts of applications that are not limited to use on mobile devices, but I see mobile devices creating 1:1 learning situations in many schools and classrooms long before access to more capable laptop computers will. I think we need to encourage students to develop knowledge and skills in programming for intrinsic as well as instrumental reasons. Those three programs I listed are all available for free, and provide software environments in which students can both learn programming basics as well as develop their own creative abilities.

I am not saying computer science and programming should be relegated to club status. It would be great if all our students could take a well designed and led programming class as part of their ‘normal’ school curriculum. The fact is that our mandatory curriculum requirements in most high schools today have become so full, there is not room for ANY electives in some cases.

I see after school programs as a great entry point for initiatives like this. I recently read about the MacArthur Foundation encouraging an educational focus on after school programs, in part (I think) because of the curricular autonomy which is possible for after-school programs. Where I live in Oklahoma, I’m not aware of any elementary or middle schools that have integrated programming or robotics either as electives or after school programs. We have the KISS Institute for Practical Robotics in Norman, but I think their focus is currently all on high school students.

I want to point out how personally relevant mobile applications are going to be to all of us with cell phones in the coming years, and the potential which learners of any age have to PARTICIPATE in the mobile learning revolution as developers and not merely consumers. To this end, I think awareness of and use of programming environments like Alice, Storytelling Alice, and Scratch is very important.

I have created a new page on my blog under the top header link “Resources” for “Mobile Phones for Learning.” Sylvia Martinez sent me a link to Seymour Papert’s 1998 article “Does Easy Do It? Children, Games, and Learning” after I posted “Head faking kids to love programming and change the world” last week. I have read Papert’s book “The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer” but have not read much more from him to date. Gary shared the presentation “Papert Matters – Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas” at Learning 2.0 in Shanghai last September, and suggests the links and for additional links relating to the work of Dr. Papert.

I have NOT read anything written by Dr. Papert which specifically endorses the idea of students writing web apps for the iPhone. I understand that Papert supports the goal of getting more students involved in creatively using computers as tools to express themselves, develop their creative capacities, and as an extension of their own imaginations. This view of computing and the role of computers is RADICALLY different from the ways I see computers being used in most of our Oklahoma schools today, where “web surfing” predominates along with administrative uses of the computer, CAI, and online testing. I want to continue advocating for the constructive uses of mobile phone technologies for learning throughout the K-20 educational spectrum, but not merely for information “consumption.” I agree with others who advocate for students becoming content creators and application developers, for multiple reasons. As students move from the role of passive content consumer to active content creator and developer, I think cognitive demands increase and the value of the learning experience increases as a general rule.

Nick and His Robot

There is one additional sentence I would add to my response to Gary’s question. After my wishful comment about students taking more programming courses, especially at elementary and middle school levels, I’d add the following:

Even better, it would be great if more teachers were aware of the possibilities available via programming environments and encouraged students to develop simulations and other programs for their “regular” coursework assignments using these tools.

I continue to think that the “top down” approaches to technology integration and curriculum change into which educators and parents tend to place the most faith may not be the best places to put our collective energies. Bottom up approaches which involve equipping students with resources, knowledge and skills to create and share– whether that is digital stories or computer simulations and programs, seem to offer much more potential to organically grow and spread like a “fire” which we are often so enthusiastic to share and “pass on” as educational technology evangelists. The role of campus and district leadership is pivotal for broad-based change, I have no doubts about that. I think the potential for students to tangibly advance an agenda of constructive digital tool use for creation and collaboration may be underestimated by many educators, however. Because of this perception, I think our use, promotion and support of programming environments like Alice, Storytelling Alice, and Scratch is very important. I think we can also include Google Sketch-Up in this collection of applications.

Perhaps we’ll soon see an iPhone portal for applications created in Scratch, once an iPhone software update is released which supports Flash video? A portal of Scratch projects, accessible via mobile phones, would be a GREAT way to make this link directly between programming environments and mobile computing. Can you hear the evening conversation at home now? “Look what I made to demonstrate photosynthesis, Mom! I’ve got the program posted to the web and you can view it right here on my cell phone!”

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2 Responses to Connecting creativity, programming, and mobile learning

  1. Take a look at Popfly ( as another tool. It is a mashup tool that really lets beginners hook up and view data in interesting and fun ways. Microsoft has something called Boku ( that looks like it will be useful with younger kids. I’ve seen a demo and watched a youngster get deep into it very quickly.

  2. seejayjames says:

    Great article and website — lots to think about!

    The bridge between “programming” and everyday use of computers is shrinking daily as more and more tools are created for “power-users”. So there are a wealth of options built into a number of commercial applications which allow users to take their interaction to the next level. That said, there is still a large gap between this and code-level, abstract programming, and the relatively small percentage of users who are interested in programming (and the even smaller percentage who stick with it) both need to be addressed for “computer literacy” to evolve.

    The development of programming environments like Scratch is great, and not only provides new tools for users, but also challenges the developers themselves — it helps them think of new ways of visualizing the programming process as they design the environments themselves. Scratch is especially good for teaching programming concepts, as the widgets mimic what is traditionally done in text-based code. Along those lines, Processing is another great development: free, with many libraries and examples, and based upon the much more powerful Java — designed to provide a quick way for programmers to “sketch” their ideas.

    However, I want to take this opportunity to plug another very powerful and easy-to-use program: Max / MSP / Jitter ( ). This graphical programming environment deals with all data (whether audio, video, MIDI, text, 3D graphics via OpenGL, or others) very simply and in an abstract fashion. That means you can route, mix, display, and save your data in any form you want, leading to all kinds of new understandings, particularly with how computers manipulate their data via calculations. Though the program is not free, it does have a 30-day free trial, and a very cheap 9-month Student version.

    I used to work with code-based languages but have gladly made this switch — it is a graphical, interface-based environment, with the “programming” created in a flow-chart design for your data and logic “streams”. Your interface has the logic built right in, which can be exposed or hidden as you wish. Since you have control over the media, the logic, and the interface objects, you quite literally can build just about any kind of application without knowing a line of traditional code! Particularly good at real-time interaction, tinkering of any parameter, being able to record or generate activity (changing data flows and parameters), and the design of your interfaces in any way you want, Max is a must-try for anyone with any interest in these wide areas of art, music, data, and mathematics. If that isn’t enough, it also provides integrated support for Java, Javascript, and C, so that those things better done by text-based code can be used too — right in the midst of your interface. Best of all, the much-anticipated release of the completely overhauled Max 5 — called by the company as “Max for the next 20 Years” — is slated for April 2008!

    As an example of some of Max’s capabilities, I have created “Portfolio 2point5”, which takes the idea of a traditional portfolio several steps further — not only can users interact with my media in a variety of ways, the application also can “play itself” via a number of selected preset processes. In this manner, the interfaces and the chosen presets act as an essential part of the portfolio itself, and allow viewers the chance to create their own new mashups of my work. Check out the concept description and screenshots here:

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