After School with App Inventor in Ireland

Last May I started playing around with the idea of doing some sessions on Google App Inventor in my kids' Primary (K-12) School. I'd had great success trying it out with three of my own kids aged 12 to 7.

I am a member of the school's Parent's Association and I pitched the idea of after-school sessions with maybe 5th and 6th class in the Autumn. They loved it and so I contacted the headmistress and the teacher mainly responsible for computers in the school. Due to the summer holidays, nothing much happened until September except for me realising that after-school sessions in Ireland require a very long law-enforcement approval process whilst during-school don't. So we switched the focus to that.

A note on the school itself. It is a very successful rural school just outside Bandon, Co Cork, Ireland with approx 25-30 kids in each year. The mix of kids (boys and girls) is everything from farmer's children to those who live in Bandon town itself. Socio-economically, it ranges from the very well-off to those on social welfare. Every class has an interactive white-board and there are 15 laptops available in the school in addition to the teacher's own. Most are PCs but there are a couple of Mac Books. However, there is no formal teaching of "computers". More on this topic later.

Over the summer I made contact with some relevant people and was delighted to get the loan of 15 HTC Magic phones to use in the pilot. However do not under-estimate the amount of time needed to check that 15 phones work ok with App Inventor, have the correct settings turned on and are charged!

In the new term I met with some of the teachers and the new headmistress and they were very enthused. We put together a plan that would see me do a 30-minute session a week with each of 5th and 6th class from October until Christmas. The children would work in teams of two with a laptop and phone for each pair.

My big concern with the pilot was to ensure that "no kid gets left behind". I knew those children who have PCs and even Smartphones at home would have no problems. I was much more interested in the ones who had neither and who had zero technical skills. I was also interested to see if App Inventor would work well for those who had resource teachers in certain subjects and even those who were on the autistic spectrum.

Basically, I had this idealised vision that our little pilot could help a bunch of kids discover the joy that comes from being creative in a technology sphere and maybe even give them job options in 8 years time that they had never considered possible. I know, I know.

I used the Google Apps for Schools system to create 30 GMail accounts for the kids which they would need to login to App Inventor. I took the first standard tutorial (HelloPurr) and re-wrote it to be much more simplistic. I made sure to get all the domains we needed allowed through the educational firewall. I installed Java and App Inventor on some of the laptops and the 5th Class teacher did the remainder in advance.

I headed in on the first day to introduce them all to App Inventor. The response was amazing. Every kid in both classes was totally pumped by the idea. They all immediately wanted to create Angry Birds, Zombie games and 3D games. Everyone seemed to be a Cut The Rope and Doodle Jump fanatic. It all looked good.

I put together a "curriculum" which would see us do two tutorials and then move to the kids coming up with ideas for their own Apps and then building them. The aim was to have a competition at Christmas for the best App.

Things didn't quite work out as planned...........

The first few weeks were hell. Both myself and the kids got very frustrated. And it was all down to the most basic problems that you never think about as a technical person but which can stop any normal person in their tracks.

In week one we didn't even manage to log every team into App Inventor. The problems included:

  1. Very few understood the difference between the address bar and Google Search
  2. Many had issues just getting the email address and password in correctly
  3. A lot of time was being wasted asking the children to type in long URLs to get to images etc and they would type them wrong or mis-capitalise things
  4. The Captchas stumped most of them
  5. App Inventor had huge issues with re-directing to blank pages and requiring page refreshes
  6. We finally realised that App Inventor is incompatible with Internet Explorer but that was all we had on every machine
  7. 15 laptops logging into the same site on a school router caused freeze-ups due to lack of bandwidth
  8. Logout/Login between 5th and 6th class was a nightmare of bad re-directs, cookies and browser cache
  9. Kids don't listen :-)

So we got Google Chrome installed on all of the laptops and things improved in week 2 (but not the blank screen issue).

Instead of us getting HelloPurr done in 2 weeks, it took us until late November. Each week I would have to jump from pair to pair, dealing with problems ranging from kids forgetting their email address, to Chrome problems, to phone connection problems, to mis-understandings. It was chaos. And none of it was their fault, it was mine for not realising how little most children know about the nuts and bolts of using software. Most of them know how to get to a web-site in IE8, that's all.

The Blocks Editor was a particular pain point and we finally got it to launch reliably by switching to Firefox.

But the day we got HelloPurr running on 15 phones in each class was really special. All of them were delighted with themselves. They were beaming. I also pointed out to them that their use of a phone emulator in the previous weeks put them in a very small group of programmers globally.

In the last couple of weeks we have switched to doing the MoleMash tutorial. The reason for this is that it can form the basis for a wide range of games. Due to the previous chaos and the fact that we have most of the nitty gritty problems sorted, I am doing this tutorial as a classroom style lesson. I do each step live on the white-board and they copy me. I don't go to the next step until everyone says they have successfully carried out the previous one. The progress has been far better and on the 21st Dec, they all got the first revision of MoleMash running in an emulator.

One other advantage of this approach is that the teachers say they can follow things a lot better themselves. They were completely lost as I battled with Internet Explorer, the Blocks Editor and the Emulator.

The last two sessions were also an hour with each class instead of 30 minutes. I think we'll stick with this in the new year. We lose 10-15 mins of every session with login/logout problems and transferring 15 laptops between the classes. We had much more than 2x progress with the longer sessions.

The Google tutorials themselves are excellent but too information-dense for kids of that age/experience. A lot more hand-holding is needed but that is reducing as they get more familiar with the system.

Whilst we wait for the transition from Google to MIT to be completed, I have created a private install of App Inventor for the school. That is working extremely well. Next step is to get them doing their own Apps.

Whilst the sessions are exhausting I enjoy doing them. Particularly when the 6th class teacher told me that she sees kids completely engaged during those sessions who she has been unable to motivate in anything else. She also told me that certain kids who are struggling in school in general seem to shine doing App Inventor. Maybe I wasn't being so idealistic?

One big problem we have is that I don't scale. Committing to a day a week for months was unrealistic and I had to re-schedule a bunch of sessions. I always knew we'd have to do "train the trainer" but I don't know if the school has other parents with the skills, interest and time to take part. I hope so. I'll be putting the call out soon.

Overall? A big success, loved by both kids and teachers. I just need to be more realistic with the timescales and the skill-sets.