Hal Abelson, the MIT professor who took a sabbatical at Google to develop App Inventor, wrote a recent piece for EDUCAUSE Quarterly. Not surprisingly, Hal’s article deftly characterizes the great potential of App Inventor in education and society. Here’s an excerpt that gets to the gist of App Inventor’s unique educational value:
One of my favorite App Inventor examples comes from an introductory computer appreciation course at Wellesley (one of the Google-sponsored pilots). The instructors, Takis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj, had the idea that students should learn about the societal implications of information systems by building some of these systems and seeing first-hand the choices involved. In one example, the class created a polling application. As people walked around the Wellesley campus, they could pull out their phones and see that there was a new poll — for example, “Who is your favorite female singer?” — and select and send their responses, which were recorded by a web server.
At the next class, Eni pulled up the web page and showed the results. Then she pulled up the database and said, “and here’s how you all voted.” The students were startled. In the “private” experience of using their phones to answer a poll, they’d simply not appreciated that:
- The polling system could keep track of their identities along with their votes.
- This was a choice made by the system designer.
- They could experiment with that choice implementing their own variations of the polling system.
As a topic for introductory computing, this goes beyond the issues involved in learning about programming or computational thinking. It gives students direct experience with a technology — online polling — that has major social impact and lets them look through the eyes of the system implementer. By creating their own variations, students explore the design choices and grapple with the implications, social as well as technical. The next time these students encounter polling systems or proposals for electronic voting, they’ll be asking some good questions as informed citizens.