MRT: Teaching with App Inventor

Do you like it when students drive the learning process? Do you want to expand your students' media literacy across the "programmer divide" and into the realm of interactive software? App Inventor, the centerpiece of MIT's new Center for Mobile Learning, provides a disruptive way to change the way you teach. In this hands-on workshop, you'll learn how to build mobile apps with App Inventor and and explore ways it can be used as a motivating force in the classroom.

Despite the efforts of innovators like Steve Jobs, there is still one digital medium from which most are barred: interactive software. Only programmers can directly create in this mysterious medium, leaving most people on the wrong side of the programmer divide. Have an idea for a mobile app? You better know a programmer!

App Inventor, created by MIT's Hal Abelson and some Google engineers, helps bridge the divide. Like its predecessors Lego Mindstorms and Scratch, it provides a visual, drag-and-drop "blocks" language, making programming more like putting puzzle pieces together than writing code.

With App Inventor, the end-goal of the puzzle-making is software for mobile phones and tablets. Instead of creating mundane interest rate calculators, as in traditional courses, beginners create apps that connect to mobile technology such as SMS texting, text-to-speech, and GPS. Within weeks, they can create powerful software such as the "No Texting While Driving" app created by USF student Daniel Finnegan and featured in Wired magazine.

We offer the perspectives of a university teacher (Wolber, USF) who has taught App Inventor since its pilot phase in 2009, and an after-school program director (Hatley,Youth APPLab) who has taught 21 African-American students to build apps.

Most of our students never dreamed they could create software for their phone. Because of App Inventor's low barrier to entry, they attain early success. Because they are building software for mobile phones, motivation goes out the roof. The students at Youth APPLab have developed over 30 apps, with 4 published on the Android Market having over 1000 downloads. USF students, 50% women, now present along side our advanced students at the annual CS night. Many continue on in Computer Science and some have even gone on to teach App Inventor in youth programs.

In a quest to build more sophisticated apps, the students drive the learning process. The learning crosses the traditional classroom boundary: the students take the phones home, tinker with them, and show off their work to their friends and family members. In the process, they learn a ton of math, logic, and problem solving without even realizing it.

Attendees will create a fun, introductory app, then break into teams to see who can create the best "re-mix" of a more sophisticated app. Winners will receive a copy of Wolber's App Inventor book (co-authored with Abelson et al.). As the session progresses, we'll discuss ways App Inventor can be used to teach programming, problem solving, and "learning-by-creating" in any discipline.

David Wolber
Leshell Hatley
David Wolber