Android App Inventor for Education

With Google's beta release of Android App Inventor over the summer came the promise that "normal people" would suddenly be able to crank out high quality Android apps without writing a single line of code. App Inventor is a visually based development environment, so rather than write code, developers use a series of icons to create apps. As with most Google products, App Inventor is "in the cloud," meaning you use it through your browser, not a program you install onto your computer.

Google seems to think App Inventor is a great tool for educators. Apparently, the idea is that teachers will use App Inventor to write educational apps tailored specifically to their school's curriculum. Then during class, students will pull out their Droid's, Evo's, and Galaxy's, and they they'll get to work studying with their cell phones. App Inventor is still in beta, just as gmail and google voice were before it. That means you have to get on a waiting list just to get access.

TPM recently obtained access, and it turns out that Android App Inventor is a little tougher to use than advertised. If you've got programming experience but don't know Java, you will certainly have a head start. But if you don't know anything about if-then conditionals, for-next loops or any other simple coding concepts, the learning process will be slow. Expect to spend a lot of hours depending on how quickly you pick up on these sorts of things.

TPM did put together an extremely simple proof of concept math app, which involved a single multiple choice question about matching a parabola with its equation. It became clear that anything more sophisticated would have been doable, but would have required a significant investment of time. Are "normal people" like teachers capable of developing with App Inventor? Sure. But if Google is serious about using this as a tool for education, it's going to need to develop some kind of training program that's more in-depth than its brief current online tutorial system for App Inventor.

The novelty is definitely there, and Android apps could certainly be a fun way to learn math. The question is, how practical is it? Virtually all school districts ban cell phones during school hours as they are a major distraction to students. Even if a school board were to reverse that policy, Android phone ownership is nowhere near universal among teens. Google's App Inventor for educators page talks of purchasing classroom sets of phones for students since the Android emulator is slow. Most math teachers will tell you it's difficult to obtain a classroom set of Texas Instruments graphing calculators. It's hard to imagine how many times more difficult it will be to convince the principal to buy a classroom set of phones.

App Inventor does have great promise, and Google should be applauded for its efforts to bring app development to individuals with creativity and technology skills but without formal programming training. With all the talk of Android tablets soon to be released, perhaps someone will release an iPod touch-type of device for Android that is appropriate for the classroom and is an easier sell to schools than phones in class. Until then, there are a number hurdles for App Inventor to clear before it will become a widespread educational tool.

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Lucas Allen

Lucas Allen

For more than a decade, Lucas Allen was a high school math teacher and math team coach in Illinois. His 2012 Morton High School math team won the Illinois state championship. Recently, he made the jump from public education to the corporate world and is now working as a data scientist. He is interested in just about all forms of technology, including the TI-Nspire, Nexus devices, R, MOOCs, and more. You can follow , and if you are nice, he will probably follow you back.

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One Response to Android App Inventor for Education

  1. It is certainly an interesting concept and it is neat to see the more modern version of Commodore Basic. I feel that a lot more people are growing up on video games, rather than logic games, so I can see how this may have potential.

    Perhaps if they can bundle it with some easy to access tutorials, which explain about conditionals and other basics, it could overcome some of the long learning curve you describe.