Education Goes Mobile

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December 7, 2012

Hal Abelson (Photo credit: Patsy Sampson/EECS)

CSAIL News Dec. 7, 2012 article by Abby Abazorius

Hal Abelson, the Class of 1922 Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, a principal investigator at CSAIL and co-chair of the MIT Council on Educational Technology – has been at the forefront of not only computer science education, but also teaching in general for much of his storied career. In the past year, he has been honored with both the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) Karl V. Karlstom Outstanding Educator Award and the SIGCSE Award for Outstanding Contributions to Computer Science Education for his work in advancing computer science education. He has also been a leader in democratizing access to education through computer science, from his role in launching MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW), a web-based publication of MIT course content accessible to all, to D-Space, MIT’s online repository of digital research materials.

Now, Abelson is making waves again with his work developing the new Center for Mobile Learning at MIT and a new program called App Inventor, which is designed to allow individuals with no programming background the opportunity to create mobile applications. The Center, which is led by Abelson, Professor Eric Klopfer and Professor Mitchel Resnick, is dedicated to putting mobile technology into the hands of children as a vehicle for learning.

“Our philosophy is that we want to make it possible for everyone to be creative thinkers using mobile technology,” said Abelson. “Instead of just having professional people writing programs, we think about how to put this technology into the hands of all learners.”

App Inventor provides an interface that allows individuals with no computer science background to program and develop mobile applications. The program currently has 300,000 users, and is employed for a wide variety of different purposes, from an application created by students in Arkansas that tracks wild hog sightings (Abelson’s current favorite) to one used by humanitarian workers in Haiti that measures rainfall.

Abelson’s current goal is to develop an educational curriculum based around mobile technologies like App Inventor to help teach computer science in schools and provide children with the opportunity to actively participate in the creation of new technologies. The App Inventor team recently unveiled an App Inventor curriculum, designed for use in classrooms and workshops, which will help teach introductory computer science to students in middle school and high school.

At the university level, Abelson and his colleagues are looking into developing programs that will use App Inventor as an introduction to teaching more traditional computer science concepts. For example, at the University of San Francisco, App Inventor is taught as a course for non-computer-science majors. Despite the students’ lack of programming experience, they have developed a number of widely recognized applications, including a program that verbally reminds people not to text while driving.

Additionally, Abelson has realized the potential for empowering learners of all ages via mobile technology. In keeping with this spirit, the Center for Mobile Learning has partnered with UNED, the Center for Virtual Higher Education, Telefonica and Banco Santander Learning Services to develop an online App Inventor curriculum to help encourage innovation and entrepreneurship in Spain and Latin America.

“We have this general notion that we want to convert this mobile technology from something that people view as a consumer product to something that they see themselves as being active about,” said Abelson. “What surprised me is we thought about kids when designing App Inventor, but there are a bunch of people using the program who want to be self learners in digital technology and those aren’t kids, those are people of all ages.”

All of Abelson’s work with App Inventor and the Center for Mobile Learning fits in with his overall vision for the future of education, and how online and mobile learning can be used to expand educational opportunities for all. Abelson sees programs like edX as a new method for allowing remote learners the opportunity to experience MIT-caliber courses and the community atmosphere of a university. Within the next five years, Abelson believes that the ability to offer interactive, online courses will be widespread, increasing learning opportunities for students and teaching opportunities for educators.