Early this summer, I wrote about Google's App Inventor for Android devices, calling it a slick tool for schools. Having finally coded up a couple apps last night (see my related article and gallery over on Googling Google), I can say without hesitation that this is far more than slick. This is the natural progression for anyone who has been using Scratch with students and makes Android a compelling platform for computer science and math education (and, quite frankly, for education in general).
It isn't perfect, of course. As I discovered, the interactive response system app that I created, leveraging Twitter and hash tags couldn't function because App Inventor doesn't support OAuth. You can still download it by scanning this QR code with your Android phone to get an idea of what 20 minutes with App Inventor can do for a motivated teacher or student.
Glitches aside, this is simply not something you can do with any other phone. Developing applications that get students to first think about algorithms, efficiency, and fundamental concepts of computer science and programming and then turn around and actually make something happen on devices they hold near and dear to their hearts (their mobile phones) is the epitome of 21st Century education. These applications can do everything from access databases, interact with the web, play music, or provide relatively sophisticated gameplay. The emphasis is not on Java or any particular programming language but on logical thought and experiential learning.
Many educators have had great success using MIT's Scratch in class to teach similar concepts (the App Inventor's core programmatic interface is based on Scratch's underlying constructs). However, it's one thing to create games and applications on a PC, but it really is a different experience to so fundamentally control the actions of your phone.
As I was building these very simple apps last night, my initial focus was just on evaluating the interface and the ease with which the average geek (which actually includes most Digital Natives at this point, whether or not they embrace the label) could dive in head first and start programming. However, because the interface is so easy to master and the objects, methods, and attributes are so well documented, it wasn't long before I started envisioning fleets of Android tablets running custom applications designed by students and their teachers. It was like Christmas: "The children were coding all snug at their desks, While visions of Android tablets and awesome 1:1 danced in my head."
This is the real deal. Say what you will about Google and their privacy woes. Any company that produces tools like this to empower anyone (especially our students) to learn critical programming skills and algorithmic thought get's an A in my book.