Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Some Thoughts on Drag and Drop Block Programming

I’ve toyed with drag and drop or block based programming for a bunch of years now. I even keep a list of block programming platforms. But this year I am really using them a lot with students. It’s been a real learning experience for me and my students. I’m using AppInventor with my mobile application programming students and code.org’s AppLab with my APCS Principles students. Now the AP class is using AppLab with JavaScript now but we started with the blocks and the interface is still very much drag and drop related.

I’m thinking about this in two ways. One as for my own projects and one as a teaching tool. I’m old school – started programming with punch cards and FORTRAN – so I confess that I am still most comfortable doing my own programming in traditional languages (mostly in C# these days with some Visual basic depending on my mood0. For for students things are different.

First the good. In many ways my mobile apps students are doing more advanced things than my Honors Programming students (C# there). For example connecting to Amazon’s API is a snap in AppInventor. Setting up things like nested code is also very easy. Syntax problems are pretty much not an issue. So we are covering a lot of concepts. That’s all great. I wonder how it will translate for learning text based languages. My AP students all have previous (to applab) experience with text based languages so they are not a control group for me.

One the down side, debugging block based code is different for me. I’m used to traditional debuggers and I haven’t figured out how (or if) that can be done in AppInventor. So of course I go old school with taking code out or adding messages in different places. Error messages in AppInventor are an area where I am facing a learning curve. The idiom is different and I’m teaching myself so it can be slow at times. Next time I teach this it will be better though as my students are showing me a lot of bugs learning opportunities. Still I have had the AppInventor emulator crash with no usable error message and that is a problem. I want to see if I can get some cheap devices to use next year. I think that will make some things better.

UI formatting is an other area I am struggling with. I think this is both a lack of experience and practice with the tool combined with different limitations on a mobile device screen. I am less than happy with my UI for my Windows Phone app which I wrote in C# and Visual Studio which suggests I need help with small screen UI design anyway.

In any case the students in my mobile app class are learning a lot (I think) and enjoying the course (I think) which are good indicators of success. I’m pretty happy with that. I’ll use AppInventor for future sections of Mobile App Programming.

I still feel like blocks are best for small apps and for beginners. Yes, I know people make some pretty sophisticated programs with them but I struggle to wrap my head about that being as easy as text based languages. Maybe 45 years of experience writing text based code is a learning disability for me. Or maybe I just need the right teacher? I’m taking blame here and trying not to blame the tools.

Today block programming languages seem to be mostly designed as teaching tools and they are good at that. I think a lot more has to be done to really make them usable as general purpose languages for more complicated large projects. I do think they can get there even if the path isn’t obvious to me.