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Mobile Phone Application Challenge

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PBL in Metalwork has not been my only foray into Project Based Learning. Now I do not profess that what I have been using is strictly PBL or the Apple version CBL.

So what came after the Metalwork attempt, the mobile phone app challenge. In the last weeks of term 1 this year I introduced this concept to my year 9 IST class. We spent 75 minutes discussing what was expected.

The next lesson they all lined up outside before coming into the room and selecting their chosen mobile platform. There were three platforms for them to choose from: Apple’s iOS, Android and Windows Phone 7.

The 24 students that we started the term with (several students have since left the school), separated perfectly into the three groups. They were all provided with their platforms device so they could start their research. The questions of inquiring minds came thick and fast and we ran out of time in the lesson.

Basically I asked the students to develop a concept of a mobile application from which they would then produce and deploy to a device within a ten week period (turned out to be 11 weeks). The application had to follow the given platforms requirements and be suitable for submission to the platforms appstore. There would be two presentations, one at week five and the final “Keynote” where they would launch their application to the world. This final presentation was to be delivered in-front of the Principal. Each group was also to provide detail information of their progress with lesson by lesson updates on a group posterous account. These updates were intended to be reinforcements of the students individual KWL (What I KNOW, What I WANT to KNOW, What I LEARNED), forms from each lesson. In the final week each student had to present their own one page reflection and working timeline in a spreadsheet.

As to be expected the first week or so was a little bumpy. Firstly the students who are not used to this style of inquiry learning (Dean you will have to help here, is it inquiry or enquiry?), had to find their feet and work out their position within their group. This step for some takes longer than you would think, combined with the normal power brooking that happens can be quite fun to observe. Secondly and probably the hardest part, deciding as a group where you were at re: being able to design and code a mobile phone application in what is a foreign language.

Here is the part that should surprise many teachers. I never taught any of these students any form of C based computer languages. They were thrown in the deep end. The only computer languages these students had known prior was the HTML and CSS work completed the term earlier. Some had some coding experience with JavaScript, though this would not really help them through this challenge. Mobile phones, no matter which platform all have very high order design principles used to make them efficient on such small devices. New terms such as objective-c, C# Java, MVC (Model View Controller) and a like all became new terms rolling off the students tongues.

Another surprising fact, which many teachers at the 1 to 1 unconference found hard to believe is that I supplied all hardware and platform developer licenses. So thats three computers, one Mac, two Windows, one iPod, one HTC Wildfire, one HTC HD7 Windows Phone 7 and an Apple and Windows Phone developer accounts. I already had most of the parts in place for my own use as a developer. Though if you want to follow and do something similar, this will be your biggest hurdle. More on this at the end.

I observed and assisted where required for next couple weeks. I also provided each group with two ebooks on developing and suggested apps for their platforms. Probably not to surprising the students all went with the Internet. It was also at this juncture that the Android team made a decision on which way they would go with their application. With Android there are two ways to develop an application, one use the prescribed Java based tools such as the Eclipse IDE and the Android emulator or an online tool made supplied by Google called appinventor. Appinventor was designed by Google to allow owners of Android handsets to develop their own quirky applications simply. The Java based interface of appinventor works similarly to that of Scratch from MiT that many people use as a starting point for computer programming. The Android team went with appinventor and its block style (visual) programming.

Leading up to the first presentation I asked each group to show me how many attempts they had made before finding an application on which to continue. Their folders were full of aborted applications and signs of learning from their failures.

iPhone application directory full of failed attempts

iPhone application directory full of failed attempts

These first presentations were not quite at the standard I was hoping for, the iPhone group were the most advanced, though I expect that this is because of the particular students in the group, one in particular. The windows group though on schedule with their application lacked with their presentation work. The Android group  were well all at sea, there was internal issues as to why they had chosen their application development path, basically they had to many chiefs and not enough brave Indians.

In the weeks to come before the final keynote there were many restarts and head scratching in all three groups. The iPhone group had had four different group members have a crack at their stop watch application. It was the fifth group member for who the penny finally dropped and dragged the line from one element to another and presto, the application lived in both the emulator and on the iPod. The Windows Phone group had there application finished first (I believe this was due to the Visual Studio IDE environment they were working in as it does not require any dragging of components like Apples Xcode IDE). Even with a graphically driven coding model and a YouTube video with instructions the Android crew were well off the pace and would be all the way to the end. Their internal infighting was not beneficial to the cause yet they were all happy enough.

Week nine came and we had all the groups application’s running on devices, the Android “Clock” was a little buggy otherwise they were fine. Last minute changes and final preparations were made for the big keynote the week after.

Turned out the Apple team were the only ones fully prepared for the keynote in front of the Principal. The keynote was not as good as Steve Jobs and Apple Inc, but it was quite impressive.

On the whole I was impressed by the way the students reacted to and took up the challenge set before them.

At the 1 to 1 Unconference I presented my classes work to anyone who wanted to see my show case, all the files can be found here a long with links to each groups account.

At the conference several teachers asked  me if I would do anything differently, at the time I said no. On reflection though I would change from the three platforms and even though we at the DEC have a relationship with Windows I would go with Google and Android. The simple fact is economics, it costs nothing to test your applications on Android devices. Simply change a setting and you can debug an application. If the student wanted to place their application on the Android appstore the fee to do so is only $25 USD. The only other thing I would change is doing it all again after throwing them in the deep end first. I would follow up this ten weeks with a following ten weeks or more were I would explicitly teach how to program in Java for the Android platform then see how much more they would achieve.

Written by theMolisticView

August 1st, 2011 at 2:18 pm

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