Friday, April 15, 2016

Learning to Code One Box at a Time.

Flashback to 1988.  I'm lurking in the electronics department of the local Sears department store.  I drift over to the shiny new IBM clone computers.  After a quick glance left and right to ensure the coast was clear, I deftly exited out of Windows 2.1 and launched GWBasic from the command line.  I only needed two lines of code.

10 Print "Sears is full of Idiots"
20 Goto 10

I'd press enter as I quickly walked away.  Not too far, however, because most of the fun was watching the "television expert" or the "appliance specialist" notice my handywork and struggle to try to stop it.  Soon, two workers would be huddled around the PC trying any number of key strokes before finally reaching around and pulling the power cable out of the back of the machine.  For those without any coding experience, let me explain.  Those two lines of BASIC code would display "Sears is full of Idiots" on the screen. Again and again, ad infinitum. No, this isn't a "how I got caught shoplifting" story of my arrest, but the middle-aged appliance salesmen probably thought it should be.  This oft repeated exercise in hilarity was available to me through learning to code.

During the 1980s and 90s, coding was the realm of the geeks, the War Games watching nerds who entertained ourselves, I mean themselves, pounding away at a keyboard copying hundreds of lines of code from the latest copy of the Basic Computer Games series of books.  Back then, programming was for a small number of teens that had a particular interest in it.  Over the last five years or so, as technology has become more and more a part of our everyday lives, coding has become more popular in the mainstream of education.  Code.org launched the first Hour of Code event in late 2013 and more and more schools are becoming involved.  However, many schools do not have the experienced teachers to fully implement a program and often the teachers feel too pressed to cover mandated curricular topics.  Coding is working it's way into that category, but for most it is not there yet.

Many teachers, Instructional Technology Coaches and parents, however, see the value of coding and not just during one hour of one year.  But they need fun and engaging strategies and tools to use with students.  One interesting approach has been adopted by the team over at Bitsbox.com.  They provide a monthly subscription program that delivers a box full of interesting coding activities by mail.  Last month, they shipped a sample box for me to take a look.  Now, as eager as I was to dive in, I decided that since Bitsboxes are targeted towards kids, I needed some help.  So I recruited a couple of nine year old kids (twins, A. and E.) to help me out.

Opening the box was exciting.  The box contained app trading cards, stickers, temporary tattoos and a mystery toy.  In keeping with the Spy theme of this box, the toy was a pair of special glasses that allowed you to look behind yourself undetected.  These are of course just novelty items to add a little interest; the heart of the box is the book full of coding apps.


The book is a well produced, glossy soft cover book of about 20 pages.  It feels good and I expect it will last even with repeated use.  It is filled with apps that can be entered into a web-based program that will actually execute the code.  Each sample app has an app code that you enter on the Bitsbox website from a computer with a hard keyboard.

So, we pulled out the MacBook and opened Chrome and headed over to Bitsbox.com.  The instructions said to click on "Get Started" but I couldn't find any such link.  I scrolled down and back up.  I reloaded the page.  Nothing.  I Googled it and the help I found was the same- just click "Get Started."  But it was no where to be found.  I fired up a Windows PC and had the same results, no "Get Started" link to be found.  After I muddled around for a few more minutes, I played a hunch,  opened up Safari and there is was, top right corner, just where it was supposed to be.  I checked Firefox and the link displays properly there as well, but this is something the BitsBox team needs to address.  Especially with the popularity of Chromebooks in schools, this should work in Chrome, but if they can't make that happen, then it needs to be prominently a part of the instructions.

Once you get into the site, you have to create an account.  This worried me a bit as it does require an email address for the kids account, but it is necessary to save your apps.  The FAQ page does include a tip on how to use the parents email address to setup a kids account and even how to create multiple accounts under the same email address.

Once that is done and you log in, you will see a virtual tablet.  Click the New App button a the bottom and you are prompted for a four digit App Number.  These numbers are in the App Book included in the kit.  Enter the number and you are presented with a virtual tablet computer alongside a coding area.  Now the kids enter the lines of code from the book.  Once entered (exactly, of course) you can click the green arrow to execute the program.  If everything has been entered correctly, the app will run on the virtual tablet.  The book will then prompt the kids to change a setting or two to demonstrate how the app works.

Here is where I was left wanting a little more.  I have the background to talk the kids through thinking about what was happening, but not all parents or even teachers may feel comfortable with that.  For instance, Bistbox uses the stamp command to display a picture.  I felt I needed to walk the twins through understanding that the stamp command would always do that but the variable that followed the command determined what picture would display.  There is no discussion of what is happening with each command in the App Book.

The apps start very simple, just two lines for the first one, but get progressively more complex.  With a bit more explanation by me about how the commands work and worked together, the twins were really starting to get the hang of not only entering and executing the sample programs, but were getting really good at predicting what was going to happen and how they could modify the app.  I wish the App Book included that challenge of predicting what might happen as that is a true gauge of student understanding.

The apps were engaging for the kids.  My test subjects took a bit of time to enter the lines of codes, however, which with taking turns meant that one of them was always just waiting in the wings.  I tried to keep the second kid engaged by prompting them with questions about what they thought this app might do, but for many teachers and parents, this could be a problem.  Any time a kid has to wait with nothing to do, there is a risk of losing them.  It would be great if the App Book included a background story that could be read by one as the other entered the lines of code.

Once an app has been entered into the web-based system and executed on the virtual tablet, you can click the share button to display a QR code.  The code can be read with any QR code reader app on a tablet device and the app will open and can be played on the tablet.  Once this is done, it does give that second kid something to work on while the next lines of code are entered into the computer.

It will take kids several sessions to work through a complete App Book, especially since the book ends with Coding Challenges that provide only a challenge and a few new variables that can be used to code an original app to complete the challenge.  While we haven't gotten to these yet, I looked over them and expect them to provide an extended session while the twins work through the challenge.

All in all, I found the BitsBox to be well designed with only a few things I wished to see.  The missing link in Chrome should be an easy fix.  My desire for a backstory or some other activity to fill the time of a second child while the first one enters lines of code would be a huge plus, but I strongly believe that a parent/adult guide to accompany each book to provide guidance and vocabulary help would really make these kits an incredibly valuable tool.  They have such a guide now but it is not mentioned in the App Book.  I found it on the website in the Educators section, an area many parents may never think to visit.

Bitsbox does provide additional online activities and even has a dedicated Hour of Code page that can be used without a login and provides several additional free activities.  They also have a dedicated Educators page that includes that great Grownups Guide along with coding activities, some of which can even be completed without a device.

Bitsbox is a $30 per month subscription for the regular Bitsbox but a download only version is also available for just $20 per month.  You can learn more and sign up at www.bitsbox.com.

Note: Bitsbox provided me a complimentary sample box upon request, which was used to write this review.  They did not request, nor were they provided, any editorial review of this post.

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