iPad has potential as programming teaching tool, if Apple would let it

The iPad (s aapl) today is used in a lot of places that would surprise most people who regarded the thing as “just a big iPod touch” back when it debuted in early 2010: in corporate offices, in hospitals, in church pulpits, airline cockpits, and more. As sales continue to skyrocket, it’s becoming even more clear that another knock on the iPad, that it’s mainly a “consumption device” and not really for creation of content, is also becoming, well, inaccurate.
My favorite example of this came to me by way of Phillip Alvelda. Tech folks know him as the founder and former CEO of MobiTV. But his latest passion is his foundation, the Westminster Institute for Science Education. Through it, one of the courses he teaches is basic programming for middle schoolers. And what is he using for his course ? The iPad.
After his time at MIT, CalTech, NASA and in the tech startup world, Alvelda is now tackling the decline of science in schools’ elementary, middle- and high-school curriculum. What kids are currently taught does not “have much to do with what science is actually like,” Alvelda tells me. “It’s more about history of science and other people’s ideas.”
His foundation’s philosophy is to teach young people the power of creative exploration using 21st century tools. The class he teaches uses the iPad (a 21st century digital tool that’s far cheaper than anything most schools can afford of similar capability, he says) and an app called Codea. The app enables the creation of games and projects right on the device using the Lua programming language. (See video below for example.) Alvelda (who has no affiliation with Codea) calls it “a completely powerful and self-contained programming environment” that he says is great for teaching simple programming, something he considers essential for them when they eventually become working adults.
Codea, which first hit Apple’s App Store in October for $7.99, was created by Simeon Nasilowski, a programmer living in Adelaide, Australia who says he started designing the app never imagining it would be used in an educational setting, much less anyone else even seeing it.
He’s a mobile app developer by trade, but built Codea for himself because, he says, he wanted to write a bit of code but didn’t have his laptop on him. Most of the time, if he was away from his desk and inspiration stuck, all he’d have on him was his iPad.
But it wasn’t just about convenience for Nasilowski either. He also believes in touch as a fantastic interaction mode for programming for its ability to simplify the sometimes needlessly complicated. An example, cited by Nasilowski:

When you write code you could try to define a color as three values, red, green and blue with values between 0 and 255. You might type “120” and that’s some sort of gray. In Codea, if you have a function or part of your code that requires a color, it highlights that part of the code and it pops up a color picker you choose from there.

That simplicity and ease of interaction is what makes this app and a tool like the iPad so appealing to Alvelda and other forward-thinking educators. The iPad is a cheap, simple way to teach programming, the potential lingua franca of the future. Plus, you don’t need a developer license or a lot of money. But despite all the possibility and promise of that, Apple’s stance on certain kinds of coding apps is working against this goal.

Codea did make it through the App Store verification process — Apple somewhat relaxed rules last year that stated apps cannot contain any non-Apple executable code. Now the rule limits only downloadable executable code. Other coding apps have been approved too, like Textastic, For: i and Koder.
Codea has seen 25,000 downloads since October, but just last week Apple contacted Nasilowski and had him take out the code-sharing feature of his app. A disappointment for sure. It’s not just Codea though. A more high-profile kerfuffle happened in 2010 when Apple rejected Scratch, a well-liked programming app for kids created by MIT’s Media Lab. The reason it was rejected was under the former rules — that have since been relaxed — that banned any executable code that wasn’t Apple’s.

Like Codea, Apple also took issue with Scratch’s community-oriented nature, which included the ability to share projects. For Mitchel Resnick, professor of learning research at the MIT Media Lab and creator of Scratch, the sharing is the key element in the learning process:

Obstacles came across because we think that when you design and create it’s great to do it as part of a community. With the iPad you weren’t able to share things as part of a community. We could do a special version of Scratch for the iPad, but the restrictions make it so you couldn’t download projects from the online Scratch community. The social dimension of learning is very important.

Scratch still flourishes without an iPad app. And, of course, it’s not Apple’s job to make education tools. The company makes consumer products. But Apple has deep roots in equipping schools with the latest technology and is possibly getting ready to take on the textbook industry.
There are plenty of ways Apple devices like the iPad can be tools for creativity, learning and productivity without apps like the ones Resnick and Alvelda would love to see. But considering Steve Jobs’ passion for the intersection of liberal arts and technology, it could do so much more.
“There are so may examples of the iPad being a creative tool in other disciplines — Sketchbook, Garage Band,” said Alvelda. “Doesn’t it seem odd you can’t use it to make tremendous works of technology?”