Programming as easy as ABC

Home Technologist 03 Programming as easy as ABC

Video games can help teach information technology. But only if the teachers know what they’re doing.

Photo of Marc Bodmer

Ask teachers about video games, and you rarely get an enthusiastic response. The objections are familiar. They’re a waste of time; they make kids dumb, fat and aggressive; they’re addictive.

Ask teachers about their personal experiences with video games and they’ll often concede that it’s limited. Typically, they will say they don’t have the time, they’re not “the gaming type” or they don’t want to become addicted themselves.

Like engrossing books, computer games do indeed take up a lot of time. But that alone is not a reason to exclude such a popular medium from the classroom. More than 80 per cent of male youths between ages 12 and 18 regularly play video games.

In fact, my personal experience in school workshops as well as recent statistics from the U.S. indicate that the gender gap is disappearing; only slightly more males than females now play computer games. These games have become part of our canon of general entertainment. If we don’t accept this fact in a school setting, we’re not doing our students any favours.

“Video games are tools for learning,” says American linguist James Paul Gee. But the question is: learning for the game or for life? It’s not enough to camouflage a difficult topic with video games. Either the game is fun or the desired learning objective falls short because the play and learning goals are too distant. In rare cases, they’re almost identical.

To ensure that knowledge is transferred from the game to everyday practice, you need pedagogical support. There is virtually no limit to the imagination of teachers in this regard, provided they have a minimal idea of what children and adolescents like to do. In addition to a conventional illustrative function, games can also be used to teach such activities as programming.

Neelie Kroes, vice president of the European Commission, recently declared in her blog that programming is the “new literacy”. If you can program, you can help shape the future.

Can programming be taught to primary school students without dumbing it down? Certainly. The sadly widespread belief that a particular audience – whether readers of a newspaper or, in our case, children – is too dumb to understand something, points only to arrogance and incompetence at best. The art – and many believe the German word for “art” [Kunst] derives from the verb “to be able” [können] – is to convey the content so that it can be understood without losing its essence.

A prime example of this is scalable game design as developed by Alexander Repenning, a Swiss-born professor of computer science at the University of Colorado. He has created a programming language that allows students to use simple command blocks to build a working level of a classic video game like “Frogger” in just a few hours. The fascinating thing is that the teacher does not need advanced ICT skills. A three-day introductory course qualifies him or her to teach the programming language.

Like “normal” coding, working with scalable game design requires full attention because the uncompromising logic and school of thought behind programming is the same. Despite such challenges, more than two-thirds of the students who tried it wanted to continue coding.

A column by Marc Bodmer

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