Friday, July 18, 2014

Can Middle School Kids Create iOS Apps?

The Problem

No question about it, Apple does not make it easy to write apps for iOS. I take the fact that the Apple Developer program license is only free to university programs to be just one sign that Apple does not expect many students in K-12 to be making apps, no matter how much teachers may want them to (and they do!). I'm not talking about rare whiz kid 12 year-olds who follow enough tutorials and have enough guidance and a fairly good idea to make an app and get it in the store. I work with teachers who want to integrate app-making for iOS into their science curriculum, with 50 students developing
content-rich apps. Is this possible?
I don't know...yet. But I'm working on it.
The apps themselves for this project are pretty simple--a "dichotomous key" structure people would be able to use to identify something scientifically in the field. Does the bug have six legs? Does the six-legged bug have wings? Does the six-legged bug with wings have a hard shell? etc. It's a lot of pages in a hierarchical structure. Maybe a messaging function people could use to take a picture of something they can't identify and send it to the author.


Two primary things we require for this app-making workflow to work are a graphical UI for building the app and the capability to use Ad Hoc distribution for the app in our school's Organizational/Business Developer License. So far I've seen these two things, but in separate tools.

The Solutions

The graphical UI is amazingly worked out in Mozilla's Appmaker. A variety of objects are available on the left, placed on the screen in the middle, tweaked on the right, and the logic for each object worked out in colorful lettered "channels" that would be easy for middle schoolers to use to link up objects and pages.
Mozilla's Appmaker
With no coding it's perfect for a project that is not meant to focus on programming skills but to use computer science tools to accomplish a learning goal. Unfortunately it is designed to install on Firefox OS devices only.
The other tool that looks promising is Appmakr. Appmakr is all about making 'native' iOS apps that can be deployed to devices through the App Store or using Ad Hoc distribution and it offers a variety of basic functionality in a clear UI and great tutorials, again with no coding. However, the one feature we need in this project would be created in this environment by simply uploading a zip file of pre-designed HTML pages. You cannot edit custom HTML in the interface itself. So that won't work either.

The Solution?

Ironically, while reading about the whiz kid at the beginning of this post I learned of a tool that may possibly offer the graphical UI and the iOS deployment capability in one package. AppGyver Composer has a graphical UI like Appmaker, though not quite as simple or intuitive. You can configure basic button actions, perform layout in the structure tab, and there is a nice logic editor section that allows you to create paths of conditional actions. And Composer facilitates an App Inventor-like device connectivity that allows you to see edits on your screen update in real time on your device. And for the other requirement, iOS deployment, AppGyver takes you through the build and deployment process.
I will have to work with Composer some before I can really tell whether middle schoolers could use it to make apps, but on the surface it looks very promising.

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