Computational thinking and computer programming are increasingly considered as basic competences in our education, and these skills are increasingly included in curricula in schools at a very early stage (primary schools). Such inclusion is already a reality in Switzerland with the Lehrplan21 and is planned in the evolution of the PER (Plan d’Edutes Romand). Primary teachers are therefore asked to help children to learn concepts related to computational thinking and digital technologies and practice them in programming projects, for instance on robots.
Although significant design efforts have been invested in the past decade in successful gamification of the programming experience for children, almost no effort has been invested in supporting teachers in their educational task. Today, children can develop intricate programs in a well-gamified environment, but when they need support (i.e., finding a bug, moving toward abstraction, improving code), primary school teachers are able to offer little help because they often have a very limited background in computer programming; in addition, these gamified programming environments do not provide tools to help students and teachers compare, analyze, conceptualize, trace, and debug programs. These environments also provide insufficient help to teachers to organize the learning process, to take into account learning goals of the curriculum and orchestrate a class activity. How can a teacher introduce abstraction if there are no opportunities for abstraction in the use of programming icons? How can a teacher discuss a code of a group if he cannot retrieve it or show it to the class? Therefore, while primary school teachers can find many robots and programming tools that enable gamified programming experiences, none of them offer specific help in educational activities taking place in the class. This often results in robot programming activities that are primarily oriented toward fun but that do not provide the necessary associated education, methods, and concepts.
This project aims at taking a step beyond the gamification of robot programming. Its goal is the design (graphic, interaction, and technical) of a programming environment that brings primary school teachers into the loop, enabling them in the following requirements set by the education framework:
1. teach the right computational thinking and technology concepts to students,
2. follow the evolution of the activity in class,
3. easily identify the problems and contributions of students, and
4. evaluate the work performed by students. None of the existing programming environments used in schools supports these professional actions of primary school teachers.
The design of this type of tools must take into account their use in a professional context, but they must also be designed for teachers who have a very little training in robotics and programming, usually provided during a few days of continuing education. Therefore, standard debugging tools, for instance, are not applicable. Instead, programming activities need to be made accessible to teachers by providing an environment compatible with the educational purpose and the competence of the teachers. The programming interface has to provide professional support to the teacher in the simplest and most efficient way. Paper-based tools need to extend the programming environment to the class, enabling collaborative design and analysis, while better including the teacher. This is the core technical/design problem of this project.
As the goal is already sufficiently ambitious, this project will
- target only primary school teachers,
- be based on existing robot programming environments, and
- address only three main computational thinking aspects: analysis, algorithm design, and abstraction.
What is special about the project?
The project is very innovative, as no such educational tool exists on the market or in the research field. This project will create an environment that is unique in education and that will extend a new educational field that is critical for our society.
The project is also extremely creative as it involves a very broad set of technologies, from software to paper, and a wide range of possible approaches. We face an open field similar to that explored through gamification of development tools.
The deployment of the results builds also on a unique network of existing users:
- Thymio is already officially included in the teaching material of all French speaking cantons, in Ticino, and its diffusion in German-speaking parts of the country is progressing quickly.
- EPFL is involved in most teacher trainings of these PH and is extremely well positioned to introduce the results of this project to a very large number of teachers. To date, more than 3000 primary school teachers have attended training on Thymio.
- The focus of this project on the Lehrplan21 concepts and on computational thinking will ensure a good match with the goals of the PH of all three regions, as the German-speaking part will focus on the Lehrplan21 concepts, the French-speaking part is introducing computational thinking with pilot projects, and Ticino is pushing both programming and computational thinking skills.
A first version of the tools has been implemented and includes:
- A new redesigned visual programming environment (VPL3) with a new set of icons.
- Mechanisms that allow the teachers to customize it easily, by choosing the icons that are available for the pupils.
- Mechanisms that allow deploying this environment on tablets or computers in a class.
- Mechanisms to manage the class activities, including the possibility to stop all terminals, send example programs, and send messages.
- Mechanisms to supervise the activity of the class, with tools that give indicators for all groups of students.
- A recording of all activities for further analysis by the teacher.
The next steps will consist in deploying the developed tools in a large set of conditions: different class configurations in number of students, in group composition, in hardware solutions (tablets vs laptops vs desktop computers) and infrastructure (wifi). We will also look for different activity models that could ask for variations of the tool. This collection of feedback will steer the development of a second version of the software.
F. Mondada, M. Bonani, F. Riedo, M. Briod and L. Pereyre et al. Bringing robotics into formal education using the Thymio open source hardware robot, in IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine, vol. 24, num. 1, p. 77 - 85, 2017;
M. Chevalier, F. Riedo and F. Mondada. Pedagogical Uses of Thymio II: How Do Teachers Perceive Educational Robots in Formal Education?, in IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine, vol. 23, num. 2, p. 16-23, 2016.
None for the moment.
Persons involved in the project
Last update to this project presentation 19.11.2019