Tag Archives: apps

Computing with Purpose

Earlier today, at a birthday party for one of my daughter’s classmates, I was making small talk with a fellow parent (and for true CS/Ed geeks, note that that’s two words of small talk, with no capital letter).

As it often does, the subject of work came up, and I clarified what I did, from the overheard, “computer learning”, i.e. machine learning, to what I actually do. For the sake of the sake of the other parent, I summarized my job as helping others learn how to program computers.

The next question from this friendly person was “ah, cool, what’s the best way to learn that, then?” Rather than deluge him with a rant about the many possible ways to learn, and how it might depend on the learner, I gave what I thought at the time was a bit of a quip:

“Find a project that you want to do that requires computer programming, and learn how to do it.”

Thinking back, this is a very good answer indeed.

And it’s precisely the answer that makes sense for an adult learner (of computing, or many other things, for that matter). Why do we adults learn? Because, as mostly self-directed individuals, we’re curious. We feel the drive to learn something, or the need to learn it to enable some other drive we have. Whether it’s to improve our job performance (my next big project is to write an AI to respond to most of my emails – but that might be insulting to artificial intelligence), to build a slideshow tool for a family blog (that’s how I learned a new language, on one of the sleepless nights of my first paternity leave), or to automate the LED’s that are a part of our Halloween or community theater costume, I can concoct myriad reasons for learning to program.

But what I’ve seen fail multiple times, for myself and others, is to make the learning an academic exercise. To say “I really should learn that – why don’t I buy a book so I can,” or some version thereof.

Without a clear purpose, many well-meaning adults fail to learn that new thing.

But when someone is purposeful, about their learning, they won’t be stopped. They will persevere, learning the minutiae and early nits so they can achieve their goals.

This idea of purpose-driven learning, and purpose-driven computing, is why I care enough about computing to spend my waking hours trying to help people learn about it, and it’s an ideal that I share with Hal Abelson and others on the MIT App Inventor team. We want to make that purpose-driven learning and computing possible. We want to enable the apps that people create while learning to be real, usable, and in as many cases as possible, useful apps.

Our goal is to enable anyone, whether they start by knowing how to program computers or not, to build an app that can have real impact on their world.

Of course, there is much more to be said about the dichotomy we often see between adult, or lifelong, learning, and classroom learning (for most classrooms beyond pre-school).

How many times have we said, heard, or even heard a joke about “When are we ever going to use that?” That question does not exist for the learning I describe above – the learner is not left in the dark about the purpose of their learning, in fact, they bring the purpose. So, along with adult learning of this kind, I advocate for classroom-based purpose-driven learning.

Is it possible? Maybe; maybe not. I’d go so far as to say probably, but let’s try it and find out!


Starting with a… pffffttt…. Surprised?

This may give you some idea what to expect from this blog. It’s a (relatively) serious post about the importance of apps that making bodily function noises. Yes, it’s about why building fart noise apps matters.

Fart noise jokes are nearly ubiquitous. Make such a noise, and people will snicker, or if in polite company, try their hardest not to snicker. And they are apparently timeless as well (see Flatulence Humor, Wikipedia).

So, there is no surprise in the fact that they have moved into the digital age. There’s the story of the iPhone app that lit up the charts, But I find it more interesting to consider why young people, many of them, think making such apps is so darn appealing.

In full disclosure, I have never made my own fart noise app, though I did record my daughter laughing and make an app out of that, which I propose is related. People make apps that are important and meaningful to them. However, most of the apps I see made are not my own. By now, I have seen hundreds of youth build their first apps. Invariably, one or more in a group will make an app that makes “inappropriate” noises.


This is more than simple silliness. Yes, silliness is there in good measure. More notably, though, I think this is evidence of youth taking control of their surroundings.

Let’s look at the outcomes – the builders get attention, from peers and adults. For a moment, or longer, they are the center of the social encounter.  They know that the adults, sometimes known as authority figures, will have to contend with what to do in such a situation – should they laugh it off (giving power to the creator as a source of humor), scold or punish (giving social standing to the creator as one who can make an authority seem petty), or simply ignore (which in rare cases they do, while probably laughing inside).

Apparently, then, fart apps serve the creator well in many cases. So with that inspiration, I offer this to you to consider:

If you were 12-years old, in 2015 USA, with many aspects of life outside of your control, what would your first app do?