Want the ability to see where your child’s school bus is idling? Or maybe you’re interested in tracking wild hogs in Alabama? As they say, there’s an app for that.
But an app like the Ez School Bus Locator wasn’t created by computer scientists in Silicon Valley. It’s one of more than 3 million projects created using MIT App Inventor — a number that will continue rising with the new App Inventor 2, which was launched Dec. 6 in conjunction with Computer Science Education Week.
With App Inventor — a joint project of MIT's Media Lab and Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory — anyone can build an app for an Android phone just by using a web browser and either a connected phone or an emulator. According to Josh Sheldon, program manager at the MIT Center for Mobile Learning and a member of the App Inventor team, it’s an invaluable resource that “puts the power in the mobile user.”
“It’s huge for anyone with a smartphone who has wanted to use some app but has not been able to find it,” says Sheldon, who adds that releasing App Inventor 2 in conjunction with Computer Science Education Week increased its visibility and showed students who may not be aware of App Inventor “what they could be able to do.”
There are a number of key differences between App Inventor 2 and its original incarnation. First — and most importantly — App Inventor 2 is now entirely run from the browser. With the original App Inventor, users had to install and run a Java file. There have also been numerous improvements to the user experience, as well as aesthetic alterations.
According to Hal Abelson, the Class of 1922 Professor of Computer Science and Engineering and co-director of the Center for Mobile Learning, based at the MIT Media Lab, MIT App Inventor 2 currently has 100,000 users who have built 140,000 apps. MIT App Inventor 1, launched in March 2012 after incubation at Google, currently has 1.3 million users who have built 3.2 million apps.
The volume of users is not surprising, Abelson says, considering the key role that App Inventor has played in computer science education for both teachers and students.
“The way people have been thinking about teaching computer science is the same as it was in the 1980s,” Abelson says. “But that has very little relation to kids now. They use their cellphones to communicate and for social networking. You have to think about how to create a relatable experience for them.”
App Inventor was initially released by Google in 2009, but two years later, the company announced that it was no longer going to run App Inventor. The Center for Mobile Learning was selected to host a public server for App Inventor, in addition to making the App Inventor code open-source.
Since its inception, a million users have registered to access App Inventor; its impact has resonated globally. For instance, the CAVE Education Group — which is involved with robotics education in Taiwan — hosts numerous online lessons on App Inventor. App Inventor has also been used in humanitarian efforts in Haiti, aiding in areas such as the tracking of rainfall data.
“People all around the world have been using App Inventor for everything you can think of,” says Shaileen Pokress, education director at the Center for Mobile Learning. “It allows people to be programmers. It empowers them and exposes them to computer science.”