Review by Mark Chen, Common Sense Education | Updated June 2014


Easy to jump in -- and get confused -- with this web-based game maker

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7-12 This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
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Pros: Students can tinker and tweak any game made with Flowlab to learn through deconstruction.

Cons: The flowchart inspired programming quickly feels constraining and impenetrable.

Bottom Line: Teachers who can't install software on their classroom computers may want to give Flowlab a try; otherwise far better game-making tools are available.

Teachers could use Flowlab as a starting point for teaching programming and game design. This would have to be heavily supported by additional materials, which currently the teacher would need to supply. Flowlab makes it easy for students to create a simple platform game -- although probably not a very good one -- without a lot of effort and direction.

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Flowlab is a game-making tool that’s targeted toward beginners, making it potentially perfect for upper-elementary or middle-school students, but the integration of Facebook as the discussion system (with all that that entails) means that the experience ends up fitting better with upper middle school students. Flowlab doesn't require -- or even allow -- users to type in script or code. Instead, behaviors for game objects are created with a flowchart style drag-and-drop interface. Users link statements, and the game engine interprets those structures in a linear fashion on the fly. The idea sounds cool, but for anything beyond the basics, the workspace ends up extremely convoluted and the flowchart system can sometimes make something normally trivial to code more difficult to accomplish.

It's helpful that it runs in a browser making it easy to set up, but the Facebook integration might mean it gets blocked by the school firewall. Since it's web-based, students with access at home can continue working on their projects. Another potential boon is that any game made with Flowlab can be remixed, encouraging the development of a community of learners. The problem is that there’s no good way to filter and sort through the games, most of which seem to be partially finished projects created by users who presumably just tried out the tool a few times.

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Perhaps due to its beta status, Flowlab is hindered by a lack of built-in scaffolding (e.g., tutorials or guides) or even any documentation that students can follow. This is particularly frustrating given its overly obtuse programming metaphor.

Flowlab is yet another game-making tool in the growing market glut. Given its current problems, it's difficult to recommend except at a school that doesn't allow teachers to install software on their classroom computers. Flowlab is in beta, however, and it's possible that most of its current issues will go away. More work needs to be put into making it easier to get help when needed (maybe the design of an initial set of lessons?) and into developing its online community. Improving these would make Flowlab a site to keep an eye on. As it is, the programming metaphor may serve to confuse more than actually scaffold computational thinking.

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Overall Rating

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?

Flowlab has a novel flowchart approach to design, but it's easy for the creation space to get muddled and feel overwhelming and unwieldy. 

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?

There's some stock art to use, but very little in the way of actual tutorials. Users can remix each other's games -- which encourages a community of sharing and learning -- but this needs support and Facebook comments are a mixed bag.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?

Flowlab does have an online community, but right now it's almost impossible to find anything useful. Discussion boards lack organization and are inundated with clutter.

Common Sense Reviewer
Mark Chen Researcher

Teacher Reviews

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Featured review by
Jonathan K. , Technology coordinator
Technology coordinator
Had my classes hooked! Slightly arcane programming style only adds to the fun...

I have taken the plunge with this website and have bought into the Teacher Edition - this entitles you to unlimited student accounts for GBP100/year. A word of warning - setting up accounts is quite time-consuming as - at least when I tried - I had to refresh my (Chrome) browser after inputting each pupil name. Also the dashboard would benefit from a .csv upload function or similar. There is a dearth of material on the internet, save for a few YouTube videos to support student learning; especially if you're used to teaching Scratch! But in some ways this is part of the charm - you feel like you're working with something that's pretty tricky, but not too tricky, and that it's something just a little bit different. Not for the faint-of-heart, but great for stretching your students. They'll soon be teaching you....

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