Great intro to the ideas, structures, and vocabulary of computer programming with room for learners to express themselves creatively.

Submitted 5 years ago
My Rating

My Take

Age Group: 8-16 years old,
Actual User Demographics: 37% of users age 12 and under; 36% of users age 13-17; 27% of users age 18+
Content Area: digital literacy, computer programming
Specific Skills:- creative thinking, systematic reasoning, collaboration, mathematical reasoning, computational reasoning
Computer Science concepts: conditionals, loops, timers, booleans, events, logical operators)

Product Claims
Stated Goal: “Scratch helps young people learn to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively.”

A research paper published by MIT Media Lab in Nov. 2009 (just over two years after Scratch’s May 2007 public release) states that the site was founded on the belief that “‘digital fluency’ should mean designing, creating, and remixing, not just browsing, chatting, and interacting” (DOI: 10.1145/1592761.1592779). It was designed to be “more tinkerable, more meaningful, and more social” than earlier and existing programming environments, which are viewed by many, the paper attests, as only accessible to a few very intelligent or technically skilled people.
One of the nice things as a new user is that the site is full of step-by-step tutorials and examples. While some may enjoy the freedom to experiment and click through the different menus trying things, others may appreciate some direction. The possibilities range from simple race games (click a button to move characters horizontally across the screen) to complex Tetris analogues and extended videos with extensive animated storylines. As the team states, “our primary goal is not to prepare people for careers as professional programmers but to nurture a new generation of creative, systematic thinkers comfortable using programming to express their ideas” (DOI: 10.1145/1592761.1592779). Thus, users do not learn a formal programming language like C++, JavaScript, or Python, but they do learn the concepts and structures that underlie these languages. There is certainly room for users to grow with the system.

Evidence Regarding Product Claims
While working with the system, I did find Scratch to be a “tinkerable” programming environment. Statements are separated into blocks that serve different purposes. Blocks can move an image in the view screen, create a conditional if-this-then-that controls, loop to repeat actions, play sounds, take user input, and many other things. The blocks are color-coded based on what they do, and have notches on the top and/or bottom showing the possibility to link other statements before and after. Control structures like loops and if-statements look like extended brackets, visually indicating to the user that other things can be put inside. Because there is no messy syntax and punctuation to worry about, if the blocks fit your statement is executable. Furthermore, you can have multiple groups of commands in your workspace not necessarily attached- just click the one you want to execute. This encourages the user to try things without having to have a complete plan in place before they start.
In terms of meaningful, being able to create many different things like games, animations, story lines, quizzes, songs, and so many other things provides room for a student to express herself and personalize her experience. It clearly sends the message that computer programming is accessible and can be used to support many different areas of interest and levels of ability. It is certainly rich in computer programming content, offering ways for students to experiment with their creativity while gaining experience with real programming terms and ideas of if-then-else, true-false, and-or-not, and variables among other things.
In terms of social, the website provides the ability to view projects other users have chosen to share (projects are accessible only to the creator by default). The online community supports and values a concept of “remixing.” When viewing a shared project, the user can “See Inside” to view the code alongside the execution. Then, by hitting the “Remix” button you create a copy of the other user’s scripts in your own workspace. This allows users to tinker, changing settings, adding features, and figuring out how the code works. If you chose to share your remixed version, the site automatically provides a link to the original users version to give credit. There are also opportunities to collaborate with other users, forming teams to work on large projects and share skills and ideas. Learning from each other is key in the collaborative, social aspect of Scratch.

The system is produced by the Lifelong Kindergarten Research Group at the MIT Media Lab. The project has been the subject of 45 research papers and presentations, and the program has received seven National Science Foundation grants. In addition to MIT, researchers from University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, University of Washington, University of California-Irvine, College of Charleston, Utah State University, Indiana University, and Microsoft Research have published papers and presented at conferences about the learning model, the system itself, and its outcomes. Material for this research comes from the site itself. As the privacy policy states, “Any publicly shared projects, comments, or other material on the Scratch site may be included in the research analysis, presentations, papers, and reports.”

The website has a clear privacy policy spelled out in accessible language. It consists of four sections: What information does the Scratch Team collect about me, How does the Scratch Team use my information, How can I update my personal information, and How does the Scratch Team protect my information? The privacy policy states that Scratch will never sell or share email addresses. De-identified information (location, gender, age, and usage) are shared with researchers and educators for research purposes. The system does use cookies to remember user login information. Scratch also uses Google Analytics to improve their website. Google Analytics collects “IP addresses, network locations, and geographic locations,” as well as “which pages you visited, and what browser you are using,” according to the Scratch website. The site requires a parent or guardian’s email address with registration of any child under 13-years-old, and the parents must click a link in an email to activate the student’s response. Educators are encouraged to read the full privacy policy and consult with your district’s policies before deciding if these terms are acceptable for your students.

How I Use It

Idea for Formal Education Implementation
For a formal classroom setting, Scratch could provide an excellent extension to mathematics activities, especially as students are learning basic math facts. Several other projects have been created by users that function as quizzes and games. Group students into pairs or triplets so they can work together. Instruct students that they must create a game that includes at least 10 math facts of at least two operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division). The user must answer a math fact correctly to advance in the game. I would recommend this as a week-long activity, with 30 minutes of work each of the 5 day. Give students the first day to explore the program, trying things, working through tutorials, and looking at what other users have created. Give them the next three days to create and test their game. Then, on the final day, the students can walk around the room playing each other’s games and seeing what their classmates created.

Idea for Informal Education Implementation
For an informal educational setting, it may not be as critical to tie to typical content areas. Instead, students could be given to goal to create an animation, or a series of images that move around and speak with text boxes or audio sound. To provide some guidance, recommend at least two characters, 10 lines of conversation, and 4 movements. This way students can engage their creativity as they come up with a story to share. Work like this is probably best done in 30-45 minute increments - too much longer and students may become frustrated or lose interest in the early stages of their learning. Provide them with perhaps 6 sessions of 30 minutes each to work, and again encourage them to work together in groups of two or three.

Teacher Guidance Recommendation
Teacher guidance is important in use of the Scratch platform, largely to provide encouragement. Based on the culture and norms of your program, the many possibilities and options of the Scratch platform may be overwhelming for your students. Encourage students to tell you their ideas, celebrate the many things they have tried regardless of which ones worked and which did not. Emphasize the fact that every time something did not turn out the way they expected, they learned something about the way the program works.
Teacher guidance is also necessary to monitor and restrict student use of the forums because of privacy and safety concerns. From scanning the forums, conversations seem on-topic and free of profanities, “Report” button available at the bottom of every post. However, there is inherent risk anytime one is corresponding with strangers. Students need to learn and be reminded not to post any personally-identifiable information on the forums, like real name, address, city, birthday, phone number, or anything else someone could use to contact them outside of the scratch community. Playing offline is an option, so if your students have not yet learned these safety lessons, they can create and program without accessing the forum. Still, the step-by-step tutorials and example projects posted on the website provide a valuable learning resource. Students could be instructed to use the projects as a guide, but to not read or post in the forums.