Mar 30

102. Learn Code by Playing Games (8 Apps)

programming puzzle apps 8

Computer programming might seem difficult and tedious to learn.  This doesn’t have to be the case.  Learning  to code can be fun and entertaining.  Several mobile apps help you learn basic computer programming logic by playing games or solving puzzles through a series of challenges.  When introducing these games to students, I first discuss the essential components of a programming interface.

  1. Commands library (reference materials)
  2. Code editor (where code is written or dragged and dropped)
  3. Preview stage / run screen (where the result of the code is shown)

Intro to Computer Programming

As students progress in the apps, we discuss the various computer programming concepts that we discover.  Here are a couple ideas we discuss:

Intro to Computer Programming (1)

There are lots of these “learn code by playing games” apps to choose from.  You might want to use all of the apps or just a couple of them depending on the device you will be using (iOS, Android, Windows, web) and the features you’re looking for.

Learn Code by Playing Games with These Apps…

1.  Lightbot (iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, Amazon)  $2.99

Link to Lightbot’s website

Lightbot has a few apps to choose from.  I recommend trying out the free Hour of Code app to see if you enjoy it.  If you are using a Windows tablet, then your options for coding apps may be limited.  Lightbot might be your answer.

Learn Code by Playing Games - Lightbot App Icon Learn Code by Playing Games - Lightbot

2.  Kodable (iOS, Web)  Free (In-app/school purchase)

Link to Kodable’s website

I consider Kodable to be a must-have app, especially for your youngest coders.  The feature that stands out about this app is that teachers can manage and track their students’ progress with the online dashboard, and educators can access many resources on Kodable’s website.  Note: @Kodable facilitates #KidsCanCode Twitter chat (Tuesdays)

Learn Code by Playing Games - Kodable App Icon Learn Code by Playing Games - Kodable

3. Cargo-Bot (iOS)  Free

Link to Cargobot’s website

Cargobot is the first game programmed entirely on the iPad (with an app called Codea).  This app is pretty challenging and is completely free.  Another must-have app for your iPad.

Learn Code by Playing Games - Cargo-Bot App Icon Learn Code by Playing Games - Cargo-Bot

4. Cato’s Hike (iOS) $4.99

Link to Cato’s Hike website

Cato’s Hike has a RPG (role playing game) interface that is very attractive.  It can be played on the iPad or iPhone.  There’s a lite version of the app if you want to try it out before deciding whether or not it’s worth the $4.99 to explore all the levels.

Learn Code by Playing Games - Cato's Hike app icon  Learn Code by Playing Games - Cato's Hike

5. Robot School / Move the Turtle (iOS, Android, Mac) $2.99

Link to Next is Great website

The company Next is Great has two programming apps.  Robot School is has a cool 3D looking interface that resembles LEGOs.  The other programming app is called Move the Turtle.  Move the Turtle includes a free-play mode where users can program the turtle draw unique designs with the code they learn in the app.

Learn Code by Playing Games - Robot School App Learn Code by Playing Games - Move the Turtle app Learn Code by Playing Games - Robot School

6. Code Blast (iOS) $0.99

Link to iTunes

This app is similar to many of the other apps mentioned above. It’s features are really basic and it’s $0.99.

Learn Code by Playing Games - Code Blast Icon Learn Code by Playing Games - Code Blast 1 Learn Code by Playing Games - Code Blast 2

7.  Daisy the Dinosaur (iOS) Free

Link to Daisy the Dinosaur’s website

Like Move the Turtle, Daisy the Dinosaur has both challenge mode and free-play mode.  Challenge mode only has a few levels.  In free-play mode, users can program Daisy to move, jump, spin and other miscellaneous tricks.  This app is very simple and can be mastered by young children in just a few minutes.  The good thing about it is that it’s free!

Learn Code by Playing Games - Daisy the Dino app Learn Code by Playing Games - Daisy the Dinosaur

8.  Tynker (iOS, Android, Web) Free (In-app/school purchase)

Link to Tynker’s website

Tynker also has both “Create” mode and “Play” mode.  Play mode takes users through a series of challenges and teaches block coding that resembles Blockly code used by many web-based visual programming sites.  The first course is free (Codey’s Quest), and additional courses can be purchased starting at $2.99.  Like Kodable, Tynker has a teacher dashboard where student progress can be monitored.  Students can sign in with Google, which can save teachers time setting up student accounts.  If you plan on using the more robust and open “Create” side of Tynker, it might be worth purchasing some of the courses to help you get the hang of using the Blockly style programming language.

Learn Code by Playing Games - Tynker app Learn Code by Playing Games - Tynker


If you are a teacher and want to manage student progress, Kodable and Tynker are your best options.  If you have younger students, I recommend Kodable for iOS and web.  For older students where you plan on assigning open, creative coding projects at some point, purchasing some courses on Tynker is a good option for iOS, Android and the web.  If you’re not a teacher and/or just want to learn to code by solving puzzles, then I recommend the free Cargo-Bot app for iOS.  If you’re not using an iOS device, then you can’t go wrong with Lightbot if you’re willing to spend about $3.  Go for it!  Learn code by playing games!
Written by +MattHurst

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Mar 24

101. Video Game Design Apps for iPad

Did you ever want to design and play your own video game without having to write code? Now you can. I recommend learning the basics of computer programming, but if you’re more interested in the design aspect, here are some apps you’ll want to check out.  All of the following apps allow users to create 2D platformer style games, like Super Mario Bros.

floors sketch nation

1. Floors by Pixel Press (iOS only)  Free

Link to Pixel Press website

This app is amazing!  You can draw your game design on paper, then scan the game with your iPad’s camera.  It will convert your drawing into a game.  It’s just as fun to design the game within the app (without paper).  The PixelPress team has some good ideas for educational lesson plans here.  Take a look at this demo I created:

2. Sketch Nation (iOS, Android, Web)  Free

Link to Sketch Nation website where you can also play it on the web.

With Sketch Nation, you can design every element of your app with a very simple interface.  It even has preset code that you assign to objects.  As the website states, “Sketch Nation is simple enough for a 6 year old yet has enough options to keep adults entertained.”


3. GamePress (iOS only)  Free

Link to GamePress app website

GamePress comes with lots of design options and allows users to import image files into the app.  In order to play a game you’ve designed, you’ll also have to program the objects using GamePress’s robust library of code (drag and connect style editor).  Take a look at this demo I created:

Video game design is about creativity, but also functionality.  I hope you have fun designing your newest video game creation.  Enjoy!

Written by +MattHurst

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Aug 19

100. Rethinking Note Taking

Studies show that passive assimilation of information does not result in high retention for learners.  Still, much information is given verbally and received auditorily by audiences in classrooms, conferences, churches, etc. learn by doing graphic

The recipient of the presentation is often encouraged (or required) to take notes because this will help them pay attention and stay on task.  As a learner, you can’t change the way the lesson is delivered, but you can usually choose the way you take notes.  In schools, educators teach students how to take Cornell Notes (AVID strategy).  However, this traditional pencil and paper note taking method is unnecessary unless…

  • access to technology is limited (i.e. Nobody in the audience owns a smartphone.)
  • the lecturer doesn’t allow the audience to use technology and won’t share his PowerPoint presentation or website with the audience

its-minenote taking

Saying No to Cornell Notes

Have you ever seen teachers at conferences writing Cornell Notes?  Have you ever seen college students carrying around notebooks full of Cornell Notes?  Neither have I.  This tells me that Cornell notes are not natural, intuitive, and sustainable.  Learners young and old tend to develop their own note-taking methods, and they typically don’t resemble Cornell Notes.


Taking Digital Notes with Social Media

It is more common to see college students using their cellphones or laptops to take notes.  This comes natural for digital natives and can take many forms (text, image, audio, video).  Note taking for an average college student might look something like this:  The student uses Twitter to tweet out important ideas a professor says in her lecture (and uses a hashtag to categorize the tweet).  While tweeting, the student may see others tweeting ideas they missed (or didn’t have time to type) from other students using the same hashtag on Twitter.  They favorite or re-tweet those ideas to save them for later.  Using Twitter (or other social media platforms) can be a highly intuitive, collaborative, and productive way to take notes.


Getting to Higher Levels of Thinking

As mentioned earlier, taking notes is not necessary if the information or presentation is given to the learner.  Not much critical thinking goes into the mechanical act of taking notes or comprehending information that is presented.  The real magic in learning is in the summarizing, synthesizing, analysis, critical thinking, and collaboration around the information that is given.  In other words, using higher level thinking skills.  The piece that Cornell Notes does well is providing space for students to summarize and analyze the information given.  However, this can also be done using Twitter and other social media forums.  All favorited tweets can be viewed, or ideas can be searched by hash-tag to view additional tweets about the same topic.  Also, Twitter chats are a common way for groups of people to engage in discussion around questions provided by a moderator.  These chats can be imported into spreadsheets or collected and made into stories using tools such as Storify.


I don’t think it matters how learners gather information from a lecture or lesson, but it’s best to choose a method that is natural, intuitive, and sustainable for the learner (whether it’s Cornell Notes or Twitter).  What is most important is what learners do with the information.  How information is organized, stored, analyzed, shared, and applied is where the time and focus of learning should occur.

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Aug 12

99. Fifteen Characteristics of Transformational Professional Development (PD)

I’ve experienced some great professional development (PD) during my teaching career.  I’ve been to numerous trainings, workshops, conferences, etc.  The best PD experiences for me have been in recent years.  A few of them have been career altering and served as springboards to other great opportunities.  I’ve selected my top three experiences and have chosen to write about 15 attributes that seem to overlap in all three of these.  I believe that transformational PD must have all of these characteristics.  Great PD will have most of these.  Good PD will include some.

Here are my top three PD experiences:

Venn Diagram of Best PD (2)


1.  Incentive

The first characteristic is simple, but important.  There needs to be a great enough incentive for a large number participants to apply.  The more applicants, the greater the potential for a strong cohort.  Last year over 4,000 teachers applied for LearnZillion’s TeachFest.  LearnZillion provides an all-expense-paid-trip to TeachFest and pays teachers for the content they create after TeachFest.  Some of the incentives to become Google Certified are to spend time at Google headquarters and receive the recognition and honor that comes with being Google Certified.  The Writing Project offers paid college credits for those who are accepted.

2.  Application Process

Eric Westendorf, co-founder of LearnZillion, stated that 5% of applicants were accepted to participate in TeachFest (2014), which means that it is harder to get into TeachFest than any college in the US.  Throughout the event, he continued to emphasize that we were an elite group of educators.  I read somewhere that about 10% of applicants are accepted to become Google Certified.  The Writing Project Summer Institute conducts in-person interviews before making its final selections.  Candidates are typically required to submit a resume, answer essay questions and submit short video clips as part of the application process.

3.  Selection Process

Only educators that have certain leadership qualities are invited to participate.  The hosts seem to be looking for collaborative, humble, kind, genuine, helpful, creative, risk takers.  Some of LearnZillion’s core values speak to the personality of those they recruit:  “We help each other get better.” and “We laugh at ourselves. Regularly.”  Most people who have seen “The Internship” understand what it means to be Googley.  In the same way, the Writing Project recruits those who are genuinely eager to learn from their peers.  If you come across as being too independent or arrogant, you probably won’t make the cut.

4.  Recognition

Once selected to participate in a PD event, the organizing agent will typically send a press release that can be shared with your local newspaper and school district.  Some hosts post your profile photo on their website recognizing you as an elite educator.

5.  Community

Great PD is all about the community connecting and building relationships with one another.  Once selected, participants are able to join up via social media such as private Facebook groups, Google+ communities and participate in webinars and video chats with fellow cohort members.  Connecting an ambitious rock-star group of educators always creates a top-notch professional learning community/network (PLC, PLN).

Google Teachers

6.  Coaches/Mentors

All great PD experiences have top-notch coaches, mentors, or lead learners that either work for the host or are educators who were involved with a previous cohort.  These mentors help participants feel welcome by connecting with them, answering questions, leading breakout sessions and helping everyone become better educators.

7.  Team Building Activities

Great PD is never a one-way, sit and get experience.  It always includes collaborative, team-building activities where participants often are forced to get out of their comfort zones.  Some of these team-building exercises are so much fun that teachers are excited to repeat the activities with students in their classrooms.  At TeachFest in San Francisco, participants played a paper-rock-scissors knock off elimination game, and at Google Teacher Academy our Android dressed hosts (Wendy & Cat) led a “Minute to Win It” competition.


8.  Special Guest(s)

It was an honor and privilege at the Writing Project’s summer institute to write poetry with Kim Stafford, son of famous American Poet Laureate, William Stafford.  At TeachFest, I met Caine from Caine’s Arcade and producer Nirvan.  We had multiple special guests at Google that were a joy to learn from.  Special guests often provide inspiration in ways that reach beyond typical PD.


9.  Breakout Sessions

Breakout sessions occur when the cohort splits into smaller, assigned groups to collaborate, learn or write in a more intimate environment.  They are always highly engaging, interactive and collaborative.  These groups are typically led by coaches or mentors and participants usually become tight-knit and often develop life-long friends from within these groups.

10.  Cohort Members Leading

Sometimes the best ideas and insight come from within the cohort.  That’s why it is the Writing Project’s model to require each participant to teach a mini-lesson to the whole group.  LearnZillion selected cohort members to speak words of inspiration during breakfast, and participants of Google’s Academy were also given opportunities to lead various sessions.  When participants are given leadership roles, the hosts are saying, “We’re all equal and can learn from each other.”  That’s powerful.

11.  Free Food and Beverages

I’ve had some of the best meals at the Writing Project formal dinners, TeachFest, and definitely at Google’s legendary cafes and micro kitchens.  Teachers are always impressed and thankful when they are able to wine and dine like royalty.


12.  Swag

Teachers are used to scrounging for leftovers and hand-me-downs, and paying for school supplies from their own pockets.  That is why teachers are so grateful to receive gifts like t-shirts, books, pens, gift cards, software/app subscriptions, earbuds, stickers, etc.  Gifts are great because they’re unexpected, and a great way to show someone that they are appreciated.  All the great PD I’ve attended gave gifts to its cohort members.

13. Plan of Action

Every great PD requires the participants to pay-it-forward by sharing what they learned to their educational community through leading workshops or creating lessons from what was learned during the PD experience.  The learning and implementation doesn’t end when the event ends.  The event is just the beginning of what is possible through the inspiration, relationships, and valuable lessons that were gained.

14.  Celebration

All great PD gatherings include a celebration dinner, awards ceremony, or some sort of party.  The celebration is often a last chance to take photos with your new friends, say goodbyes to everyone a low-key, informal, relaxed and fun social atmosphere.


15.  Opportunities for Alumni

One great opportunity leads to another.  Once you’ve become a Writing Project Teacher-Consultant (TC), you may be given the opportunity to lead a workshop, boot-camp, or teach a graduate level course through the Writing Project.  LearnZillion gives many opportunities to its DreamTeam alumni, such as representing LearnZillion at the Global Silicon Valley (GSV) Summit.  Google Certified Teachers are encouraged to join or lead Google Educator Groups and pilot products, such as the Nexus 7 tablet participants of GTAMTV were sent home with.

The list of attributes is by no means exhaustive.  What characteristics do you think are an integral part of great PD?

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