Making the grade is swift playgrounds a useful tool in k-12 9to5mac electricity and water


Making The Grade is a weekly series from Bradley Chambers covering Apple in education. Bradley has been managing Apple devices in an education environment since 2009. Through his experience deploying and managing 100s of Macs and 100s of iPads, Bradley will highlight ways in which Apple’s products work at scale, stories from the trenches of IT management, and ways Apple could improve its products for students.

One of the key focuses of Apple’s education story is Swift Playgrounds. I know many of you have probably downloaded Swift Playgrounds from the App Store and tinkered with it. Why wouldn’t you? Apple gives it away! I have taught it, so I wanted to share brief thoughts on it.

Swift Playgrounds is a revolutionary app for iPad that makes learning Swift interactive and fun. It requires no coding knowledge, so it’s perfect for students just starting out. Solve puzzles to master the basics using Swift — a powerful programming language created by Apple and used by the pros to build today’s most popular apps. Then take on a series of challenges and step up to more advanced playgrounds designed by Apple and other leading developers.

One aspect that has often been ignored (even by me!) has been looking at Swift Playgrounds as free coding curriculum. What would comparable curriculum cost otherwise? If Apple is giving away Swift Playgrounds for free, then it should be considered as part of the overall package of the iPad.

Swift Playgrounds being built and released by the same company who is developing Swift the programming language. It’s not a gimmicky game where you learn concepts of programming. Students are writing real Swift code in this app. It’s a worthy choice to be at the core of your programming classes.

As students start in the app, they start with the “Fundamentals of Swift” using real Swift code to guide a character through a 3D world. They quickly move onto advanced concepts (it gets hard very quickly). I used Apple Classroom to monitor students as they worked through lessons. My original goal to teach one less per class, but this fell apart after the introductory lessons were finished. The difficulty ramped up quickly, but that’s not a bad thing.

Outside of learning concepts of programming, teaching a class like this also forces students to use problem solving skills. In a Siri, Alexa, and Google dominated world, we don’t have to break out our “old fashion” problem-solving hat like we used to. If something is broken, there is likely a YouTube video showing us how to fix it. If we don’t know an answer, Alexa probably does.

By forcing students to slow down, I am hoping to teach them how to troubleshoot issues without using a Google search, and then they can use those same skills in science, math, etc. I kept reinforcing the difference between “I don’t understand” and “I haven’t solved the problem yet” to my students.

Overall, the app is well done. It syncs up nicely with the teaching tools I mentioned earlier. It’s clear to the students how to run, edit, and re-run code. It’s detailed enough that a parent could use it at home and their child should be able to be self-paced. It’s clear that Swift Playgrounds isn’t a hobby for Apple. It’s a key part of their iPad in education story. What’s Next?

Firstly, I would like Apple to publish a roadmap for future Learn to Code books. When I started planning the year, Learn to Code 1 and 2 were the only books in existence, and we didn’t know that there would ever be a Learn to Code 3 until the day it shipped. We plan learning experiences over the long run, and it would be very helpful to know what’s coming – or even if nothing else is coming.

My final comment is that I don’t love the focus on Swift Playgrounds controlling drones and robots. It’s not that I don’t think the concept is great, but for the classroom, it’s not practical. I’m not going to be deploying R2-D2 robots to every student due to the cost.

Overall, Swift Playgrounds is an excellent teaching tool. The fact that it’s free gives you a reason to consider iPad over Chromebook in your school. Even if you haven’t ever programmed in Swift, Apple gives teachers great resources to get started. Have you used Swift Playgrounds before? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.