App Design Options for Everyone

Last week I answered a question from reader who was looking for some tools that his students could use to build apps to complement business design projects. It was a question that I was excited to answer because designing apps is something I enjoy doing with students. I also enjoy any opportunity to help non-computer science teachers try something new and get their students to design apps.

Creating a mobile app can be a great way to get students interested in learning programming concepts. It’s also a good way to get them to dive into researching a topic so that they can build the best apps they can. To those ends, here are three ways to approach designing apps with students.

Design With Slides

In an effort to help students think about all of the menus, items, and media that their apps will need, I have my students use Google Slides to outline the design of their apps (PowerPoint would work just as well). They can do this by having each slide in their slidedecks represent a screen in their apps. Then they use the hyperlinking function in Google Slides to link between the slides in their slidedecks. That’s done to simulate tapping screens in the apps they’re designing. In this short video I explain this process a bit more.

Build With Blocks

Block programming helps students build apps without having to first learn a specific programming language like Python or JavaScript. MIT App Inventor and Thunkable are popular block editors for building mobile apps.

In a block programming environment students drag together blocks that when correctly assembled make a functioning app. Typically, each block represents a function, variable, list, or media element. The block editor will show students if they have tried to match incompatible blocks.

MIT App Inventor works in your web browser (Chrome is recommended). The only download that is required for App Inventor 2 is the optional emulator. The emulator allows people who don’t have Android devices to test their apps on their desktops. If you have an Android device then the emulator is not required and you don’t need to worry about installing it. I created this MIT App Inventor tutorial late last year. The MIT App Inventor website also offers a lot of excellent help resources for teachers.

If you want to create an iOS app, Thunkable provides a way to do that in a manner that is very similar to that of the MIT App Inventor. In fact, Thunkable is based on the MIT App Inventor framework of using jigsaw-like pieces that have commands labeled on them. Your job is to put the pieces together to make your apps work. Thunkable offers detailed written tutorials and video tutorials.

Turn a Spreadsheet Into an App

While it won’t introduce your students to the same depth of programming as the block editors mentioned above, Glide is still a good way to quickly create a mobile app. Glide is a free tool that anyone can use to create a mobile app by simply creating a spreadsheet in Google Sheets.

To get started making your first app with Glide you will need to create a spreadsheet in Google Sheets. Your spreadsheet’s column headers are what will become the sections your app. The information that you enter into your spreadsheet’s columns is what will be displayed within each section your app. You can include links to videos, images, and maps in your spreadsheet and those items will be included in your app too. After your spreadsheet is built just import it into your free Glide account and Glide will turn it into a mobile app for you to use and share.

Here’s my complete video tutorial on how to use Glide and here’s a list of ideas for using it.

Learn More!

The topic of this week’s newsletter, app design and building for the non-computer science teacher is one of the topics that I’ll cover in much more depth during the Practical Ed Tech Virtual Summer Camp.