After Pandemic Surge, Coding Tool Scratch Is Focused on Supporting Teaching

As homebound students and teachers looked for online resources during the pandemic, many turned to Scratch, a free coding system for kids developed by the MIT Media Lab.

Scratch was already a popular option. It’s been around since 2007 as a way to make animations and simple video games by combining Lego-like icons representing different coding functions. But in the 12 months beginning in March 2020—as schools across the country went remote for health reasons—usage spiked, and the number of projects shared on the service rose to 23 million, roughly double the amount from the previous year.

Meanwhile the service has been going through some big changes behind the scenes. Starting in 2019, leaders have been moving the project out of the Media Lab to spin it off as its own nonprofit, called the Scratch Foundation, with new digs just across the Charles River in Boston. And there’s a new focus on supporting better teaching practices around using Scratch rather than just doing software updates. (A new refresh of the Scratch system had just been released in January 2019.)

As part of that push, the group is holding its first online conference for educators next week. In the past, Scratch had held events at the Media Lab for teachers, but those were always limited to a few hundred participants and required a registration fee. This year the event is free, and there’s no cap on attendees—already more than 4,000 people from about 120 countries have signed up.

EdSurge connected this week with the MIT professor whose research group developed Scratch, Mitch Resnick, to hear what’s next for the coding tool and what he learned from remote learning during the pandemic. The interview has been lightly edited for grammar and readability.

Did you see more teachers assigning Scratch in the past year, and were they doing anything differently with the tool that you noticed?

There were. One thing that excited us is that some educators and some schools took advantage of the changing situation of the pandemic to try more project-based approaches to learning and allowing young people to work on projects that they cared about. That's very aligned with the Scratch educational philosophy.

"It's much easier to spread the technology than to spread the educational ideas."
—Mitch Resnick, an MIT professor who led the creation of Scratch

In some schools where they did not have end-of-year standardized tests and where they realized that it was really important to support young people emotionally and to support their social engagement—they opened up more activities where kids could follow their interests and work on projects. We feel that a lot of those schools were particularly successful at keeping kids engaged during the pandemic.

You wrote in a recent blog post that social features on the Scratch platform have spiked as well—that kids have been hungry to comment on the work of others. What are you doing to keep bullying off the platform?

Well, there's a team of moderators constantly looking at the projects and comments on the website. And there's a set of community guidelines that govern the type of activity that goes on in the community. Young people, as they sign up, are introduced to these community guidelines, they're to design to make sure that Scratch remains a friendly, safe and constructive environment. Of course, there are always going to be some kids who push the boundaries and go making a mean comment to someone else. There are some filters to automatically catch those, but then we have a team of moderators to be looking at it and giving feedback to young people if they are pushing those boundaries.

What’s new based on what you’ve learned during this time?

We looked back and we saw the first decade of Scratch was incredibly successful in reaching an incredible number of young people and educators around the world. Tens of millions of kids have created projects with Scratch. As we looked ahead, we said, ‘it's great to reach such large numbers, but we also want to make sure that it's reaching them aligned with the educational philosophy of Scratch.’ It's much easier to spread the technology than to spread the educational ideas. One of the real challenges in the upcoming decade is to make sure that Scratch gets adopted and integrated into activities in a way that's aligned with our underlying educational approach, which is to support creative thinking and collaboration.

It's not enough for Scratch to be used just for learning the technical skills of computer coding and computer science, although those are important. We want to make sure that it also gets used for young people to develop their interests, develop their ideas, develop their voice and develop a sense of who they are to express their identity.

As a way of supporting that [we’re launching] a new educator network—the Scratch Education Collaborative. There's always been a lot of support for educators but there's more activity now to see ‘how can we better support educators?’

What is the focus of next week’s online conference?

We see the conference as a great opportunity for educators to connect with one another, to share ideas and to explore new possibilities and to learn new ways of supporting Scratch activities in their classrooms or environments. There are educator panels about storytelling with Scratch and different ways of integrating Scratch into your curriculum. There are [sessions] exploring new features and capabilities of Scratch, like face-sensing capabilities. There's workshops about designing for family learning, how you can support Scratch in family settings to bring in not just young people but also their parents.

Scratch is touted as a way to build coding skills. Do you have any evidence that learning Scratch does lead to coding competencies down the road?

We see it in lots of ways. First of all, you have lots of individual stories of young people who report back that [they start with Scratch and] then major in computer science and get jobs that way, who got their start with Scratch and got interested because of Scratch.

And Scratch is not just intended for people who grow up to become computer scientists. We also see lots of young people who got started with Scratch and saw it as a way to express themselves and they then became digital artists. We have young people reporting where they say, well, yes, I learned computing skills but what I really learned was how to become a good community member. The impact is in many, many different dimensions.

My six-year-old is a big fan of Scratch, but he sometimes gets frustrated with its limits—and just with the limits of being a beginner. He’s playing Nintendo games and other systems and sees what could be done and he sometimes talks about, "I want to make a more complicated game,” when he’s not really ready. Do you hear that much, and do you have suggestions to point kids to a next level when they are ready?

Sometimes people want to go to the next thing just because it's the next thing, and we don't think that's a good reason. It is true that for certain types of projects, other environments would be better to do more complex, more sophisticated things. If you're very into 3D graphics, that's not Scratch's strength.

It depends on what people are interested in as for where they should get next. If they want to get a job in coding, they might want to learn Python or other languages. If they want to do interactive artwork, they might learn Processing. It depends on what it is that they're looking to do.

But a lot of times [people don’t recognize] the full range of ways they can express themselves in Scratch. There was an MIT student who was telling me recently that he'd used Scratch growing up. He became a computer science major at MIT, and obviously he'd used many programming environments. But he said that if he just needs to make a quick animation or simulation he goes back to Scratch—that was the quickest, easiest way.

Are there new features?

There’s a new site associated with Scratch out of the Scratch Foundation called Scratch Lab. It's a place for trying out experimental features. Now that Scratch is this big online community, it can be challenging to try out new things. So we have this separate sandbox where we can try out experimental features but open to the public.

The first couple of extensions for Scratch Lab were just introduced earlier this year. One of them is face sensing. In Scratch Lab, if you go there, you can see there's a way where it will recognize different elements of your face so characters might be attracted to your eyes or follow where your head moves. It opens up new types of projects where you might draw something with your nose or use your head as a paddle in a ping pong game.

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