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Sphero, computing and gamifying learning

By September 14, 20143 Comments

If you haven’t come across the Sphero ball, it’s a tidy little thing. Ever since I first saw one I wanted one thinking of its potential for learning. I knew I had to get one.

It’s about the size of a tennis ball (perhaps slightly bigger) and advertised as waterproof and pet proof (the dog hasn’t managed to bite in to it yet – I’m too scared to put it in the bath!) and is controlled through Apps on either Android or iOS devices. There are any number of different things you can do with it. You can play augmented reality games with it, you can simply control it, do tricks, make it change colour… it works via Bluetooth (30 metre range) with your mobile device, charges through conductive charging (simply pop it on its docking station to charge) and has a 60 minute battery life when driving it about.

The reason why I’m so excited about it, apart from its obvious appeal to my inner geek, is that the device is fully programmable. You can program its direction, spin and colour. Two of the Apps that you can get for Sphero are the MacroLab and OrbBasic Apps. These Apps allow you to program the balls to perform any number of different tasks.

The MacroLab App allows users to use a graphical interface to create programs to control the device. It’s quite simple and the results are immediate:

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The opportunities to use this as an alternate introduction to visual programming are obvious, I think. As more students get to secondary school having had the experience of using visual programming opportunities such as Scratch, so we need to introduce other ways to help push their learning further. This could be it.

The other App OrbBasic takes things to another level. With OrbBasic you can program the device using a visual basic language. The language facilitates variables, conditional statements and make use of the sensors to create cause and effect type statements within their programs.

Their education pages give some insights in to the sorts of activities you can do too and they provide you with a number of lesson plans and activities, plus some STEM challenges that you can use across different subjects.

I’m going to be trying some of the OrbBasic work out with my Year 7’s. We are going to be doing the national baseline testing before we start although the verbal feedback from students thus far indicates that computing hasn’t been taught much in the local primary schools. I’ll write up how we get on with it and how it ties in with their current skill levels. Certainly, I can see using OrbBasic as a real pre-cursor to learning using Python. I say this because the tangible, physical reactions given from the Sphero will give the learning more context to the students rather than being a bit more abstract when it comes to learning other programming languages. I may be wrong, I don’t know, it’s all a bit new to me too. What I do know is though that I think these will be really useful in helping students to continue (or begin) their computational thinking journey.

One aspect to their learning project that I’m hoping to include is one which involves them programming the robot to complete a technically demanding assault course with a leaderboard and rewards for the best times, number of tricks etc. Badges to be given to students who achieve levels and extra badges to those who particularly excel in completing additional tasks. My thought was that if I was to try and gamify the learning experience this would be a motivator for students. The extension for this will be for students to add in extra variables, e.g. colour changes when certain things happen, such as the robot jumping or when it hits an obstacle. I’ll keep you posted.

What do you think? Have you been using them?

Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson, @ICTEvangelist. Click here to learn more.