The tech company has designed a new physical kit made up of large, coloured blocks, which can be used by those with impaired vision to learn the principles of coding and problem-solving.
Microsoft has launched a prototype of a new physical toy, which looks to engage young people who have visual impairments and sight loss in learning the principles of code.
The American Printing House (APH) Code Jumper is a series of physical pods of different shapes, sizes, colours and textures, which each represent a line of code.
They can be joined together with wires to make different sequences, which in turn results in different sound effects – anything from music, poetry and various instrument sounds, to noises such as a cat’s meow or an ambulance siren, to audio stories that the children have recorded themselves.
Starting with basic principles at age seven, the kit has 15 pods and 15 connecting plugs that can be joined in different ways to create increasingly complex sequences and coding loops.
A range of textures, shapes and colours aims to help those with visual impairment distinguish between the different blocks, and therefore lines of code, says Cecily Morrison, a computer scientist and researcher at Microsoft Research, the team which has led on this project.
Morrison has a six-year-old blind son herself and began exploring ways to teach children with low vision to code after realising existing tech was out-of-date, she says; there were no existing kits or products to help these children learn coding and access the computing curriculum, she adds.
The blocks are set against a black mat, which helps those who are visually impaired to distinguish between colours.
“People often don’t realise that most blind children have some vision,” she says. “Many can read writing through enlarged text, see colours and make out forms and shapes. The sets have been designed so that children can use them, regardless of their level of sight.”The aim of Code Jumper is to teach young people the principles of code — which is now part of the primary school curriculum in the UK — to enable them to move away from physical objects and onto a text and screen-based coding language in the future.
Many would be able to do this through assistive tech, says Morrison, such as a magnifier that increases the size of font and code on-screen, or through a screen reader, which can convey text in various ways, such as by reading it out loud.
By allowing kids to use their hands to physically code would therefore help to make coding theories more “inclusive” and accessible, says Morrison – while a colourful, “tactile” toy aims to be enjoyable for all children to use, rather than just those with sight problems.
“To move onto [text-based code] with assistive tech, kids need to have a very clear notion of the concepts to start with,” she says. “One of our visions is that this is not just something for partially-sighted children, but for everyone. We don’t want them to be taken out of class, or to be doing their own things in the corner of the classroom – the whole point of inclusive education is that they can learn with other children. Coding should be social and fun.”
To enable interaction between many students, the blocks are large, so that many children can touch each one at once. During the design process and research phase, it was found that many children were also touching each block with both hands.
“We want this to be a physical and shared experience, regardless of vision, where anyone can touch the blocks and talk about coding,” says Morrison. “The problem-solving aspect is just as important as learning to code.”
The Microsoft Code Jumper prototype has now been designed and has been sent alongside its research to the American Printing House for the Blind, which will develop it. The not-for-profit specialises in creating and distributing products and services for people who are blind or have reduced vision.
The coding toy is expected to be distributed across the UK, US, Canada and Australia this year.
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