Exploring Existing Coding Environments

This page contains notes and informal comparisons of different educational coding environments from the perspective of teaching students with complex disabilities.

Description of Student Population - our focus

Students who have complex learning challenges:

Context in which these students learn:

  •       Segregated school
  •       Segregated classroom within a school
  •       Placement in a regular education classroom, but receive instruction in a resource setting much of the day
  •       Placement in a regular education classroom, most often with an educational assistant


  •       cognitive disabilities
  •       visual, auditory, physical, communication disabilities
  •       combination of disabilities

Cognitive Disabilities:

Students who have cognitive disabilities experience challenges that impact intellectual function and adaptive behavior (activities of daily living).


  •       difficulty processing information or learning about the world around them
  •       difficulty remembering information learned
  •       difficulty analyzing, synthesizing and problem solving
  •       difficulty generalizing learning from one context to another
  •       difficulty decoding and/or encoding affecting reading and writing
  •       difficulty with receptive and/or expressive language, impacting communication
  •       difficulty taking in information visually/auditory due to visual/auditory acuity or processing
  •       difficulty manipulating concrete materials or accessing a keyboard/mouse
  •       mobility difficulties impacting movement in and around home, school and community

Students who have cognitive challenges require modifications to curriculum, that align with standards.

Students who have access challenges require accommodations in order to access curriculum.

Assessing programming environments

  • Compatibility with assistive technologies—eye gaze, switches and other alternative input devices; reading, writing and communication tools; magnifiers or screen readers
  • Can be used with keyboard only?
  • Does the environment present a model of programming that makes sense without visuals?
  • Can the user interface be customized and/or simplified (for example to focus on a particular subset of features)?
  • Are there resources available to support educators who teach students with disabilities?

Bridges: Introductory exploration of coding applications

  1. Thoughts about importance of participation in coding lessons for students who have complex needs. Some educators think only about learning to code to support future career opportunities. However, it is useful to think about coding to learn – the learning opportunities that this engaging activity provides for 21st century learning.
    • Persistence in and strategies for problem solving
    • Collaboration and communication
    • Sequencing, spatial awareness
    • Creativity
    • Metacognitive skill involved in giving instruction to another (in this case, a machine or robot)
    • Increasing confidence in the use of computers
    • Supporting a sense of belonging in the school community
  2. Curriculum Connections:
    • Math (problem solving, variables, sequencing, algorithms, conditionals, graphing coordinates, measurement)
    • Social Studies (mapping, cardinal directions)
    • Art (creativity, music, drawing)
    • Language
    • Science (Forces, Senses, Environment, Energy)

Tynker, Swift Playground and Hopscotch - evaluated but discounted

Scratch Jr. (iPad)

  1. Has sample projects available that students can run and see the underlying code
  2. Language
    • English and French
    • Minimal text
  3. Visual – function of block is displayed when tapped
    • very simple interface with nice colour coding (categories and their blocks are the same colour)
  4. Physical – tap and double tap to select objects, tap and hold to erase objects, tap and drag to move objects to connect blocks, tap to change the numbers in a block
  5. Objects are fairly large, though spacing might be somewhat problematic

Wonder with Dot and Dash (iPad)

  1. Aligns with comprehensive curriculum
  2. App options: Go and Wonder
    • Go: introduces students to lights, sounds and movement concepts through exploration
    • Wonder: introduces students to the concept of coding; controlling the robots by building algorithms (sequencing states, auto-cues, loops, repeat etc…)
  3. Simple interface – interactions range from simple to complex therefore easily adaptable to the growing learner
    • Contains hands-on tutorials that walk students through concepts
    • Additional cues are released as the user’s knowledge base grows (through completing challenges)
  4. Physical – students can interact with the robot in a variety of ways making it accessible to students with physical challenges
    • simple taps for cause/effect functions to control sounds, lights and movement
    • can be programmed to work with outside prompts such as voice
    • can be programmed to work with outside prompts such as clapping
    • responds to (and can be programmed to respond to) its environment (i.e. movement, sounds, other robots)
    • tap and drag movements may be small and challenging in tutorials even when zoomed in
  5. Visual – colourful and engaging
    • large buttons in some interfaces (Go)
    • all icons are supported with picture clues
  6. Language
    • English only
    • Minimal text in the Go app and within the Free Play and Controller modes of the Wonder app
    • More text in the Wonder app’s Scroll Quest (tutorials); not supported with speech

Tickle with Sphero

  1. Physical – tap and drag to move blocks, and to delete blocks; change numbers with a keypad, but require precise control to select the number in the block; some buttons (e.g. full screen) are very small; scroll to reach all block categories; with voiceover on, need to triple click the home button to turn it on and off, need single tap to hear what is on an object and double tap to select.
  2. Language – voice over works with the app to read text
  3. Visual – categories are listed with text sideways and relatively small; categories and blocks are colour coded
  4. Cognitive – preview with objects, playground and blocks all in same screen which supports debugging


  1. Physical – pick up and insert blocks into a peg board – can adapt to allow gripping, can use magnets and cookie sheet, velcro and fabric board or computer application for sequencing that a peer physically duplicates,
  2. Visual – codes are different colours and shapes
  3. Cognitive – may be difficult to see which way Cubetto is facing from above, direction is determined by colour rather than a directional factor; S-shaped pattern on interface board could confuse students, as it seems that the arrows are going in the opposite direction


The MIT curriculum guide provides a balance between structured and explorative activities, while the CSFirst curriculum is designed to be more independent with video introductions and explanations.

  1. Text
    • Text in menus and on blocks is small, though contrast is good – before starting, the screen magnification can be changed, but making it larger makes items at the bottom of the screen inaccessible. Once the programming starts, it is not possible to adjust screen magnification.
    • Text in menus and blocks cannot be selected (in order to be read)
    • Text in Tips can be selected but it is not recognized by Read&Write text to speech tool, Kurzweil or Snap&Read speak. Snap& Read capture reads it but makes it hard to read the text at the same time (changes it to white on white). Read&Write screenshot reader reads well while allowing text to be read. Capture tool in Read&Write doesn’t work adequately on text in blocks but works better than Snap& Read. Both Read&Write and Snap&Read work on text in categories, but with Snap&Read, need to ensure that you don’t capture the colour in front of the word.
  2. Manipulation of blocks
    • Mouse based – need to click on categories, click and drag to move blocks, click to move between areas
    • There don’t seem to be any keyboard equivalents
    • Categories and blocks are small and positioned close together.
  3. Writing
    • Need to click into existing text in the block – small area
    • Word prediction does not work
    • Speech dictation also doesn’t work
    • Speech feedback doesn’t work.
  4. Recording sounds
    • Doesn’t work smoothly and would likely require adult support for trimming.
  5. Cognitive Demands
    • Program itself – help – click on a block to see a definition or what it does with visuals in the right panel.
    • CSFirst – videos are fast and include many steps. However, there are videos available to model. Requires that two tabs be open, one for the program and one for the instruction.
    • MIT Curriculum Guide – uses the tips from within the program. These are smaller steps. Includes animation and video in different tutorials. All of this happens in a narrow space on the right of the screen, as opposed to full screen.