Learning computer programming is difficult enough for a child. For the blind or visually impaired, the challenge is even greater without accessible resources and programs. A product called Code Jumper — the brainchild of Cecily Morrison, a researcher at Microsoft — looks to change that.
Unlike traditional programming, Code Jumper is a physical programming language that uses a series of plastic pods interconnected with wires, allowing students to actually touch and feel the parts of a program.
Morrison, whose son is blind, discovered that little technology existed to help visually impaired children to learn coding, and found what was available to be inferior and behind the times.
“It became really clear that, for a 7- or 8-year-old, it was going to be really hard to use assistive technology to code,” she said on a Microsoft News site about the project leading to Code Jumper. “We realized we really need something physical, something that would excite the hands.”
That spurned Microsoft’s Project Torino and yielded Code Jumper. The project’s goal was to introduce children to programming with tools that are both accessible and fun to use. It could then provide them with the interest and opportunity to develop the skills for a career in computer science.
Code Jumper’s plastic pods are brightly colored and shaped differently so they can be easily identified by the blind and those with low vision. The pods can be connected together to create programs which tell stories, jokes, and make music. There are pods to make programming loops, play music or words, insert pauses, and create if-then statements as well as other functions. The Play Pods include two sets of knobs that control sound pitch and the selection of words or notes to play.
The pods connect to a battery-powered hub that interfaces with a computer or tablet using Bluetooth. The software currently runs on a Microsoft Surface or Windows 10, with future development plans for apps on iOS and Android devices.
Researchers have also created learning programs and the guidance needed to help teachers without computer backgrounds to use Code Jumper and instruct children in programming, since not all schools can be expected to have staff specialized in computers and working with the blind.
Microsoft partnered with the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), an expert in creating products and services for the blind and visually impaired, to distribute Code Jumper.