Kodu: Microsoft’s Tool for Schools – An Interview with Stuart Ball

Kodu: Microsoft’s Tool for Schools – An Interview with Stuart Ball

The summer, does anyone remember that time of the year? A time when it was warm and the sun lit up the world past half-four in the afternoon? I do, and I have located an interview I did at the Wales Games Conference which took place back in June. There was a stand for Kodu, a product from Microsoft Research which is in effect the forerunner to Project SPARK. I had the chance to speak to Stuart Ball from Microsoft Partners in Learning about what Kodu is, how Microsoft is helping with IT education in Britain and more. Hit the jump if you wish to find out more.

Chris: Would you be able to introduce yourself and explain what your role is within Microsoft?

Stuart Ball: OK, my name is Stuart Ball and I work for Microsoft Partners in Learning. I’m their programme manager. I’m a former primary school teacher and my role is working with schools and teachers across the UK, looking at the best uses of technology in the classroom. And this year, one of the main focuses has been – especially in England – the new computing curriculum and in Wales, that’s come in so we’ve been exploring that avenue as well.

Part of the Kodu UI
Part of the Kodu UI

Chris: What have you been up to at the show today?

Stuart Ball: We’ve shown a piece of software called Kodu, and one of the biggest issues we found with this new computing curriculum is that the next-gen report showed us that 75% of all teachers currently teaching ICT can’t teach programming: it’s outside their experience. So how do we have a computing curriculum that encourages kids, especially girls, into the world of coding, game development, app development? Microsoft has a number of different products in that field, one of them is Kodu, developed by Microsoft Research.

It’s free and it’s a visual learning programming language. So kids pick it up really, really easily, but best of all the learning curve for teachers is very, very shallow. I’ve seen a teacher take it, give it to the kids and the kids produce some amazing stuff in minutes. So one of the things we’ve been doing is promoting that piece of software. But we’re also promoting the teaching and learning flow around it, so it’s not just about making a game, it’s about the whole idea of a game studio.

This year we have been running a competition called the Kodu Kup which has encouraged schools to get their kids into teams to behave like a game studio; so you might see somebody good at programming and interested in that, you might have someone who’s good at presenting, you might have someone who’s good at organising your team. And they have to produce a game based on a theme that we set, and this year it was water, and retro games – Space Invaders and the good old classics. We have also done some work with NASA, and they’ve given us sprites like the Rover that’s currently whizzing around Mars, and the kids can build their own Mars games as well. But primarily, it’s about working as a team.

We started in January, they’ve had five months to build a game, they also had to design the game cover and understand things like PEGI ratings. They also had to use literacy skills to describe the game in a paragraph, they had to do some game branding on it; all those sort of aspects that you forget when you’re teaching games purely with programming. So it’s more of a cross-curricular approach.

We had 145 entries into the Kodu Kup, and we’ve just announced our Top 11 games – it was going to be our Top 10 but the quality was so good, there we two games whose quality we couldn’t distinguish between so we said “run both through”. So we’re having that final now on the 5th July.

We’ll have people like Gary Carr from Lionhead Studios, and a guy called Theo Chin from Indie Skies Studios – they’re going to be on the judging panel and they’ve already looked at the games, as the game itself has got these teams through to the final. The final itself is going to be like a Dragon’s Den style presentation where the kids have to say “Look, we’re making a great game, but we’re also a great team. We can work well together and we can solve problems well.” – giving them that sort of experience. So hopefully by the end of next week, we’ll find the best team… it might not necessarily be the best game, but the best team; they’ll be crowned the Kodu Champions and we’ll give them an Xbox and a Kinect for their time and a trophy. But all 11 teams will have a day out at Microsoft Headquarters in Redmond as well.

So we’re just trying to embrace this element of computing, which is really exciting. A lot of people are sort of frowning on it, but it’s something that I think is important – kids need to understand all this technology and they also need to understand that they can have a role in actually designing and creating things that run on this stuff. That shift from just being consumers of this technology to being owners of it, and I think this is just the start of that. I mean, just to say the teachers out there in schools, there are resources available and not just from Microsoft but across the board.. So to me, there’s no excuse for a school or teachers not to be getting on board with this new computing curriculum.

Chris: So Kodu is a free application to use?

Stuart Bell: Totally free. Designed by Microsoft Research, who are based in Cambridge, and it’s a global programme as well, so there are Kodu Kups in other countries. So… yeah, it’s totally free and it’s been around two or three years although obviously now many people are still discovering it. There’s been some exciting news recently at E3 event where they’ve just announced something called Project Spark which I’m seeing as an evolution of Kodu. It’s tuned for Xbox One but Project Spark will use exactly the same programming criteria of just two commands when you do as coding. So coding would be a great introduction to Project Spark, but I can certainly see kids as young as…well, we’ve been doing coding with kids as young as six, I can certainly see ten year olds do coding for ten minutes and then jumping straight into Project Spark and doing some bigger projects.

Chris: These games made in Kodu, can they be played on PC or Xbox or…?

Stuart Ball: There’s two versions of Kodu. One that you can download from Xbox Live and costs about £4 and you can play that on your Xbox at home – you can build games on your Xbox and then play them on your Xbox. There’s also a version which is free which will only run on a PC. So there’s two flavours of it – I mean, the holy grail is to build a game on the PC and be able to play it on the Xbox – that hasn’t happened yet, and I’m not sure if it will – but the kids can transfer those skills between one and another, and I think that they can see the connection between a console… like a consumer product like an Xbox console, and what they’re using at school. It’s what you can do with the program when you plug an Xbox controller into a PC, so kids get a real feel that they’re building a console game and I think that’s quite important.

This is a view of the programming screen. Can you tell what is meant to happen?
This is a view of the programming screen. Can you tell what is meant to happen?

Chris: Is it just game design they’re doing, or is there space for art assets and coding?

Stuart Ball: They can build in coding and they can create games, but because of the raw building features, just using a mouse and keyboard and literally using, like…Microsoft Paint they can create a world and paint it. So they can create landscapes, different textures, add in water and lava, so they can build very complex worlds. What we’ve done there is actually said to teachers: “Look, forget the game element, forget the coding” – this could be for Geography teachers: you give the kids an OS map with contour lines and ask them to recreate them as a 3D model in Kodu.

Or we give it to an English teacher and say “Look, your kids have just created a lovely creative writing story – now let them build that world in Kodu” – so you get kids looking at those Avatar-like worlds or something and the graphic design there, and try and recreate that in Kodu – because they can. There’s no coding knowledge necessary, it’s the click of a mouse and they’ve painted it and they get totally immersed.

Because you can then export that game onto a USB stick, the kids can pick it up in school, take it home and they can download the software at home, carry on where they left off and… it encourages that dynamic between school and home learning.

Chris: Why do you think it’s taken two or three years to start breaking out?

Stuart Ball: I think there’s so many resources out there, and I think the other thing – from my point of view – is that there’s a danger that people don’t look across the board at all their resources. So they look at an iPad and think “I want iPad stuff” and they don’t think about Microsoft producing this stuff, it’s one of these things that we’re into at Microsoft: we’re not just about PowerPoint and Excel, we’ve got a wealth of resources: all our computing resources, for example our web development tools, our Visual Basic development tools, through a program called DreamSpark, are all free to students as long as they’re in full-time education. And for £90 a year, the teachers in schools get all those tools as well.

We’ve got a more complicated language like Touch Development which is a script based programming language that you can run in a browser on any device. So you can build a Windows 8 app on an iPad if you were that way inclined – or on an Android phone. There is Gamemaker Studio and other companies producing stuff that will run and produce Windows 8 apps, so there’s a an ecosystem of programming languages that kids can actually get engaged with and use.

What we’re finding in schools is that they think they’ve got to stop doing animation or they’ve got to stop doing video, and that isn’t the case. What we’re trying to do with Kodu is actually say to a school “Look, they’ve created a company, they’ve created a game – how are they going to market that game? They’ll need to make a video for it; they’ll need to make a PowerPoint presentation for it.” So all the stuff they’ve been doing will still come over to this and be in context.

If Kodu hits the ball....he dies :(
If Kodu hits the ball….he dies :(

Chris: So I guess Kodu and the Kodu Kup is more than just making a game, it’s teamwork skills, business skills, multimedia skills…?

Stuart Ball: Absolutely. It’s all trying to represent the industry as it really is. In Wales, it’s a 2.6 billion pound industry. When I was little, kids were “I want to be a fireman, I want to be a hairdresser” or bank manager or whatever it was. Kids nowadays are like “I want to be a games designer” or “I want to model 3D worlds” or “I want to…” you know what I mean? Wouldn’t it be great if the kids that start playing Minecraft are playing Kodu, and then actually grow up and get a job where they’re actually building those worlds for a living in an…for an architect or some image for 3D buildings or something like that.

I don’t think kids see the route through to that, and that’s what we’re trying to do here with Kodu.

Chris: How many schools have picked up Kodu?

Stuart Ball: Last year – because we measure the downloads as you have to download from the site – we had 12,000 downloads. This year we’ve more than that – we’ve had 71,000. So we’ve seen a massive increase in its popularity. We’ve done a little bit of research with a survey, and we estimate that we’ve probably, this year alone had 75,000 kids engage with Kodu, which works out to roughly 2,500 teachers – so it’s probably the same number of schools, and that’s actually just the tip of the iceberg, we think.

But one of the most exciting things we’ve been able to do is that you can localise it into a language, so I’ve seen a French teacher using Kodu and playing it in French, all the commands are in French. So with a school in Barry their students have taken on Kodu as a project to localise it in Welsh. So we’re thinking in the next couple of weeks, we’ll have the first visual games creation software in a minority language –in Welsh!

Chris: That’s amazing!

Stuart Ball: But that’s the flexibility we’ve got with this, but it just needs teachers to see it as more than just “kids making games” and that’s the power of it.

Chris: I wish when I was kid we had something like this.

Stuart Ball: I got the joy of actually recreating those things and actually working with kids now so I’ve got the best of both worlds really!

Chris: What has the reaction been like to Kodu on the floor today?

Stuart Ball: It’s been really positive I think. What’s been really good for me, is to meet guys who are where I want the kids to be, if you like. So they’ve got their own starter companies, they’re designing apps and they’ve got some acumen. So it’d be very easy for them to go “Oh this is Microsoft” or “this isn’t proper coding” but I think they’ve seen the value of it. They’ve seen that this is not about Microsoft, it’s not about technology, it’s actually about creating this pipeline of individuals to get into this industry… it’s been really positive.

It’s been challenging for some of them to actually say, “Wow, they can create that in seconds” while they’ve sat there toiling for months just to create a hill in their game when a ten year old comes up, clicks a mouse and he’s done it two seconds. So I don’t know if I’ve destroyed any of them! But I think we need more of that connection between the gaming media industries and where they’re going to get their kids of the future from.

I think there’s a danger…a disconnect and it’s very easy for the programming industry to become self-indulgent and look at code and look at “this is more efficient than that” when really what they’re actually forgetting about is getting kids involved in doing… because as the industry grows and becomes more and more integrated into everyday life, you’re going to need people in those other industries to meet the demand and it’s about choice, it’s about…this is a career.

I’ve talked with some of the guys today and they’ve asked “how did you get into the industry?” and it’s “I didn’t do it at school – I was interested in it at home.” Now imagine if you asked one and they said “School has got me where I am” – think of how much better it would be in terms of preparation for this industry.

If Kodu hits the Mars Rover, the game is won
If Kodu hits the Mars Rover, the game is won

Chris: You said about the new national curriculum in England is in progress, how has Microsoft been involved in shaping that?

Stuart Ball: We’ve worked with the Computing in Schools organisation and we’ve been helping them come up with the computing aspect of the curriculum, so it’s… from my point of view as a primary school teacher, it’s not a change in the curriculum, it’s a tweak to the curriculum. So for me, it breaks down into three areas:

Digital literacy – which is spreadsheets, word processing, video, animation – stuff you can do in your hands. Basically the “make.”

Then you’ve got digital citizenship: internet safety, copyright online…all those aspects that we struggle with at the moment, use of social media…

And then we’ve got the digital thinking, which for me is the computation thing, the programming aspect.

So I think you’ve got to have all three as really valuable aspects, so you’ve got to imagine – you make a game (that’s digital literacy), you’re using digital thinking – programming skills – to make the game, and you’re not copying someone else’s game, so you’re understanding copyright. So there you’ve got digital citizenship, digital literacy and digital thinking: a holistic approach to developing something.

So that’s kicked off in England – I think the curriculum is going to be difficult for some schools, but it depends how they address it. I think the future that we’ve got in Wales is that we’re looking at that, probably another eighteen months before any changes will be made and I think we’re looking at it more with a holistic approach and I think that in Wales, we’ll get it right.

Chris: One last question, what do you see for the Welsh games industry at the moment?

Stuart Ball: I think it’s really rich, just looking around about here. If I was to make any observations I’d like to see more girls involved – looking at that show floor today, it’s a very male orientated domain. And I think, looking around, the games reflect that. I think there’s a whole scope of women in gaming and a lot of that in my work with Kodu.

I think really as well, it’d be actually nice to see more development studios. There are lot of start-up companies on the floor, and I think if we can support those by actually feeding more kids into that industry, then we get more competition, we get more pedigree into the industry; we’re going to attract more investment and so on. So I think it’s a long journey, but we’re in a really good place – we always have been in Wales. If you think back as far as the animation industries in Wales, I think we’ve got a long history of creating media and I think the games development aspect is one thing that is growing and I think it’ll do well.

The winners of the Kodu Kup competition were three 14-year old girls from Afon Tâf High School in South Wales with sci-fi FPS The Dark Side of Mars. Find out more about the winners here.

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