“We wanted students to be able to write apps – and learn programming – directly on their smartphones. By bringing the app development environment in ‘their world,’ we lower the barrier to entry for the amazing world of CS.” – Peli de Halleux, USA
If you ask Jonathan “Peli” de Halleux how he became involved in education, he’s not shy about telling you: “Pure luck!” he says. De Halleux is a software developer at Microsoft Research, and his daily life more likely involved developing software languages like CS or .NET. And then he met Kevin Wang.
“I had the chance to meet Kevin Wang from TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) who convinced me to volunteer at my local high school and teach computer science there,” says de Halleux. “The TEALS program is really an awesome program that allows techies like me to go in the classroom during the first period, then zip out to work. We currently have 45 students learning CS thanks to four volunteers and the teacher.”
De Halleux, along with a collective of other volunteers – mainly from Microsoft – teach at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle. If you ask de Halleux and Wang what makes the program so successful, they credit their partnership with the schools’ teachers and the TEALS teachers, as described in this New York Times story.
While TEALS is a big part of de Halleux’s contribution to education, his work doesn’t stop there. “Our research group has done extensive work around software testing,” says de Halleux. “We decided to provide a web version of our tool – PEX – to make it more accessible and easy to demonstrate. One of our collaborators, Tao Xie from North Carolina State University, suggested turning it into a game. Suddenly, our testing tool had become an online game where players (of any age) had to solve coding duels… and learn some programming along the way. This is how we put it together.”
And de Halleux’s current project, TouchDevelop, also promotes development. “Our team wanted to enable people to build mobile apps on their mobile devices; like in the good old days of 8-bit computers where you were greeted by a BASIC prompt,” says de Halleux. “There was an educational aspect right from the beginning: we built a system for beginners to allow anyone to build their own apps, not just download them from the store.”
As a proud father of three, education a big topic of interest for de Halleux. Today, he shares why education is important to him, and what excites him the most about the world of edtech. Enjoy!
Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?
In my senior year, we had a special training for the engineering entry exams. The two math teachers that were running the program were extremely passionate and competent. Most importantly, they had very high expectations for us and we had to rise to the challenge to meet them.
Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education. What has changed as a result of your work?
The goal of our current project, TouchDevelop, was to allow anyone to build mobile apps on mobile devices. For example, we wanted students to be able to write apps – and learn programming – directly on their smartphones. By bringing the app development environment in “their world,” we lower the barrier to entry for the amazing world of CS.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
Thanks to a grant from Microsoft Research, we have equipped all of our students with Windows Phone devices and we have been using them to teach Introduction to CS. The students learn how to build mobile apps and games on the phone itself. The students have their own smartphone, and do not need the school phone anymore. They can do all the programming on their own phone. It is mandatory to use your phone in our class!
In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?
The way technology is letting people think about new ways of teaching. There seems to be multiple revolutions in education happening at the same time. We don’t know yet what will be the outcome, but I find this turmoil of ideas very exciting.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
A talented, passionate teacher of course! I hope that the innovative use of technology will allow a teacher to reach more students or spend more time with the students in need.
About Jonathan “Peli” de Halleux
- Birthplace: Belgium
- Current residence: Seattle, Washington, USA
- Education: PhD in Applied Mathematics, Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve
- Favorite childhood memory: Going on vacation in Chile every winter.
- Next travel destination (work or pleasure): California, work.
- When was the last time you laughed? Why? Watching my kids play.