An in-depth look at the social good of accessible free software: an interview with the MicroBlocks team
byon January 7, 2021
MicroBlocks is a free/libre visual programming language that can be used to make programs that can run autonomously on many popular microcontrollers, allowing users of all technical abilities to program microcontrollers for a vast variety of purposes and 'real world' applications. The MicroBlocks team also works to bring the language to youth underrepresented in computer science education as an introduction to computing in hopes of diversifying the field and getting more people engaged in using and producing free software, and works to increase awareness of the inequalities and problems of agency both in education and in embedded software that software freedom can help combat. MicroBlocks has been a Conservancy project since 2018.
Creations by student using Microblocks. Photo © Citilab Cornellà Edulab, licensed CC BY-SA 4.0
John Maloney, Bernat Romagosa, and Kathy Giori, members of the project's Leadership Committee, took part in a remote interview with Vladimir Bejdo, a Conservancy intern, to discuss the project's origins, its future, and their views on the impact that MicroBlocks and free software as a whole can have in creating a more just, equitable future for all of us.
JM: John Maloney; KG: Kathy Giori; BR: Bernat Romagosa; VB: Vladimir Bejdo
VB: Tell me a bit about how you all got into free software to begin with – was there a particular moment or experience you could share that made you decide that free software was somehow important to get involved with?
KG: Early on in the days of web development via straight HTML, the ability to “view source” to learn and innovate upon others’ work was very powerful to me. I used Linux in the 1990s to support development of prototype military command and control technology using GPS, packet radio, and digitized maps (running on “luggable” laptops). But it wasn’t until I led a startup (starting in 1999) that I began to fully appreciate the importance of leveraging free and open source software, and the advantage of integrating business solutions built upon popular and stable packages and tools developed by others. Three “products” we implemented were: 1) writing “screen scraping” software to pull HTML from web sites and generate apps for the then-new wireless Palm VII devices, 2) an open source alternative to Microsoft’s Exchange server for businesses to manage email, calendars, etc., and 3) a “desktop on the net” service that offered personal cloud storage of email and files, with remote “anywhere” access in three ways: HTML (browser), VNC client to serve up your content in a full Linux desktop (with useful pre-installed apps), and a Palm VII app (very early “mobile” experience). I learned the importance between permissive and non-permissive software licenses (e.g., GPL) while at Qualcomm Atheros. I had to push very hard for permission to lead product development for upstream Linux wireless drivers, and to lead the conversion of a barebones internal Linux SDK to a full router stack called “QSDK” based on the OpenWrt wireless router distribution.
JM: My twin passions are programming language research and end-user programming. My first job after graduate school was working on the Self programming language at Sun Microsystems Labs, which we released as open source. First Sun Labs, then Sun Microsystems itself disappeared, but because Self was open source it lived on and was later ported to run on Mac OS and Linux. My next job was in Alan Kay’s research group at Apple Computer where we created the Squeak Smalltalk system. Squeak built on Apple APDA Smalltalk (which was free but proprietary) but Ted Kaehler and Alan convinced Apple to let us release Squeak as open source. Within two weeks of its release, Squeak had been ported from Macintosh to Linux and a few weeks later to Windows. That was my first experience with the real power of an open source community. Squeak is still going strong and it also gave birth to the Pharo Smalltalk project.
My next project was Scratch, at MIT. Scratch was originally released under a custom open source license. Some people in the open source community did not like the Squeak license because it wasn’t one of the standard ones, so later versions of Squeak were released under the GPLv2 license. Squeak now has many contributors and makes use of open source software from Google and others.
After working on Scratch for 11 years, I got the itch to create another blocks language, so I left the Scratch team and joined a new research lab set up by Alan Kay. I made it a condition of my hire that everything I did would be open source, and that turned out to be a good thing. After about three years that lab closed down and I was able to take the project, GP Blocks, with me to a new research lab. At the new lab, I started the MicroBlocks project – also open source – so when that lab also closed down, both GP Blocks and MicroBlocks were able to live on. At the moment I’m putting all my time into MicroBlocks, but I may one day return to the GP Blocks project, and it’s great to know that I can.
In short, every programming language system I’ve worked on has been open source. That’s fortunate, since most of them have outlived the organizations that created them. Had they been proprietary software, they would not have survived.
BR: When I was in high school an older friend of mine lent me a Red Hat CD he got from a computer magazine and I installed it in a partition on my PC. I would from then on boot to Red Hat or Slackware regularly to play around, but I’d still use a proprietary OS as my main one. When I started university my political views began to weigh more than my need to play games, so I wiped any traces of a proprietary OS from my PC and installed Debian. I’d say using a free OS through university and my first working years taught me the importance of free software. When there’s a university assignment that requires that you use proprietary software, you need to choose between giving up on your beliefs or disobeying and using alternative free tools instead.
VB: Tell me a bit about the overall history of MicroBlocks in specific – what spurred its creation? Why did you choose a free software license in releasing it?
KG: I met Bernat while we were both working for Arduino, since he had created a still-fun-to-use tool called Snap4Arduino. He introduced me to John. We both saw the value of the idea of MicroBlocks before it was even real. It provides a live, blocks-based programming environment that is very powerful for learning and debugging, but doesn’t require that the microcontroller be connected to a laptop or other processor to run the code. It’s awesome potential is why I spend the majority of my time on it these days.
Why a free software license? We all have a motive of impact > profit. When at Mozilla, I championed a grant to MicroBlocks so they could add a “web thing” library, to make it easy to connect a microcontroller device to the web (and specifically, to Mozilla’s WebThings Gateway). I think it was at that point that John and Bernat decided to use the Mozilla Public License for the project. It is permissive – free/open to commercial and non-commercial derivatives and innovation. To me, the key to successfully maintaining “ownership”, and the ability to monetize a free software project or product (that I learned by witnessing horrible legal battles between selfish businessmen while at Arduino), is protecting the trademark. Hence: https://microblocks.fun/logo.png.
JM: While attending the 2017 SIGCSE conference, I saw a presentation about the BBC micro:bit. The presenter, Sue Sentance, gave me a BBC micro:bit to take home, and I immediately started working on MicroBlocks. The following year, the small research lab I was working for lost their funding and disbanded. I decided to keep working on MicroBlocks as an independent, open source project, along with Jens Mönig (one of the GPBlocks team and also creator of the Snap! blocks language) and Bernat, whom I’d met at the 2013 Scratch conference. Way back then, Bernat had actually planted the seed that led to MicroBlocks when he told me about an educational microcontroller board that Citilab Cornellà was developing that needed a beginner-friendly programming system.
VB: Seeing that you’ve all alluded to this, how do you all conceive of the way free software philosophies might align with the social good? For example, how might that intersection play out in the field of education?
KG: Independent of software development, if we could not learn from and innovate upon the discoveries of others, human knowledge would not likely increase from one generation to the next. Education is all about learning from others. Access to a quality education is the greatest social good we can offer to our fellow humans. Free software therefore maximizes a student’s ability to leverage programming tools and techniques already built by others so they can spend more time learning even more things, while being creative and innovative.
JM: Free software is a perfect fit for education projects. The students and schools we’d most like to reach often have limited resources. When people have to pay for educational software then only wealthy schools and students can afford it, which creates a “the rich get richer” scenario.
Creations by a student using Microblocks. Photo © Citilab Cornellà Edulab, licensed CC BY-SA 4.0
On the Scratch project, I was a strong advocate for keeping Scratch free even when we were advised that in order to scale Scratch up we needed to create a revenue stream. Fortunately, the Scratch team ignored that advice. We kept Scratch free and open source and Scratch has still managed to grow to over 57 million users!
VB: Why do you feel it is important to bring free software to ‘casual programmers’ as you’re doing with MicroBlocks?
KG: We want to see the power of logical thinking and physical computing accessible to people studying and solving problems in any domain or area of expertise. Today, to collect and analyze data, most people rely on collaboration with someone else who has a degree in computer science. I’m of the opinion that anyone from citizen scientists to top university scientists and engineers would benefit from using MicroBlocks because of how easy it is to “instrument the world around you” and take programmatic action based on what you discover. The majority of people today have never programmed a microcontroller. But with MicroBlocks, anyone who is computer literate could instrument the world, and work to make it a better place for us all.
JM: There are scores of computer programming languages for experts and professional programmers yet only a few, like Scratch, that welcome beginners. That situation tends to discourage beginners. Young people who don’t already see themselves as proficient with technology, including girls, people of color, and those from working class families, are likely to be discouraged if confronted with a complex programming language as their first experience. Languages like Scratch and MicroBlocks lower the barriers to entry and make it possible for everyone to do interesting things quickly, regardless of their background. Early successes build confidence and encourage the learner to take on more complex projects, resulting in a positive learning spiral.
It may surprise you to know that the first assignment in Harvard’s CS50, the first programming class for those majoring in computer science, is in Scratch. When Professor David Malan took over that class in 2007, he deliberately chose to use Scratch for the first assignment as a way to welcome beginners and “level the playing field”. In the Scratch assignment, students coming into CS50 with two years of AP Computer science have no advantage over students without that background. Within a year, the percentage of women and minority students completing the class had shot up dramatically. After the first assignment, CS50 switches to C++ and quickly becomes challenging, but that first assignment builds confidence and motivation that help students stick with the class for the rest of the semester.
VB: Seeing that this project converges in a certain sense with open educational resources (OER), what are your thoughts on the use of free software in education? Is OER something you feel is relevant to your project?
KG: Yes, open educational resources are super important. My goal is to create as many MicroBlocks examples and educational materials as I possibly can to help others learn physical computing. In order to improve education for all, we have to ensure equity of access. That is why the software is free and open source licensed, and the educational materials are free and open to access, improve, translate, etc.
JM: As mentioned earlier, we want to make educational software and learning resources available to everyone for free. All the MicroBlocks learning resources are shared under a Creative Commons BY-SA license. People are encouraged to translate, remix, and create new MicroBlocks Activity Cards and other materials and share them back to the community.
I also agree with Bernat: students should be able to “look inside” the software systems they are using. That’s a powerful way to learn and, even if most students never dig too deeply into the system, it’s empowering simply to know that they *can*.
BR: In the case of educational programming languages, I don’t think there should even be a question. How can you say your language is meant to teach programming if you don’t even let others look at the code that powers it?
VB: MicroBlocks seems to be doing very important work in the field of educational technology, yet it is only part of a greater free software ecosystem; with that said, what do you feel are the greatest areas of need for free software projects to focus on today?
KG: A successful project, like anything else, must solve a problem. Wherever there are emerging proprietary software solutions that are successfully “solving problems”, it will be important to see free software alternatives. For example, Linux is a fantastic OS resource compared to Windows and Mac OS, because you can modify it to suit your exact needs.
In general, I feel that lack of free software in innovative new areas of technology will continue to propagate a social equity imbalance, because “who has access” is often socially and culturally biased.
JM: The entire Linux ecosystem is absolutely essential. It’s vitally important that there be free and open source alternatives to the proprietary software created by large corporations so we are not entirely at their mercy. In addition, educational projects like One Laptop Per Child and the Raspberry Pi would not be possible without a rock-solid, free, open-source operating system, and Linux tools and infrastructure is key to many, if not most, open source projects.
BR: Even among free software users and advocates, there’s a tendency to use proprietary web applications out of convenience. Self-hosted alternatives do exist, but not everybody has the skill level or the time to deploy and maintain free alternatives to popular proprietary email, videoconferencing, file sharing, calendar or office tools. I don’t know who has the resources to do that, but I often wish there was a pre-deployed online suite comprising all these tools.
VB: What do you see for the future of your project?
KG: I see MicroBlocks as eventually becoming the de-facto educational software tool used for physical computing. On the hardware side, about 15 years ago the first Arduino boards made physical computing possible and affordable, and targeted education. The latest success story is the BBC micro:bit, an even lower-cost and far more powerful board integrated with multiple sensors and actuators. Students already carry calculators to do math, why not add a programmable microcontroller with integrated sensors and actuators to create a combination “physical computing calculator”? I imagine such a device always ready to do general mathematical and physical computations, and by connecting it to the MicroBlocks IDE, one could easily program it to do more specific or complex tasks. Casual users and Makers might benefit from and use the same type of hardware as school children, whereas top scientists and industry professionals might use a far more advanced and/or sensitive platform. Experts can still use MicroBlocks software, because they can freely update it to suit their needs.
JM: My dream is that MicroBlocks will help young people to discover the joys of building things of their own design using code and electronics. I hope to reach children who might not otherwise have imagined themselves as scientists or engineers, and I want them to see that they can use technology to bring their ideas to life and perhaps to realize that they can use their newfound abilities to bring about positive change.
VB: Now, another more general question – how do you conceive of the future of free software overall? What role do you feel your project plays in the near or long-term future of free software?
KG: People who have benefited from free software tend to produce free software if they go into any field or business area that generates foundational code. MicroBlocks is one of those excellent free software tools that will inspire the next generation to produce even more free software.
BR: MicroBlocks aims to help people get started in programming. Hopefully some of these people will end up contributing to free software projects or creating their own.
JM: I hope that many students who get started in technological fields through free software will understand the value of free software and support it. Some may even decide to “give back” by donating time or money to free software projects.
VB: How can people help support your project or get involved? How can non-technical folks contribute to your project?
KG: First, we need to spread the word. We need people who can tell and/or train educators about the benefits of MicroBlocks. Next, we need help integrating physical computing projects and examples into mainstream curriculum. Project-based learning can improve outcomes in math, science, art, music, phys-ed, etc. We want domain experts across all areas to solve physical computing problems in their field using MicroBlocks, and to share their solutions as examples for others to build upon.
And of course, we welcome everyone to click the “Donate” button on the website to offer financial support to the project (it’s a tax-deductible donation).
JM: MicroBlocks is merely a tool. For it to make a difference, educators and organizations must use it to inspire young people. Our greatest need is for people who can help us bring MicroBlocks to a wider audience, by using it in their own teaching, spreading the word to others, or creating and sharing educational materials.
BR: Individuals and organizations can support us financially through the Software Freedom Conservancy. We also encourage everybody to try out MicroBlocks and submit bug reports, either at our Git repositoryor by email to email@example.com. Translation help is always welcome! There’s also a blogpost with information about how to translate MicroBlocks.
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