Bob Coffee on why he Makes apps for English Learning

Bob Coffee on why he Makes apps for English Learning

How and why did you get involved in making apps for English learning?

Many years ago when this body was much younger and my mind was a bit more idealistic, I wanted to save the world from environmental pollution. I studied environmental engineering when I entered university but quickly changed to mechanical when I found out that I wasn’t very good at chemistry. Later I did aMastersdegree in Materials Engineering and have always lovedprogramingand computers. Even though I wasn’t in computer science I ended up writing a small program in Fortran to calculate the optimum amount of alloy needed for improving the tensile strength of aluminum for my 4thyear project. That was a long time ago.


I remember the first time that mouses were introduced into the school computer lab in the engineering department. We had a computer lab when I started school but it was all command line input. Then one day there were these strange things connected to each computer. When you moved them, an arrow would move on the computer screen. Very crazy times.

It wasn’t until I came to Japan that I decided to get another Masters degree in Education and Teaching to supplement my engineering background. I have always loved science and technology. I focused my energy on English education in Japan for many years and sort of forgot about engineering for a while. I even was a freelance translator for about a year and a half. My Japanese is good but it wasn’t that good so I gave up. Translating is hard.


I think because of my science and engineering background combined with my teaching background in Japan, I had impressed an online university and they sort of hired me on the spot. After that I received a research grant to investigate educational games and learning and my interest inprogramingand engineering started to creep into my classroom. I started to experiment with tech in the classroom and since I was working for an online school I could create digital materials. It was sort of a dream come true to be able to use my love of science from my youth and my educational training in Japan to create digital materials for education.

However, it wasn’t until the tablet revolution that started in principle with the iPad only about 5 years ago that my specific combination of skills really could be put to use. But there was still one thing missing. And that was that I hadn’tprogramedin over 20 years and I needed to update myprogramingabilities. Luckily, programming languages have changed immensely for the better in those 20 years. What I mean by that is the ease of use of languages and the programming tools that allow you to rapidly go from paper napkin ideas to a working prototype to a polished app are incredible.


When you take into consideration the rapid pace of technology and use a loose interpretation of Moore’s law, then you know that technology is doubling every 2 years. That means that speeds, cost, memory, data, tools, are improving on a generational pace of every two years. What it does is allow small teams of developers to create very high quality tech products, videos, movies, apps very rapidly and inexpensively if you know what you are doing. It is still a crazy amount of work but because the tools have improved so much it gives the average individual the power to create amazing things – like highly engaging educational apps for ESL learners.

I didn’t answer the why I got into educational app creation question but it is implied somewhere in the last five minutes of my answer. Specifically, with the advent of tablets combined my interest in educational material creation, it was only natural for me that I started to think about putting the two together. Tablets are really an educational game changer. They won’t replace books, just like computers didn’t replace books, or audio and video didn’t replace blackboards and paper. But mobile technologies and tablets are already changing the way educators are thinking about instruction. I’m sure you’ve heard about flipped classrooms and MOOCs and all kinds of other educational paradigms. Apps and mobile technologies are very accessible and I guess I just woke up one day and said “I’m going to make an app, yeah, I’m going to do it”.


The other piece of the puzzle was Livecode. It is a full-fledgedprograminglanguage allows you to create for mobile platforms, both iOS and Android, desktop and server, Windows, Mac and Linux. It is quite an easy, powerful language that anyone can learn to use in a very short period of time. And very powerful, yes powerful.


Bob Coffee owns Shortsnap Learning, a company based in Japan that makes excellent apps for English students.

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