NEW YORK — Apple planned to release a free coding education app Tuesday that it developed with middle-school students in mind, the latest salvo among technology companies to gain share in the education market and nurture early product loyalty among children.
Apple’s app, called Swift Playgrounds, introduces basic computer programming concepts, like sequencing logic, by asking students to use word commands to move cartoon avatars through a fanciful, animated world. Unlike some children’s apps, which employ drag-and-drop blocks to teach coding, the Apple program uses Swift, a professional programming language that the company introduced in 2014.
“When you learn to code with Swift Playgrounds, you are learning the same language used by professional developers,” Brian Croll, Apple’s vice president of product marketing, said in a phone interview. “It’s easy to take the next step and learn to write a real app.”
The introduction of Apple’s app coincides with a larger Silicon Valley campaign to press public schools to teach coding. Tech executives have argued that such training could help address socio-economic differences among students, by providing them with marketable job skills. In January, President Obama said he was asking Congress to provide $4 billion in the budget for a computer science initiative in public schools. (Congress has not yet passed a budget.)
“We believe every student should have the opportunity to code,” Timothy D. Cook, chief executive of Apple, said during a company event last week to introduce the iPhone 7.
Tech companies are in heated competition for the education market. Apple devices and ones based on the Microsoft Windows software have recently lost market share at US public schools to Chromebooks, inexpensive laptops that run on the Google Chrome operating system.
The Apple coding app is free, but it requires an iPad, the company’s tablet computer, which has declining sales and which many schools and families may not be able to afford.
“How much of the motivation is for selling of product, and what does that do for schools that cannot afford this technology?” asked Jane Margolis, a senior researcher at the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied disparities in computer science education for more than two decades. “The threat is that it is going to replicate current inequities.”
Croll said Apple was making the app free so that the coding lessons are accessible. While it is available for use in schools, individual students, parents, and consumers could also use the app to teach themselves to code at home, he said. He added that Apple had created the app for the iPad to ensure a high-quality user experience.
Apple said that more than 100 schools and districts worldwide had agreed to try the coding app with their students.
“We are hoping it will be a good transition between block-coding and language-coding,” said Trang Lai, director of educational services at the Fullerton School District, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade public school system in Fullerton, Calif. Her district provides an iPad for every student in grades five through eight.
Lai said the district had previously bought coding apps that did not work well on iPads, and that it was now eager to try Swift Playgrounds.
“Right now, that is what is current,” she said. “That is what is available, and that is what is free.”