Parrot Minidrones, Tickle & Tynker: A Lesson in Edtech Economics

Students program a Parrot Rolling Spider minidrone to complete a simple objective Edcamp New Jersey on November 19, 2016. Photo credit: Rebecca McLelland-Crawley.

We have been using the now-discontinued Parrot Rolling Spider Minidrones in my district for a few years now. They do not require FAA registration, are relatively inexpensive, amazingly durable, easy to program and fun to fly.  As you can see in the photo at left, these devices can really captivate and engage learners of all ages as they explore the basics of coding. Consequently, they are very popular with educators, after-school programs, and kids of all ages.

While they can be flown via the provided app for fun, their popularity as educational tools to help teach coding is the result of a a great, free iOS app called Tickle. As a result, many schools and educators have built lessons and even entire units & programs utilizing these devices.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, in the wonderful world of Edtech Economics, the “free” applications we teachers love so much have a long history of eventually either a) starting to charge for their service or b) going away entirely. Unfortunately, the latter scenario just played out: as of October 2016, the Tickle app no longer supports Parrot minidrones, including the Rolling Spider.

Users everywhere are now discovering that Tickle will no longer be able to create programs for their beloved Parrot minidrones. (Existing code will still work / can be modified, and, the v4.0 release of the app is entirely separate from the older version, so if people never upgrade, they will be fine.)

I know all this because it happened to me last night.

Drone Squadron
My Parrot Minidrone Squadron, with 3D printed rotor guards. I like these guards better than the wheels the drones come with, even though the guards provide less protection from drops and crashes. Tradeoffs, people. Tradeoffs.

In a mild panic, I started searching to find out what was going on and quickly discovered users complaining via the Tickle in-app support board and on Twitter. Fortunately, I easily located information about Parrot’s Educational offerings and their K-12 EDU Guide (.pdf). In it, I saw they referenced Tynker, an outstanding (and formerly free) web platform for learning to code. In desperation, and fully prepared to have to pay something, I downloaded the app and started checking it out. (Note: the .PDF linked above also refers to Tickle, so, whatever happened between these two companies was likely a fairly recent development.)

Well, there’s a happy ending to this story – at least for now.

Not only does the Tynker App (for iOS and Android) support Parrot minidrones, for FREE, its offering is actually very compelling and in many ways an upgrade to Tickle. Check out these screenshots:

The Tynker App programming interface (iOS). Note the capabilities and commands. Super cool!
Drone support is built in and these programs can be studied, dissected and easily modified.
This is the “Air Controller” program – coding view. It’s more complicated than Tickle, but understandably so when you consider its capabilities.
This is the “Air Controller” program in operation. Pressing each button commands the drone to perform the selected task. Slick!

So, I’m happy, for now, and everyone who uses a Parrot Minidrone in school will be too, once they find out about Tynker’s offering.

But here’s the thing: the Tynker app is free.

For now.

So, what will happen if scores of educators adopt Tynker, and, for whatever reason, Tynker decides to start charging for it at some point?

Yeah. Exactly.

It’s simple economics, folks. These organizations are in business to make profit. It’s unrealistic and unfair for us to expect corporations to provide free versions of their paid programs for educational use. When they do, it’s fantastic! But anyone that builds lessons or units around any free program or online service must always remember to have a Plan B … just in case!

Note: this entry was cross-posted on my Fablearn Fellows blog.

2 comments on “Parrot Minidrones, Tickle & Tynker: A Lesson in Edtech Economics”

  1. Hi Kevin, thanks for the article and referencing the Tynker app. Our mission is to provide kids with opportunities to learn coding right from elementary school. The Tynker app will be free. This is not likely to change. As you may know, Tynker has both free and paid solutions for schools. Our paid option includes detailed courses with teacher guides, answer keys and lesson plans for each grade, automatic assessment and district level classroom management features. Our online creativity tools, classroom management and mobile apps are free for everyone to enjoy.

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