John Maloney – 2023 Recepient

The National Technology Leadership Summit (NTLS) Educational Technology Leadership Award recognizes individuals who made a significant impact on the field of educational technology over the course of a lifetime. John Maloney’s recognition with this award is based on his pioneering contributions to the development of block-based educational computing languages.

John’s parents loved science and encouraged curiosity and exploration. Thanks to this encouragement, like many engineers and scientists, he grew up doing hands-on science experiments and building things. Those early experiences led to undergraduate and Masters degrees at MIT and a Ph.D. in Computer Science at the University of Washington. This path also led to a lifetime of joyful learning and a career at the forefront of educational innovation.

John’s contributions are grounded in work in Alan Kay’s research laboratories at Apple Computer and Walt Disney Imagineering. Alan Kay and a team of researchers at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) previously developed many of today’s modern computing concepts, including the graphical user interface with windows and a mouse. A related computing language, Smalltalk, introduced object-oriented programming and messaging.  John Maloney and his colleagues used this graphical environment to develop a block-based language, Etoys (i.e., Educational Toys). Etoys demonstrated the efficacy of block-based programming as a way to engage children in coding, allowing them to focus on powerful ideas rather than the mechanics of syntax.

John then served as the lead programmer for Scratch, developed in the MIT Media Laboratory, from 2002 to 2013.  The initial version of Scratch was implemented in Smalltalk, extending the foundation of prior work. Scratch has become the most widely used children’s language today. It currently is one of the top twenty most-used computer languages according to the TIOBE index (https://www.tiobe.com/tiobe-index/). Scratch has reached over 100 million users, and has inspired dozens of other block-based programming languages.

John is currently developing a block-based programming language for microcontrollers inspired by Scratch. MicroBlocks can be used to interactively create code to control sensors, motors, and actuators in a live programming environment. Once programmed, the microcontroller can operate autonomously. It is the only block-based language for microcontrollers that supports both interactive programming in a live environment and autonomous operation. It also makes it possible to create a MicroBlocks program for one microcontroller such as the micro:bit and transfer the program to another popular educational microcontroller such as the Raspberry Pi Pico. MicroBlocks handles the details of communications with lower-level device drivers, enabling students to focus on their immediate goal. MicroBlocks has inspired development of educational hardware such as Roger Wagner’s MakerPort.  MicroBlocks is being used by educators around the world to engage students in coding, creative robotics, and hands-on science.

John’s vision is to enable future inventors and innovators to discover their own passion for learning through creative environments such as Etoys, Scratch, and MicroBlocks. The NTLS Educational Technology Leadership Award, the coalition’s highest honor, attests to John’s success in achieving this vision.