Coding in the Classroom

If you’ve been paying attention you know the latest buzz in edtech is a push to teach kids to code, with much credit for the recent surge in publicity going to Code.org and their Hour of Code efforts during Computer Science Education Week last December. However, I have been curious to see how schools are pushing past the challenge of just introducing ‘learn to code’ apps to create more authentic experiences for students to gain exposure to computer science concepts. My research recently led me to Summit Public Schools, a charter network with six schools that is already fairly well-known for their innovative blended learning practices, where all students have their own Chromebook and spend time daily progressing through their personalized learning plans.

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Beyond experimenting with blended learning approaches, Summit created their Expeditions Program to encourage more interest-based activities for students throughout the school year. Over each two month period students spend 6-weeks in their normal class schedule and then 2-weeks participating in expeditions that they select from a menu of options designed around their interests.  I sat down with Greg Ponikvar, Director of Expeditions, who manages this aspect of the curriculum across 6 schools and approximately 1700 students. He shared some details about their current STEM offerings as well as plans for the next school year. 

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Warm-up exercise– translating code screen (which in this case is the white board)

Summit currently offers a computer science elective course for 25 students at 4 of their 6 campuses through at partnership with the Miller Institute (LearningTech.org) and are looking to expand that offering by hiring their own full time CS teacher next year. Ponikvar is exploring how to require at least one week of exposure to CS related topics for each student, which includes visits to local tech companies like Google.

During my visit I got a chance to observe Sam Strasser, Platform Architect on the Summit tech team, who is currently leading an expedition to introduce students to basic web design concepts, specifically html, css and javascript. Strasser is designing the 2-week curriculum himself, leveraging free online tools like Codecademy and JS Bin with emphasis on teaching debugging strategies and getting students comfortable finding answers themselves.

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Always comes back to paper and pencil– Strasser diagramming jQuery selectors and functions

While he is the first to admit that he doesn’t have any formal teaching experience, Strasser did a great job creating an environment where the students were teaching and learning from each other. With the vast libraries of resources, a core aspect of teaching kids to code is empowering them to troubleshoot their own issues, building confidence and learning how to get unstuck.

With the growing number of free online tools like CodeHSTynker and ScratchEd, I’m hopeful we will see more efforts like this to get coding into classrooms and make it relevant for students.

My so-coding life

Just over the past few weeks I’ve read about several initiatives to help teach anyone basic coding skills.  As I work on my second lesson from Code Year (Week 2: functions in javascript), my mind wanders back to the few CS classes I took in undergrad almost 10 years ago and I’m seriously impressed by how much easier and accessible this content is for anyone who wants to learn to code. (The desire to learn is a big part and I’ll come back to this.) In just about a week, over 350,000 people signed up for the CodeYear program, designed by the Codecademy team (the darling of the most recent YC batch) that raised $2.5M just a couple months after launching last August. (Those growth numbers are amazing and Fred Wilson does a great job outlining some of the factors that contributed to those sign-ups.)

Adding to that buzz, Codecademy announced an abbreviated version of Code Year, CodeSummer+, in partnership with the White House and their Summer Jobs+ Program to “ provide pathways to employment for low-income and disconnected youth in the summer of 2012.” It is wonderful to see the various startups and government officials that are coming together to build off this momentum and create resources & programs that are needed in schools & communities across the country. However, I think the more important points of this announcement are the offline meetups and Q&A forums. While delivering content online is efficient, scalable and allows for self-paced learning, learning is inherently social so these 2 aspects of their program are crucial to reaching the goal of actually teaching people to code. Combining their online content with offline interactions to create a blended learning model is a smart approach that other hot digital learning startups, such as Khan Academy, are developing as well to reach key learning goals.

And speaking of learning goals, I’m curious to see some of the assessments that go along with Code Year to help confirm that I am, in fact, becoming a hacker. (Of course I’m also relying on several other online resources as well as direct instruction from my sometimes not-so-patient hacker husband.)

Back to an earlier point…One of the key drivers to learning anything is interest, so in order for these types of programs to be successful the first step is actually to foster the desire for people to want to code. Coming from the Silicon Valley, it’s fairly obvious to many of us, but convincing a middle/high school student from another environment is slightly more challenging. That is what excites me most about The Academy for Software Engineering, NY’s first public high school that will actually train kids to develop software. Beyond being open to any student that is interested and focusing on diversity in STEM fields, the school is focusing on 9th graders and helping plant the seed of why coding is an important and necessary skill. I believe igniting that interest in 14 year olds is what will truly lead to a world of coders.

And in contributing to that larger teach-the-world-to-code vision and my own personal goals, I should get back to my lesson.