On the learn-to-code movement in 2015

codenow-logoThis is a guest post from John Westgarth, ‎State Manager (NSW/ACT), Digital Careers at NICTA.

Last December, Ryan Seashore, CEO and founder of CodeNow, put up his thoughts on the learn-to-code movement – where it’s at and where it needs to be. I like this article for several reasons. First, it attempts to put a time line around the host of initiatives – making it very clear how recent most of them are. Second, it adds structure to the movement and distinguishes between the different players.

Here’s how Seashore broke them down:

Awareness: the purpose of these organisations is to raise awareness of the need for increased computer science/coding education. The main player here is Code.org, with Made with Code also referenced. Success is measured in terms of publicity, social media and uptake of campaigns such as Hour of Code and Computer Science Education Week. [JW note: I’m pretty sure Code.org would argue that, through their teacher support materials, they moving well down the chain into the exposure and immersion categories, but in general, they play an important role in raising awareness of this issue]

Exposure: main goal of these organisations is to give students a taste of coding as a discipline. The idea is to give students exposure so they can then decide if it’s an area of interest they might want to pursue in college. Players: CodeNow, Black Girls Code, CoderDojo, Technovation, Rails Girls, etc. Success is measured by the number and diversity of students that attend the programs.

Immersion: a subset of the exposure groups – here the aim is to bridge the gap between the first 5-30 hours and full-blown curriculum. Programs include SMASH, Girls Who Code, TEALS, ScriptED, UrbanTXT. Once again, success is measured by number and diversity of attendees.

Vocational: generally for-profit. Think General Assembly, Dev Bootcamp, Hack Bright Academy, etc. These guys have grown fast and can offer specialisations like UI design, front end coding, app creation, data science etc.

Online: these are online courses, often free, from CodeAcademy, Khan Academy, CodeSchool and MOOCs facilitated through Coursera and Udacity. These can range from hour-long tutorials through to 8-12 week courses. Here Seashore comments on the frequently quoted 5% completion rate and the huge amount of self-discipline needed to actually finish the courses.

The ‘where to from here’ section of Seashore’s article touched on a few things: a) the creation of a national association to coordinate the linkages between all the above organisations – to help them move up the education ladder, b) setting public goals for education, c) pushing the public to challenge the government to make coding mandatory in schools, and d) pushing tech companies to do more than just donate money – they can play an active role in educating students and taking interns.

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My thoughts:

  • Not-for-profits: Seashore starts his article saying that not-for-profits are stepping into this space because the tech industry has diversity issues and sectors of society (women, African American, Hispanic) are not being included in this incredibly progressive, well-paying industry sector. This is true for Australia as well – the tech sector has low representation from women, indigenous Australians and other groups. However our base uptake is so low that, in general, Australians as a whole are missing out on this opportunity. Not-for-profits are stepping in, not for diversity reasons, but because they can move faster (and arguably have less responsibility) than official government education. Very few of the organisations above have a physical presence in Australia – which relegates them all to the ‘self driven’ online category.
  • Educational progression: Seashore’s article warns of offering false hopes. Imagine for example that enthusiastic volunteers (from organisations or companies) come into a school, run an amazing workshop on coding, generate a healthy amount of interest in technology but then leave an under supported teacher to figure out the next steps. It would make sense for each outreach activity to have a ‘next steps’ component to their activities.
  • Localisation: in Australia we are starting to see a few organisations emerge in for-profit category of tech education – General Assembly, CoderFactory and Code Rangers (relatively new) are some that come to mind. Code Rangers is interesting because it is playing in the traditionally not-for-profit space of youth education but is tapping the structured, and paid, after school networks. Essentially providing a quality alternative to after school care for young students.

John Westgarth’s always interesting blog can be found here.

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