Valuable Learning: Code for Kids Picks Up the Ball Dropped by Ontario’s Ministry of Education

This past weekend, i attended a Code for Kids workshop in Toronto. Since it’s been a long time since i was a kid (though it seems like only yesterday), i brought along my 8-year-old daughter Cassandra to help me assess it.

Code for Kids is an educational group founded by University of Ottawa comp sci student Julian Nadeau. Created in April 2013, the group attained not-for-profit status this past fall, and has sought to establish a name for itself as a go-to source for extracurricular computer courses for kids.

Code for Kids has run courses in Ottawa, where Nadeau is currently completing a co-op placement at Shopify, and in Montreal. This weekend’s two courses were run from the Toronto Shopify offices, with sponsorship from CIRA.

The first course was a blogging primer. Cassie’s enthusiasm for the subject matter ranked about a two out of 10, and no amount of arm-waving or encouragement could move the needle. (To be fair, she was looking forward to her 8th birthday slumber party that evening, so talk of anything that didn’t involved either giggling or screaming paled in comparison.)

The group of about a dozen kids clustered around a Shopify board room table on borrowed laptops. Julian talked them through a very dry corporate slideshow on the screen at the front, which he admitted was more for the parents’ benefit (though in truth, it was clearly a concession to the program’s sponsors). Code for Kids had set up a domain for each student ahead of time, and before too long, Julian and his merry band of helpers dug in.

The first setback reared its ugly head right away: the dreaded login process. It reminded me of why teaching computer classes in grade school was so difficult. By the time the students are finally logged in, the lunch bell rings and you’ve accomplished nothing. Ask a group of kids to type in their own passwords, and you can bet money that at least one of them will forget the password the very moment it’s entered. This time, our lucky winner was Cassie, to my great dismay.

Code for Kids has a bit of a branding issue, juggling the codeforkids.ca and codebykids.ca domains, both of which feature in their sessions, causing some registration confusion. To be fair, these are still early days for the group.

When the registration/login hurdle was finally cleared, the rest of the class went much more smoothly. Enjoying a 3:1 student to enthusiastic instructor ratio, the kids learned what a blog was, how to create and edit new posts, and how to embed pictures and videos. The afternoon included a primer on Internet privacy and safety, which i appreciated.

By the end of the session, Cassie had created two brief blog posts, and was excited to go home and keep blogging. “At first i didn’t know what to do,” she said, “but they told me and then I learned how.” She enthusiastically shared her blog with the rest of the family and her ear-piercingly loud slumber party friends when she got home, and i’ve already noticed a marked increase in her online awareness. (For good or for ill, she’s been mainlining YouTube videos about Minecraft, after being inspired by another student in the Code for Kids class.)

 

 

Cassie was absent for the second session on HTML and CSS, geared toward slightly older kids. As before, registration and setup caused a substantial hiccup, but eventually the students were on their way to crafting their own very simple websites, embedding images and videos, and styling the content.

It wounded my soul a little to see junior grade school-aged kids learning for the first time what an HMTL tag was. This should be mandatory material in the Ontario curriculum, starting at around grade three. By the time a kid is in the fifth grade, she should be much farther ahead than these kids were.

Movements like the documentary team CodeKids (not to be mistaken with Code for Kids) have already taken up the mantle first worn by Estonia and Finland, by pushing for the inclusion of mandatory computer programming instruction in the maritime provinces’ grade school curriculum. It’s a step in the right direction that would free up organizations like Code for Kids to teach truly advanced material to tech-savvy students.

The price of the event was on par with a group music lesson, and the instructor ratio was tough to beat. Code for Kids chewed off exactly the right amount of content for the group, and the session was long enough to overcome the login difficulties that always seem to crop up.

i look forward to seeing Code for Kids succeed, and i hope Julian and friends can make a valid business of it, though to be truthful, i look forward to the day when mandatory grade school curriculum renders their current course offering too simplistic.