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January 21, 2012 / Ben Chun

Questioning Code Year

So there’s this big deal thing called Code Year and I was going to write a whole blog post about that, but Julie Meloni beat me to it and said it better than I would have:

I wish that Code Year was 2013 and 2012 was “some smart people with good ideas and a lot of money built took the time to build great pedagogically-driven tool to really solve an existing problem for folks who want and need training in this area.”

So is it me, or is Code Year just Codecademy on a calendar? Oh, and they started to use Meetup. I don’t really see what their $2.5M round is buying yet, let alone how they’re going to make it back. Maybe I just need to be patient. But Code Year is already launched.

Zooming out, I see Code Year as a small (and perhaps overexposed) part of a larger overall movement that includes MIT’s OpenCourseware, Khan Academy, and the Stanford AI and ML courses. There are serious questions about how well this kind of stuff works. But it looks like the train is leaving the station, so we might as well start figuring out how to point the tracks not off a cliff.

Bloomberg says he’s going to do it:

And now the White House is partnering with Codecademy to create something called “Code Summer+” which I predict will yet again repackage Codecademy courses without addressing questions of instructional design and pedagogy.

Then there’s this inconvenient little point:

While the business model hasn’t been revealed yet, Union Square Ventures also hasn’t come out to say that the seed round was actually a charitable donation. It certainly does make things confusing.

But wait — I’m a public high school computer science teacher. Why am I complaining about any of this? I see why Zed Shaw might be bitter pissed, but I’m not trying to sell any books about programming. (Update: Zed Shaw clarifies his position and says Codecademy’s failings actually drive readers to him. Which is fine. My point is just that he makes money in the same business space as Codecademy, where I have zero financial stake in any of this, so why the hell do I care who is getting a boost from Obama?)

My answer echos some of Julie’s comments: I love that there’s an effort to make people more aware of CS and an effort to help more people get into it. I worry that these efforts significantly misrepresent the challenge of learning CS concepts, and put too much faith in people learning on their own. It’s not like the resources and reference materials haven’t been out there on the internet the whole time. Is the problem really that people need game mechanics to help them learn? Or is the problem that this stuff is hard to learn without someone in real life helping you?

Now the idea that folks might just start getting together, outside of traditional institutions, to help struggle through the hard parts is inspiring. We might really be able to move beyond the traditional model of education. But then how do we know the learning is real? As usual, Bruce Sterling called it a couple years out. He wrote a piece for Wired called Favela Chic education back in 2009 whose conclusion was basically, “Who cares about proving it?” So come on, let’s just start learning how to program already! We’re not going to get to the future by sitting around reading and writing blog posts!

OK, but one more wrinkle before we get back on our social networks to check if any of our friends have learned any new skills in the last 5 minutes: Justin Reich just gave a talk entitled “Will Free Benefit the Rich? How Free and Open Education Might Widen Digital Divides”. It’s worth considering the possibility that the efforts being made here, including the projects endorsed by the White House, may have exactly the opposite of the intended effect.

I can’t predict the future. But as a person who spends my days helping kids learn computer science, I can tell you this: People are not going to stop getting stuck on tricky concepts. They’re tricky. People are not going to stop needing expert help and guidance. They don’t know what they don’t know. Unless the online self-learning initiatives and businesses start to take this into account, start to take research seriously, and start to test solutions, a lot of venture capital and venture philanthropy money is going to end up burned. And after all that, we’re still going to need more programmers.



Leave a Comment
  1. Dave Naffziger / Jan 22 2012 10:09 am

    Abstraction is hard, let’s go shopping!

    I view this all slightly differently though.

    In my view, the core problem is much more a cultural problem than an educational problem (certainly we can improve our educational systems as well).

    Kids don’t grow up wanting to be programmers (or study other STEM subjects). Everything in a kid’s environment doesn’t seem to value STEM (families, parents, friends, popular media, etc.) This doesn’t seem to be a problem with the subjects themselves as the reverse appears to be true in Asia.

    The US graduated more CS majors 25 years ago than it does today (I haven’t validated that though).

    So, how do we get an order of magnitude (or two) increase in students that aspire to be programmers (instead of studying psychology or communications)?

    I don’t know. But it feels to me that it needs to be something that starts outside of the classroom. Something has to convince them to take that first CS class or to try an advanced math course. Most kids that do this will be taking their first subjects that their parents can’t help them with.

    Khan, OCW, CodeYear and maybe even CodeAcademy might be part of the solution. Or not. But they collectively can accomplish two purposes:
    1. Make studying CS cool. Misrepresenting how hard it is seems like a second order problem. Just get kids aspiring to be programmers instead of athletes, actors, etc.
    2. Provide different learning channels. Find videos engaging? Great! Want to try 6.001? God help you, but super! Guided exercises? Give it a try!

    Sure, the media is pushing the view that all of those solutions might be replacements for the classroom and I’m sure some in those orgs don’t mind those comparisons. At the moment, I’m just happy that the media is talking about them.

    • Ben Chun / Jan 22 2012 12:51 pm

      Good points, Dave. I think kids make decisions about going into psych or communications or whatever over STEM not because the latter isn’t valued, but because it’s portrayed as being both difficult and lonely. Kids aren’t looking at the job market numbers, they’re trying to imagine a work life they will enjoy.

      If you’re going to learn psychology, you take classes with awesome psych professors who show you really interesting stuff and then you talk about it with other humans. Same for business or communications. But if you’re going to learn engineering, it’s hitting the books (or internet) pretty hard, and probably alone. Hopefully the media starts to look beyond the type of programmer portrayed in “Social Network” (solo, headphones on, zoned in to the machine while everyone else is partying). But I don’t see how learn-by-yourself sites make studying CS more cool.

      The reality is that a lot of programmers now work in more social ways (agile and pairing) but that isn’t visible to students. I have yet to see a learn-to-program web site that makes you first find a real-life friend to pair with so you can learn everything together. Say, that gives me an idea. Anyone have a spare $2.5M they’re looking to invest?

  2. Jean Hsu (@jyhsu) / Jan 22 2012 1:52 pm

    Hi Ben,

    Great post. I completely agree that people are not going to learn how to be programmers through CodeYear/Codecademy, but I have a few friends who are going through the exercises. I don’t know how far they’ll make it, but I don’t think they’re under the impression that it’ll make coders out of them, but it helps people get over that initial psychological barrier and makes the concepts more accessible. Rather than having to set up a dev environment to do anything at all, there’s little barrier to just getting started, even if it’s just writing a bit of javascript.

    At some point, they are going to need a real person to help them out, and a real project to delve into.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Jasmine Tsai / Jan 25 2012 1:51 am

    Hi Ben,

    Great post as always! Your points on Codecademy pretty much echo what I have been wondering about myself. It seems like someone or something will still need to bridge the gap between the online world/resources and what happens offline with actual guidance. We’ve been re-thinking our strategy and product for the non-profit platform based on this direction, focusing more on how we can train volunteer instructors to bring material into after-school programs or school settings. The project proposal has been written and we’ll be in fundraising mode soon hopefully– will keep you posted!

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