Should Kids Be Taught To Write Code?

I reposted an article on my Tech+Learn+Tech site asking if we should be teaching kids to write code. The few comments it received are split on the answer and I imagine that is true for the wider audience of educators.

Some people (non-coders especially) view writing code for web pages or for applications as incredibly dull and boring. On the other side are those that see it as a way to be creative.

Personally, I don't support teaching coding for the purpose of training young coders to some day do things like write iPhone apps. As much as I hated taking math classes in high school, I do recognize that there was some value in the practice because of the logic, precision and critical thinking that it required. I understand the idea of a "beautiful equation" but I never found any beauty in them.

I took COBOL and FORTRAN as an undergrad in that previous century. I had one of the first computers in my classroom in 1979 and I learned BASIC and taught it a bit. Some people thought we would need to learn to write code, but I always believed that other people would write the code (in education) and we would be the users. I can write code for web pages, but I'm falling behind in that area and don't much care to keep up.

But, as the article points out, teaching coding is not a new pedagogical idea. The original article gives 15 reasons why kids need to learn how to code. I picked some of the accompanying quotes to get your brain started. You'll notice that those quoted are clearly on the side of answering Yes to this post's questioning title.

“I think everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think.” — STEVE JOBS, THE LOST INTERVIEW

“If you can program a computer, you can achieve your dreams. A computer doesn’t care about your family background, your gender, just that you know how to code.”
Dick Costolo – CEO, Twitter“I believe technology should give us superpowers. Everyone should have the opportunity to learn to think, analyze, and create with technology.” Hilary Mason – Chief Scientist, Bitly

“Coding can unlock creativity and open doors for an entire generation of American students. We need more coders — not just in the tech industry, but in every industry.”
Mark Pincus – CEO and Founder, Zynga

“Code has become the 4th literacy. Everyone needs to know how our digital world works, not just engineers.”
Mark Surman – Executive Director, The Mozilla Foundation

“To prepare humanity for the next 100 years, we need more of our children to learn computer programming skills, regardless of their future profession. Along with reading and writing, the ability to program is going to define what an educated person is.”
Salman Khan – Founder, Khan Academy“Programming allows you to think about thinking, and while debugging you learn learning.”   Nicholas Negroponte – Founder and Chairman Emeritus of MIT’s Media Lab

“Learning to code makes kids feel empowered, creative, and confident. If we want our young women to retain these traits into adulthood, a great option is to expose them to computer programming in their youth.”
Susan Wojcicki – Senior Vice President, Google

The Gamification of Your Course Content

I'm not much of a "gaming" person. Never got into video or computer games. I didn't want my kids playing Nintendo and such for hours and hours. And I don't even like the term "gamification" which is a term I am hearing a lot lately on education sites and at conferences.

I realize that gamification is not synonymous with gaming. So, to "gamify'" a course means to use the mechanics and techniques that make gaming so engaging. Engagement. Another big buzzy word in education these days. If you can use these mechanics to create engagement and incentivize certain activities in a course, well... 

I don't imagine many students who will sit at a screen and work on their organic chemistry coursework for 4 hours because it is game-like, or that we should view that as a goal. But gamification addresses some needs that students today say they want addressed.

One that is always mentioned is immediate feedback and validation. That sends me back to my own Intro to Psych class and behaviorism, B.F. Skinner, Operant Conditioning and things like Random Interrupted Reinforcement.

Point, scores, status and rewards are some of the elements used to motivate actions in a gamified course. These mechanics are structured to achieve engagement. You may not feel comfortable about even viewing content consumption, comments and time spent on tasks as "engagement."  But whether you call this engagement mechanics, focus mechanics, or gamification, you should be interested in the intended result - more time spent in the course material.

Being that I am currently teaching an online course with about 700 students, I had thought about using gaming techniques in designing that class. I decided not to design in that way because I anticipated that the audience was going to be older professionals in academia rather than traditionally-aged students. (That turned out to be true.)

I did find a course on Gamification offered by Coursera taught by Kevin Werbach (UPenn). I would have taken the class, but I knew I wouldn't have the time to devote to it. (I actually had two colleagues who told me to take it anyway, just to see what he's doing because "it's only a MOOC" - THAT is a whole other issue).

His course 
description is:

Gamification is the application of digital game design techniques to non-game problems, such as business and social impact challenges. Video games are the dominant entertainment form of our time because they are powerful tools for motivating behavior. Effective games leverage both psychology and technology, in ways that can be applied outside the immersive environments of games themselves. Gamification as a business practice has exploded over the past two years. Organizations are applying it in areas such as marketing, human resources, productivity enhancement, sustainability, training, health and wellness, innovation, and customer engagement. Game thinking means more than just dropping in badges and leaderboards; it requires a thoughtful understanding of motivation and design techniques. This course examines the mechanisms of gamification and provides an understanding of its effective use.

You may not be interested in gamifying your courses, but vendors who provide course content - especially online content - are interested and are including it now. Gamification was one of the 6 technologies in the most recent Horizon Report.

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Marking the Day

On April 16, 2007, my oldest son was a senior at Virginia Tech. I watched the coverage of the mass shooting that day on TV and I was on the phone with my son at the same time. He was safe.

The first shooting was in his freshman dormitory. The building where he had most of his classes in engineering was where the other shootings occurred. He called his mom as soon as he heard about the shootings. He had a class in Norris Hall at 10:30 and planned to be there at 9:30 to work on his senior project. But, he was waiting for a call from his girlfriend who had gone for a job interview. And there had been a bomb scare earlier that week on campus. He waited.

As the tragedy was unraveled, I became less supportive of the university's response to the events that day. The campus should have been shut down after the first shooting. Whatever luck or other explanation you have for my son deciding to wait before going to campus to work on his senior engineering project, he wasn't in Norris Hall. His classmates were there. His professor was there.

Now, six years later, I still think about Kevin Granata, his professor and project adviser in the Engineering Science and Mechanics department. They were working on muscle and reflex response and robotics. Dr. Granata is known for his work on movement dynamics in cerebral palsy. Dr. Granata was one of the thirty in Norris Hall that was killed.

GranataI never met Professor Granata, but I know that he was helping my son fill some gaps in his software skills by working with him outside class. He was his adviser for his capstone senior design project team that was designing a biomimetic walking robot.

On that day, Professor Granata heard the shooting from his office on the third floor and escorted about twenty students from a classroom to his office. After they were locked in, he went downstairs with another professor, Wally Grant, to investigate. Both teachers were shot. Professor Grant was wounded and survived, but Dr. Granata died from his injuries. The students locked in his office were all safe.

Kevin Granata was 45 years old. He was married with three children.

My son was never able to go back into the building. He couldn't complete his project. He didn't attend the graduation ceremonies. He wasn't able to follow up on contacts that he had discussed with Professor Granata about grad school and jobs.

My wife and I are both teachers and that day hit us very hard. The Columbine High School shootings on April 20, 1999 made both of us question being in a classroom. I left full time teaching in a public school two months after Columbine. My wife left teaching a few years later, before the Virginia Tech day.

When the shootings occurred at Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012, it all came back to us once again. We have always been proud to be teachers. We both would like to believe we would be a teacher like Kevin Granata or all those other teachers in school shootings who tried to protect their students.

More about Kevin Granata on the Virginia Tech remembrance site and on Wikipedia.


"Academia and the MOOC" Starts April 15

"Academia and the MOOC" is a free "course" on the Canvas Network that I will be facilitating and it opens on April 15 for four weeks. It is free and is itself MOOCish, though not a true MOOC.

"Academia and the MOOC" is certainly about how Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are impacting education and a way for people
from academia who have an interest in this movement to get information about MOOCs and get participants thinking and discussing their
impact on education.

I say the offering is MOOCish because it's not going to be "massive" because we are capping it at 2000 participants (a BOOC or Big OOC)  and it's not so much as "course" as it is a conversation or colloquium.

Certainly, MOOCs are a huge topic in academia right now, but still I find that many schools and individual educators are still wondering if they should be offering them. There is also a good bit of fear about how this alternative to their own offerings will affect their own courses.

Institutions have to wonder how offering courses at no cost to a very large number of participants who do not receive institutional credit can be a worthwhile venture.

My offering will offer you a background in the history and development of MOOCs. We will examine MOOCs from the perspectives of five academic roles (teacher, designer, support, administration and student). I will also give you content to allow you to critique some successful (and "failed") courses that have been offered as MOOCs even if you have never taken or taught a MOOC yourself.

I still refer to this as a "course" because it's a term we all understand, but sinnce most of us associate courses with textbooks, assignments, grades, assessment, credits and all that comes with those things, this is not a course. None of those elements exist in this experience. Discussion, as with most online courses, will be at the heart of the experience.

The course launches Monday, April 15, 2013 and will run for 4 weeks. It is open and free to anyone interested in this topic.

To register, go to

The Death Of Content

Interesting quick note from the Emerging Learning Design 2012 Conference on their upcoming keynote presentation by Dr. Christopher Hoadley. His talk will be "The Death Of Content: Why Universities and Schools are (and aren’t) being replaced by the Internet.

The topic of his presentation is one that I have also been presenting on for several years, and that I feel strongly is a topic educators need to be serious about considering.

He describes the argument of his talk as:

"The current coin of the realm in academia –content– is dying and that universities need to radically rethink their role in the world. MOOCs, homeschooling, and the shadow education system all are evidence that the 20th century role of schools is decreasingly relevant. But does this mean that schools will become obsolete? I argue that schools face a choice: use technology to enhance their current functions but hasten their demise, or use technology to transform themselves and capitalize on 17th century strengths to be a cornerstone of the 21st century knowledge economy. I offer some ideas on how to reconceptualize the notion of ‘schools’ based on the latest research in learning and on ancient ideas about how to teach."

Dr. Christopher Hoadley is associate professor in the Educational Communication and Technology Program and the Program in Digital Media Design for Learning at NYU Steinhardt.