Teaching the World to Code: The Codecademy Story Part One

by Evelyn Levine

The “Buzz”

Zach Sims has a simple goal: he wants to teach the world to code.  As CEO and Co-Founder (along with Ryan Bubinski) of Codecademy, an 18-month-old educational technology startup, he has already made a good start. The site now boasts millions of users, with approximately 60% of them outside the U.S.

In Sims’ words, his vision is: to “make programming mainstream… not everyone need[s] to be a programmer, but everyone need[s] to understand what programming is.”  He points out that “coding is the language of the internet: and people don’t want to just use the Web: they want to understand how it works.”

The company website (http://www.codecademy.com) teaches programming through free, online, interactive tutorials on the basics of coding, and through interactive learning projects that teach how to build websites, games and apps. Major funding and creative marketing have both played key roles in the initial buzz surrounding Codecademy.  The company has procured $12.5 million in funding from some major backers, including, among, others, Union Square Ventures, SV Angel, and CrunchFund.  A marketing strategy of introducing 2012 as “Code Year” — in which people were asked to make a  New Year’s resolution to commit to learning how to code, by signing up for weekly e-mail lessons — garnered the attention of the White House and boasted NYC Mayor Bloomberg as among the 450,000 participants.

In general, Codecademy claims to be taking the mystery and fear out of programming, and making learning to code fun, cool, practical and egalitarian.

The Skeptics

A Learn-to-Code website does not represent a new trend. For nearly 10 years, numerous companies have attempted  both free and paid  online learning of this type.  More generally, in recent years there has been an explosion in educational technology startups in this category, responding to a shortage of skilled programmers and an increased interest in both technical education and online learning.

Critics of the learn-coding-on-your-own approach  fall into a number of categories.  Some doubt the need for more programmers or  the need for non-programmers to learn coding; others do not trust that the learn-on-your-own approach is strong enough to allow participants to sufficiently master coding skills.Those in the first group don’t see the benefit of everyone learning to code.  One states that  “Mayor Bloomberg would not be better at his job if he woke up one morning as a crack Java coder” (posted by Jeff Atwood at www.codinghorror.com/blog).

And, some have questioned the efficacy of learning to code online in terms of  content, process, and value.   Specifically, they just don’t trust that a student will become an adept coder by using one of these learn-to-code sites. They suggest that parroting code, in a step-by-step fashion, does not provide the necessary comprehensive computer science background; and have questioned if users will be able to build something from scratch after just going through the guided lessons  (where the initial code is already provided)?   Consequently, they don’t foresee that workplaces will want to hire these self-taught programmers.

Not surprisingly, Codecademy disagrees.

The Response

The Codecademy training pedagogy  is based on its tutorials being interactive and progressive. The site allows users to begin immediately to type in code within their own web browser (no additional downloads needed) and then walks users through progressively more-difficult code.

While the site is interactive in that it will tell you if your code is correct or not, there is no element of human or automated coaching, nor is there any formal feedback or testing. However, users are awarded points and badges for their learning accomplishments.  The points and badges are tracked and shared with an online community of other learners and teachers.

Sims’ response to how to ensure that the material is mastered:  We think Codecademy courses are a form of testing/certification — students’ submissions are tested at each step along the way to see whether they are correct or incorrect.”

Codecademy has proclaimed 2013 as the year to learn to create something with code. Tellingly, the company says that it is now focusing on ensuring that its participants can apply what is learned.

And, this from Sims, when questioned about the hiring potential of Codeacademy participants:  “Many companies have indicated a willingness to hire self-taught programmers – in fact, the vast majority of skills required by technology startups today aren’t necessarily taught at the university level.”

Matching up new programmers with startups and recruiters is part of Codecademy ‘s  overall plan to monetize its operations.

The Future

Codecademy keeps experimenting with additional content: the site has recently expanded to include courses on  JavaScript, HTML, CSS, Python, and Ruby.

Also, this past fall, a pilot partnership with New York University (NYU) in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication, allowed students in the department to opt in to a ten-week , non-credit, free course in which NYU professors and Codecademy instructors partner to teach HTML, Javascript and Python,  and also host monthly talks with industry leaders.  The course garnered much student interest, a waiting list of over 150 people, and positive post-class survey results.  This course has lent Codecademy the authority and legitimacy of a university affiliation. In a press release for this pilot program, Codecademy’s Sims stated: “We’re very excited to help NYU teach scores of students to learn to program–it’s great to work with a world-class institution like NYU that thinks on the cutting edge and wants to teach its students the skills and creativity that the labor market require.”

Codecademy is now also beginning to expand to an even younger audience, by offering teachers at elementary and high schools free “starter kits.” These kits include a suggested curriculum and materials to teach coding, along with an online discussion forum for teachers who want to set up after-school programs teaching coding to their students.

A teacher at the McAuliffe International School explains her interest in the program with this: “So many of our top innovators in technology began writing code at a young age. We’re really missing the boat if we don’t expose kids to programming.”

Codecademy’s future plans include seeking additional opportunities to partner with other educational institutions and to continue to expand its international footprint.

Post Script

Codecademy presents a fascinating experiment in e-learning which seems to be garnering a wide-rangeof interest and support, along with a fair number of detractors. But, I had some difficulty trying to get a deeper look at their methodology – there is no formal statement regarding their educational approach or philosophy on their website, nothing came up in my internet search, and they did not provide any additional information regarding their educational approach when given the opportunity to do so.

So – it seems to me that the best course of action would be to try it out for myself.  I plan to document my own user experience with the site and report back in the next article….Stay tuned!