Codio urges ‘crowd-teaching’ for coding

New approach to education needed to stimulate today’s students

The team behind frontend web development tool Codio has urged a “post-curriculum approach to teaching coding in schools”.

The company argued on its website that there is a major skills shortage in terms of coding, and that schools aren’t doing a good enough job in teaching the subject. But rather than attempt to repair a broken system that would subsequently date and remain static for years, Codio’s plan is “letting the community take charge of its own destiny”.

According to Codio in Education, “the world's coders, working together, can do a better job of providing the learning materials, infrastructure and motivation needed to train the next generation of coders”. It referred to this approach as "crowd-teaching" and argued it was better than a solution "designed by committee".

.net spoke to Codio CEO Freddy May about where he believed education had failed the current generation of students and how a new approach could benefit British industry.

.net: Why do you think schools often focus on [Microsoft] Office-based tools when it comes to IT, and what's wrong with them doing so?
FM: Teaching students Office-based tools as a specialist subject is a waste of time. It doesn’t stimulate them. The average eight-year-old can figure out how to use Office software in a matter of minutes, and they use word processors and spreadsheets in most of their other subjects, so why teach it as a standalone subject?

Kids are incredibly resourceful. A Sugata Mitra TED talk told the story of how a web-connected computer was left in a village in India, where the kids had never seen a computer before. Three months later, they’d collectively figured out how to use it, written code and even taught themselves English. This is the kind of resourcefulness and creativity kids are capable of when challenged. Putting them in front of a word processor will not stimulate the same sort of results.

.net: But why coding? Is that really an essential skill children should learn?
FM: Without it, our software engineering industry will go the same way as our manufacturing industry: dying and outsourced. I believe coding should be a core subject, because like English and maths, IT touches every aspect of our lives in no small measure and many of us spend more time interacting with software than we do sleeping.

Computer science is one of the fastest-growing industries worldwide and it offers graduates very high initial salaries. If parents want to secure a promising and fulfilling future for their children, they couldn’t choose a better career to promote to them: upward mobility is above average; stress levels are below average and career flexibility and job satisfaction are high.

.net: You mention English and maths as ‘core’, but do you think coding also has wider implications in education and life?
FM: There is so much coding offers in terms of essential life skills. It improves logic and lateral thinking, and exercises both the scientific and artistic areas of the brain. Some people think coding is unapproachable, but that shows the relative immaturity of the subject.

By way of example, if you showed someone a trigonometrical calculation before they’d learnt arithmetic, they wouldn’t get it and may question its relevance. Similarly, with programming, you must start with the basics and work your way up.

However, one difference is I’d say people can have a lot more fun learning coding than maths. While learning to code, you are also doing something tangible and enjoyable, like simple games, giving practical relevance to maths, making API calls to other systems, communicating with people and drawing stuff on the screen.

.net: What is your campaign about and how does it differ from traditional education?
FM: Coding is an essential skill that's not given the attention it deserves in education, and we believe the current education system is too flawed to deliver the solution. It’s incapable of meeting staffing demands because the education system doesn't hold computer science in as high regard as science or maths. Secondly, technology advances so rapidly that the bureaucracy inherent within education systems will hinder it from providing students with decent computer science education from an early age.

There’s a huge danger when the government committee puts together a programming curriculum that it will be flawed. It will have taken many years to put it together in the first place and most committees will ensure that all the radical and exciting stuff has been removed. The net effect is you have something that’s boring and out-of-date before a pupil even sets eyes on it.

We advocate taking a collaborative and open source approach to teaching people to code. Throw the building of tutorials and rich coding content to the community of teachers and professional developers and make it completely open. The developer community is already doing this to a degree and there is no shortage of willingness. You would end up with a dynamic, organic body of work that doesn't need committees or curricula. It's a body of work that teachers can draw on as they wish.

.net: What part does the Codio product play in this?
FM: There are great individuals and organisations, such as Web Platform, Code Academy and Khan Academy, which have done an excellent job in creating tutorials. Our intent isn’t to come up with new tutorials, but to provide a superb, web-based, free platform along with a set of features dedicated to teaching, and learning and put it all at the disposal of the global community. This is what we call Codio:Annotations.

With Codio:Annotations, the community can take existing programming tutorials or create new ones in a way that brings them to life and significantly improves the learning experience - all within a modern, collaborative environment where sharing, copying and improving are actively encouraged.

.net: How does it enhance the teaching/learning experience compared to other tools?
FM: Codio:Annotations is a part of the Codio IDE. This means that tutorials are usually complete projects that are fully functional pieces of code rather than extracted code snippets in the middle of lengthy chunks of text. Codio:Annotations brings them to life by allowing teachers to create overviews and guided tours, and to annotate code snippets so students can click and ask “what’s this?”-type questions. Annotations can be videos, images or rich text.

Students can write and run real code of any level of sophistication. Although students may well start with tutorials, whenever they feel inclined, they can write real code with a professional grade tool that, being web-based, doesn't require the highly complex setup that most desktop-based developer tools require.

We're also adding rich curation features to Codio that allows the community to collaboratively administer and manage the structure and organisation of content. This allows tutorials to be assigned to locations within the curation structure so they can be found easily by students. We will also offer voting and commenting features so the best tutorials rise to the top and get improved through feedback.

Codio will also release a special open source educational licence. The purpose of this licence is to provide a standard licence that all educational users will be encouraged to apply to their tutorial projects so that others are free to copy, re-use and improve however they choose.

Tutorials will be created and developed for the community, by the community.