Monday, December 30, 2013

CAN OLDER PEOPLE LEARN TO CODE?

Of course the answer is of course.

My friend Georgine (who I don't consider an older person)  asked for some advice on where to start.   Here's what I told her.    


Absolutely adults can have fun learning code.   There's lots of stuff online, varying in quality.  Much of it is oriented to making games, which I am not particularly interested in.  The trick is to poke around until you find something that does interest you, and then stick with it for a while.  Shamelessly jettison anything that isn't working for you.

Here's Code Savvy's list of good sites for beginners;  also look over the list of online resources

Here's another good list (scroll down) from Code.org


My personal favorite online learning sources currently are:
  • The gold standard for beginners learning to code (designed for kids, but many adults enjoy it too):  Scratch -- a fun way to make games and animations.   
  • Code.org assembled a bunch of tutorials for kids for their "Hour of Code" initiative.  Each take about an hour.  For instance, these two (Birds and LightBot)  teach basic, useful concepts like do loops, variables, conditionals, etc. in a light-hearted way.  Definitely aimed at kids, but worth doing if you can stand the star-studded videos. 
  • I've been playing around with AppInventor for one of Code Savvy's initiatives.  It's a powerful but easy to use language for writing mobile apps for Android phones or tablets.  It's a "visual" language, which means that instead of typing in code, you are moving around colorful, oddly shaped blocks with the code already on them.  Good step-by-step tutorials.  I'm having trouble getting it hooked up to a phone, but there's a phone emulator (fake phone) on the computer. 
  • Codagogy, now called Women's Coding Collective -- has excellent online courses on web-making (HTML, CSS and Javascript) -- that cost $50 per two week online class)  Takes you by the hand and gives you a very accessible, useful and practical intro to web making programs-- within a supportive online class of women, and women mentors who will answer every question you have with detailed, patient answers.  Your new knowledge applies directly to the real world, in contrast to many online courses that just have you learning syntax inside their bubble. 
  • LearnStreet -- self-paced, free courses on app development (not mobile apps) with the most popular languages -- Javascript, Ruby or Python. Pick any one of these -- all good real world languages.  I like this site because it's organized around doing projects -- not just practicing syntax -- which I think is the best way to learn and to remember.  Also, they have a "Code Garage" with more projects.   The best way to learn code is to have a project you want to do, and to learn just the things you need for that.  MUCH more interesting, fun and memorable.
  • Mozilla Thimble is also looks fun, and I hear great things about Ruby and Lua but haven't tried either yet.  

There's lots more wonderful stuff out there, but that's plenty for starters.  Let me know if any of this works for you, or let me know what you are most interested in doing (games, web, mobile apps, other apps, etc.) and I'll try some other suggestions.  
Have a happy new year, and all the best in 2014.

-RS

Saturday, December 28, 2013

2013 -- THE YEAR CODING BECAME COOL

All of a sudden it seems, coding is cool.  Across the world, the teaching of computer science to school children is expanding by leaps and bounds.  This is long overdue, but remarkable in speed, scope and scale.

The most spectacular statistics come from Code.org:  over 20 million (yes, million) children in the United States participated in the “Hour of Code” initiative earlier this month, producing more than a half billion lines of code.  Code.org, launched less than a year ago by Hadi Partovi, has assembled star-studded videos promoting coding, snappy hour-long tutorials, and comprehensive curricula for K-12 kids and educators.  Their massively successful strategy:  Change the rules, help the schools, make it cool.”  60% of the coders in the Hour of Code were female; the website boasts that more girls programmed in school in one week than in all of previous history.


Every movement has precursors – for instance, the popular, pivotal Scratch coding language is now 10 years old.   But the image of coding has just recently vastly transformed.   “I think [perception of tech] has changed a lot among kids,” says Ethan Eirinberg, a young coder who couldn’t find a coding contest for teenagers and so created his own.   “It’s the cool thing to do now.   It’s interesting to see how things work and create new things.”

Across the ocean, an Irish teenager named James Whelton started (with help from philanthropist Bill Liao) a free, open coding environment called CoderDojo that has spread worldwide, reaching over 6000 kids through 200+ dojos in 22 countries in just 2 years.  That statistic seems overly modest;  CoderDojo Twin Cities alone has welcomed more than 600 young coders since launching last April, and now offers 8 different code groups.

Two years back, Britain’s Education Secretary declared his country’s ICT curriculum to be “demotivating and dull.”  He scrapped the whole thing, and started over this year with a redesigned curricula starting at age 5.  The new standards set a lofty goal: “A high quality computing education equips pupils to understand and change the world through logical thinking and creativity.  (p 188)”

Code Club photo published in the Independent 7-26-2013
Also in England, there are nearly 1800 after-school Code Clubs run by volunteers in primary schools, reaching over 23,000 children.   Their excellent curriculum is delivered free by code-savvy volunteers around the world. Co-founder Clare Sutcliffe has create a precise vision, meticulous execution and engaging website (populated by adorable robot cartoons.)

The movement is not just clubs and classes.  Learn to code websites and platforms are proliferating, offering high quality coding education for low or no fees.   Dozens of new non-profit organizations – with names like Black Girls Code, Hidden Genius and Mouse Squad – reach out to underserved populations.  “Bootcamps” turn fledgling coders into professionals, in a few intensive months.   And there are myriads of professional groups – usually centered on a specific programming platform – serving the dynamic needs of practicing developers. 

Education is a long way from incorporating computer science as a new basic skill:  only one high school out of 10 even offers a computer science class, the percentage of young women studying computer science is tiny (less than 20%), computer science standards are uneven or non-existent and we are far from tapping the brainpower and insights of communities of color and of rural America.

But we’re approaching a tipping point.   From Estonia to Chicago to Vietnam, growing numbers of children and teens are learning to code.   The reasons are varied, but the direction is clear.  

 The days of derision are long gone: now geeks are gods.” declares an alliterative lead in the venerable Economist magazine.

And an article in New York magazine ends with a thoughtful quote from parent Albert Wegner:
“[Coding] is a very important way of analyzing the world, thinking about the world, interacting with the world, and manipulating the world… The biggest transformation I’ve seen is that coding has gone from something that weird kids do to something the cool kids do.” 

So come on and give it a try:  here or here or here.    Coding is cool. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

6 LESSONS IN INNOVATION FROM GRACE HOPPER

Today, December 9, is the 107th birthday of Grace Hopper – inventor and prime mover of computer programming.   Last year, I celebrated her birthday with a personal remembrance and a promise.  This year coding has become cool and the whole world is celebrating with Code.org’s Hour of Code and many other initiatives.

Grace Hopper was a masterful innovator.  Here are some of her techniques, adapted from Kurt Beyer's thoughtful biography which is the source of the quotes below.

1. Omnivorous Learning

The hungry-minded versatility that typified Grace Hopper remains a hallmark of innovators in every field today.

From her early days as a mathematics professor through her long corporate and military career, Grace Hopper was an insatiable, omnivorous learner.  She audited university classes in a wide range of fields, “… became quite an expert in military affairs … and mastered the machinations of a variety of diverse industries, ranging from insurance to aerospace engineering.  As a result, her mind was informed enough to transcend her own intellectual discipline.  She had freed herself from any particular methodology, and could approach problems from a variety of angles.” (p 316) 
  

2. The Power of Inexperience

Challenge, naivety, hubris and drive have always been potent forces for invention and innovation.

Hopper often challenged the least experienced members of a team with the most difficult technical problems.  “Experts have difficulty seeing beyond the borders of their specialty.”  Young, inexperienced programmers did not know that they were supposed to fail, and had “the ability to look beyond ‘what is’ and grasp ‘what could be’.”   (p 315)


3. The More Minds the Better

The power of sharing data, code and ideas through open source development, user groups, and other collaborative enterprises were all presaged by Grace Hopper.  She was also instrumental in founding the ACM (see p 165.)

“Hopper believed that the process of invention should not be confined to herself, her staff, or even her company.  Information flowed smoothly between her team and other organizations, with Hopper serving as the conductor of invention rather than its dictator.” (p318)
“Throughout the 1950s, she played the role of facilitator, gathering technical, economic and social feedback about automatic programming and embedded what she learned in the next iteration of design.” (p321)


4. Risk, Resilience and Irreverence

Grace Hopper was tough, determined, resilient and ready to assume considerable risk to push through her ideas and projects – the classic profile of an innovator.  

Grace was also human, and her accomplishments – like those of most innovators – “came at considerable personal cost.  Pioneers such as Hopper are faced with far more than technical conundrums.  They must deal with a variety of social and psychological pressures… the technical pioneer must manage not only his or her own doubts, but also the doubts of colleagues, investors, managers, end users and a skeptical public.  Being an inventor is in many ways an act of faith:  faith in one’s own technical abilities, faith in those who work alongside faith in the ultimate vision and purpose of the project.” (p 176)


5. Inventor as Promoter

Paving a path and selling the vision make innovations start, and stick.  This is true both within development environments, and in the world beyond.

“ ‘We had to introduce some kind of system and discipline to it,’ Hopper recalled, ‘and that’s how I eventually got put in charge of them.  I realized the things that had to be done and I pounded on management until they too accepted the concepts.’ ” (p 220)
During the 1950s and beyond, much of Hopper’s time and energy was dedicated to “spreading the gospel of automatic programming through lectures, articles and conference presentations.”   Historians note that Hopper and other inventors “were responsible not only for the invention of new technologies, but also for the integration of those technologies into the economic, political and social fabric of society.” (p 318)


6. Go for It!

Hopper was forward-thinking, action oriented, optimistic and inspirational.  Throughout her life, she blew through obstacle after obstacle, in relentless pursuit of her goals.   I remember well her challenge:
 
“I have one piece of advice for you young people,” she announced.  She smiled briefly, then glared at us, each one of us.  “DO IT!” she commanded, loud and abrupt. “If you want to accomplish something,  just DO IT.  Don’t make excuses.  Don’t ask permission.  By the time the authorities have caught up with you, you’ll have it working, and they’ll be too glad to have it to care.”    (source)   


Innovators everywhere, and all the rest of us, owe a lot -- from pivotal technical advances to ongoing inspiration – to the great Grace Hopper.   

Happy birthday Grace, and thank you.