Modern Classrooms: Gadgets, Gizmos, and Coding

By Lindsay Walker – Co-Founder of Launch Code After School

Over the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in the education industry in coding and STEM education. With the explosion in the popularity of these topics comes a landslide of educational toys, games, robots, websites, and apps. The question that educators and parents are asking is, what is worth the hype, and what is just an expensive spin on something that can be taught just as well another way? Good teachers and parents already know how to create purposeful activities that expand the horizons of a child’s world and make playtime purposeful. Parents want to know how to distinguish between what is worth the price tag, and what products are using those hot marketing buzzwords to drive interest in their product. There is no question that the need for computer science and technology skills is skyrocketing, and that now is the time to teach kids to code. This is a guide on how you create the right tools for the next generation.

Develop a Comprehensive Curriculum

Most educators are unfamiliar with the coding and computational thinking concepts, and in order for a product to be adopted in the classroom, a full curriculum is required. A good coding product should have a full scope of lessons, not just a collection of seemingly aimless lessons that aren’t very specific or targeted. Good curricula scaffolds from beginning to end, bringing in and building on more complex coding concepts as it progresses. Another important feature of coding software is the ability to meet learners at different ages and levels, for example, the ability transition from block-based to written coding (some platforms skip block based entirely, using features like auto-fill, hints, and debuggers to help guide novice learners) that guide even the least experienced coder in creating code and avoid pitfalls and frustration.

A good product will provide a guide for what concepts are covered with a scope from beginning to end so that educators can plan around the concepts being taught, and that students’ learning needs are being fulfilled. There are state and national standards that map out age-appropriate concepts and knowledge, and good curricula will outline how this is done.

CS Concepts and Coding Languages

There are multiple coding languages and fundamentals, and many ways to apply and expand on them. Many apps have only the basic level concepts and coding lessons but lack advanced lessons for experienced coders. Product developers should consider creating challenges for advanced learners who already have experience in building block based coding and know how to use if statements, variables, and loops.

A good platform for coding will allow students to create classes and methods that can be used to build a modular, object-oriented program. In my opinion, the language itself is less important than the ability to teach an understanding of the structure and usage of programming languages. A good foundation and understanding of the principles of a programming language mean that skills be transferred to use with almost any other language.

Classroom Applicability

One of the biggest roadblocks for adoption and implementation of a new programming tool or software is its implementation into a learning environment. Educators are going to be looking for a tool that not only enhances the classroom experience and lessons, but is also easy to adopt. All too often technology requires that a veteran teacher re-make their entire repertoire of curriculum on that platform or product. What usually happens is a district or school will purchase this product, and either not train the teachers, or the high bar for adoption prevents most teachers, who are already strapped for time and resources, from utilizing the product. Some questions that need to be considered are:

  • Is it easy and seamless to sign in and get kids signed up for the app?
    • Google Classroom and CodeHS make it easy for teachers to create class logins, then give a link and a code so students can log in quickly and easily.
  • Does it have good UX that makes it easy for the students to figure out how to use it, or will the teacher have to devote several lessons on training the class?
    • Brainpop uses a lot of icons and a seamless, easy to figure out user experience which means time isn’t wasted on teaching students how to use their software.
  • Can the work be shared easily between students and teachers, outside of the app?
    • Scratch does an amazing job of making it easy for kids to anonymously publish copies of their code that can be easily shared as a URL, and even allows others to remix the code others have written.
  • Does it require that teachers re-make their entire lesson in that format, or can it be used to upgrade and enhance an already existing curriculum?

Creating Tools to Educate All Learning Styles

Any tool will have their strengths and weaknesses, but one that is worth the while is one that gives teachers and parents a wealth of options for how to present this to their students. Kids will get bored doing the same coding game over and over again. Providing multiple ways to think and represent their understanding addresses kids’ different learning style and keeps things from getting stale. Create products that have a mix of videos, written tutorials, games, puzzles, worksheets, online questions and quizzes, and projects that allow students to apply and challenge their newfound skills.

Educators need the flexibility to pick and choose tasks that are relevant and applicable. Since no two groups of learners are alike, any single given tool will not be able to fulfill the full spectrum of needs and desires, and understanding what is most important to teachers or parents is important. If the product being sold to parents and schools comes with a hefty price tag, considering how useful this tool will be is important. Is there a curriculum that saves time and money? Does the product offer something for a wide range of learners? Will it be easy to adopt and implement?

Some companies offer per-student licenses, so you only have to pay for the services that are actually going to be used. Others offer the learning platform or curricula when you purchase the product and are included in the price. Some products are not as easy to adopt, and may not be the best for every classroom, but it should provide the concepts and challenges needed for more experienced students. Creating products that help prepare and educate the next generation of learners for a technologically-infused world is important, and understanding the arena, including the challenges and limitations, in which these tools will be used is key to providing these tools to students and educators.

Lindsay Walker, Co-Founder

Lindsay has been an educator for over 10 years, teaching middle and high school mathematics, science, and technology across the world, top public school districts, as well as in urban and high need areas. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and has her Master’s in Integrative STEM Education from the University of Texas Austin. She continues to learn and explore the most current technologies and languages developing content in C#, Unity, MIT App Inventor, Python, web development, and more. Lindsay’s wide range of technology and computer science tools and languages helps her create Launch Code After School‘s innovative computer science education curriculum.