As the conversation about education shifts towards helping students develop useful skills in life beyond the classroom, a new spotlight on computer coding has emerged. Kids are impressing adults with their creativity, with their facility in learning new technologies, and their ability to design challenging video games.
More and more, parents are beginning to see computer science and programming as the key to success for their children. And like other foreign languages, even if the child doesn’t grow up to be a computer programmer, learning to code can yield many other benefits, the thinking goes.
Tools like Scratch and Alice have been around to help kids code for several years, but now commercial products are starting to compete, offering sleek new platforms focused on teaching how to think like a computer programmer. Tynker is one such newcomer, and the founders hope its easy-to-use product can capture both educational and commercial users. On Tuesday, Tynker released its “at-home package,” a 16-week immersive course for elementary and middle-school aged kids that costs $50 and doesn’t require any adult intervention.
Tynker is hoping that parents will see the value in teaching kids to code to invest in the course and access to Tynker’s tools. “Ultimately our question is, do kids love this,” said Krishna Vedati, CEO of Tynker and a successful start-up entrepreneur several times over. “Teachers and parents are channels for us. Our customers, if I were to use the word, are kids.”
“These constructs actually translate to any major programming language,” Vedati said. “As [students] get to middle grades they don’t see the visual block anymore, they just get an editor.” Then students have to begin creating their own syntax, with the ability to toggle back and forth between text and visual views so they can see what they’re creating. The immediacy of creation is what Vedati hopes will draw kids into coding.
“What most kids have is this creativity in their heads and they just want to put it out there,” Vedati said. “We give them the tools to put it out, and then we come back and reinforce what they just did.” He thinks the key is to get kids excited about making products for the web or mobile phones, to get their imaginations working. “If you ask kids, they only want to think about fun first and programming is just a layer that they have to learn to make it happen,” he said.
Tynker does test to see if kids are picking up the computational constructs and logic accurately. When kids have completed the lessons associated with a concept, they are prompted with a puzzle that requires them to fix a piece of broken code. For example, when testing animation a student might see a picture with the earth and moon. Both are supposed to spin, but only the moon is spinning. How can they make the earth spin? To fix the broken code the student has to understand concepts of loops and weights and choose the correct blocks of code to apply to the problem.
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Tynker’s first product, released four months ago, was Tynker for Schools. It’s based on the freemium model, where the basic product is free to schools, with an advanced package available for a fee that varies depending on the size of the class or school. The school package comes with lesson plans, classroom management tools, sharing tools and ways to manage the students within a classroom. Vedati emphasized that it also tries to connect math and science concepts to coding to help teachers make the concepts come alive.
“We have to make it easy so they aren’t spending hours and hours figuring it out,” Vedati said. “It’s got to be five minutes and it has to relieve some of the pressures of their teaching and be fun for the kids.” They’ve even thought about how to integrate it with Common Core.
But Vedati says they’ve gotten more requests for the at-home product than anything else, which is why the team developed it only four months after releasing Tynker for Schools. The home version is based on a story, with good guys and bad guys. Kids advance the story by programming.
Tynker is one of many ed-tech start-ups hoping that technology will transform the education system. Vedati isn’t afraid of his competition. He thinks coding is a language that people all over the world will need to know and it’s a good thing that many companies are vying to fill that need. “There’s massive opportunity,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were 30 companies. That’s OK; you just got to make the best product.”