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Until recently, children who studied computing did so knowing that computers contain the necessary learning software, the code that set in motion animations and games to exercise certain skills. Today, many initiatives try to turn the concept around: the key is not about completing or in an exercise but what the child can do with the code in his or her hands.
A trend that has reached the education system
What has been called the Learn to code movement has supporters and detractors, and is not focused exclusively on school-age children but does put the focus on this source of youngsters. The supporters include celebrities as diverse as Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Shakira, Ashton Kutcher, the brain of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg and even Sarah Michelle Gellar, the star of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Behind them, the support of the White House, NASA and even the Steve Jobs endowment fund, managed by his widow Laurene. All have supported the message of the coming of "the time of the code", the need to promote the virtues of computer programming by including it in the educational and professional curriculum.
Its detractors mainly include software engineers, doctors in computer science and technologists who call it to teach "to think with the naked mind " arguing that learning to write lines of code is not learning to program, and are committed to the value of 'hard' materials (algorithmic calculation, logic) and discard the 'utilitarian approach' (learning to program from childhood as a guarantee of value in the future labor market).
The debate is very rich in arguments, and it is sure to continue over many years, more and more with empirical evidence on supposed benefits and damage. For now, the supporters are managing to materialize their vision in the educational field in several places. The city of Chicago recently decided to opt for computer science as a priority subject, and in the next three years all schools will offer a computer science introductory course. "We live in an age where what you earn depends on what you have learned to do, and the new language –– even though many people speak Spanish or Chinese –– is writing code," said Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. In the UK, the new curriculum will come into force in September and includes computer science in stages from 5 to 17 years old.
In this context there have been very interesting initiatives with different approaches –– prioritizing practical, collaborative, fun, and visual methods –– that serve as a first springboard into the world of coding. We will now review some of the most interesting.
For children: from robots to working groups
As Barack Obama said, “Don't just play on your phone, program it”. This philosophy is applied by Kano, a code and programming kit for children – "as simple as Lego, powered with Pi" (a Raspberri Pi motherboard) – made in the UK. Kano makes it possible to assemble a simple computer system, classic games such as Pong and Snake, music playback, video, wireless server and various more functions. It is based on open-source software and its creators have earned more than one and a half million dollars through collective microfinance in Kickstarter, an unprecedented amount for a system with an educational purpose. It will be available to order from July 2014 at http://get.kano.me
Play-i presents Bo and Yana, two small robots with different complexity that children from 5 years old up can program with simple commands in a very simple interface with visual and musical elements. Among other languages, it uses Scratch, a learning environment created at MIT in which lines of code are put together like pieces of a jigsaw to make the process easier and more fun. Drag and drop routines that also use the self-learning system for children Tynker (here, some of their creations). The Play-i systems will also be available to order before Christmas 2014.
In the UK, where schools are becoming the main center of learning, initiatives of the Learn-to-code movement are gradually starting to be implemented. CodeClub (also based on volunteers) proposes setting up programming clubs in 25% of British primary schools by 2015. In Canada the Kids learning to code is gradually growing, with very practical workshops. To provide support to teachers and provide high-quality training materials and the best approaches to mentoring, CodeHS has emerged in the United States, inspired by activities carried out at Stanford University to find the best method of learning when taking the first steps in programming at school or at home.
The list of resources to learn programming and become familiar with technology is wide and varied, and any parent or educator can find references adapted by age, taste and platform.
And for the not so young…
The possibilities, for both children and the not so young, seem endless. Some are non-profit (Khan Academy, Codecademy, AppInventor, Code.org) and subscription-based (TreeHouse, Grok), already adapted to Spanish (CodeAcademy), initiatives led by females (Ladies Learning Code, Girls who code), platforms for hosting online courses (LearnStreet, Bento Box), systems that challenge students to learn 'the hard way' (LearnCodethehardWay), very focused on games and apps (Code Avengers) and programs promoted by large companies such as Microsoft or by institutions like the Code-to-Learn Foundation.
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