How Codecademy changed my life.

HTML
So I’ve just finished the HTML/CSS track of Codecademy and I’m left wondering how I’m going to fill my evenings now it’s over. I really enjoyed it – instantly practical and useful and I recommend it to all journalists!

But instead of twiddling my thumbs or spending my evenings watching endless episodes of Nordic Noir I decided to think about how Codecademy has changed my life. That’s not a flippant statement. It’s actually true. I first started it about eighteen months ago following the Javascript track. It opened my eyes onto a whole new world! Work commitments meant I didn’t complete the Javascript course (I started to flounder once we got onto OOP) and I do need to get back into it before I forget everything I ever learnt.

6 Ways Codecademy Changed my life

  1. Evangelism

    I realised how important this stuff was – not just for an old hack like me but for EVERYONE! It’s not boring and it’s not that hard. I started to think about how I could spread the word. What could I do to help other people who had never learnt how to code? What could I do to help my daughters learn to code because school wasn’t going to teach them?

  2. Pinterest Board - Coding for beginnersPinterest board

    I made a Pinterest board of some of the resources I was finding as I voyaged round the internet looking for programming help for beginners. It’s got followers! Pinterest is a really great way to share resources – much more enticing than a list of hyperlinks, for example.

  3. CodeClub

    Doing Codecademy gave me the confidence to set up a CodeClub at my daughters’ primary school. I’ve got a couple of real experts on hand to help with the clever stuff but I think the children like the fact that I’m learning too.

  4. Teaching my daughters

    photo-57I’m not patient enough for home educating normally but some of my enthusiasm for learning to code has rubbed off on my daughters. This makes me very happy.

    Related Links

  5. Blogging
    This blog has morphed from a blog about journalism education to a blog about learning to code and generally getting techy. I’m thinking about migrating to WordPress.org….. It’s got to be done, hasn’t it??
  6. Journo-coders

    I’ve become really interested in the rise of the journo-coder in newsrooms. Who are these people and how did they get to be this way? Should journalism departments at universities be doing more to create journo-coders?

    Related Links

So those are a few thoughts about how I’ve changed since starting to teach myself code. I’d love to hear your stories too! Never, ever stop learning new stuff because it will open up surprising new doors and keep you away from the TV.

Networking with CodeClub

When I first got involved in CodeClub, I hadn’t expected to meet so many new people and become so involved in the “community.” Funny how things turn out…

We’ve managed to create quite an active group of CodeClub volunteers and wannabe volunteers in the Greater Manchester area thanks to the NW England Community Forum on the CodeClub website. It means we can stay in touch via email, share ideas and solve problems. It’s also a good resource for people who are keen to set up a CodeClub but need a bit more information/reassurance from people who’ve been there and done it (and literally got the t-shirt.)

Manchester Chamber of Commerce

We had our second meet-up on 8th May at the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. Thanks to Steven Flower for organising this. It was really interesting to meet such a range of people keen to get involved in setting up CodeClubs and I hope the “veteran volunteers”  were helpful with their practical advice, personal experience and encouragement.

We chatted a bit about the HTML projects in Term 3 of CodeClub. One of the volunteers present had already piloted these and so had some useful advice to pass on. I’ll probably blog separately about this!

Alan Turing statue

Alan Turing statue, Sackville Gardens, Manchester
© Copyright Stephen Richards and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

So why were we meeting at the Chamber of Commerce? Manchester has a thriving digital/creative sector. It’s the original tech city, according to MIDAS, Manchester’s inward investment agency.

“Ever since we invented the computer, we’ve been fiddling about with it, designing, programming, creating content and sharing ideas.” (MIDAS)

That’s fantastic! But the industry is finding it hard to recruit people with the right digital skills. Matthew Kershaw, the Chamber representative for the Digital Infrastructure Group, told us there simply weren’t enough computer programmers in the Manchester workforce these days. That not only makes it difficult to fill vacancies, it inflates salaries making local digital companies less competitive.

The digital sector is so worried, its leaders have approached the Chamber of Commerce to ask for something to be done urgently. And they’re willing to throw money at the problem.

Their original suggestion was to put a Raspberry Pi in every classroom. On the face of it, this sounds fantastic – very now and a great photo opportunity! But then they thought about it a bit more. Hmm, what were schools going to do with these Pis? The Chamber realised that in most cases, the Pis would just be gathering dust in a corner of the classroom. Sad but probably true.

So Matthew Kershaw wanted to ask CodeClub volunteers for our ideas! As enthusiasts already working in primary schools, could we suggest equipment that would help kickstart a knowledge of computing in the next generation? We threw around a few thoughts but eventually reached a very different conclusion. It’s nothing to do with equipment. Most schools have access to computers. The problem is, they don’t know what to do with them.

What primary schools lack are the skills and confidence to use the computers they have to teach children to code. If Manchester’s digital sector wants to do something about that, it needs to put people into schools, not raspberry pis.

This is something the Chamber had already started work on so we were on very fertile ground here. We discussed encouraging companies to allow their employees to take time off work to volunteer at CodeClubs. We talked about promoting CodeClub to their members. The Chamber already has many school governors amongst its membership so this could be a great resource to tap in to. Perhaps members would prefer to volunteer at the weekend? CodeClubs can now be set up in libraries and other community centres so that needs to be publicised.

So, everyone left with plenty to think about. We need to keep in contact with the Chamber to see what help we can offer. Perhaps a video of volunteers’ testimony would be a good way of promoting the idea to digital companies…..(that’s the subject of yet another blog post, I suspect.)

Silicon Goyt Valley

Marple Viaduct, Goyt Valley

Marple Viaduct
© Copyright Ian Roberts and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Just a week after the Chamber of Commerce meeting, I was at the local pub with the volunteers from our Mellor/Marple Bridge CodeClubs. Thanks to Steve Kay for organising this.

We currently have CodeClubs at at least two schools in our tiny area so we’re fast becoming a programming hub!

One of our main discussion points was what happens to our CodeClub children once they get to the local secondary school? Will there be anything there to develop the skills they’ve learnt in Year 6? We’re going to get in contact with the ICT head at the secondary school to find out more. For example, could they set up their own CodeClub?

Volunteers from our two local CodeClubs get together to chat about the Big Stuff.

Volunteers from two local CodeClubs get together to chat about the Big Stuff.

We also talked about a joint coding activity so we’re trying to encourage as many of our CodeClub members as possible to go to the next CoderDojo at Manchester’s MadLab. I produced some flyers about it to thrust into parents’ hands. No idea if any of them will turn up….

“Make a difference”

What I loved about both these meetings was that CodeClub volunteers don’t just talk about their own clubs, projects, problems etc (although we do do a lot of that!). They talk about the Big Picture beyond their immediate school. They see themselves as part of a mission, if you like, to give more and more young children the opportunity to learn these skills. They want to make a difference in the wider community and they have the ideas and commitment to do this.

So if you’re already a volunteer, I really do recommend getting together with other volunteers in your area and seeing what you can come up with. It’s great to have the support network around you when you come against problems or when you’ve hit a stumbling block.

There are rumours that CodeClub may be going global. So maybe for future meet-ups we’ll need to remember our passports!

© Copyright Byrev (Emilian Robert Vicol) on Pixabay and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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Raspberry Pi with a dollop of Lego

Pimp my Pi!

Lego

When it comes to making a case for your Raspberry Pi, Lego is really the only way to go. I didn’t have the heart to use my daughters’ shiny, girly pink Lego bricks for this, so we dug out my husband’s Lego from the cellar.

Vintage Lego

We worked out that some of this Lego is FIFTY YEARS OLD, inherited from an older cousin! Some of it’s a bit discoloured but on the whole it’s in great condition and felt somehow “right” for styling a Raspberry Pi.

This is what we came up with. The yellow fruit Polo thing is decorative but also structural.

Note the subtle modification to make it WiFi. Saves clogging up another USB port.

It got quite a few retweets on Twitter but there was some disappointing scepticism….

Centre for Computing History

So I started thinking about the combination of 50 year old Lego and brand new Raspberry Pi computing technology. What was happening in computing fifty years ago when this Lego was being forged in a Danish furnace?

An internet search brought me to the Centre for Computing History. It will be opening to the public in July 2013 in Cambridge but in the meantime its website is full of useful information such as a Computing History Timeline. Cool!

So let’s choose 1963…

I hope you’ll explore those links.

And it’s worth pointing out that you’d have needed far more Lego bricks to encase your computer back then….

Related Blog posts

 

My seven year old daughter’s first ever CoderDojo – at Manchester’s MadLab

“I just want to make a horse riding game!”

Just being in Manchester’s Northern Quarter is exciting. It’s very different from our little village!

That was Isobel’s plan for her first CoderDojo on 7th April 2013. I just wanted her to enjoy it and didn’t expect her to learn much on her first visit. I thought she’d just be testing the waters, having a look around, seeing if there were other girls her age there (very important when you’re seven).

So we decided to make a day of it. The CoderDojo is at the MadLab, right in the heart of Manchester’s Northern Quarter so just wandering around was a bit of an adventure.

Making Scratch Friends

It was busy and chaotic at the beginning in the best way possible. Isobel hooked up with a couple of other girls her age who are old hands at CoderDojo. They joined a Scratch group  aimed at the younger children. It was led by the fabulous, inspiring, endlessly patient DJ Adams who came up with an idea to write a program that would take the monotony out of Times Tables. They all thought this was a much-needed tool!

Need to fuel up before CoderDojo. Home Sweet Home almost opposite MadLab is my perfect choice.

The perfect preparation for a first CoderDojo. Home Sweet Home cafe is almost opposite MadLab (it’s the one with the green shutters) and the milkshakes are delicious!

With a mix of gentle questioning, allowing the older children to use their knowledge and experience, he took the group through the process step by step. Isobel’s new friends helped her out a couple of times which made it all the more sociable. It was just lovely to see such young children completely engrossed in a problem-solving task together.

New Challenges

Wouldn’t it be great if they could do stuff like this in ICT classes in school? I’d love to see teachers being able to pick up something from elsewhere in the curriculum (times tables is a good example) and then exploring it in a computer class.

Even better, after DJ had finished, the girls started chatting about how they could make the times tables program even better! Could they get the monkey to move its mouth? Could he explode at the end?! DJ set Isobel a challenge – could she get the monkey to put its arms out when the answer was even and down when the answer was odd. That got her thinking….

The Banana Piano

So much interesting stuff going on all over the CoderDojo! Isobel’s new friends dragged her over to see Steven Flower – the organiser of under-18 events at MadLab – make a piano out of bananas.


Yeeaaah, the banana piano is good, but Isobel just wanted to get back to her program so she could work on getting the monkey to react to odd and even numbers. She’s still not sure how to do it but knows she has to make another “costume” for the monkey sprite so gets to work on that.

Scratch monkey

Eureka!

Another wonderfully generous, patient mentor talks Isobel through the modulo operator. Suddenly, she sees a way of solving the challenge. It’s exciting for both of us – but it’s time to leave.


Dinner vs debugging

Some things are more important than dinner….

She wants to work on it on the train home. I draw the line!

But as soon as we get home…..

Nothing was more important to Isobel than fixing that program! She still needed guidance to get it to work and it took a lot of trial and error. But she got there in the end.
TimesTables in Scratch

We did NOT make a horse riding game!

For me, that was the biggest achievement. I saw a different side to my daughter. Who’d have thought she could be so passionate about something which doesn’t involve writing a story (about ponies, usually)?

I met lots of familiar faces at CoderDojo, met new people whom I hope to see again and I came away with lots of new ideas for our CodeClub. Sadly, we won’t be able to go to the next CoderDojo because it clashes with the Mellor March – the big annual charity event in our village. But we will be back!

And finally, I’d like to say thank you to all the wonderful mentors who make CoderDojo such a fantastic experience for children and their parents. I’m very grateful.

First Term of CodeClub draws to an end

We’ve had about ten CodeClub sessions since we started in September so now seemed like a good time to reflect on how it’s gone, what the children have learnt, what we’ve learnt and what we might do differently.

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NUMBERS

We decided to start off very small so we just had eight Year 6 children in the club  – two girls, six boys – as well as the offspring of our volunteers who were younger but joined in.

Sadly, one girl and one boy have dropped out.  The girl dropped out because she wanted to do lacrosse with her mates instead.  We clash!  I don’t know about the boy.

We’re also going to lose another boy when he moves school in January.  He’s sad that there isn’t a CodeClub at his new school so I’ve told him he should ask for one!!

We now have a team of 6 volunteers!  Not everyone comes every week but there are usually three or four of us there.  It seems a ridiculous ratio but the kids actually keep us pretty busy!  I’ve no idea how clubs manage with just one volunteer.  I guess the kids just learn to be patient!

So now that we’ve found our feet, we are feeling confident enough to expand our Code Club.  Letters are going out to Year 6 and Year 5 parents asking if their children would like to join CodeClub next term.  We’ll need to plan how we manage the different levels but I don’t think it will be a problem.  For example, it might be best if I, as the non-developer, stick with the newcomers whilst my more expert colleagues challenge the children who’ve been with us since the start.  We’ll see what the uptake is anyway.

HAVE THE CHILDREN LEARNT ANYTHING?

Definitely, yes.  They are much quicker finding their way around Scratch than I am, for a start.  Surprisingly, perhaps, they seem to have no problem with the concept of a variable. They’re happy setting up timers and scores.

We asked them at the start of last week’s session how many now have Scratch at home.  All of them now do and they use it.  Most of them have also shown Scratch to someone outside CodeClub.  This is great!

And they were very positive about what they’d been doing, what they were now able to do and liked making games they could play.  They compared CodeClub to school ICT classes.  We definitely came off best in the comparison!  They said ICT classes were “boring” and “pointless.”  That’s such a shame.

BUT, as luck would have it, their Yr 6 teacher walked in just as they were moaning about ICT and she suggested they show the rest of the class how Scratch works.  I wasn’t sure how serious she was but, sure enough, in their next ICT class a few days later the CodeClub children were asked to show everyone else how Scratch worked.  I heard this from one of our very excited CodeClub members!  The teacher also suggested doing an early CodeClub project in an ICT class.  YAY!  It’s great for our CodeClub children to feel a bit special and even better that other children are able to see their enthusiasm and new skills.  The coding revolution has started!!

WHAT’S NOT GONE SO WELL

Some of the CodeClub projects have been better than others.  The children’s favourite (and ours!) was fish chomp.  The game was fun and the challenges seemed to be pitched just right.  Fruit Machine, however, was not popular and didn’t work well.  I’ve passed our feedback onto CodeClub and was told they would look into it.  I’ve not heard back.  But, on the whole, the projects have been interesting and varied enough to keep the children’s attention.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to take an extra week to do the What’s That game so that the children could work on the challenges.  It was a disaster!  The children were not interested in the challenges, they were bored and most just started playing games from the Scratch gallery rather than making their own – a definite CodeClub no-no!  So, just because I find the challenges interesting and useful it doesn’t mean the children agree.

So in future it’s one project per week unless the children clamour to carry on.

WHAT ELSE HAVE WE TRIED?

We are keen to enter the University of Manchester’s school animation competition.  It’s a national competition and already 570 schools have registered.  Closing date is March 2013.  We have posters around the school!

So last Monday, we decided to have a break from CodeClub projects and talk about animation instead.  We asked children about the difference between games and animation.  We got them to think about how they could use Scratch to create animations.  They had lots of good ideas!

We also had a guest speaker!  Another parent at school is a bona fide animator and has done work for Cbeebies amongst many other projects.  So he talked to the children about his job and showed them a showreel of this work.  They thought it was really cool!!  Then he talked about creating characters and the importance of storyboarding your ideas.

We then asked the children to draw their own storyboards for an animation they could do on Scratch.  Perhaps predictably, the boys concentrated on bombs, explosions and guns! (I have daughters so this is alien territory to me.)  The girl did a story about a fish!!

So, keen to move away from the apocalyptic blood and gore scenarios the boys were coming up with, I’m going to suggest that next week – the last CodeClub before Christmas – they create an animated Christmas card on Scratch.  Surely, that’ll force them to stick to cute and fluffy?? No?!  Anyway, to inspire them, some of the volunteers are going to make their own animated Christmas cards.  We’ll demo them at the start of the session and challenge the kids to do better.

Maybe a future plan might be to bring in some Raspberry Pis and get the children playing around with them?  Lots of logistical problems to doing that, of course, but definitely something to think about.

Maybe the school would consider investing in some Pis…..?

My Pi

WHAT DO WE THINK OF CODE CLUB?

We’ve really enjoyed CodeClub although it’s been a learning curve for us.  Sometimes it seems chaotic and noisy and that worries us sometimes.  But in the midst of that, the children are actually making the games and enjoying the process.

It’s great being part of a national movement with ambitious aims.  We like to think we’re “doing our bit” to promote coding in schools!

The projects have introduced a good variety of concepts and built on the children’s skill and knowledge each week – without them even knowing it, probably.

We would like to move away from just creating games every week which is why we’ve introduced animation.  We’d also like to explore interactive games/animation.  We’re hoping the CodeClub developers will introduce that into future projects.  If not, we’ll just go off piste every couple of weeks and try something different.  But we’ll still keep coming back to the CodeClub projects as our basic activity.

UPDATE: Clare Sutcliffe – one of the CodeClub founders – read this blog and confirmed that, yes, there will be animation projects in term 2.  Hooray!

SPREADING THE WORD

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, we’ve created quite a bit of interest in other local schools and a couple are planning on starting their own CodeClubs in January.  I must check in with them and find out how they’re getting on.

We also seem to be a major attraction on the CodeClub tourism route!  Several people from schools around Greater Manchester have paid us a visit before going on to set up their own CodeClubs.

Gradually, CodeClub enthusiasts from around the North West are finding each other on social media and the CodeClub forum.  As a result, we’ve arranged to have a meet-up in Manchester’s MadLab on 13th January.  We’ll let you know what we get up to!

So, thank you very much to all our wonderful, enthusiastic CodeClub members for making it such a worthwhile experience for the volunteers.  And thank you to Linda and Clare for coming up with the crazy idea in the first place and making it happen.

Let’s keep working at it in 2013 to help make that 25% dream a reality!!

The First Mellor CodeClub

So it happened!  We ran our very first CodeClub session on Monday 17th September.  Children actually turned up.  Children actually coded.

First things first, we got the badges sorted out.  I spent Friday evening making them according to strict CodeClub instructions.  They seemed to go down well.

 

Here are some quick thoughts about how it all went and what I learnt from doing it.

1. Children don’t just follow the project step by step to get it to look exactly like the one in the example.  That’s what I’d do.  Instead, they go by circuitous routes, stopping to explore and experiment.  (I’d probably do my experimenting at the end once I’d made sure I’d completed the assigned task and gained my pat on the back from teacher.  I’m SO old skool!)  So they didn’t want to call their cat Felix and their mouse Herbert.  They chose their own names.  And some chose a different background.  At first, I heard myself saying, “let’s all keep to the same script for now.”  But I couldn’t think of a good reason for sticking to the script so I chilled out and let them experiment and personalise.

I guess that’s what programming is all about – making the computer do what you want it to do instead of simply following instructions.  So that was my first lesson learnt!

2.  They are noisy!  Much noisier than we’d expected.  But when I think about it, all the noise was centred around the task in hand ie creating something on Scratch.
And amongst the noise you can hear words like “cool!” and “awesome!” when they can see what they’ve achieved and want to share that sense of accomplishment.  That was a lovely feeling.

3. We’re very lucky to have such enthusiastic, patient volunteers.  Maybe the children become more autonomous as they progress through CodeClub but for the time being, they do need quite a bit of support and they like to ask questions.  So the volunteers have to work pretty hard.

4. The children wouldn’t leave!   I kept telling them we’d come to the end of our time and they needed to save and log off but they just ignored me and carried on.  Then when their parents came in to collect them, they wanted to show off what they’d done.  So we might need a better plan for ending the session!  Setting the fire alarm off?

We’ve had some positive feedback already so I think they’ll come back again next week.
I’m looking forward to finding out if they’ve been playing with Scratch at home and what they’ve come up with.

I should add that we’re getting total support from the head teacher and his team at school which is why we’ve been able to get up and running so quickly with CodeClub.

But above all, I’m grateful to Clare Sutcliffe and Linda Sandvik, the two amazing women behind CodeClub.  Their hard work and vision has enabled me to turn a vague pipe dream into a reality – with very little effort on my part.  The CodeClub they’ve designed tells children that programming is not something they should be scared of or sneer at.  It’s fun, creative and can be learnt.
Degree level maths is hard.  But we don’t use that as an excuse not to teach Key Stage 1 children basic arithmetic.
Similarly, coding is hard at the upper levels.  But there is an entry point which enables children to understand the fundamentals.  Above and beyond that, it’s their choice how far they take it.  But without an entry point, they’ll always see it as scary and inaccessible.

CodeClub is a great place to start.

Journo-coders

A couple of months ago I wrote an article for Wannabehacks asking if it was time for journalism students to ditch short hand and learn to code instead.  I’m still keen to gather more responses (do take part in the survey below if you’re a student journalist or just starting out in journalism).  But in the meantime, here are a few follow-up thoughts and responses to questions people asked me.

cnorthwood left a comment on the article.  He’s a developer and is wondering if he should be doing more journalism (he’s already worked on some interesting-looking projects).  He raised a valid point about journalists learning to code:

It’s a very useful skill to have in their arsenal – making tools to help you do your job better, ability to analyse information in a new way (particularly large amounts of data coming available under the open data movement), but maybe the best way to do it is to team up with a developer and do it that way. It seems the way journalism is going is to make journos a jack of all trades – you’re now expected to have camera skills, editing skills, and lots of other things that would previously have been handled by specialists. Coding just seems another piece of that puzzle.

My response would be to say that some “trades” are in danger of becoming obsolete in newsrooms and are instead becoming “skills” that all journalists need to possess.  It’s an organic evolution.  A “jack-of-all-trades” is just a pejorative word for a multi skilled member of staff who’s a boon on any news team!  But I do agree that journalists – who understand a bit about what code does – working alongside developers is a good way to go.

One participant in my survey said they weren’t sure what programming could do for journalism.  A good way to answer that is to ask why would a programmer/developer want to work in a newsroom.  Daniel Sinker gives a great response to that question.  He leads the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project for Mozilla.  From 2008-2011 he taught in the journalism department at Columbia College Chicago where he focused on entrepreneurial journalism and the mobile web.  He’s recorded some really interesting video testimony from developers working in newsrooms in New York in the “news apps community” as one of the interviewees describes it.  You can see all six videos here but here are a couple of examples I’ve pulled out.

I got these from Knight-Mozilla Open News which organisers Fellowships (the deadline for 2013 has just ended) which:

embed developers and technologists in newsrooms around the world to spend a year writing code in collaboration with reporters, designers, and newsroom developers. Fellows work in the open by sharing their code and their discoveries on the web, helping to strengthen and build journalism’s toolbox.

So I think the news apps community sounds like a pretty exciting place to be and one which the current batch of student journalists AND computer scientists should really think about.

Chris Hutchinson got in touch after reading my article on Wannabehacks.  He’s a student journalist at Birmingham University and online editor for the student news site, Redbrick.  He seems a really good example of a new generation of journocoders – self-taught because he understood the way journalism was going and the way code could really connect stories to their communities.  So he wrote this follow-up article on his own blog which develops some of the points I made but, more impressively, he describes his own experience and insight as a genuine journalist who codes (I’m just an impostor, remember)

lolitician got in touch to say she’d have LOVED to do a journalism/comp sci degree had such a thing existed –

Perfect vocational combination of arts and science, and I would have rocked at it! Currently doing distance NCTJ and CodeYear.

Good luck!

I’m still interested in hearing from student journalists and wannabe hacks about this subject so please comment or tweet me.  And, if you haven’t already done so, please take part in the survey!

If you answered yes, please describe your level of knowledge and where you learnt to code.