Mar 222015

I was at a dinner party this weekend at a friend’s place. The usual crowd had assembled, mostly friends of friends and acquaintances. We snacked, we chatted; we drank, we chatted; we ate, we chatted and then we went home.  Nothing momentous occurred just a bunch of 40 somethings getting together and talking about their kids, work and the ever so faint light of retirement on the horizon.

One of the individuals there (I will call him Paul) I had met before but never really spoke to other than an obligatory “Hi! Pleased to meet you…” at another one of these little soirees. This time however, I got to have a good 60 minute chat with him over a couple glasses of Shiraz and a GREAT artichoke dip.

As it turns out, we both went to UVic  at the same time. We may have even been in some of the same classes, like the PASCAL one I dropped but he managed to complete. In fact so successful was he with learning PASCAL, he went on to get his computer science degree. Now he does (or did) all sorts of programming stuff for a living. He is currently a big wig at a moderately sized tech company and has others do the coding.

As we poured the second glass of a nice little WAYNE GRETZKY OKANAGAN – CABERNET SAUVIGNON SYRAH 2013 (yes we drank Wine Gretzky), I figured I would tell him what I was trying to do with my students in getting them to learn Java Script, and instead of saying “Oh Cool!… Tell me more!” he simply said “Why?”

I was thrown for quite a loop by this response because I had been led to believe that learning how to code was the must know skill for the ages. As important as ones ABC’s or 123’s. That every employer on the face of this earth wanted our young people to learn how to code. That our children’s futures depended on it for virtually every job there could ever be, from the front counter people at McDonald’s to the Rocket Scientists at NASA.

Ok admittedly I am being a bit dramatic, but you get the picture.

But why was a computer science guy, someone who obviously finds coding to be an important skill, saying “why?” to my super amazingly innovative teaching initiative. I was counting on a Prime Minister’s Award of Teaching Excellence for this one. Then again, the way I have been bashing good old Steve on twitter, I’ll be lucky if I don’t get a room without a view in some CISIS hotel someplace, but I digress.

So why did my new good buddy Paul say “why?” when I told him about my little coding initiative? Well upon further discussion I discovered that he has no issue with teaching kids who want to learn, but as a foundational skill that every kid should know? Well lets just say he is not convinced that such a thing is necessary or even a good idea. As he puts it, there are programmers and then there are PROGRAMMERS. “We don’t need huge numbers of mediocre programmers. We need highly skilled people who can do great things with code” He went on to say “I bet the really talented kids in your class are already way beyond learning Java Script and those are the kids who will be getting hired when they get out and start looking for jobs.” He was right.

The way Paul seems to see it, is that not everyone is cut out for programming, so why would we be giving all kids the idea that programming is a career they should pursue. By the end of the last glass of wine and most of the artichoke dip, what I had gotten from the conversation was this. Not everyone can be Wayne Gretzky or even a third string NHL player for that matter, so why would be setting a kid up to be something they do not have the skills or inclination for? Really it makes perfect sense to me. Not every kid is into math or science or literature or geology or or or. That is just the way things are. I would never force my child to pursue coding just because someone says they should.

Regardless of my little conversation with Paul, I will carry on with my coding initiative. Most of the kids in my ICT class have the inclination to at least try coding for a while and who knows, perhaps a few of them will become a super famous programmers that open their own wineries when they retire and sell half-decent bottles of wine.

Dec 132013
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Well the Hour of Code week is over and I have to say it seemed to be a rousing success. Vendors and organizations from around the world created all sorts of cool coding activities for school kids to do online and boy did they ever. By weeks end 14,866,302 kids had sat down and typed a line or two of code.

For those who weren’t aware, this past week declared December 10th, 2013 Hour of Code Day. It was a coordinated effort to introduce school kids to coding in the hopes of spawning a new generation of Wazniacks. The incredible thing was that, what was supposed to be an hour of code turned into a week of coding for many. At least a half-dozen teachers I know participated on the 10th and just kept rolling with it because the kids loved it.

By any measure,’s plans hit the mark and then some.

My own ICT kids have been actually coding since September using Code Academy. Some are already digi-weary veterans and just eat the stuff up, while others are just starting out and myself well… As I have mentioned in other posts I am a hack but I figured there was enough open learning resources out there to have kids doing some self-directed coding.

I know some people will be saying “THAT IS THE PROBLEM WITH TODAYS SCHOOL SYSTEM!!! Teachers who don’t know what they are doing teaching our kids!” and I say to them… “Is that any reason not to make it available to kids to try?” Besides, if you look at all the famous coders out there, they are all self-directed learners. Just listen to their stories of how they did what they did. Virtually all of the Codestein (new word) out there that I am aware of, didn’t have anyone holding their hand. They just got the opportunity to code and sat down and did it.

In my defence however, I have to say I am no Luddite. I do know a thing or two.  I am a wiz at SEO, I am a WordPress master and I know my way around most Adobe products, so I have something to contribute. When it comes to coding, I liken my understanding of it to my grasp of the French language. As a Canadian, I have acquired some basics because that is part of being Canadian and as a web master, I have acquired some coding basics because that is just part of being a web master. Sure I am no Zuckerberg but who cares! I am willing to learn and learning I am.

As I mentioned in my last post, I have decided to start using a learn to code platform from Grok Learning for next term. They use Python as their feature coding platform and they have put together a skookum little learn to code interface. I have been hacking around on it for the past week and I have to say… I have caught the code virus. Any free time I get I am coding away, trying to get a good enough grasp on the fundamentals so that when we get back from the Christmas break, I can be at least one step up on those kids. At least those who are not coding savants.

It is a very cool thing to be able to sit down and learn to code on your own and feel like you are making significant progress. It leads me think that in many ways, coding is meant to be a solitary learning experience. This is not to say people who code should work in isolation. Coders in the real world work collaboratively on crazy complex problems all the time but there is a solitary aspect to coding. I just wish I had more time to sit and play.

I am excited about this coding thing… I think it might catch on with the youngins. By no means do I think every kid needs to become a coding maniac but after this week, I am convinced that having a rudimentary understanding of how coding works is a good thing. Sorta like knowing how to fix fantom toilet noises or make Kraft dinner. You just need to know how to do it.

Dec 082013

pylogoAfter 8 months of searching… I think I have found my Coding in the Classroom solution. What I was looking for was a product that gave me a means of some semblance of classroom control but gave the students the flexibility of an open learning environment. I also needed a product that gave me the confidence in saying “this is the one” to students, parents and administration.

What I have come to after months of searching is a Learn to Code solution called Grok Learning out of Australia. They have developed an all in one learn to code platform using Python as their first  offering and from what I have played with thus far, it looks to be a tight little package.

Being a coding neophyte myself, I needed something I could learn quickly along side my students but at the same time had enough complexity and sophistication to challenge the aspiring Wozniaks in the room. From what I have read, Python is apparently the way to go. It is easy to learn, teaches good coding practices and is similar enough to the C languages that learning C & C++ is easier once Python is in the bag. Besides, if Python is good enough for Google and NASA, I am guessing it is probably good enough for a high school classroom.

Some of the things I like about Grok are the following:

  • Browser based
  • Created by educators
  • No installations needed
  • Affordable(ish) $30 a head
  • Easy to set up online classroom
  • Student tracking and marking ready
  • Discussion forums to hash out coding challenges
  • Competitions to challenge students
  • Growing selection of tutorials
  • Downloadable resources
  • Custom courses available
  • Parenting Dashboard
  • Worked on my iPad
  • Live help

When speaking to the good folks of Grok, I mentioned that Canadian educators need an online classroom environment that doesn’t require ANY student information in order to comply with our privacy laws and they seemed to be willing to make that happen. As it stands, a teacher could still set up aliases for each kid and still be within the law.

The question you may now be asking is how Grok Learn To Code is different or better than the products already available? and to be honest, I am not completely sure. I have only just begun to play but at this point what I do like is the following.

Bang for buck – I originally looked at Code School. They provide a wide selection of courses, a really good delivery system and “team” discounts. Unfortunately, the cost is just way to much to ask kids or the school to pay. Sure if I was a good teacher, I would shell out the cash for it myself but I am a selfish sort and prefer to feed my kids so I passed

There are some Great Free Resources out there as well such as Code Academy, which my class is using now. They provide a very similar product to Grok including Python but it doesn’t give the teacher the opportunity to create an online classroom or delve into Python quite as deeply as Grok. In my opinion the ability to manage students under a single back-end interface is invaluable but being able to challenge the higher end kids is imperative. Grok also provides a unique level of support and opportunity for kids to interact with other young coders from around the world.

So after 6 short months and a long intensive search, I think I have come to a decision. it has been really quite astonishing how many learn to code options have come out of the woodwork while I have been looking. All offer a decent learn to code experience but at this moment… I think I will give Grok Learning a go for my coding program.

If anyone would like to give Grok a FREE trial run, they have given me 5 teacher subscriptions to give away. The first 5 insightful comments on this post will receive a link to join Grok.