Our Quest to Demystify Coding for the Next Generation

As you read this piece, chances are you’re no stranger to coding and its profound implications for the workforce of tomorrow. The past year has unveiled, more than ever, the dire need for a constant influx of skilled and adept tech professionals.

The ongoing global pandemic has catapulted work and education into the digital realm, laying bare a host of underlying issues in the very technologies enabling this transition. Take the internet, the digital world’s backbone—its accessibility remains uneven, with rural and remote areas often grappling with sluggish and inconsistent connections. Consequently, these individuals become further isolated. Additionally, numerous digital services buckle under unprecedented user loads, triggering outages, technical hiccups, and mounting frustrations for end-users.

While some once deemed coding a waning profession with computers learning to self-generate code, the pandemic has proven its indispensability for the foreseeable future.

The ripple effects of this realisation extend to younger generations. Even if coding knowledge isn’t directly applicable for every child, there’s no denying the perks of broader tech-savviness. Navigating our digitised world calls for a basic grasp of software, interfaces, and perhaps even code. With similar structures underpinning apps and websites, understanding how to troubleshoot common tech issues becomes critical, particularly as remote work gains traction.

However, some may argue that today’s youngsters, raised in a tech-driven era, inherently possess such skills. Toddlers adept at iPhone usage are no longer a rarity. As they mature, their expertise will likely soar. Hence, teaching them computer skills, let alone coding, may seem superfluous.

This argument, though, overlooks the core technology youngsters engage with: mobile devices. Despite iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches being legitimate computers, their operational skills differ substantially from traditional desktops. Touch-screen devices rely on fingers for point-and-select interactions, while desktops employ mice (touch-screen laptops/desktops remain ergonomically problematic). This seemingly minor distinction renders each platform’s interface unique and non-transferable.

In light of the ongoing pandemic, it has become increasingly evident that laptop and desktop computers will continue to hold sway over iPads and iPhones in terms of productivity – mobile devices simply cannot replace traditional workstations for serious tasks. As such, the technical skills required to operate these platforms remain indispensable.

Yet, one might wonder: why bother teaching kids to code? If they only need functional operating skills to work on computers, what purpose does learning development skills serve? And, more importantly, is there any merit in teaching every child to code? These legitimate inquiries converge on a single issue: only a small percentage of the population genuinely needs coding knowledge. With the internet’s vast scalability, a limited number of creators (coders) can accommodate an almost limitless number of users (everyone else), granted that bandwidth and server capacity are consistently expanded.

The response to these questions echoes the rationale behind the compulsory inclusion of English and mathematics in numerous educational systems worldwide. To thrive in society, one must be proficient in communication and calculation, which these subjects facilitate. They equip individuals with essential social and commercial skills applicable in diverse life situations. Intriguingly, both subjects extend far beyond what might be deemed generally useful for a high school graduate. Identifying an instance of epizeuxis (a literary skill) or solving differential equations (a mathematical skill) is unlikely to prove relevant for most people outside academic settings. Coding, too, is a niche skill with limited direct applications for many. Yet, akin to English and mathematics, coding mirrors our contemporary, technology-driven world. Making it a mandatory subject signifies the education system’s acknowledgment of the societal transformation ushered in by digital advancements.

Undeniably, an increasing number of children will learn to code in the coming years as it becomes an integral component of both education and the workforce.

This realization drives EduKits’ dedication to developing tools and experiences that enhance coding accessibility for children. We recognise that learning to code can be intimidating, complex, and technical, but it doesn’t have to be.

Understanding the greater role of computer programming and the maker movement

At EduKits, we recognise the cogent argument asserting that coding is a rather beneficial skill to acquire. Yet, we advocate for an even more profound rationale driving our approach and response to coding: the conviction that everyone is capable of – and ought to – become a maker.

The term ‘maker’ has acquired diverse meanings over recent decades. In its most basic form, it denotes a creator or designer – an individual capable of resolving issues by crafting something. Crucially, the maker represents one facet of a two-sided coin, with the consumer embodying the other. Almost every challenge we encounter in our lives is a communal issue; hence, if someone can address it, their solution may be embraced by hundreds, thousands or even millions of individuals globally who face the same predicament.

There is yet another essential aspect to being a maker: the simple joy of creating something yourself. This joy can be easily overlooked in our digital era, where there is a pervasive shift away from inventiveness and towards sheer consumption. Nowadays, when ennui strikes, myriad options are available: Netflix, League of Legends, Minecraft, or the calculator app (for the accountants among us). People no longer need to devise their own entertainment because they can readily partake in the amusement others have prepared for them. In moderation, it is indeed beneficial to appreciate and consume the innovations of others; however, when this tendency becomes overwhelming, it suppresses individual propensities for self-expression and originality. Even when individuals attempt to unleash their creativity, they often do so with technology and consumer-level tools, culminating in the ‘cookie-cutter’ effect on creative outputs. Templates, fonts, themes and stock images result in a heavy reliance on borrowed ingenuity.

It is crucial to emphasise that none of the technologies (or technological shifts) mentioned herein are inherently detrimental. In fact, many of them enable us to lead better lives. Nonetheless, it is vital to bear in mind that these developments amplify our need to embrace the role of makers once more and rediscover the joy of making things.

Irrespective of one’s stance on this notion, it’s indisputable that we’re witnessing the rise of a new generation, many of whom may never submit a hand-drawn poster for a school task. Likewise, this generation might not ever create a birthday card or an invitation by hand on paper. These tasks can now be accomplished using computers, often borrowing from the work of others.

Surprisingly, coding epitomises the modern method of producing tangible objects and can prove equally enjoyable. Hardware coding represents the zenith of this thrilling adventure. It’s challenging to describe the delight derived from seemingly trivial accomplishments – making an LED blink, having a file finally compile without errors, or testing some existing code with a new microcontroller. and experiences for coding education.

The Amazing Annoyatron is one of the products we offer. This affordable kit, aimed at children and teenagers aged nine to fifteen, is available for purchase on our primary website. At its core, the kit is a straightforward hardware-coding product that introduces youngsters to the essentials of uploading, editing, and modifying code. We don’t claim that our users will complete the twenty-plus projects and suddenly qualify for backend developer positions, nor do we necessarily anticipate them writing their own programs from the ground up. Although the latter was an initial objective when creating the kit’s first version, we promptly recognised that this wasn’t a feasible or useful goal, and it was more crucial to emphasise the creativity and joy of the process.

In the end, coding education for kids shouldn’t be about prepping them for the future job market. That’s the purpose of university, where numerous computer scientists and software engineers pen their first lines of code and ultimately secure employment without issue. Instead, the thrill of constructing something should be the focus of this innovative form of education. We’re gradually losing the ‘maker’ aspect of our identities, and it’s essential to strive ardently to reclaim it.

Making coding accessible, exciting and educational

Throughout the development of our tools and experiences, we’ve grappled with the intricate task of harmonising accessibility, engagement, and educational merit. Admittedly, we haven’t always achieved such harmony.

Our Code Kit software is just one example of this. Originally known as Codeables Studio, the app makes hardware coding accessible for children by generating C++ code automatically from colourful, drag-and-drop blocks. This means an 8-year-old can create a complex hardware program with hundreds of lines of code without knowing what a single line of that code means. Codeables Studio was relatively simple in concept: users would pick a block from the left sidebar, drag it onto their workspace, and code would appear in a pane to the right. The code would update instantly as users dragged new blocks onto the workspace, re-arranged them or made changes to existing blocks.

The problems with this software were twofold: it lacked many features which impeded its usability, and it simply wasn’t fun to use. The former was down to both user interface and blocks, and the latter was simply due to flaws in interface design only.

After a series of incremental updates and the slow release of new blocks, Code Kit was eventually released in early 2020. We re-evaluated our approach to achieving the aforementioned balance and conducted a complete overhaul of the entire user interface and the blocks available to users. At the time of publishing, Code Kit 3 has just been released. This update further enhances these changes by adding even more blocks and adding an advanced mode which brings with it many ‘pro’ features our users have been asking for. Code Kit has seen much higher usage compared with Codeables Studio, and we believe it is simply a better, more balanced product.

As coding education becomes increasingly prevalent, these insights will likely reflect classroom experiences. Educators must recognise that coding is challenging and, consequently, difficult to teach. Much like our own product development journey (yes, Codeables Studio isn’t our only coding technology misstep), educators must experiment and maintain adaptability when navigating this novel educational terrain.

Striking the right balance between accessibility, engagement, and educational value is particularly arduous, as these factors tend to conflict. Greater accessibility may diminish engagement, as products (or lessons) become more mundane yet easier. Amplifying engagement often detracts from educational value, and vice-versa. Our primary objective is to continually improve. Most crucially, we must always centre the end-user or student when striving for balance, as their ultimate benefit is our fundamental goal.

What lies on our path ahead

Over the past year, we have been developing an experimental product called Egon (a cheeky abbreviation for Electronic Dragon) specifically designed to encourage more young women to code. The product targets females in late primary school and early high school as part of our attempt to address the gender imbalance in the computing industry.

This product has played a significant role in our planning for the future. Even more than the Amazing Annoyatron, we believe this product has the ability to bring the joy of coding and ‘making’ to children around the world and inspire them to develop an interest in those things. However, the path to production has been rocky and the expenses of mass-producing the plastic casing are quite high. You might be waiting a while until you see Egon on a local store shelf.

This challenge does not silence the call of our greater mission, however. Today’s release of Code Kit 3 marks our ongoing commitment to the maker movement and to making coding more accessible for children around the world. Code Kit is free for anyone to use and it also provides us with an opportunity to extend the capabilities of our existing products.

Moving into the future, we ultimately hope to use code to inspire the next generation to become thinkers, dreamers and creators. The world is ripe for change and innovation, and coding can bring about that great change we need to see.