Learning to code is a lot like learning a language or a musical instrument. It involves imitation and repetition. It requires a great deal of practice and patience. And it’s easiest to master when the student starts young.
Few hold this comparison more true than Scott Lininger and Aidan Chopra. Lininger and Chopra are the co-founders of Bitsbox, a company that creates and distributes monthly coding projects for children.
Historically, coding tutorials have been crafted for adults. But when it comes to children, Lininger and Chopra contend, the relatively rigid format of tutorials is the problem. Accordingly, each project is designed to appeal to a child’s interests, needs, and attention span, and is governed by the principle of educational play.
“The word ‘tutorial’ usually implies a set of lessons that are arranged in a sequence. You do the first one, then the second, and so on,” they said. “By the end of the tutorial, you've learned something. Tutorials work great for teaching, but only for folks who are looking to be formally taught. Our goal for Bitsbox is for it to be a form of play, and play rarely involves tutorials.”
It’s this mentality that gives Bitsbox its unique structure. First, a child (between the ages of seven and 11, loosely speaking) receives a box in the mail that includes a toy, play accessories, and illustrated project books introducing language in small chunks. All of the box’s contents revolve around a particular theme, such as farming or Halloween. The child chooses an app to build, then activates it on Bitsbox.com. She can begin writing code, which will run on a virtual tablet on her computer and is compatible with actual tablets.
The boxes aren’t sent in order of increasing difficulty; each contains projects covering a range of skill levels. The child can select whatever project appeals to her, and, it’s hoped, will develop the skills and confidence to ascend to more challenging apps.
“We publish hundreds of app activities that kids can do in any order. From what we've observed, it's more motivating to let learners pick and choose which activities they want to do,” they said. “The nice thing about teaching programming is that many of the core principles can be introduced in isolation, and not in any particular order...Kids who build lots of apps...will eventually be exposed to everything, but not in a prescribed, linear way.”
Several test subjects have used Bitsbox, including Lininger’s seven-year-old daughter and second- through fourth-grade students participating in the I Have A Dream Foundation, who’ve had relatively little exposure to technology. “The kids we've tested with have been very, very excited about Bitsbox. They've all gotten it within ten or 15 minutes of starting out,” they said.
Lininger and Chopra have launched a Kickstarter campaign to garner interest and support as Computer Science Education Week kicks off. Beyond monetary backing, they hope the fundraising period will generate interest and encourage early adoption. “What Bitsbox needs isn’t money, it’s users,” they said.
In the distant future, Lininger and Chopra plan on integrating their technology into schools, looking to bring coding lessons for children into mainstream education. (This seems to be an increasingly realistic goal; this fall, the UK introduced a national curriculum that requires teaching students as young as five years old skills like coding and debugging programs.)
But for now, Lininger and Chopra aim to reorient and conflate study and play, keeping children inspired to learn, no matter how challenging it might be. “If the learning is fun, it doesn’t matter that it’s hard. Kids have an amazing way of working to master hard things when they’re properly motivated. The enemy isn’t hard—the enemy is boring.”