Preliminary Report on My Hour of Code Experiment

This is a preliminary report on my Hour of Code experiment. I am exploring the option of a formal evaluation of the entire EDU 5287 Emerging Technologies and Learning course. If I get approval to complete the evaluation, and ethics approval for the research, I shall update this post with more detailed learner reflections and quotes. At this time, I am reporting on (1) how I designed the activity, (2) how I, as the instructor, perceived students learning, and  (3) how I would change the activity if I were to teach it again.

Introduction

To be literate, one much not just know how to read, one must also know how to write. In the digital literacies world, this translated not only in the ability to use the Internet to find things, but also to create things for the Internet. After five weeks of exploring digital identity and blogs, we had a gap in week six of the course. I needed an activity that I thought would help demystify technology. As someone who completed a B.Sc. in Computer Science, I find that my appreciation for how technology works, really helps me to grasp new technologies as they develop. The goal of the Hour of Code activity was to demystify computer science for my students. I wanted to demonstrate to my students that coding did not need to be a complex task that is done using a complex syntactic language. Rather, that they too could create code, but also that they could teach their student how to code.

I cannot recall when I first learned about the programming language Scratch, but I remember the TED talk given by Mitch Resnick titled “Let’s teach kids to code”. I agree completely that we should be teaching kids the basics concepts of computer science while they are in elementary school. I believe that it is important to demystify this field in order to encourage more students (especially those not traditionally found in Computer Science classrooms) to study computer science. But also, I agree with Resnick et al (2009) learning the basics of computer sciences helps “to nurture a new generation of creative, systematic thinkers comfortable using programming to express their ideas” (p. 60).

I evaluated Scratch as a teaching tool, but I found that it was too difficult to get started. I did not feel that my students, studying at a distance without the direct benefit of a teacher in the classroom, would not be able to figure it out. In order for me to use Scratch in the online classroom, I would need to build a lot of scaffolding into the activity. I was afraid that my students would quickly get frustrated and give up. That would be counter to the what I was trying to achieve.

However, as I was considering the activity, I came across the website http://code.org. Code.org has created a special activity titled “The Hour of Code” in honour of Computer Science week. The activity involves a series of challenges using a block language similar to Scratch. The activity uses game theory to motivate students to work their way through various challenges (which are supported by short video lessons). It gets progressively more difficult with each challenge, and teach students basics concepts in computer science such as commands, if-statements, and loops. In addition, they have a resource page for teachers (http://code.org/educate/hoc). Given that many of my students were teachers, and most had no familiarity with computer science, my class provided an excellent opportunity to see if this activity could indeed be done by teachers anywhere.

The Hour of Code Activity

The Hour of Code activity took place in the sixth week of the online course “EDU 5287: Emerging Technologies and Learning”. As this was a graduate course in education, students were required to read a couple of academic articles that described the pedagogical foundations of the activity:

Resnick, M., Silverman, B., Kafai, Y., Maloney, J., Monroy-Hernández, A., Rusk, N., . . . Silver, J. (2009). Scratch: Programming for All. Communications of the ACM, 52(11), 60. doi:10.1145/1592761

Cutts, Q., Esper, S., & Simon, B. (2011). Computing as the 4th “R”: A general education approach to computing education. Proceedings from the seventh international workshop on Computing education research.

In addition, students were to watch the following two videos:

Let’s Teach Kids to Code – a TED talk by Mitch Resnick and Getting Started with Scratch.

Students were directed to spend one hour (preferably in one sitting) on an Hour of Code activity. They were given four options for the activity:

Option 1 – An Hour of Code (Beginner)

Complete as much of the tutorial as you in one hour (http://learn.code.org/hoc/1). Please watch the video through, as there are directions on how to get started in the video clip.

Option 2 – Learning HTML (Beginner/Novice)

Complete as many of the tutorials as you can in one hour (http://www.codecademy.com/tracks/web).

Option 3 – Create Something with Scratch (Novice)

Spend an hour creating something in Scratch (e.g. an interactive greeting card). This is not necessarily more technical than the other options, it just requires more creativity! (http://scratch.mit.edu/)

Option 4 – An Hour of Code (Intermediate / Advanced)

Choose a tutorial / activity from the Hour of Code website (http://code.org/learn). Complete as much as you can in one hour.

Finally, after completing the activity, students were asked to post a reflection on their experience to the online discussion forum. Specifically they were asked:

  • Did you stick to one hour or did you go over?
  • What did you learn about computer science / programming by doing the activity?
  • How has it changed your perspective on digital literacy?
  • If you are a teacher, would you consider an Hour of Code activity with your students?
  • If you are a parent, would you consider an Hour of Code activity with your kids?

Student Experiences with the Activity

At this time, I cannot include any direct quotes from students, however, I will report generally on student reflections in this activity.

The far majority of students chose option 1 (An Hour of Code). A couple of student began with Option 3 (Scratch); however, they had difficulty getting started and ended up going back to option 1. Several students completed option 1 and found that they were having so much fun they wanted to continue beyond the hour, so they then moved on to option 3 (Scratch), and succeeded in creating Scratch projects that they proudly shared with the class. Many students proudly shared their Hour of Code certificate of completion.

Several of my students, who are also parents, turned the activity into a family activity, completing the hour of code with their children. Others brought the activity to younger members of their family.

Several students found the button on the screen that allowed them to see the text-based code that was being created by the blocks, although not all figure this out. Those that found it early in the activity found it educational to see the text-based code. Those that found it later struggled to understand what the text meant.

Overall, the students found the activity to be fun, but also educational. Even those who did not identify as “computer science” people found the activity to be engaging. Several reported that the activity helped them to better appreciate how computer programming worked.

As many of my students are teachers, several of them commented that they would like to use the Hour of Code activity (code.org) in their classrooms. As educators, they pointed out the importance of using the Hour of Code activity as a scaffold before introducing students to Scratch.

Conclusion

If I have a chance to teach the course again, I would bring this activity in much earlier. The activity was transformative for many of my students. In addition to teaching them computer science concepts, it also contributed to increasing their confidence in using technology. It taught them that things that they were afraid of (like coding) did not need to be super complicated things that were beyond their reach. The activity demystified what computer programmers do, but also how it provided some insight into how computers work. This really help break a barrier for many of my students, who went from being afraid of technology, to feeling like they were capable of figuring things out.

Another change I would make to the activity is to only give two options. I would highly recommend that everyone start with option 1 (in part because the activities are well designed, and worth it just for the demonstration of good activity design and effective scaffolding techniques – it also provides a great example of gamification as a teaching strategy). Those who felt like they wanted more of a challenge after doing option 1 would be encouraged to try to create something in Scratch.

I believe that introducing this type of activity in Teachers College and at the Master of Education level would encourage more teachers to integrate computer science lessons into their classes. This experiment also demonstrated that the Hour of Code activity can be used successfully in an online Masters Education class without the need for face-to-face learner support.

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