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Codeacademy – Is Less More in Online Learning?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The basic premise behind Codeacademy is that, because of our increasing reliance on technology and the propensity for more and more jobs to be automated, learning to write computer code is one way to ensure that you will never be without work. This simple interface allows anyone to learn to program and thus become a creator rather than a consumer of technology. While I don’t agree with the idea that coding is an essential skill for the average person, the model that Codeacademy uses is very interesting and has attracted more than 300,000 users for its Code Year program, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The program is innovative because if its reliance on simplicity and streamlined design. Could this minimalist model be a way to make education more universally accessible? What does Codeacademy do differently and could this difference be a game changer for elearning?

The Codeacademy Differences
According to technophile John Pavlus the value of Codeacademy is in its simplicity and interactivity:

"So when I saw Codecademy.com, I literally shouted "Hallelujah!" Finally, here is a teach-yourself-coding tool with a UX that actually makes sense: it lives in your web browser, it’s simple and game-like, and most importantly, it gets you coding. Immediately" (5 Oct., 2011).

When a new user first visits the Codeacademy site they are greeted with the message, "Hey! Let’s get to know each other. What’s your name? Type it with quotes around it like this ‘Ryan’ and then press enter." The interface then prompts you with additional problems such as finding the length of your name and learning how to do basic math. And that easily, a visitor to the site has begun programming in Javascript and is on their way to being hooked. Codeacademy also includes game mechanics that, according to Pavlus, really work:

"Codecademy also includes other ‘game mechanics’ designed to keep you motivated (you earn badges for each lesson you complete, which can be shared socially with other n00b coders on the site or on social media). Unlike most other ‘gamification’ gimmicks, these actually work, because they’re pegged to actual accomplishments (‘Hey, I learned how to spawn a dialog box!’) and because, like any well-designed video game, the first few ‘levels’ are fast and easy enough to be fun without feeling like work" (5 Oct., 2011).

Pavlus goes on to explain how he has previously struggled to learn coding from books and standalone programming interfaces because they lack any social connectivity or support for the user. Codeacademy’s use of game mechanics tied to social media connectivity has provided that support for him. While the social media integration may not be appealing to some, the quick and easy learning curve that the model presents really does work in the same fashion as the best designed games to make becoming acquainted with the system, basic commands, and expectations painless.

In addition to these tactics, you can also set up Codeacademy to email reminders when you have not progressed in your learning within a specific amount of time, say after three or five days of inactivity. These friendly reminders help prompt learners to get back into the program if they have slipped away because of other commitments in their busy lives.

Applying the Model in Education
While Codeacademy is specifically geared to learning programming languages it is worth exploring whether the model might potentially be used to teach other topics as well. The interface parallels Khan Academy’s self-paced model and Udacity’s email features. Khan is of particular interest here because it has managed to cover a wide array of topics from mathematics to history. Where it differs from Codeacademy, however is in its extensive use of video. The far more streamlined model for Codeacademy works simply through text and interactivity.

Codeacademy would be a natural fit for teaching mathematics, grammar, and other basic skills that require repetitive instruction similar to the very precise steps and vocabulary needed for programming. But the real question is whether it also could be used for other topics with some careful consideration of the instructional design needed to break topics down into small, easy to engage with chunks. For example, could this model work to teach more abstract subjects like literature, sociology, or education?

Simplicity is not something often associated with higher education where complex systems and procedures have developed over the course of centuries. Even online learning relies on formal contracts (syllabi), learning management systems, and instructor-led classes. Given that this is the norm of education and that a drastic streamlining of the process through an interface such as Codeacademy would lead to a reduction in the need for faculty, there is little real hope for this model being implemented immediately.

However, with some of the recent discussion of MOOCs as viable cost saving options for higher ed, the Codeacademy system could prove useful to convey basic level content. However, this will only happen if informal learning options become a mainstream component of education.

Codeacademy and Alternative Credentials
While the actual value of computer coding as an essential 21st century skill may be a point of contention, there can be little doubt that there is a strong market for programming skills and an option such as Codeacademy provides the basic learning necessary to determine if coding is a viable career option. Unfortunately, while the course may teach adequate programming skills, there is no actual accreditation or other means of receiving certification of programming ability through a system like Codeacademy.

This program is enjoyable and effective at teaching basic-level skills, but unfortunately probably does not offer much to the broader landscape of higher education. There are far too many roadblocks to Codeacademy and other DIY education options for them to become mainstream options for students. If alternative credentialing or digital badges ever gain acceptance from industry, there may be a larger market for courses like this one. Until that time, the simple elegance and easy-of-use of Codeacademy is likely to languish at the fringes of learning as an interesting novelty, targeting a select group of motivated learners without any real hope of making an impact on the higher education system.